The dirty secret
They say that one shouldn’t write about personal stuff on a travel blog, that one shouldn’t air one’s dirty laundry for all to see nor share things other than travel. Sadly I have never been one to stay within the confines of societal expectations.
See, if no one speaks about things then no one has the opportunity to know that they are not alone, that they are not as abnormal as they think. It may offend, it may upset, it may make you scratch your head and go “wait maybe that’s me”. You’ve been warned. So…
Here goes my dirty little secret telling…
At the age of 26, I was diagnosed with non-combat PTSD. More commonly known by its acronym, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is predominantly thought of as a result of combat and is something that many veterans suffer from. What is less commonly known is that those who suffer traumatic events in their lives can suffer from it too.
The Mayo Clinic defines it as:
“A mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.”
They go on to state that “symptoms may start within one month of a traumatic event, but sometimes symptoms may not appear until years after the event. These symptoms cause significant problems and can also interfere with your ability to go about your normal daily tasks.
PTSD symptoms are generally grouped into four types: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions. Symptoms can vary over time or vary from person to person.”
The specialist who diagnosed me went on to explain that, though many heal over time, I had the unfortunate disadvantage of repressed memories. This meant that though my PTSD symptoms may come to a point of feeling resolved, in reality, they will lay dormant waiting for the next trigger to unearth another memory.
The prognosis? A lifelong process of healing after every new uncovered trigger. Worse yet, I couldn’t fall back on the “Wait maybe those repressed memories are false” story either, the majority of mine had been already confirmed as truth.
Whoohooo for me
I spent a month in a pure unadulterated depression. I couldn’t believe that after all I had gone through, after all I had survived that I would now have to continue facing the demons. I’d have to continue fighting to feel the sunlight on my proverbial face time and time again.
Like some of you reading this, my triggers are with me for life.
A deep massage to one may seem heavenly but to us, it may be a teleportal to a terrible memory relived.
A simple hug given a certain way to you may seem normal but to us suffocating.
A glass accidentally falling from your hand and smashing on the ground or burnt toast to you a pure accident but a cause of intense anxiety to us.
They may seem inconsequential to many, but not to us. Triggers can be touch, feel, sight, smell and even taste.
Fighting for air
One day I was sitting on my bed having what I’d call a Richter 7 meltdown (crying so hard you pull a stomach muscle) repeating over and over again “no. no. NOOO”. As I saw it, I had two choices. One, kill myself or two, fight.
I just couldn’t accept that this was going to be my life. Just
My inner fighter started to emerge and it was as if she was fighting to come up for air, trying as hard as she could to get a word in edgeways between the No’s, the Oh my God’s and the wracking sobs. Slowly a quote from Winnie the Pooh started to overtake the panic…
You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.
I had faced what no person should have to and still stood. I was strong. I had had nothing but figured out a way to survive. I was smart. Until now I had never backed down from the challenge of living another day.
I had to figure out a way of dealing with it all.
Towards the end of that month, I started to write, I started to look into the recent years, towards times when I didn’t feel the overwhelming symptoms of the dreaded PTSD. Then it hit me. It was when, at the age of 21, I had packed up my backpack and moved to another country!
I had travelled solo to London with my 20kg backpack and with no place to live. Right off the plane, my backpack (that was half the size of me) and I had walked London flat looking for a place to stay. I had eventually found an area I liked and talked myself into a room at a full hostel.
I had done it and done it by myself. Even bigger for me personally was what the hostel manager had told me. He’d never met someone who had moved solo to another country without a plan and made it work as I had.
Was travel then the answer?
When I thought about it, it made total sense.
Travelling to places that were without the majority of my triggers lent me a period in time where I had some peace, where sunshine lit my soul and I felt free. Free from the chains of the past. I was so excited that I had found a possible “cure”!
Then my excitement came to a screeching halt.
During the traumatic events in my past, I would often force my mind to imagine that I was in a far off land and the pain was not present in the world I transported my mind to. At the age of 6, I explored the pyramids of Egypt, age 7 it was the Petra’s, age 8 the paddy fields of Vietnam, age 9 Machu Picchu, age 10 it was walking through the Tulip fields of Holland with my fingers gently touching them as I walked by.
Would travel then do the opposite of what I wanted? Would it make all the debilitating symptoms worse?
I decided that I had nothing to lose and I went for it.
