I sleep fully clothed every night.
My PTSD tells me that I might be awakened out of the blue and have to fight or run at any second. I’m able to fall asleep just fine, but in the late hours, I’m awake again. Trying to go back to bed is useless because I feel the first signs of my panic disorder. Instead, I check all the doors to make sure they’re locked, even though I know I locked them last night. Sometimes I try to read and settle down, but my pounding heart always gives me away.
I’ve lived nearly an entire life with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) stemming from both my childhood and adult years. I feel like I’m weird, not just because I sleep in my clothes but for other reasons, too. I also lock the door when I’m in the shower, terrified that somebody will slam open the door and yell at me when I’m completely exposed. Of course, this is not something I have to worry about in my current house, but I’m still so afraid of it that I lock my own family out the entire time.
These aren’t like superstitions, although I have a couple of those, too. When boarding an airplane, I instinctively touch the outside of the plane before I go inside. That’s a big difference from PTSD because I do it for good luck. PTSD makes me scared all the time. I worry that somebody is going to attack me in some way every time I leave the house. It hasn’t actually happened, but it’s hard to shake the need to protect myself. If I lived in a giant bubble that no one could touch, I’d be the happiest woman in the world.
I used to think PTSD only happened to wartime soldiers who experienced such brutality that they were never the same again. Frankly, when my doctor gave me the PTSD diagnosis, I remember feeling guilty. How could I compare myself to a war hero or think I was on their level at all? Then I realized the connection. We’d both suffered abuse at somebody’s deliberate hand or witnessed abuse happening to somebody else. We weren’t so different after all.
As a young girl, I looked numb on the outside while my insides were on fire with red-hot anxiety all the time. The anxiety kept me from playing with my friends out in the yard and relaxing in my own home. TV became my friend, especially sitcoms like Good Times and The Flying Nun, where all bad things were solved in half an hour. It seemed impossible because bad things left invisible scars on me, but the characters seemed fine by the end of the show.
I hated loud noises. I didn’t like bright flashes or surprise parties. Being an extra-sensitive person, I was desperate to know everything before it happened. One day recently, a boy who was selling something came to our door. I pointed out the window at him and mouthed “no thank you.” The fact that COVID-19 was all over our city and this boy showed up without a mask was too much to handle. He tried to talk to me from the window, but I couldn’t understand him, so I just waved goodbye. I watched him walk away to make sure he wasn’t coming back.
What followed was a panic attack that lasted the entire rest of the day. Nothing in my medicine cabinet would take down the level of anxiety, so I sat in a chair and tried to breathe through it. Absolutely nothing got done that day because I felt safer in that chair. Anything else seemed too scary, even taking a shower. I even resented the boy who knocked on my door in a pandemic as if it was nothing.
I like to think I’ve gone through some healing. The worst of the PTSD vanished after I wrote a book about my abusive ex-husband. I was finally able to look at our relationship objectively rather than from the middle of it. I was lucky to get away from him, and I published the book because I wanted other women to discover they had a way out, too. Still, there are some things I haven’t forgotten, which are the main source of my PTSD.
I still sleep with clothes on because my ex used to wake me up at all different times of night when he was manic or wanted to yell at me. There were times when it worked out better for me to just be able to grab my things and leave. The sad part was that I kept going back at least seven times before I got it right. My ex often accosted me in the shower, too, picking the exact time I was most vulnerable to scream at me about something I should have known about. Part of my healing is being able to actually get in the shower now without panicking, even if I still lock the door. It’s progress, not perfection.
Before there was a medical diagnosis for it, I developed severe anxiety disorder at the age of ten. My home life was chaotic with a mentally ill mother and a father who was so checked out, he didn’t know what I’d been going through. I liked to think he would do something if he knew, like swooping me away from my mom where she couldn’t physically or emotionally hurt me. It didn’t occur to me then that he knew about the abuse the whole time.
I have a great therapist who has been helping with my PTSD. My medications work fairly well, but I knew that unless I dealt with the issues that made me so anxious in the first place, I’d be stuck with the PTSD symptoms forever. She made it safe to let go of them and proved things could get better when I did. Now, when I start to worry or “what if” myself, I’m more careful to catch those thoughts and release them. Just like the past, they don’t serve me anymore.
I don’t think I’ll be buying pajamas anytime soon. It still feels like I have to be on my guard with everything, whether that’s true or not. It’s awful when our minds betray us, staying on the same loop over and over again. I don’t like to think of a part of my body, especially my brain, being permanently damaged in that way. I try to be gentle with myself and not so unforgiving. When I began to believe the illness wasn’t my fault, I was able to start moving past it and do other things in my life. The scars are still there, but they have faded.
Both of my abusers have died in the last few years. I didn’t reconcile with either one of them before their deaths, knowing they were not good for me. I wished so many things had been different and I’d had a loving mother and husband. I opened up and started talking more about my symptoms to whoever would listen, whether they asked me or not. It was my version of “fake it until you make it.” My plan was to will myself back into existence.
For the most part, I’m back now. I still have bad breakthrough anxiety, but with medication and therapy, it’s not as severe as it used to be. I push aside memories of horrible times and instead scroll occasionally on the internet for some cute pajamas. I’m not sure I’ll be able to wear them yet, but time takes time.