Exercises in Compassion: On Being Diagnosed with PTSD

Stress is the concept that explains how
sociocultural conditions drive people mad.

— Paul Adams

____

A few days ago, while watching reruns of The Real Housewives of New York City, Bethenny Frankel had a full blown panic attack as she revealed that her restraining order against her ex-husband (who stalked and harassed her) was about to expire.

This scene, in itself, wasn’t shocking to me. (All the women were on vacation in Colombia, and Bethenny’s behavior had been slowly deviating from her normal playful roasting, throughout the duration of the episode, and spiraling into an insufferable misery that made her mental breakdown feel inevitable.) However, what was shocking to me was how her former best friend, Carole Radziwill, responded to her—clearly, very distressed—friend. (She was both dismissive, and insensitive. She constantly referred to Bethenny’s emotions as “toxic energy” and remarked that it was “impossible” to talk to a crying person. Only to eventually utilize the ultimate dismissal in an interview by saying: “Bethenny has her health, she has a great daughter, she has a career, she has a lovely home. There’s no apparent reason for any of Bethenny’s breakdowns. So when you see it… it’s unnerving.”)

It brought me back to another housewife related incident, where I found myself talking to a group of people about a specific Real Housewives of Beverly Hills reunion episode, in which Andy Cohen asks a question submitted by a viewer speculating that one of the housewives—Erika Girardi—might be suffering from PTSD. (There is a scene where Erika has had a few too many drinks, and, after one small, relatively benign, comment from another cast member, she reacts as if her soul has suddenly abandoned her body and left a vicious demon in its place.) I explained that the question had always stuck with me, because I’d wondered the same thing about Erika myself. And, basically, everyone who was familiar with the franchise responded to me, like, “What do you mean? What even happened to her?” (Later, I read that she was physically abused by her mother as a child, and she was abandoned by both her father, and step father. I didn’t know any of this information until I decided to write this post, so, at the time, I was operating under the assumption that people don’t just morph into full-fledged demons at random—at least not without having some unresolved traumatic experiences.)

I remember feeling at a loss for words, because I realized that what was so obvious to me, especially when it came to a very specific kind of erratic behavior, was invisible to everyone else.

Obviously, I’m not a psychologist or medical professional. I can’t diagnose Bethenny or Erika with PTSD, but based on my own experience with the disorder: I felt what they were going through the moment I saw it, and I felt angry for them when their behavior was written off as “crazy” or “toxic.” (Like, I wanted to crawl into the TV and start screaming at everyone else about how insensitive and shallow they were being—but, I mean, this is a trash reality show, so I guess I should lower my standards.)

It probably goes without saying, but: it’s complicated. The above examples are women with power—the most privileged among us. They’re white and beautiful and have infinite resources at their disposal. But I think what bothered me so much about the question regarding Erika possibly having PTSD (“What even happened to her?”) and Carole’s flippant dismissal of her friend’s suffering (“There’s no apparent reason for any of Bethenny’s breakdowns”) was the reality that, yes, we all have trauma and pain. This is an indisputable human fact. However, we do not all have PTSD: an anxiety disorder that is incredibly isolating, often overlooked or misdiagnosed, potentially chronic, and cannot be cured by any amount of privilege. (I recognize that having access to healthcare and quality mental health professionals makes a world of difference, and that this is an intrinsic part of privilege, however I want to encourage you to think about PTSD the same way you would think about cancer: even though having healthcare and access to the most innovative treatments will increase one’s likelihood of getting better, it still won’t guarantee it.)

And finally, on top of everything I’ve just listed—perhaps the worst part about having PTSD, as a woman—is that people don’t even associate PTSD with women, despite the fact that, statistically speaking, women suffer from the disorder at twice the rate of men, and are twice as likely to develop chronic PTSD. (This is not me trying to discount men diagnosed with PTSD, or the events that typically cause them to develop the disorder—combat, car wrecks, natural disasters, etc. All I’m trying to say is that we—as a society—often fail women who are suffering from PTSD by minimizing the events that typically cause their trauma—sexual assault, intimate partner violence, rape, etc.—and by dismissing them as “crazy” and “toxic,” just because we can’t assign their behavior to an immediate source, or event.)

…I’m exhausted. As someone who was diagnosed with PTSD in 2016, hearing the question, “What even happened to her?” when it came to Erika—whose behavior reminded me so much of my own, both leading up to, and in the midst of, my diagnosis—made my stomach twist itself up into a knot. I felt speechless, because, at least for me, my disorder hasn’t and was never as simple as just one traumatic thing happening to me. In fact, it was a whole bunch of things, both big and small; both overt and invisible. And unfortunately—as is the general case with women’s trauma—those traumatic events all happened in the dark, or behind closed doors. I didn’t have witnesses, or an objective party’s perspective; nobody asked me—for a long time—why I responded to certain situations in the ways that I did. (Crying uncontrollably, lashing out, feeling disoriented in social settings, drinking too much…) They just assumed, and dismissed, and minimized, which—for me—just created even more psychic pain that I literally couldn’t articulate.

I’m not trying to say that we should all coddle every person who behaves in a way that we don’t understand, or find irrational and destructive. I’m just saying, we could all benefit from asking ourselves why an “irrational” person might behave in the ways that they do, instead of just assuming they’re insane or a bad person (i.e. selfish, lazy, erratic, whatever…) Because, at least for me, the most difficult thing about having PTSD hasn’t been experiencing the symptoms, or even the traumatic events themselves, but realizing just how limited and disappointing people are. (Myself included.)

