When I suggested a story to my editor about post-traumatic stress disorder — an issue that spans far beyond veterans coming home from the horrors they've seen overseas — I knew it could be a challenge.
PTSD is a problem that can strike all kinds of people: Housewives, doctors, teachers, adults, kids, the elderly — even journalists. Some estimates suggest it impacts about 8 percent of the population.
Living with PTSD
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And I know this not just because I'm a reporter, but because I have PTSD.
I've had it since I was a kid.
I take medication for it. For the most part, it's under control. But it's not gone, and I'm told that traces of it will probably never go away.
I've avoided talking about it publicly because of the stigma associated with any sort of mental issue. I don't want to lose my job. I don't want to have a future boss read this column and pigeonhole me, or decline to hire me because of it.
Doing this story, though, I'm not sure I can ask anybody else to talk about it without coming forward.
So I'm going to do my best to tell you about it.
I got PTSD from severe bullying that lasted from second grade well into high school. I was chased, punched, taunted and intimidated almost every day during and after class. It started when I switched schools midyear. New kids like me were a convenient target for others to gang up on.
It was the 1970s and early 1980s, and the general attitude in the New England town I grew up in was that you should let the child deal with bullying by themselves, as a learning experience.
But it's hard to stop a group of bullies when nobody takes your side, and I'm thrilled to see in the more enlightened present day that people are finally taking the issue more seriously.
The result of the terrorizing I experienced is what I like to call bad wiring. My brain was forming at that age, making connections. The connections it made, however, have little to do with adult reality.
The bullying happened long ago, and while I feel strongly about addressing issues with it in schools, I try not to dwell on the things that happened.
But the bad wiring remains. I didn't understand that until I was in my mid-30s, when I finally sought help.
Before that, I had symptoms. Things about me that I knew were off, or odd, that made me feel out of place.
Sometimes, I'd get extremely sensitive about people touching me. Sometimes, I'd feel so frightened of everything turning against me that I'd spend a lot of time trying to stop myself from hiding in my closet. Sometimes, I'd end up furious for no real reason.
At night, it would feel like my head was spinning in circles, the same thoughts running through over and over. It was like I was waiting for the whole world to cave in.
But I didn't want to let on. I didn't want to be stigmatized — or even admit how much damage it was doing to me.
I finally gave in, and saw somebody about it after my best friend at the time admitted that she was on medication. She had bad wiring, too.
And she was far cooler than me, so I thought: Well, if she can admit it, I guess I can, too.
I was a bit taken aback when the psychiatrist mentioned PTSD, though.
"That's a veteran's problem," I said, feeling a little shocked.
She gave me a checklist of symptoms, and I was amazed. It was like something clicked into place -- I finally understood what was happening.
Medication isn't the cure for everybody, of course. But because of the wiring issue, I'm resolved to taking it.
It doesn't stop you from feeling things or having highs and lows, it just makes them less dramatic.
I still have the occasional panic attack, the occasional bout of cyclical thoughts. But it's easier now for me to realize when they occur and understand what's happening.
I also use a lot of Taoist philosophy to stop problems when they arise. It helps me try to be in the here and now and not think about the past or the future.
At age 42, it doesn't rule me anymore. I can look it in the eye, understand it and with a little patience, even banish it. I dominate it. And it's made me a more empathetic person, even if I wish I didn't have to battle with it sometimes.
I don't know if telling you all this will help or not. But I will say that understanding and doing something about it was one of the wisest things I ever did.
And I know there are many people out there with symptoms who just feel like something's wrong with them and don't know what to do.
My advice is simple. Tell somebody. It doesn't have to rule you.