When I decided to write a PTSD Awareness Day piece to be published today, June 27, I hoped to speak to a dozen or more queer survivors of PTSD and complex PTSD from a range of backgrounds, who would — more or less — present a slice-of-life, if anecdotal, account of queer post-traumatic stress in mid-2018. I’m not a mental health practitioner, and I’m certainly not a researcher. Still, I’m in the business of storytelling, and, given how important telling and recontextualizing my own story has been to my own recovery process, I expected many others to be interested in sharing their stories with me.
I was wrong.
I don’t in any way mean to scold those who, for whatever reason, declined to participate or reneged their interest in participating once they learned the limited scope of my project. I see their decisions not to participate as self-loving and self-protective acts, for which I have tremendous respect. I’m grateful my own recovery has occurred on my body’s own timeline.
Rather, I’m sad for those of us whose access to judgment- and stigma-free care for post-traumatic stress is limited or nonexistent, despite the emerging modalities and treatments that can make life livable for so many of us. I’m sad for those of us who lack family, friends, or other supportive communities that could prop us up as we do the courageous and difficult work of making it through each day. I’m sad that so many of us don’t get to see into the messy, chaotic lives of others who are fighting the same battles and working to overcome the same barriers we are. I’m sad for those of us who believe our experiences aren’t important or valued. I’m sad that so many of us suffer in silence. I’m sad that so much of our suffering ends in premature, permanent silence.
But this isn’t just about me and my feelings.
I was able to speak to four individuals whose encounters with post-traumatic stress have validated mine and emboldened me to live the best life I can. I hope they do the same for you. I challenge you, specifically, to take on the mantle of deconstructing prejudice and stigma around mental illness — not just post-traumatic stress, but also post-traumatic stress; and not just for yourself, but also for yourself.
A word of warning: the accounts below describe emotional, physical, and/or sexual violence. Take care of yourself and opt out if you need to — and, anyway, the tl;dr is: Whatever you’re going through, you’re not alone, and you don’t have to suffer in silence.
Some names have been changed at the request of the interviewees.
On Thursday, Ariana will be 29 years old. She was diagnosed at age 15, “so I’ve had it for almost half my life at this point,” she says. Her diagnosis came after a sexual assault. She’s been sexually assaulted twice, and her symptoms have been aggravated by abuse from romantic partners between those assaults.
“For a long time, I didn’t want to be around men — like, I would get really nervous and scared,” she continues, “so like, if it was on an elevator and it was by myself, I would avoid men entirely.” Ariana has a long history of nightmares that end in cold sweats. They continue to this day. “I get really jumpy. I get startled really easily. And if there was anything similar, like, if I was experiencing any kind of bad behavior from other people, then I would get upset again and I'd have the symptoms recur. I also have really bad anxiety.”
Ariana, a queer woman of color, spent the eight months leading up to March of this year living in the New York City shelter system. A physical disability, the result of a pulmonary embolism, poses challenges for her work and social life, but Medicaid covers transportation by car to her therapy appointments, and her college’s accessibility office provides accommodations around her education.
However, access to other resources is less readily available. She’s been trying to find a support group for survivors of sexual assault, but resources are scant. She also finds that, as she gets older, her access to care becomes harder to find, because care providers want to send her to queer-only — as opposed to general-population — facilities. It’s easier for Ariana to open up to others in the evening, so she prefers evening therapy appointments, which are hard to come by. Having been seen, for most of her life, by white practitioners, she prefers to work with those who are people of color — after 20 years in therapy, she’s currently working with a person of color for the first time.
After becoming disabled in 2011, Ariana began drinking and using drugs more heavily. She went to AA for 18 months, but ultimately found that, rather than being an alcoholic, she simply used alcohol to cope through a very difficult time in her life. She sees 12-Step programs as only one method of working towards sobriety. Queer people, she says, face judgment and heteronormative cultural practices they find alienating. Though the friends she made in AA abandoned her after she left the program, she maintains friendly contact with her former sponsor.
