Running through life with PTSD
By Taylor Sexton • Contributing writer | I was 5 years old when I watched my father’s fist fly into the wall next to my mother’s head. I remember how the little bear figurines on the wall crashed to the floor with the shelf that held them. I remember picking up the broken pieces from the white carpet with my mother and staring into her pained, tear-stained face.
It’s one of the earliest memories I have, but I only just recently remembered it. It was locked away deep within my subconscious, so imagine my surprise when the scene popped back up 13 years later in the form of nightmares, haunting me night after night.
I’d struggled with anxiety and depression since I was 10, but the nightmares, memories and constant fear I felt were entirely new to me. It took the psychiatrist less than an hour to diagnose me with post-traumatic stress disorder.
My heart plummeted to my stomach when she said the words. My hands froze, no longer picking at the beige couch sitting across from her large wooden desk. Everything began to fall into place; why nobody could touch me, why I couldn’t have a normal relationship, why I found myself constantly searching for an exit, why I wanted to vomit whenever men got just a tad too close to me, even if it wasn’t on purpose. Why I had gotten no more than three hours of sleep a night for the last year. Those words were an answer and a curse wrapped up in a pretty orange prescription bottle and white pill.
I felt as if the lavender essential oils in the small, tan office were going to choke me. I couldn’t help but wonder how I had managed to find myself in this situation.
My parents separated shortly after the incident, and things only got worse. Changing locks to their once shared home didn’t keep my father from trifling around the property. My mother decided the best thing to do for herself and me was to pack us up and move six hours away from his cold grip.
The courts ruled I had to see him every other weekend. I had always been a calm, quiet child. But when it was time to go see him, I would scream and cry for hours. My mom later told me how she cried the whole way home after leaving me with him. When I came back to her, she said, it took me days to go back to the happy-go-lucky, carefree child I truly was. The child I should have always been.
I don’t remember the tantrums, but I do remember the dark apartment I would be trapped in for two days, twice a month. I had no friends in our neighborhood, because he wouldn’t let me leave the house. I was under his control, and if I did one thing out of line, I was met with an onslaught of cold, calculated verbal abuse. He only stopped when I was shaking and sobbing to the point I couldn’t breathe. I was a 6-year-old having panic attacks.
Sometimes I would think those moments were a dream, because he would be so nice to me for the rest of the day. I was convinced I had imagined it, but the exhaustion that clung to my tiny, still-growing bones, was my reminder. That and the beer bottles littering the counters.
The bi-monthly visits stopped when I was 15, and he caged me against the wall like he had done to my mother 10 years before, slamming his fist next to my face. My mom came that same day to pick me up for the last time.
When I was 8, my mother remarried. I thought he was a nice man, and he had two daughters, which meant I would finally have older sisters, something I had always wanted. I thought this was the turning point, that I wouldn’t be so alone anymore.
Boy, was I wrong.
My stepsisters did their best to reduce me to nothing, telling me that my Southern accent made me no better than trailer park trash, that I was nothing more than another mouth to feed and would never amount to anything. They got rough with me, shoving or tripping me as I walked down the stairs or holding my head underwater when we played in the pool. My stepdad just turned a blind eye.
Thankfully, my mother divorced that horrible man, but the damage was done. It wasn’t until junior year of high school, when I found myself clutching an orange prescription bottle in one hand and an entire handful of Zoloft in the other with tears in my eyes, that I realized I needed help.
I went to therapy, got on a better medication and was accepted to my first-choice college. Life seemed to be turning around.
Until freshman year of college. I met a young man who looked at me like I put the stars in the sky, or so I thought. In reality, he saw me as an object. No matter how hard I tried to steer the conversation in a different direction, or distract him with a movie, I found myself where I didn’t want to be. I eventually broke up with him, but even now, three years later, I still want to crawl out of my body when I see him, or think I see him.
After the breakup, I smoked a lot of weed and drank a lot of cheap vodka nearly every night. I just wanted some sleep and peace. So what if I found it at the bottom of a bottle or rolled up in pretty pink paper stuffed with green? It was fine.
Until it wasn’t. I never hated myself more than in those moments between intoxicated consciousness and sleep, so I went back to my therapist when I got home for the summer. I didn’t bring up what had happened to me freshman year, but it’s as if she could read my mind, because she looked at me with soft eyes — not pity, just understanding.
“What happened to you isn’t your fault,” she said. “You deserve to get better. You deserve happiness.”
She’s right. I did. I do.
Taylor Sexton with her editorial staff for UNC Asheville’s student newspaper, The Blue Banner, who have proved to be her support system throughout the year. Donated photo
I’ve been living with PTSD for a large portion of my life, though I’ve only had the diagnosis for a year.
I don’t really know how to explain what it’s like living with PTSD.
Imagine running up a mountain with all your might, your body aching for rest and lungs gasping for air. You’re so tired, but you can’t stop because there’s a darkness chasing you, and all you know is that you cannot allow it to catch up. You know once you get to the top, the darkness can’t get you anymore because that’s where the sun is, and you can finally take a breath and rest. You’re so close to the top of the mountain, you can almost feel the sun on your skin, but all of a sudden the peak moves further away from you. You mourn, but have no choice but to keep going.
That’s what PTSD feels like.
I never know what will set me off. Sometimes it’s someone’s tone of voice, the way they speak to me, or their appearance, reminding me of my father or ex-stepfamily. Even a simple, accidental bump from a student rushing to class can cause my brain to scatter, and I’m left sitting on the pink-tiled bathroom floor for an hour trying to pull it together.
I’m always on edge when I’m in public, and I don’t allow a lot of people into my life. Although I’m definitely functioning better than before I was diagnosed, I can’t get rid of the tenseness drilled into my shoulders, except for when I’m at home.
I know I’ll never be normal, but I do know I can be happy. I feel happiness and peace when I’m surrounded by my friends who truly care about me and want the best for me. I feel it when I’m writing an article I’m really passionate about, or when I’m laying out the school newspaper on Sunday with the people I care about. I feel it when my little cousin looks up at me with her hopeful, bright blue eyes and tells me she loves me. I feel it when my mom pulls me into her embrace and ruffles my hair, the smell of her perfume engulfing me and putting my racing heart at ease. I feel it when the smell of my grandmother’s cooking fills the room. I feel it in little moments too, like seeing a dog on the street or reading a book or drinking coffee in the morning or the smell after the rain.
I think the moments where I don’t feel afraid are the ones that keep me going. They are the ones I keep living for. I refuse to let the demons of my past to haunt me forever. If there’s one thing I know for certain, it’s that I am a stubborn woman, and once I put my mind to something, I will do anything to get to the end goal. I am resilient, and I will keep trying, no matter how many times I fail.
Taylor Sexton is a senior journalism student at the University of North Carolina Asheville. Editor-in-chief of UNCA’s student newspaper, The Blue Banner, Sexton completed these articles as part of a capstone enterprise reporting class.