What I’ve Learned From Living With PTSD

The first time I learned about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, I was told it was something soldiers got after witnessing gruelling and devastating sights. It would completely take over their lives, destroying their relationships with friends and family and leaving them scarred. PTSD was something only the most battle-hardened people faced, and something the average person would never encounter.

On 22nd May 2017, I fled for my life after an explosion at Manchester Arena. I don’t wish to go into the details, however it was a moment that, in my mind, remains clear as day. In contrast, the days afterwards are fuzzy. Moments of me doing normal activities were interspersed with obsessively scrolling social media to comprehend what happened. Entire days were missing from my memory – it took a long time to piece together the events afterwards.

People didn’t know how to interact with me. Some people wanted the exact details of what happened, from where I was sat to how I escaped. Some people avoided the topic, referring to it in vague terms if they had to. For a while, I felt as if I was “that person who was in a terrorist attack” by friends and colleagues. People speaking in hushed voices would stop as soon as I was nearby, resuming their conversation when I left. Others would trip over their words, refusing to use certain terms around me.

The best way I could describe myself was “empty”. There were a lot of emotions spinning around inside me, yet I felt completely hollow, as if a piece of me was missing. Things which previously had feeling and sentiment evoked no reaction, and messages came and went in a blur. I was being contacted by long lost friends, strangers and news reporters, yet none of it meant anything. This felt like what life would be from now on.

One of my biggest mistakes was returning to work after two days. I told myself that doing something normal would make things better. This idea came from an illogical place, yet my crumbling mind believed it to be the right decision.

I tackled everything as if nothing had happened. I did all my usual tasks, even tweeting about the Manchester Arena attack for our audience (something I pleaded to do, as if it would be therapeutic). The one thing I asked not to do was attend an upcoming event at a music festival – I knew it would be a step too far. My colleagues were wonderful, and they took different approaches to make sure I was okay.

Work kept me busy until July when our major projects had finished. With fewer tasks to do, my mental health began to deteriorate. I had problems sleeping, I struggled to focus on tasks, and at random moments I relived the trauma I had experienced.

I also found my mind going completely blank at times, almost as if a white light had been shone in my face and I’d been stunned. On one occasion I was in a shop and as the shop assistant talked to me, I blanked out. I found myself unable to respond, unable to understand where I was and what I was doing. It took about 10 to 15 seconds to regain my bearings, at which point the people I was with were laughing at me. I struggled to articulate what happened, so I stayed silent. How was I supposed to discuss this discord they had likely never experienced?

I took some time off work to recover. I wasn’t “fixed” when I returned, but I was more aware of what was happening to me. I took things at a slower pace and made the most of counselling services available to me. There were still things that I struggled with – for example, people crashing weights in the gym triggered me and led to me avoiding the gym for at least a month. And yet I felt I had some control over the surroundings and situations I found myself in.

Part of living with PTSD meant finding ways to combat it. One of my biggest saving graces was running. It meant I could avoid the gym, with its cacophony of loud equipment and obtuse screaming, and exercise in a quiet outdoor setting. I wasn’t a particularly great runner at the time, but it put me in my own zone and let me tune out background noise. Over time my running skills have vastly improved. I took part in my first proper 5k run in 2019, and since then I’ve completed runs for numerous charities.

My fear of loud noises eased enough that I could go back to the gym. I quickly found myself going three times a week, seeing improvements in not just my fitness but my wellbeing. Lockdown tanked my gym visits, but I’ve gotten back into it recently and the benefits have re-emerged.

I’ve always been a big fan of video games; one of my earliest memories was playing Super Mario World on the SNES. In the last few years, they’ve taken on a different role. Video games not only keep me entertained, they also keep me distracted. Watching the screen, listening to the audio and using my hands take up three of my five senses, meaning I’m putting my all into a video game. Whether I’m diving deep into a JRPG like Xenoblade Chronicles or having a laid-back game of Fall Guys, video games are my go-to for relaxing.

Some of the greatest benefits to my mental health arrived after joining social groups. The first was a local running group, which meant I could exercise with company and make new friends. The second was a video game group, allowing me to mingle with others who had similar interests. In both groups, the supportive atmosphere and the freedom to be open has been a constant source of comfort. Being in both groups pushes me to improve myself, and it gives me a sense of achievement. I’ve made amazing friends who make me feel like myself again.