She’s worked with EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), and has found it helpful; she’d like to come back to it. In the meantime, she is hopeful about a DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy) group she’ll be starting soon, which works to address both her PTSD and BPD (borderline personality disorder) symptoms. She’s also found art therapy and adult coloring books to be effective.
“I feel like group therapy is tricky,” she says, “because if you don't have a group of people that you’re comfortable with, it can turn the whole experience sour.” Ariana says that, for group therapy to be effective, there has to be a common respect for experiences of difference and a willingness to listen to everybody.
“I’ve been through a lot,” she responds, when asked how her relationship with trauma has changed over the last few years. “Like, last year, I was homeless, and I was living in a shelter… it’s definitely something ongoing. I haven’t gotten to a point where I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m totally over this.’ I don’t know if that exists, or you just get to a point where you’re, like, ‘Okay, I can deal with this better than I could before,’ you know? One of my closest friends, he’s got the complex PTSD and he’s 31 and still processing. So it’s like… it depends. I don’t know. For me, I don’t know if it’s ever going to go away; I just think it’ll get easier for me to deal with.”
As far as how she’s doing now, she says, “I wouldn’t say I’m happy all the time, because no one’s happy all the time, but I just feel like, overall, I’m more content with who I am as a person, now, than I was a few years ago. I’m able to deal with things in a more healthy way.”
She says that talking about what happened to her is helpful: “It relieves some of the burden. It may not take away the pain, but I think you just feel a little bit lighter.”
Katrina doesn’t have a PTSD diagnosis — her therapist doesn’t like to talk about diagnoses out of a concern for labeling her. She hadn’t heard about complex PTSD, or C-PTSD, until she saw my call for stories. After doing some research, she feels that a C-PTSD diagnosis, and the treatments it may open up for her, could help her to process some of her early life experiences.
Katrina is a 50-year-old lesbian who grew up with artistic talent and high hopes for her artistic career. Recently, though, she finds it difficult to do even the things she loves to do. “I’m not enjoying my life,” she says. “I’m not doing the things that make me happy. I have some kind of fear of success. I’m not sure what it is, but I’m blocked, just completely blocked, in a way that shifted in my adolescence. I feel like I lost my life, and I’m trying to claim myself back and be that person who… I was very sure of myself as a kid, and, just… things happened.”
She was hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital at 16, but 34 years later, she feels like she’s still there. “They put me there because they didn’t know what else to do with me,” she says. “I just wanted to get away from my family. It was a very, very destructive place, certainly an awful place to be. But it had long-range consequences, because they convinced my parents that I wouldn’t graduate from high school, that I had all kinds of psychiatric deficits. I’m not sure what they happened. They just… the constant pathologizing of me, it just beat me down.” She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder, but a PTSD diagnosis didn’t enter her awareness as a possibility until recently.
Her hospitalization came in response to an episode of traumatic grief after losing her grandmother, the closest person to her. Katrina’s parents ignored, neglected, and emotionally abused her throughout childhood, but her grandmother was always there for her. “So when she was gone,” she says, “there was nothing… I had no one on my side.”
Like Ariana, Katrina has nightmares, but she also relives her traumatic experiences through flashbacks and is subject to retraumatization. Her nightmares are recurring, and they involve being locked up in the psychiatric hospital and being mistreated as a psychiatric patient. “I was not ill,” she says of herself when she was hospitalized. “The treatment — I’m sure wasn’t meant to be cruel — made me ill.” When she has to go to hospitals today, she freezes, feels helpless, and experiences a feeling “of being a child, and needing something, and it not being there, and I’m going to die, and no one cares.” When her mother died, she witnessed her mother’s death over and over again — two to three times a night — in her nightmares. Those nightmares persisted for over a year.
Katrina tried to communicate to her parents, in childhood, that she had an eating disorder, but they refused to listen: “They said I just wanted attention and ignored me.” Her eating disorder went untreated until after graduate school. “I had a childhood in which my reality was constantly denied by my parents and it made it so that I didn't feel like I could trust myself,” she adds.
