I guess I should have seen it coming. After all, I’d joked about having post traumatic stress disorder for years. Sure, Britney’s 2007 VMA caused me PTSD and so did looking for customer service at any Home Depot. And who on Earth wasn’t still reeling from a light mist of PTSD caused by the political events of 2016? Deeper still, I always knew on some level that the violent and hard to process events from childhood and my years drinking and using left some lasting impression. Nevertheless, I was still shocked when I saw it in black and white from my insurance company: PTSD.
In an email too mundane and too boring to be explained, I was checking my billing from my therapist. There was a discretion on my copay. (See? I told you this was snoozeville.) In a rare moment of adulthood, I decided to get to the bottom things, because mysteries of confusing copays are the kind of thing everybody is dying to see how they turn out. As I can sense that you are deeply concerned and invested, I will say what I thought was a my higher copay turned out to be lower, working in my favor and causing me to get four free therapy sessions. Score one for the crazy people. But an odd little line in my detective work stood out to me. It simply read, “Treatment for: PTSD.”
Like I said, you don’t go through the things that a person like me has gone through and not anticipate some collateral damage. Drunken fights, being robbed at gunpoint, being evicted, being bullied and the daily chaos of growing up in an alcoholic home all qualify me for some gold level PTSD membership so I don’t know why I was surprised. When relaying my diagnosis to a friend their response was a kinder version of, “Well, duh.” Duh, indeed but seeing it in print (and by print I mean on my computer. There was no mid-nineties faxing going on to make the PTSD even worse.) made it more real. Much like when I sat down in a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous and “My name is Sean and I’m an alcoholic” just blurted out of my mouth this was at once a surprise and a total relief. Yet it was undoubtedly the truth and therefore could not be taken back. This throw away labeling from an insurance company felt much the same way.
The thing about knowing what you have is you can’t un-know it. Of course, you can ignore it or deny it or soak it tequila for 20 years and hope it goes away but you still know that have it, whatever your “it” may be. In a roundabout way, like I said, I’ve always known that PTSD was just a mere thread of rich tapestry that is my mental health. Likewise, when a flood of traumatic feelings showed up on doorstep last summer I knew something had to be done and that’s how I wound up at my therapist’s office in December. Yeah something had to be done but I’m alcoholic and a middle child so I can sit uncomfortably until I turn into a Jello mold of unprocessed emotions. Thus it took me a few months of crying in the shower before I did anything about it.
My therapist’s office is in the top floor of a charming old blue Victorian house, down the street from a taxi dispatch, near downtown Portland. The inside looks a little like Mork and Mindy’s apartment, if that reference means anything to anyone. The point is it’s comfy and cozy and a perfect setting to hand over my lower pay and cry to a virtual stranger for an hour. while treating this thing that is officially called PTSD but I just knew fucked me up, we’ve done a lot of work. Work like talking, revisiting and decoding old terrifying incidents. It isn’t work in the sense of working in a coal mine but I can’t say that wouldn’t be preferable. Heartbreaking, exhausting and ultimately liberating, this work we do is mainly just me struggling to tell the truth instead of trying to say witty things to get my therapist to be my best friend. See, in addition to PTSD, we’re working on my whole obsessed with approval issue. He doesn’t offer me pat solutions. He just asks questions and hopefully leads me to a place of clarity around these traumatic events. He’s so good at his job though, I hardly realize he’s doing it. We just have engaging conversations and even laugh and it isn’t until I’m walking home that I realize what we’ve uncovered, what we’ve solved and what we’ve conquered. I told you he was good.
Another thing that catapulted me into his office was my job. As a mental health and addictions peer support specialist, I often see new traumatic events and walk into high stress situations on a daily basis. New to the field, I figured out fast that I could in no way process what I see at work all by myself. One thing pounded into my head as a sober alcoholic is to not be afraid to ask for help. A late night Google session and several referrals later, I found my therapist and fought against my instincts to stay miserable. Just like my first AA meeting, I resisted. I drug my feet making the appointment and had to give myself daily pep talks the week leading up to my first visit. But without being dramatic I can say, it’s changed my whole life.
Addressing my PTSD head on has flipped on a power switch inside of me that I didn’t even knew I had, much less knew it could be activated. According to medical types, PTSD sufferers like myself have a baseline of agitation, irritability, hostility, self-destructive behavior, or social isolation paired with other mental health delights like flashbacks, severe anxiety, mistrust and good old fear. People like me and millions of others found drugs and alcohol to be an excellent solvent to numb out these shitty symptoms and it worked– until it didn’t. Now, however, I’m able to look at these events and things not feel haunted or devastated by them. Armed with a ton of support, there’s no story too scary, no memory too hard to process that I can’t look at. I will say that it took me nine years sober to really feel stable enough to dig deeper into my past. Therefore, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you really feel ready.
Days after that “exciting” email, the label sat there and I eventually slid into it. Like being a gay man with addiction, alcoholism and HIV, PTSD is another I have and another I get to overcome. What’s more is maybe having the official diagnosis of PTSD will help me help others like me while helping me feel connected? Which brings me to this: if you have PTSD and you’re being treated for it, I love you. If you are living with someone suffering from it, I love you. If you have PTSD but can’t bear to look at it yet, I get it and I love you too. I will say with all sincerity, it really isn’t the worst label I’ve ever had, even if it did show up in a lame insurance email.