I used to tell myself, “It’s fine.” But then I presented a project that triggered difficult memories. I now realize I have to overcome PTSD.
(Photo courtesy of Kasey Ingerson)
“It’s fine. Everything’s going to be fine!”
I’ve said that a lot. I’ve always been a happy and optimistic person. I was the “golden child,” the only child who went to a private high school, achieved high grades, was a determined dancer and actress, was perfectly behaved.
They said it was a miracle and that my mom finally “did something right” with birthing me.
So how could I NOT be fine and ruin all of that?
Recently some things have made me realize that, no, I’m not fine. Through research, reaching out to friends and speaking with a counselor, I am starting to navigate feelings and experiences I’ve been battling my entire life.
I started to question how “fine” I really was after presenting my final photography project about suicide and depression to my teacher and classmates.
My classmates asked me why I had decided to base my project on such a heavy topic when I was a cheerful and optimistic person. I chuckled and smiled at them, not wanting to reveal the reason for my decisions. I was dedicating this project to my sister and wanted every photo to be perfectly crafted and my love to be present in every grain of the photo paper.
I felt as though I was reliving the events.
I presented my project on a Saturday morning in the fall. As I sat waiting to present I shook slightly as anxiety rushed through my body. When I stood up to speak, my voice wavered. I began my sister’s story by describing the photos. I felt as though I was reliving the events.
There is sweat on my neck that night. I am about 12 years old and have fallen asleep on the couch. I wake up to two cops leaving through the kitchen door. It’s dark outside. I don’t remember what happened next, but in the morning my mother tells me how the police were banging on our doors and windows because they had received a call that someone was going to try and kill themselves.
My next memory: I’m rummaging through drawers, standing on a chair to look on top of the microwave, walking to my mother’s room to ask where she put the razors. I want to use one in the shower. My mother tells me she is worried my sister might find one and hurt herself. My mother had hidden all of our family’s medication, and she would quickly shut the drawer when she heard my sister’s footsteps.
I’m sitting at my kitchen table when my sister runs into the bathroom, shuts and locks the door. She refuses to open the door. Twenty minutes later, an ambulance and cop car come barreling up the driveway. They break down the bathroom door and drag my sister out, asking how many pills she had swallowed. She is taken to the ambulance, and I’m taken to dance class.
As I presented my photo project, I did not notice I was crying until my nose started running and I could no longer see through the tears.
PTSD involves pain and stress.
The next time I suspected I was not “fine” was when I was scrolling through my feed and saw a clip of a movie set in the waiting room of a prison, the area where visitors wait before seeing loved ones in jail.
The clip showed an almost empty room, with familiar, hard, connected chairs in rows. Watching the clip, I drop my phone and begin to breathe quickly. I feel light headed and ask myself, ”What’s happening?” I rock back and forth and tear up. I cannot control my emotions or my body.
Then, scenes from eight years before start flashing through my mind: Cops knocking on our second-floor apartment door looking for my brother; falling asleep after staying up late on the last night we spent together; eating ice cream before visiting hours; talking into the metal-wired “telephone” when I wished I could smash the glass between us, so I could touch his fingertips.
What made me feel worse? The video or my reaction to the video?
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition triggered by a terrifying event. It involves pain and stress that are imprinted into your brain, provoking flashbacks and anxiety. Stress hormones such as adrenaline can stop the brain from working properly. If trauma is not processed, flashbacks and nightmares can ensue.
I’ve been experiencing some of the symptoms of PTSD — unwanted memories, flashbacks, panic attacks. Feeling disengaged from my life. Listening to music to feel some kind of emotion, but physically feeling completely numb. Napping and never wanting to get out of bed.
Guess what? I’m not okay.
Around the age of seven or eight I write in a notebook, “I just want to die. I see no point, I can’t feel anything, and I don’t want this anymore.” I show the words to my mother, and she strokes and holds me.
That was the first and last time I had opened up about those feelings to my mother.
My parents, whom I love dearly, always tried to comfort me with the phrases, “It’s okay,” and “Don’t cry,” because they wanted me to know things would be alright and did not want to see me upset.
But this wired my brain to label things that were NOT okay as “fine” and to put off reckoning with issues. I was thankful this attitude had made me more optimistic, yet now I question myself and every “I’m fine” I’ve said.
Am I really fine? Because guess what? I’m not okay.
According to the writer Sabrina Joy Stevens, being taught to say “It’s okay” as a coping mechanism in adolescence has multiple, long-lasting effects. It’s confusing to take something traumatic and label it the opposite. It confused me — I could not trust my own emotions. I believed I was overreacting and wrong, and felt shame and disappointment. I was unable to express my emotions towards something hurting me.
According to the Royal College Psychiatrists, after experiencing a traumatic event or events, one feels shock that it has happened, numbness and detachment, or denies the event has occurred.
Later on you may feel angry about it or at the instigator; frightened that it might reoccur; upset or depressed; embarrassed of what happened or that you may need help navigating uncharted feelings; hopeful it will not happen again and that you lived through it.
Experiencing trauma is never, ever your fault.
Through research and speaking with a counselor, I’ve started to learn how to heal my trauma.
I’ve learned it’s important to spend time alone or with a few people close to you. To take a breather. To reflect and come to terms with your emotions. To grieve. To continue your daily routine. To release emotions by talking with a loved one or a professional. To reach out to those who have had similar experiences to find support and understanding.
I realize that every “It’s fine” and “I’m okay” was a hoax. It was my way of putting off difficult emotions. By avoiding pain and trauma, I increased the burden that ultimately caused me to break down. I robbed myself of the ability to work through my emotions, to learn about and to love myself. All the depressed and helpless feelings made me ashamed.
I had lost myself. Or had I ever really known myself in the first place?
Now that I have addressed my trauma, feelings in the back of my head have flooded like a tidal wave to the front — to now. Throughout this work, I have never felt better. Coming to terms with the emotions instead of ignoring them loosened a strain on my mind, and I can start feeling free.
I’m still navigating my way. How to go through each day when feeling depressed. How to stop saying “I’m fine.” To learn what I am like when I’m honestly me. What I am like when I’m not ashamed of being human.
Because you know what? I want to know!
Experiencing trauma is never, ever your fault. Your pain is NOT insignificant, and there is NOTHING wrong with feeling pain or finding help. How can you carry on if you lose yourself? Repressing trauma is not the answer as it only makes the hole bigger.
As author Michelle Rosenthal wrote: “Trauma creates change you don’t choose. Healing creates change you do choose.”
Kasey Ingerson comes from Watertown, Connecticut, and is in her second-to-last year at the Westover School. She enjoys dancing and musical theater. “I wrote this essay during a time when I was struggling with my emotions and with PTSD. I hope the essay finds its way to anyone who feels alone.”