She really likes her current therapist, who she’s been seeing for five years. She even has a huge crush on her. “I thought that that connection, since I don’t feel that connection very often,” she says, “would push me more than I’ve been able to push myself with other therapists. Even if I was doing it for her, which didn't turn out to be the case, at least it would push me toward health.” Her one complaint: “I wish she would work with me more on exploring things,” she says. “She only lets me talk. She doesn’t want to see anything creative, which is how I access my feelings — you know, they don’t come to me when I’m speaking.”
Katrina first was exposed to literature on trauma in graduate school, when one of her advisors recommended Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery. Even the little bit of research Katrina has done on C-PTSD has been helpful for her. “You know, in reading this stuff, with the traumatic grief and complicated mourning,” she says, “it helps me to wrap my mind around what happened to me so I can just… you know, sometimes, if you can put something into a sentence and put a period at the end, or a question mark, or whatever you need, and just express it, it helps to clear the path for you to create another sentence.”
With regard to her relationship with her trauma over time, Katrina says, “It gets better as I get older.”
Ralph, a 28-year-old white gay man, moved to New York two years ago for graduate school. “I grew up in this Southern culture,” he says. “I didn’t grow up, necessarily, in the church, but definitely the kind of culture that places respecting your family and having this false sense of obligation to blood members of your family being the end-all, be-all kind of attitude.”
His mother was 16 and ill-equipped to take care of him when he was born, so he was raised by his paternal grandmother. He and his mother didn’t bond growing up, and they no longer speak. “I spent most of my childhood with her on weekends and different things,” he says, “but it really wasn't, honestly, until I was an adult, and I came out, and I started to have a little bit more self-reflection in college, and then, it fully wasn't until after I'd separated her from my life, that I started really evaluating the not-okay interactions with her.”
The hallmark of Ralph’s mother’s abuse was to create situations in which Ralph was dependent on her, then shame him for his dependence. “She would hand you a gift then punch you in the face, metaphorically,” he says, “and then be angry that you didn’t thank her for the gift after she punched you in the face. It was a lot of psychological torture.”
After college, Ralph’s mother offered to buy his car from him so that he wouldn’t have to keep making payments on it, then changed the arrangement right before he was about to leave for New York, asking him to cosign a sketchy loan with her new beau instead. When he pushed back, the conversation escalated. She physically attacked him and began to destroy his things, at which point he called the police. When the police arrived, she misrepresented the story to them. “I had a window of opportunity of finally being able to stand on my own two feet without needing anyone else in starting my own life in New York,” he says. “And that wasn't comfortable for her, because she wanted to have power and wanted to have control by any means.” When I spoke to Ralph, it had been exactly two years since he cut off contact with his mother.
But the effects of her abusive manipulation haunt him to this day. “Any time I had ever achieved any kind of accomplishment or had something great to look forward to or, just, anything good that was like happening in my life,” he continues, “she would always find a way to insert herself and create chaos and disruption and trauma. And I realized that as graduation [from graduate school in May] drew near, it really didn't feel like an accomplishment for me. I had a sense and a feeling of terror and impending doom.”
He also finds it difficult to socialize, accept friendships, and ask for help when he needs it. In graduate school, he found it difficult to work in the noisy lobby of his department, and became aggressive and angry at fellow students when it became too much. When his doctor asked why he felt he should be able to work in the noise, he said, “because I feel like I should be able to do anything and not be completely crippled and angry when there is noise around me.” He also has recurring depression and anxiety.
As an artist, he’s had to reckon with the cultural notion that artistry requires abstinence from psychiatric medication, but went on an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) while in graduate school. The medication made him feel like a zombie. When he asked to go off the medication, his doctor put him on a 10-day tapering protocol. “That was way too fast,” he says. “And then I had a complete breakdown and I had very terrible withdrawals where my body was, like, complete electric shock.”
