You learn the most about mental health diagnoses by talking to people who have them, especially those who have lived with symptoms for many years.
I interviewed Ginny, a 50-something-year-old woman who has struggled with, and learned to manage, symptoms of PTSD.
Part of Ginny’s PTSD journey is dealing with the stigma of having a mental health diagnosis. She is eager to share her thoughts on this subject, hoping that it will help to eliminate the public’s fear and misunderstanding of PTSD and other mental illnesses. Ginny also enjoys sharing her experience because it proves that recovery from mental illness is possible.
J. Marshall: Ginny, before learning to manage your PTSD symptoms, how did you experience the stigma of having emotional and mental difficulties?
Ginny: I always knew that I had severe emotional problems and that I was extremely sad from the time I was four-years-old until I was diagnosed at the age of 32 with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD.) Having been born into a strict religious cult and not exposed to the outside world until I was 22 years of age, I felt like I was a freak because I couldn’t relate to anything that people around me were talking about.
When I did get married or get jobs, people would ask me questions about myself, and not having learned discretion at all, I would tell them truthful answers which only served to produce more questions, until they would finally try to slip away and act like they wished they had never talked to me at all! That felt like stigma to me. It felt like I had something so bad inside me that made acquaintances turn away from me and that I might never have friends.
JM: Do you think stigma is less of a problem now than it was say, 15 years ago?
Ginny: Now that I’ve had therapy and give back to the clients at the [mental health treatment] center that helped me so much, I don’t think stigma has improved much at all, due to the fact that the very people who are now in charge of the day treatment program seem to feel they are just babysitting adult people who cannot improve their lives. The clients who are wanting to go forward in their treatment are not getting the coping skills they so desperately need and want.
JM: What symptoms of PTSD were/are the most difficult to live with, and what has helped you learn to manage them?
Ginny: Some of my symptoms that were hard to manage and got me in trouble with coworkers and friends were: dissociating, feeling worthless when I made mistakes (being taught they were sins), being sensitive with sound, never believing the sad would ever go sway, no positive coping skills, a very high startle response, as well as hyper-vigilance.
Some coping skills that have helped me manage these symptoms are: grounding techniques, being taught I have rights, gaining autonomy, using Bose noise cancellation headphones in crowds, restaurants and movies, finding a purpose in life, giving back to others by co-facilitating a NAMI [National Alliance on Mental Illness] support group for people living with a mental illness, and sharing my story with nursing students through NAMI’s In Our Own Voice presentations.
JM: Do you notice any myths or misperceptions about PTSD being generated or perpetuated in the media?
Ginny: I don’t think that the media has done a good job of covering how PTSD can affect a person again and again throughout their lifetime and that it is not usually a one-time event where you go through therapy and you get all better and that’s it. You never know what triggers can bring back flashbacks and nightmares in an instant and sometimes it takes an up and down hill battle to deal with the effects of PTSD.
JM: When we spoke prior to this interview, you mentioned that PTSD in the veteran community is getting most of the attention these days. Do you want to comment on that?
Ginny: I do think that childhood physical/sexual/emotional abuse and neglect has been pushed to the background with all the veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan during this past decade. The government suddenly found money to fund websites and time to fund research into PTSD for veterans, even though it has existed for years! Those of us who suffered severe abuse have been neglected by the system, as well as our abusers, it feels like sometimes. People and the media only seem to think of veterans when they think of PTSD and that is sad.
JM: What would you like to tell people who are just beginning their journey of recovery with PTSD?
Ginny: If you have just found out that you have the diagnosis of PTSD, please know that recovery is a process and be very gentle and forgiving with yourself. None of it was your fault. You had no control over how it came to be, whether you were a child who was emotionally, physically or sexually abused or neglected, or if you witnessed a horrific event, or if you were a soldier in some war. It’s not your fault! Try to get professional help, if at all possible. You are worth it!
“You are lovable and a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars!” ~ Desiderata
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