Features Invisible Illnesses

Invisible Illnesses IV: Coming to Terms with My Complex PTSD and What Comes with It

Words by Molly Govus / Interview by Rebecca Astill

Illustration by Amelia Field

Can you tell me the story about how you came to realise your diagnosis?

Due to having an estranged and problematic past with my biological Dad, I have been in and out of counselling sessions for as long as I can remember. I remember being so young that counselling was just drawing pictures of my family, with my Dad on the other side of the page, far away from me and my Mum. It wasn’t a sudden realisation, it was more gradual. I was aware that I had trauma in my life, and that there were lasting effects of this. I had flashbacks and vivid memories. I knew I could not be around loud adults, drunk adults, shouting adults, but I didn’t know what the lasting consequences would be.

It wasn’t until my GCSE’s that I started realising strange habits that didn’t fit in to the ‘typical’ symptoms of trauma. I became frantic and obsessive with my schoolwork. I had always been academically motivated; I loved school, and I loved education and everything about it. I found myself becoming fixated on my work, and this only became worse during A-Levels. It became obsessively unhealthy, but at the time, I didn’t realise that this was an added effect of my PTSD.

I ended up going for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy where I met a therapist who I had lots of sessions with. We met weekly for one hour, and it worked wonders. We worked through my childhood trauma and this gave me insight into how this can manifest into obsessive and compulsive tendencies. She suggested Fluoxetine as a medication, and I have been on it ever since.

The sad realisation is, I felt helpless as a child in my relationship with my Dad, so I never felt good enough. I think my OCD manifested due to the fact that I felt like I had some sort of control over my life, but this spiralled out of control at the time. Thankfully, now, things are a lot better and I feel healthy in my work habits.

How does it affect your life at University?

I have to be extremely cautious and self-reflect a lot. Sometimes I feel my old emotions bubbling up of not feeling worthy, and feel the need to work for 11 hours straight every day, or until 5am. Sometimes, in my head, I hear the nagging voice saying ‘if you don’t finish this lecture you’ll fail’ or ‘if you don’t write notes on this then you won’t make it anywhere in life’.

It can be extremely disheartening and difficult still, but thankfully, now, I recognise that these voices are not the real ‘me’. Through CBT, I have learnt to distinguish these voices. Through making a conscious decision to listen to the positive voices, I have a sense of control which grounds me and gives me strength and motivation. This is vastly different to what I used to do, where I motivated myself to the point of burn-out through fear and guilt.

Another thing, due to my PTSD, I have to be careful around conflict. It’s hard to avoid conflict at University when you meet so many people with so many opinions and differences, but I try to use it to my advantage. I like to think that what I’ve been through helps me empathise with others, so I try to use my trauma to understand others in conflict, instead of fearing it.

On the bad days, do you have any go-to ways of relaxing and grounding yourself?

I find the idea of minimalism very satisfying. It’s extremely different to the mess of notes and pages that I used to surround myself with before. I’ve learnt what is enough, and when enough is enough, most importantly. 

I set myself boundaries now. I have a work cut-off point, so that I have time to wind down and sleep. I set out my tasks for the day in a very simple list, and if I don’t complete them, I simply forgive myself and try my best to do it the next day. I wake up with the understanding that not every day, sometimes not even every week, goes to plan. Days can be messy or feel messy, and that’s okay. As cliché as it sounds, there is always tomorrow. 

I find flipping my PTSD and OCD on its head helps me a lot; I recognised that I could help others due to what I’ve been through, and it was a pivotal point for me. There is nothing that makes me happier than helping others feel better about themselves, and in a strange way, I have my trauma to thank for that.

In terms of physical actions that I do to ground myself, there is genuinely nothing better than getting your adrenaline and endorphins going. A walk around the block with my music playing does wonders for giving me the motivation I need, and the power that I can achieve something within the day. Also, in the words of my Mum, there’s nothing that a cup of tea and some chocolate can’t fix. I whole-heartedly agree.

What would you say to anyone else experiencing the same thing?

Forgive yourself. You are not your trauma. You did not choose it to happen to you. You have control. Even when you feel like you’re walking down a tunnel with no light at the end, you have the control and the power to get yourself to a better place. It won’t be easy and it will never be a quick fix. Don’t feel bad for taking medication. Listen to the good thoughts, recognise that the negative thoughts are your trauma breaking back in. Don’t let them – you’re so much more worthy than that.