Ralph had access to counseling while in undergrad, which he says saved his life, but he isn’t currently in therapy. “To me, the way that I've actively tried to combat [the effects of trauma on my life] is to practice gratitude and generosity,” he says. “Any time where I felt like I've been overwhelmed, I've just tried to constantly reach out and verbalize and affirm my thanks for people that have even done small acts of kindness for me. Or actively trying to acknowledge and verbalize when I see someone doing something that I think is amazing.”
He still experiences fear that he won’t be able to manage, but he’s aware of his resilience. “I haven't ever been in a situation where I couldn't figure out my way around it,” he says. “And I think, the longer that that has been true, and the more that I have navigated through that… even though things are stressful, and I feel scared, and things are not easy, you do kind of develop a competence to keep moving forward.”
Jeffrey Anthony is a certified health education specialist with a background in public health and health education. His focus is in human sexuality, and he works with gay male, queer, and HIV-positive populations. He currently works for a sexual violence program where he does crisis counseling, grant-writing, and educational material design. His clients have lived through sexual violence and often have intellectual and/or developmental disabilities. He is a white, cisgender, queer gay man, and he suffers from PTSD, C-PTSD, bipolar depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and was recently diagnosed with high-level autism (ASD Level 1).
“I will tell you that my one thing that I do appreciate about the trauma is it gives me a sense of humor,” he says. “And I actually think that is a common theme in a lot of people that have experienced trauma is a dark, morose, and absolutely beautiful sense of humor.” But there’s plenty Jeffrey doesn’t love about his trauma.
“PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder,” he continues. “And the main difference is one is an acute trauma, and the other one is an ongoing trauma. Now, I've been diagnosed with PTSD, and I've been diagnosed with complex PTSD. So I am a survivor of sexual violence, twice in my life — one being far more a physical assault and rape than the other one, which was molestation. And there was sex and grooming and things, but it filled other emotional needs. And so none of these things happened in a vacuum, and that kind of builds on each other. But the other thing that I come from is a family that was emotionally and physically abusive. And so that continued — ongoing belittlement and physical abuse throughout my early childhood and into my teenage years. I’m 32 now, and occasionally my father still tries to make a snip at me. And now, I’m like, ‘Old man, I will break your arm.’ But it's that ongoing abuse that led to that complex PTSD: that constant trauma, that ongoing, chronic trauma. That's the difference.”
Jeffrey’s parents sought out diagnoses for him throughout childhood — he believes it was a way for them to feel better about their mistreatment of him. “My parents brought their bullshit with them and took it out on me,” he says. “And so I became their punching bag. And so that's kind of the impetus for the development of my complex PTSD.”
His recent autism diagnosis sheds light on a childhood he’d previously misunderstood — he now sees a connection between his symptoms and the way fights escalated at home. Though his symptoms weren’t his fault, he internalized the blame. “I identified my parents as people that were supposed to protect me,” he reflects. “But why weren't they protecting me? Is it because they were flawed humans? Or because I was a terrible person?” Jeffrey was physically abused by his parents as early as first grade, if not earlier. “It [was] far easier, and less terrifying, for me to identify myself as a bad person than the people I trust.”
“So it is this ongoing relationship where it manifests another way, where people say, ‘Oh, you're still hearing your father talk to you like you were a child,’” he continues. “That's kind of what [complex] PTSD is: that little voice from your childhood that's having things just come back, and kind of flashback, versus an acute thing where, you know, fireworks go off and someone's a wartime vet, and the fireworks sound like a shell going off, and they suddenly flashback to wartime. Very similar mechanisms, but it happens in very different ways. And so the complex PTSD then also starts to develop anxiety, because the coping mechanism, then, is, ‘I have to worry how am I going to survive. What would my survival skills? What I need to do?’ I'm a very charming person because I was afraid that I was going to be killed by my parents, specifically, my father. So I'm very good at getting people to like me, and for that reason, I also don't trust when people like me and genuinely seem to like me.”