I started planning my mission to explore the world at large once more, to live abroad and to experience as many cultures as I could. Though it was full of obstacles and I had to jump through many hoops it eventually became a longer-term reality.
What travel did to my PTSD
New smells, new tastes, new sights, and new experiences.
Each new place I visited opened my mind to a world that had things other than pain and torment. I finally felt like I had control over my life, over my mind and it’s memories. I controlled the destinations.
Comfort Zone elimination
Travelling forced me out of my comfort zone, it forced me to deal with foreign things in my immediate surroundings and through that learn to handle my responses to triggers. When I had a trigger it was altered because of the environment I was in, all the pieces didn’t fit the puzzle as it were.
By removing myself from the place, and in the end, country that held so many bad cognitive memories I was able to face the demons and teach myself “demon-slaying” skills.
Demon-slaying skills you say?
My number one go-to badass weapon was and is focused breathing. Every time I have a trigger I force my mind on to the flow of my breath. It wasn’t easy nor simple but luckily for me, I had many triggers to practice on.
After a while, it became natural for me to feel the trigger’s effects coming and jump to the breath going into my body.
now stop laughing, though it may sound silly, but when the trigger is too intense breathing just didn’t cut it. So breathing and slowly counting my fingers at the same time was my idea to force the mind to multi-task. The more tasks you give your brain during a trigger leaves less to give attention to the invading memories.
Meditation. This was, and sometimes still is, one of the hardest ones for me and I can only do it in a safe place. Going deep, focusing on healing the inner child that still hurts, letting her know she’s ok. I’m not going to go into detail but what worked for me was guided meditation that focused on healing, non guided was too much of a field day for the demons.
Finally writing. After every episode
as I call them I’d sit down and write it out, and I mean everything, then I’d tear it to shreds and burn it/scatter it/flush it down the toilet. There is something to be said about getting it out of the proverbial mind and on to paper. Keeping everything in is as if you are just feeding the beast that won’t leave you alone.
Embracing the scary future
Travel wasn’t running from the past but rather embracing the future I had been scared of, embracing a world different from the one I had known. With each new place visited I felt stronger than before.
I still had triggers but I found myself more able to handle them as they came. With each trigger I handled without a panic attack, with each one that I managed to breathe through, I felt an incredible accomplishment. I was stronger.
Each new place I visited was not only a place but rather a step towards a braver, stronger, smarter me.
Goodbye School of Hard Knocks
As time went by travel slowly started to replace the “School of Hard Knocks” with the “University of Life”. A long Soul-Food list (aka bucket list) started to develop and I found myself seeking out challenges to my thinking patterns, to my soul and ultimately my fears.
Just not bungee jumping please just no.
Freedom to be the real me
Ultimately, travel has given me the opportunity to heal that living back home never did. I am more able to handle what life throws my way.
It has given me the freedom to explore who I really am without the constant need for my “survival shield”. It has allowed me to open up to the possibility of the fact that I may just be a nice person, one who is caring and kind, one who can have self-love, do self-care, and have self-acceptance.
Before I would shield my “inner self” with an iron clad wall protecting myself from everyone and anyone that could hurt me in any possible way. Even good friends. That wall was so strong I couldn’t even see myself.
I am stronger. I am kind. I am lovable. I am brave.
I am me whether they or you like it.
Before travel, if you had told me that all of the above was a possibility I’d have laughed in your face, walked away, iron-clad wall in place, and told myself “They don’t know how wrong they are, how bad I am, I don’t deserve the happiness they claim to exist”.
Though I am yet to visit the places I dreamt of as a kid, I am working towards them. I think that when I do it will be a moment of both mental and spiritual accomplishment. I still dream of them, along with the others I “visited”, and they are my official top 5 Bucket list items.
Do you think you have PTSD?
8 out of 100 are presumed to suffer from PTSD. It is more common than you think and there is no shame in having it. You are a warrior, you are stronger than you believe.
All warriors need help and PTSD is serious. If you believe you may suffer from it please seek a cognitive behavioral specialist to help you build coping mechanisms that work specifically for you.
It took me a long time to get to where I am able to talk about this, even now after so many years, I have taken a long pause before pressing publish on this article. It’s a long road but acceptance is a huge step.
This article is written from the perspective of my own life’s journey, in my own words. I am not a professional nor do I abdicate that what worked for me will work for you.