Above all else, I’ve learned how important it is to surround yourself with positivity. I can’t tune out the horrors of the world, but I can brighten my own universe. I can rely on friends for comfort. I can do things that make me happy, no matter how big or small it is. I can take things at the pace I need to, and when I realise I’m exhausting myself I learn to slow down.

Life likes to throw curveballs at me. Sometimes I’ll handle it well, sometimes I won’t. As long as I proceed forwards through life, I usually end up fine.

After I left my job in June 2020, I began to notice re-emerging thoughts and behaviour. I had been depressed for a while after facing repeated mistreatment from a senior member of staff and a lack of support from others. I had constantly been in tears, and I hoped that by quitting I would feel free. Sadly, it didn’t go quite as planned. Some staff at my last job painted me as a villain, and my abuser was given full control over my now-vacant job.

For the past few months, I’ve been reliving the abuse in my head. The disrespectful and insulting comments about me and my work. The mental gymnastics people did to justify their behaviour. The repeated harmful actions including gaslighting me and publicly taking credit for my work. This is a fraction of what I faced, and it’s been living rent-free in my head for a long time.

One of the symptoms of PTSD is irritability and anger, and it’s something I’ve felt a lot of in 2020. I keep on questioning myself about the abuse I faced. Why was I the one who faced it? Why did the people who should have helped me instead stay silent? Why has my abuser repeatedly gotten off scot-free, even profiting from the suffering of myself and countless others? These thoughts differ in power, but most of the time it becomes difficult to think about anything else. On occasion it even physically stops me from doing anything else.

My efforts to justify this behaviour have been repeatedly stalled, and it’s left me to believe that this world is unfair. Perhaps I did something to deserve this.

Perhaps I did something to deserve this. It’s a phrase that’s played in my head over and over. I’ve tried to push it away, but no matter what I do it comes crawling back. The phrase tells me I’m a failure, that I could have prevented this. It attempts to validate the pain by placing the blame squarely at my feet. Despite the positive messages and the love I receive, it forces itself to the front of my brain. The fear that what I’m experiencing is a resurgence of PTSD frightens me. I’ve self-referred to therapy once again, but sometimes it feels like an endless cycle I’ll never break out of.

Over the last few months I’ve worked myself to the bone to improve my life and career.

I’ve gone freelance, working with a range of clients including restaurants, galleries and marketing schools.

I’ve written articles on topics ranging from mental health and sexuality to video games and music.

I’ve created my own social media training series and delivered specialised sessions to people across Europe.

I’ve been interviewed for VICE and worked with organisations such as Pride in Liverpool and Comms Creatives.

I’ve volunteered for an incredible organisation that supports social justice and active citizenship.

I've worked on developing my skills in other areas including graphic design and music production.

I’ve delivered talks about my career and supported others within the marketing and communications sector.

And yet, despite all that, the pain is still there. And that’s okay. The pain won’t go away overnight, and it isn’t going to stall my life.

I’ll continue doing everything I’m doing, giving 100% to all tasks in sight. It’ll take a while longer to work through the pain, whether that’s a few days, a few months, or even years. I’ll keep looking after myself and enveloping myself in a positive light. I’ll keep marching onward, no matter whether the thing trying to drag me backwards is a person or a memory.

I’ve learned that PTSD isn’t a one-off battle – it’s a series of frequent skirmishes. When I think it’s disappeared, it rears its ugly head. It reminds me that it’s never truly gone, just inactive.

If PTSD truly is at war with my wellbeing, it’s a war I don’t plan to lose. I fight every day, whether I’m forcing a bad memory out of my mind or telling myself I didn’t deserve bad things to happen to me.

For the longest time, I refused to open up about my mental health. No matter how much we argue otherwise, mental health is still a taboo subject. I felt weak, but the opposite was true; living with anxiety, depression and PTSD has made me a fighter. I’ve been knocked down repeatedly, but I’ve gotten back up every time. And I’ll continue to get back up as many times as I need to.

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