While the ongoing abuse at home led him to develop C-PTSD, the sexual assaults he endured were acute and led to his PTSD diagnosis. “When I was in high school, I was sexually assaulted,” he says. “They physically knocked me unconscious. They tied me down and then they raped me. And so that built some trust issues. I very much can't handle bondage or the idea of being restrained — it makes me very claustrophobic. And I can't handle certain things. It also was a person that I trusted, and so it built into other trust issues that already existed. I had an ongoing sexual experience, when I was 12, with someone who lived in the neighborhood, that was, give or take, 18. And at the time, I was very aware of what I was doing — probably that I shouldn't have been doing it — but that this person made me feel special and wanted. And so, to that end, that continued, in some ways. And I look back on that and, you know… there's a chance that that never would have happened, had I had a family that was more supportive, and gave me the attention that I desired, because I know that there was part of me that actively sought out that attention.”
Jeffrey has a long history of bad treatment from unqualified mental health care practitioners, one of whom used their sessions as an opportunity to vent about his divorce. “The concept of trauma-informed care is a relatively new concept,” he says. “And I think a lot of that is ego, on the part of practitioners, not recognizing that Sigmund Freud is an asshole and doesn't actually know what he's talking about and doesn't contribute much to the field of psychology. Doctors kind of want this prestige of, ‘Oh, I’ve fixed you,’ and you don’t do that with mental health. There is no ‘fixing,’ really. There’s healing, and there’s scarring, but ‘fixing’ is not the word anyone will use.”
“The other part of it is,” he continues, “because individuals experiencing mental health issues are so disempowered, it creates an unfortunate power dynamic that exists where psychologists, therapists, what have you, won’t do the work to empower you, just… what is the way to make them feel like you’ve made progress?”
He speaks from personal experience with therapists and doctors as a client. On the other hand, he also attests that many of his colleagues in the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists are wonderful at providing trauma-informed care.
What ways can people suffering from trauma do to empower themselves? “I don't know that I'll tell anyone that they don't need to be saved,” he says. “What I would tell them is that, if you think you need to be saved, unfortunately, you're the person who has to save yourself. No one else can do that for you.”
“One of the ways to empower people is to let them feel the way they want to feel,” he continues. “Give yourself permission to feel. It’s okay to feel what you’re feeling. You can learn to understand why you're feeling it. That's the way to heal. I don't need to be fixed. I need to heal and I need to grow. And it's it's about shifting that mindset of ‘Oh, I’m broken. Oh, I’ve got baggage.’ We all have fucking baggage. No one’s shit smells like roses. Even if you take the damn pills to make it [smell like roses], it's still shit that smells like roses. It’s still shit. We all have it. And acknowledging that — in the very holistic way that I am —we're all going to fucking die anyway, so what does it matter? But also, at the same time, that doesn't mean I can't have the best life that I want to have.”
While he’s aware of the loaded language behind terms like “victim” and “survivor,” he does hope to point those who suffer with trauma to a mindset of having survived. “The idea of being a survivor is that you acknowledge it is an ongoing thing. I have complex PTSD. I relive a lot of trauma all the time. I left work two hours early today because I had an anxiety attack so bad I threw up and I was having hot flashes and I couldn't work. And I don't always function. Where I have the choice, and it's not an easy choice, is to do what I need to do to take care of myself so I can get to a sense of peace, and, perhaps, happiness. I don't know that happiness needs to be the goal. I don't know that I will ever be a happy person. I have moments of joy. But the choice is, I could stay at work and continue to be miserable, or I can go home and take care of myself and get a little bit better by taking care of myself and prioritizing that. That is the choice.”
“And I would say, even if you don't think you're worthy yourself, there are people that will always stick with you,” he continues. “Try and remember that that means you're worthy. Find other ways to support yourself, with people that will say, ‘It's okay to feel that way. I can support you without actually taking on your burden because you're not a burden to me.’”