For example: people don’t like talking about this shit, because it forces them to think about their own shit, so a lot of them will call you “negative,” and then avoid you. Friendships will end all the time due to “politics,” because, unfortunately, we live in a country where a person’s most painful experience can be, and is, both actively perpetrated and invalidated by our most powerful government leaders. You’ll have to sit through meetings at work about sexual harassment where everyone else can giggle and make light of the cheesy content in the training manual, without a second thought; where someone can just drop comments like, “I’m sorry, but you’re asking to be harassed if you’re a women working in construction.” Something that will upset you, but youll try to forget about, because—let’s face it—that person doesn’t know what she’s talking about: it’s not worth it. You’ll be minding your business at a bar—just trying to have a good time—and some girl you don’t even know will walk up to you and lean in so no one else can hear her asking you, “How does it feel to know you’re just a whore?” You’ll have to serve customers who catch a glimpse of something on the news, and casually say to you, “All those women saying that stuff about Trump assaulting them are just jealous because his wife is so beautiful.” And you’ll have to tell that person, “Thank you.” And, though you’ll try to avoid the people who have forced such painful experiences and memories onto you, social media will always find a way to inform you: they’ve moved on, like nothing ever happened. You’ll be all fucked up inside—flinching when people do something as benign as throwing away a napkin in your peripheral vision—and they’ll get to just go home and pretend like they’re normal. And then, even though it’s not fair, it’ll become your responsibility to go to therapy and try to learn how to not take all of the aforementioned shit personally.

*one deep breath*

This isn’t some vengeful exercise intended to provoke shame in people for all the times they’ve failed to consider other people, but more of an attempt to illustrate that the reminders of sexual assault, rape, and gendered violence, are everywhere, and often come paired with the reality that many people do not think these forms of trauma, or their victims, matter. Therefore survivors of such violence are tasked with understanding the gray area—that is the entire human race—in a way that not very many people can, or are willing, to understand. And a lot of the time that means looking around and realizing: Wow, a lot of people really don’t care about anyone who isn’t like themselves. And then, spending the rest of your life, trying to figure out how to still love and forgive others, despite how low you know they’re capable of going; how shallow and flippant and cruel they’re capable of being just because someone has more or less than someone else; has or hasn’t experienced the same things; looks different, or doesn’t behave in a way that aligns with made-up social ideals and preconceptions.

It’s depressing, how much we all fail each other. The number of people who truly experience life as a zero sum game and are just okay with that, or even thrive in it. I just don’t understand it. But if there’s anything I have learned throughout this second decade of my life, it’s this: a situation can be 100% fucked up, even if you’re the only one acknowledging that it’s fucked up. The majority rule just doesn’t apply when it comes to defining a traumatic experience, because, quite frankly, if any given traumatized person were existing in a society brimming with perfectly loving and well-adjusted people, then the trauma never would have even happened in the first place.

***

I don’t want to end this post on such a depressing note. So, I want to convey that in the above paragraphs, I probably come across as much angrier than I actually feel at this point in time. (My anger, at this point, is less about me, and more about other people who have or will experience what I’ve experienced.) It’s weird. I’ve been in therapy for the last four years—though I probably should’ve started going two years earlier—and I definitely experience the world through a much more nuanced lens than when I first started.

I’m at a place in my life where I understand that the handful of people who traumatized me are also complicated people with their own set of challenges: truly—I believe that. And I understand that people don’t incite and inflict pain of that caliber onto others without experiencing an excruciating amount of pain themselves—regardless of whether or not they’re conscious of it. So, I definitely experience a private ache for how our world has failed them too, in the sense that: this is just the way things are. However, I wasn’t always capable of doing that… I don’t really know how to explain—it’s like, when I finally reached my threshold and sought out help, the most significant thing that I felt robbed of was my compassion, which had always come so naturally to me as a teenager. (Before my life went off the rails.)

I felt myself regressing into this angry bitter person who was obsessed with getting revenge, and I hated it. It all felt so unnatural to who I was, and I really despaired of ever regaining a semblance of my former innocence—an uninhibited (practically dog-like) love for other people. And, of course, even now I cycle through different emotions that vary between negative and positive—like grief—but for the most part, and especially within the last few months, I’ve experienced a sense of peace knowing that none of this pain was ever mine to hold onto, and—though I can’t fix or change all the rage and ignorance in this world—I can at least allow myself to reject people who hurt me, while also wishing them well. (Though those wishes are silent, and private.)

Basically, I just feel very in touch with a form of grace that I never even dreamed I’d be capable of, and, when I look in the mirror, I can see—probably for the first time in my life—that I have everything in the world, like absolutely everything.

Which brings me all the way back to Carole, and how she basically said that Bethenny had no reason to be upset just because she had so many wonderful things in her life…

Regarding this, I want to say: there is a lot of shit in this life that is so dark and confusing and painful, that it can completely incapacitate a person—no matter how “good” or mindful—from feeling and recognizing all the wonderful things in her life, and I want to emphasize that this is not a moral failure. It doesn’t make a person “negative,” or ungrateful, or hopeless. It just means that they are in pain (which has no hierarchy) and they need to feel validated, and listened to, without being shamed and judged for how they feel, or what they’ve done; to be felt for in a way that looks beyond one’s own understanding of the world.

So, like: just do that for the people you say you love. Okay? (Everyday, I’ve been challenging myself to do it, too.)

______


Now, here’s a meme I made to describe what it’s like to try and understand your own feelings when you have PTSD, followed by a link to a study that I found interesting
in the midst of researching for this post.

 

once more

Everyday Sexism and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Women
(there is a button to download the PDF on your left)

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