When people hear the term “post-traumatic stress disorder” or “PTSD,” what do they usually picture in their heads? The majority of people typically think of combat veterans who suffer at home with the memories of war. Others might think of survivors of major earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. While these types of survivors certainly can develop this condition, there is one group of people that seems to be forgotten about and yet make up a significant portion of PTSD sufferers. This is the group I belong to.
I have always been an extroverted person. As a child, I was a chatterbox and always liked to greet people with a big hug. Growing up as an only child, especially one with older parents who had no friends with children around my age, this means I was also often lonely. I realize now that I must have seemed like I was trying too hard to make friends because of the fact that I spent my weekends and afternoons after school pretending my stuffed animals were real friends. When I was in the fifth grade, I applied to a private, all-girls middle and high school, hoping to meet other intellectuals and find a sisterhood.
By the time I graduated high school, I had experienced physical bullying, verbal bullying, relational bullying, cyberbullying, and sexual bullying. I had been bullied for various reasons–because I was innocent, gullible, liked unicorns, spoke Spanish, was not as wealthy as my peers, had a learning disability, had severe test anxiety (I had a scholarship and was deathly afraid of losing the aid), had a big nose, and so many other reasons. I graduated with zero friends in my class.
Going through those seven years, I lost who I was. I operated on survival mode. I felt (and probably seemed) awkward in my own skin, especially after the sexual bullying. My optimism for life disappeared. I also started getting sick more often, catching more colds, stomach viruses, and other illnesses than ever before.
Unbeknownst to me, I was also developing a mental illness. The daily stress elevated my anxiety level as well as spurred me into a depression. I started having nightmares every night and even cried in my sleep. I experienced panic attacks and flashbacks of previous bullying incidents. I had recurring thoughts of running away or killing myself. I was living with the beginning of undiagnosed PTSD while still in my triggering environment.
There needs to be more awareness that everyday civilians can develop PTSD, such as people who have experienced abuse of any kind. School classes that touch upon mental illness need to include updated information on PTSD, so that anyone listening who fits the symptoms can get the help they need. Society needs to understand that PTSD can be just as debilitating and life-altering as any major chronic physical illness. Yet, there is hope for recovery.
Along with the right combination of therapy and medication, my imagination helped me through this difficult time. I often drew back into myself and escaped into a different world, filled with heroes, magic, and love. I wrote many short stories but never tried to publish them, because I wanted something that was my own and not used or twisted by my bullies. I wrote poetry and performed under pseudonyms at open mics. Daydreaming and writing helped me when I was stuck in a classroom full of triggers.
I continue to write stories and poetry today, and I hope to have a career involving this artistic side of myself. In addition, I am now a public speaker and share my story, as well as my research, on bullying. While PTSD can slow me down, I refuse to succumb to the weight of my past. I am neither defined by my past nor by this illness. I am a survivor, not a victim.