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Living with PTSD and DID at University


Georgina Lewis shares her experience of PTSD and DID. Trigger warning: article contains sensitive information about abuse.

So I guess maybe the first thing people have done on reading that title is go ‘what is PTSD?’ and/or ‘what is DID?’ So I’ll explain, in the medical term, first…then I’ll explain on the real life impact on it in my life. I also want to convey hope; my story isn’t a particularly pleasant one but I want people to know recovery is possible.

PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is an anxiety disorder caused by traumatic events – such as a car accident, natural disasters…or in my case, childhood abuse and domestic violence. DID (dissociative identity disorder) is also a result of the abuse I went through as a child. In one sense it is a powerful and extreme coping mechanism developed as a child – the psychological and physical impact of the abuse was too extreme for anyone to cope with, never mind myself as a child, and so my personality fragmented and the result is severe changes in my identity state. It used to be known as multiple personality disorder but that confused people – many people wrongly believe it to be a personality disorder.

PTSD greatly affects my life in a debilitating way. I am at least now at a point where I can study for my degree, but it has taken over 3 years to get to that point. The worst symptoms I experience are flashbacks; re-living the traumatic memories. At the ‘calmer’ end of the scale, flashbacks can entail me ‘zoning out’ to the outside world, because I can no longer see the present day. Instead I am staring at the memory in front of me, sometimes staring at my younger self getting hurt – completely detached from the body which is itself a symptom of severe trauma. Sometimes I try shouting what I wish I could have shouted then – ‘stop’ mainly, but I’m silent, I can’t get myself to move or make a sound. The memory of being silenced out of fear and entirely powerless takes a hold over my body, and I just have to watch the memory again in a detached manner. Other times, I don’t lose my sight but can hear a memory – these are quite unnerving as I have no visual context and the sounds are quite harrowing, but at least I’m conscious and aware of the environment and can do something to help myself.

At worst, flashbacks can go on for several hours, and can be violent. In these I am not watching the memory as an adult, I am re-living it in real time. I have no sense that the memory isn’t really happening at that moment, and so I re-live the intense trauma all over again, and feel what happened to me happening again. My friends help to ensure I don’t hurt myself when I re-enact the abuse, and try to ‘wake me up’ from it. Because I’m re-living it, I’m pumped full of terror and adrenaline again, and so despite being only 5 foot 1 and slim, it can take more than one adult to safely restrain me. People often ask me what they could possibly do to help when I’m intensely reliving such horrendous trauma. Firstly, look after yourself. If it is traumatic for you to watch or be around, then do not damage your mental health for my sake – it’ll only make me feel awful afterwards, which will perpetuate the shame from the abuse. It therefore helps both of us if you protect your boundaries! If you are able to help, then just hold my hand, talk gently to me – even if it doesn’t seem like I can hear, I probably can do, and it works as an anchor back to the present, which my mind can cling to. Compassion is so much stronger than hate – therefore your compassion overpowers the cruelty of the abuse.

I have on average one or two of the more physical flashbacks a week, and several smaller visual or auditory flashbacks a day. After each I feel exhausted, and sometimes traumatised as the aftermath of the memory washes over me. Trying to keep going at university after a memory like this is hard. However I used to have physically violent flashbacks far more frequently and simply could not study at all, and had to interrupt my studies. Therefore, however much it impacts on my life now, I am grateful to have the chance to live in between the traumatic memories. It can be hard sitting in lectures, sometimes only an hour or two after a flashback, with one bit of my head whirring from the memory and wanting to hide, and another bit of my head wanting to empower myself by managing to study. The abuse robbed so much from me; I refuse to give it the rest of my life. So, as much as I can do, I go to lectures and tutorials. Sometimes I don’t hear a thing, and once a few months ago I broke down in the middle of a lecture and had to leave. I hate crying and I especially hate crying in public, but I was hurt…I was hurt from the memory and I was hurt that I had been abused, and the tears could not stop. It was the healthiest response – finally the tears from years ago that went ignored could be cried to the full, and be soothed by a caring hug from a friend. I felt ashamed, but knew this was a backlash of the shame from the abuse, and also stigma around mental health, and so I fought to let myself feel. I hate stigma. I hate that I had to block my feelings to get through my childhood, and now I feel expected to block my feelings in order to be ‘socially correct.’ It seems ridiculous that stigma reduces our ability to be human. Crying is human, why is that shameful?

