PTSD in the time of COVID
*trigger warning rape & cancer* I want you to take a second and think about one thing about yourself that -if you had the ability to go back in time and change your life- you would not change for the world. There is an 19th century philosophy, made famous by the movie The Butterfly Effect, that claims that if there is one thing about yourself, one trait or characteristic that you would want to keep if you found yourself suddenly able to go back in time, you would need to re-live the same experiences and make all the same decisions in order to guarantee that in the future you would retain that one quality. And it is this I want you to remember as I share my story. As a child, I did not get into trouble. In fact, the worst infraction I ever made was that I did not spend enough time in the sun, and so my parents would take my books away to force me to go outside. Naturally, I worked out a system to hid them in ziplock bags under the hedge. As I grew older, I also learned that breaking the rules held greater consequences for me than for my friends. While my affluent teenage peers were able to break curfew and notoriously climbed onto the top of the city capital to drink beer, my parents could not afford expensive lawyers to get me out of trouble. There was also a question of my legal residency. When it came time to learn how to drive, my parents taught me that I could not afford to speed or break the speed limit because it could result in my deportation. And while this lesson may have been exaggerated to keep a teenager safe, it became my truth. The key here is that I followed the letter of the law and did nothing wrong. When I was raped, I expected the legal system to protect me. In my darkest hour, when the campus police showed up, I thought that they would be on my side. While no woman should ever have to know how to report a rape, this was certainly not something I was equipped to handle alone. The campus police not only bullied me and warned against ruining the career and future of my rapist, they threatened my legal status and suggested that I might be deported if I wanted to make a formal claim. But MY story is not about my rape. It is about learning to live and remold myself after trauma and after being let down by the system meant to protect me. Two years later, I was diagnosed with skin cancer so severe that if I had not booked a visit to the dermatologist on a whim, I would have lost my eye in less than a year. I drove myself to the surgery and watched as my face was carved from my eyelid to my cheek. But once again MY story is not about getting skin cancer, or the additional two melanoma diagnoses three years later that suggest that I will likely continue to present with skin cancer the rest of my life. It is not even about the fact that I had done nothing wrong, that I had always worn copious amounts of sunscreen, that as a child I had to be forced outside and seldom spent time in the sun. It is not about the fact that the doctors did not believe me when I told them that I had never tanned in my life, because I was slim, blonde-haired and blue-eyed. In 2018 I had my first panic attack. I was attending a conference for work, sitting in a room of over 10 thousand people, and suddenly I felt powerless, lost and like I was sinking. My colleague with me at the time was a Marine veteran and instantly recognized the signs, but I had lived a sheltered and protected life, so it did not occur to me that I had PTSD, for my experience did not seem as valid as that of veterans and survivors of horrific disasters. For although I had never realized it, I fell into the habit of comparing my experience to that of others, to comparing my pain, my stress, my fear and my recovery, and finding it less worthy. But let me tell you that any PTSD is worthy of attention and every experience is valid. I started my tattoos in 2019. One on each shoulder as a reminder that I am not alone. My 'strong women' and 'warrior' tattoos are as much a testament to the resilient woman I have grown to be, as a symbol of the indelible presence of trauma. For although it is not inked into our skins, trauma can present and trigger in unexpected ways, even after years of self-work. I share my story because trauma and PTSD does not make you weak. It doesn't make you incapable of recovery or incapable of working through the episodes. It makes you human. I strongly believe in normalizing mental health for, if nothing else, we are brought together by the similarities of surviving: COVID, quarantine, the injustices and unpredictable illnesses that life throws at us. But we are stronger together. And each of us has that one thing that makes it all worthwhile.