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My Experience: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Even writing this is extremely hard. The old me used to love writing – words just seemed to flow naturally to her. Once she picked up that pen, she was gone, the ink tracing out every cursive letter, letting her thoughts run wild so beautifully.  Now I don’t even remember that girl. She was golden, she had a charming spark about her – but me? I kind of look like her, but that’s about it.

Allow me to return to September 2017. I was living the dream. I’d done the impossible; I’d gotten my coveted 600 points in my Leaving Cert, had the most incredible summer of my life and was gleefully anticipating commencing my perfect course of Law and Political Science in Trinity. I was riding that monstrous tidal wave, laughing all the way. I was happy, confident and going to college; now everything would fall neatly into place, happily ever after.

The little lump inside my mouth didn’t look threatening. But despite all the antibiotics, medications and examinations, it refused to fade away. So on September 14, when all other Trinity Hall residents were excitedly packing and preparing to leave home and venture into the amazing word of college, I was stretched out on an operating table in the Mater hospital, having a tissue sample extracted from my mouth. I was told there was nothing to worry about. The doctors too, were wrong.

On my first official day of college, I was scheduled to meet my senior tutor in college at 11 am. But first, at 9.30am, after a wild night of partying, I arrived at my consultant’s office, anxiously awaiting the biopsy results. But it wasn’t my doctor, it was a different man. “My name is Doctor Moran,” he stated, “I’m the resident oncologist here.”

Oncologist.
Cancer.

The world stopped for a moment, and I was static. The clocks stopped ticking, and I could hear the blood instantly freezing inside my veins. It was like an outer-body experience; floating in limbo. Nothing seemed real. Cancer? How could I have cancer? I was still in this nightmare as I returned to college, still largely in shock. It was only when I had introduced myself to my senior tutor that reality finally struck me, and I immediately exploded into a flood of tears.

For the next few days, I lived a double life, flitting between hospital and lecture theatre. One moment, I was partying hard with my friends; the next I was trapped inside the tunnel for an MRI scan, desperately quelling my claustrophobic proclivity. On October 1, at 5.45am, the sky pitch black, I arrived back to the Mater hospital. I don’t remember much from the surgery since I was doped up on morphine to ease the pain. The whole morning is a dark blur in my memory.

But the hard part wasn’t the surgery. I wish somebody had informed me of this beforehand.

The operation was the easy part – thankfully, everything went well, and the terrifying monster living inside me had been fully removed. But what I didn’t realise was that the entirety of my hard palette had been removed – basically meaning I had no roof to my mouth anymore. Waking up groggily, hooked up to a nasogastric tube, I opened my mouth eagerly to speak to my anxious parents, when only a muffled, faint noise escaped. Intelligible. Completely incoherent.

My mouth would partially heal, but I would be due for reconstructive surgery in June. Despite this, things didn’t get any easier. It’s hard enough to start college all alone, trying to make new friends and make a life for yourself here. Imagine doing it without a voice.

Listening to people say, “I’m sorry, what”? a thousand times over, on an incessant loop, quickly becomes extremely disheartening. I had so many thoughts, so many things I wanted to say to people – and they couldn’t hear me. I’d often think, and quite angrily, why aren’t you listening to me? I know it wasn’t anyone’s fault that they couldn’t understand me. But somehow, I couldn’t captivate people’s attention. I’d never been so crestfallen in my life.

My first problem was the weight gain. After surviving on steroids, I’d ballooned outwards, piling on the pounds while subsisting on a liquid dairy diet for a month. And my sleeping pattern became unpredictable- some nights it was impossible to sleep, staying up at unholy hours, tapping away furiously on my laptop. On the other hand, there were other days when I couldn’t rouse myself to get out of bed, I was that exhausted.

I was like the anti-Duracell Bunny. Things that used to interest me, like watching the news or reading my favourite Stephen King novels seemed pointless. Even holding up the book was too much of an effort. And it could physically hurt too. I often find myself in need of a power nap, just to get through the readings. Despite all the high-protein and voodoo-magic power diets, nothing seemed to be working. I lusted after that lightning bolt of energy that used to animate me but to no avail.

Another strange side-effect was my aversion to certain places. I couldn’t face going back home. Home was where the cancer had been born. Home was where I was still that sick little girl fearing for her life.The very memory of it makes my throat dry. Since then, the fear has decreased, and I have learned to love my home again, but there is an undying niggling sense, arming me to fight or flee at a moment’s notice. I get the same deja-vu whenever I pass by the Mater hospital – I always find myself walking past it at a more rapid pace than usual, scurrying past in a fury.

But my confidence was the worst part. When I was in full possession of my voice, nothing had terrified me. Yet post-operation, I morphed from a lioness to a frail, weak kitten. I felt like I was drowned out by my incredibly smart and talented friends. And I found myself constantly comparing myself to them. It was a vicious never-ending cycle – I’d mentally kick myself when I couldn’t be funny or witty like the others, or groan in frustration when I couldn’t counter their heated debates. It was impossible to catch up. And that left me feeling very, very deflated like I was drowning and I couldn’t save myself from sinking.

I realised something was wrong when I started having the panic attacks. Sometimes they were triggered by certain events, other times they happened for no reason at all. They were preceded by a killer headache. My heart would start beating furiously, so vigorously that I’d find myself unable to catch my breath. Doubling over, I’d start wheezing and crying, unable to stop. Sometimes I was convinced I was re-living the cancer. I’d ring home, blubbering about having all the symptoms of spinal cancer, and that I needed to go to a hospital right then. Every ache, every little jabbing pain made me fear for my life. One time it even happened amidst a lecture. I had to bolt for the door, heaving a sigh of relief when I had broken free. Another day I was scheduled to compete in a debate; I should have known it was too soon. That morning, I was wheezing and crying in my bedroom, roaring down the phone to my parents that there was no way in Hell that I could possibly debate in this state – I was panicking too much, gasping frantically for air. I couldn’t focus. The fear was controlling me.

It was then that I realised that I needed help. It turns out I’ve been suffering from PTSD- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In all honesty, I was shocked by this diagnosis – when you envision PTSD, the mind immediately goes to war veterans, not teenage college girls.

For those of you who have sat any school leaving exam, you know their stress and mental strain – and you also know the massive deflation that comes once they have finished. Now imagine that amplified a billion times – that is what my PTSD is like. I had been through a terrifying, scarring experience, something that nobody my age should have to experience, and for months my body had been fuelled by high-wire-tension adrenalin, the primitive fight-or-flight response. Only now am I feeling the ramifications as I slide down from this awful high.

But it isn’t all darkness. My advice to anyone who thinks they may be suffering from PTSD, is to talk to a health professional. Once you do, I can assure you, that weight resting on your shoulders will instantaneously be lifted. Be completely honest, and don’t be afraid to also confide in someone close. I am blessed to have my own super-stellar network of family and friends, who are there for me every step of the way. You wouldn’t believe how much even a hug or a simple smile can change your day. And remember that it’s ok to be a little bit self-focused sometimes. We all need to step back to move forward sometimes.

Be kind on yourself – these traumas aren’t your fault, and it took me a long time to stop blaming myself and to forgive myself. Start by doing something you love. I’m in a much better place now, much happier, more outgoing, and learning to laugh unapologetically again. I’m preparing to become the architect of my life once more. That’s why I’ve started writing again- for catharsis. Maybe in these words, somewhere, I’ll find that girl again, the girl who wrote not with ink but with fire.

And I know I’ll become that girl again. One day.

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