Other symptoms of the PTSD include nightmares and insomnia. I am lucky to be in a loving relationship, and my partner often wakes me from nightmares and so I’m instantly transported back to somewhere safe. The nightmares make me scared to sleep, but I know if I don’t sleep I will make myself ill. I can have a great day but the nightmares won’t fade. Mostly the nightmares are memories but sometimes they can involve being chased by the people who hurt me. Whatever the content, they are always frightening, and I therefore rarely get a proper night’s sleep. This can heavily impact on my ability to study, particularly with morning lectures whilst I’m still very blurry from a bad night. I feel ridiculous to say to my lecturer ‘I’m sorry, I had nightmares.’ So I don’t. I don’t feel they’d understand – I’d be scared of being treated or looked upon as a child who has ‘silly nightmares’. It’s one thing admitting to mental health. It’s another thing to simultaneously admit the mental health is because of child abuse.

When I’m very poorly, I hallucinate. These can be very frightening. I will sometimes see my abusers, sometimes hear them, or sense them right behind me. This will lead to panic attacks and intense paranoia, and self-loathing as an act of self-preservation. That might sound paradoxical, but it was always better to hate myself – then any hate projected onto me couldn’t hurt my feelings. The problem now is that I don’t really know how to not hate myself; I almost feel unsafe if I feel okay with myself. The shame from the abuse coupled with the fact I relied on self-loathing means it has taken a long time for me to even accept I don’t deserve to be hurt. It’ll be a long time before I accept I am not worthy of hate.

I’ve been hospitalised three times due to suicide attempts or ideation. With all of these times I just felt an intense loss of control, and that I was a burden to my friends. Both of these feelings came from my past, but had overwhelmed me.
Sometimes people say ‘but you haven’t been to war?’ when I tell them I have PTSD. This is such a huge misconception – anyone can live through a traumatic event, and PTSD is a reasonable response to that. And besides which, no I haven’t fought in an officially known war, but I fought in my own private war – and a war I was conscribed to. I didn’t ask to be abused. I didn’t ask for PTSD. But it’s my responsibility to live with it, manage it, and not let it destroy me.

I use a lot of grounding techniques to help me with PTSD. My partner and friends have become very good at noticing when I’m triggered and can sometimes prevent me falling too deep immediately. Other times, I might run water over my hands, or put on a song that means something to me, or stamp my feet or hit a drum! Any of these ground me physically and once I’ve got control of my body, I can work on bringing my mind back to the present time. I use breathing techniques to keep my body feeling calm, to assure my mind that the panic triggered is no longer a necessary requirement – I’m not that frightened child anymore, I’m a safe adult. Other coping strategies I use are drawing (I’m not very good but getting the image ‘out of me’ helps) or songwriting (which helps me make sense of the various intense emotions).

DID is another story entirely. For me, I find it hard to even classify it as a disorder, though this isn’t in any way meant to undermine it. I know for many people it can be incredibly disabling; I was just very lucky in that my DID really started to show itself at around the same time I started to see a psychotherapist, which meant she helped me learn how to control it. That isn’t to say it’s always been easy – one of the symptoms of DID is amnesia. I would ‘wake up’ in places and have no recollection of how I got there. Sometimes I would be convinced it was a different time, month or even year – a couple of times my friends (who were actually complete strangers to me in my amnesia state) had to show me a current newspaper in order to convince me of the date, and gradually regain my trust and at least keep me safe until the amnesia had passed. These periods were very frightening and disorientating, and meant my life felt very out of control – I had no idea when I would suddenly lose time. I would look at a clock and realise several hours had passed, and have no recollection of what happened within those hours.

Now, I am conscious of the different alters or parts within my head, which means I suffer from amnesia far less. An analogy I use to describe DID is that of a broken mirror; if you apply enough trauma or force to a mirror, it will shatter. If you want to put the pieces back together again, you have to give as much attention to the small parts as to the large. That is, in effect, what has happened to my personality. There are different alters, of various ages and genders. The most prominent are Sammie, a little girl with an adoration for anything pink (much to my dismay) and my little ponies. Lucas is two, with an obsession for eating everything and anything. Lady is an adult a fair bit older than me; carrying the part of me that had to grow up far too quickly. There are many parts, each with a different role – some can perform tasks when I’m too unwell, some can mimic me so if I need a break I can ‘go inside’ and recuperate, and they manage the rest of my life. Some, the younger parts especially, hold some of the memories and emotions from the memories, and work with our therapist to make sense of these. All are hurt by what happened, and all deserve to be listened to and treated with respect. I sometimes say to people ‘if you’re frightened of an alter, you’re frightened of me. They are a part of who I am.’ Sometimes this seems to help people be less afraid. You wouldn’t be scared of a five year old who needs a hug and wants to play my little ponies. Just because this five year old inhabits my body doesn’t mean she’s something to be scared of.

If anyone would like to, you can meet Sammie on this video that she chose to make. She senses the stigma too, and finds it hard – they exist because of scary things that happened to me, they don’t exist for others to be scared of them.  DID affects me daily; I rarely have a day where I don’t dissociate and another alter come out. We have strict boundaries with each other now though, so they don’t come out without asking me first (unless they sense I’m in danger), which means I don’t worry about a little person coming out whilst I’m in a lecture. Boundaries help us to recover from the abuse too; there are no safe boundaries in abuse, they’re all violated. Knowing we are safe enough to have boundaries helps improve our sense of self-respect, and also is a constant reminder of our safety.

For the last year, I have been doing a lot of campaigning about recovering from abuse and living with mental health problems. I want to reach other people who are struggling and validate them, and also encourage them to seek help. I think that hardest part of the abuse for me was actually the secrecy; the overwhelming shame and fear of saying anything, and then the guilt. Abusers simply cannot abuse people if there is no secrecy. Abusers rely on their victims staying silent. If we as a society can remove the stigma and understand enough about abuse and mental health to be a reliable source of support, then we can work to remove the secrecy. We can work to remove the abuser’s tools. We can stop them. It isn’t even hard – we just need society to stop being frightened of the unknown, stop silencing victims and therefore aiding abusers, and instead simply just care enough that victims feel safe enough to speak. It’s in our hands whether the dangerous level of secrecy remains and keeps people trapped. We have more power to help this huge social problem than we realise.

So many abuse victims want to stay silent even after the abuse – I did too. I was so sure nobody would believe me (and indeed some people didn’t, but that was a separate exercise in removing poisonous people from my life!). I was also convinced people would blame me – and that was after the journey of realising the abuse was not normal, and was inherently wrong. If you have been abused I can only urge you to speak, when you are ready. They silenced you for so long, they removed your voice. Don’t let them keep that power. The most empowering thing I have done is find my voice and use it. Yes I met stigma and barriers but I also met compassion and support, validation and care, and the realisation that recovery is possible and that everyone deserves it.

Managing my mental health at University has been hard. Wellbeing have been a great support, and my friends especially have been humble heroes. I see a psychotherapist every week, which is hard and sometimes intense work, but also very healing. I am due to get married to my partner in a year and have plans for my future.

If you’d asked me a year ago if I would be where I am now, I’d have said no. A year ago I wasn’t planning on being alive – I was very ill and suicidal. Now, I am happier than I’ve ever been.

So, please don’t suffer alone. Please trust in your right to humanity and compassion. Please believe in recovery, in your right to it, and trust me when I say the horrible days will be so worth it in the end…

Georgina Lewis

For help and advice on any of the issues discussed in this article, contact Voice, the Wellbeing Centre and Advice Unit here.

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