On Friday, July 15th, my hometown newspaper, The Oregonian, published an essay titled “It’s time for us to talk openly and end the stigma.”  This essay was written by Cindy Becker, the director of Clackamas County Health, Housing, and Human Services, and the topic of the article is the necessity for removing the stigma surrounding addictions and mental illness. 

Ms. Becker’s main point appears to be that, in her words, “The only way we can break down the stigma around mental illness and addictions is to learn about it, to reach out to others and to talk about it.”  If we can do this, she contends, then the people who need help will be more likely to ask for help, and the people who are not struggling with mental illness and addictions will be more supportive and more helpful to those in need of help.  Toward the goal of combating this stigma, Clackamas County has launched a campaign called Open Minds Open Doors, an effort to educate people in the community regarding these issues and also to create a climate in which people who have addictions and mental illness will feel they can ask for help.  If you want to read more about this campaign, here is the site address:  http://www.openmindsanddoors.com/

I read Ms. Becker’s essay with interest, wondering where I fit into the scheme of things.  Am I mentally ill?  I’ve never thought of myself as being mentally ill, but the fact is that I am presently being treated for “prolonged PTSD,” my official diagnosis.  And PTSD is certainly included in the DSM.  And no doubt about it, flashbacks, dissociation, emotional numbing, free floating anxiety, derealization, depersonalization, and other symptoms have certainly plagued my life since early childhood, these symptoms being exacerbated by twenty years of living in domestic violence.  But I have never considered myself mentally ill.  Why?  Probably because I have continued to function well despite the symptoms.
 
However, I have always been aware that my inner life has been turbulent at times, especially at the times when I have found myself feeling spacey for days or wondering whether I am living in the real world or living in a carnival fun house where all images appear distorted and peculiar.  And then there have been the seemingly random flashbacks and the odd emotional numbing that I have lived with but have never understood.  Despite this, however, I have never considered myself to be handicapped by my PTSD symptoms.  When one of the above symptoms intruded itself into my conscious mind, I acknowledged it, wondered if I was “crazy,” worried a bit, but then shrugged my shoulders and forged ahead with life.  I tried not to let the weird goings-on in my head slow me down.  The slogan that kept the British afloat during Hitler’s bombing raids served to keep me afloat, also:  Keep calm and carry on. 

The fact is that I didn’t know I even had PTSD until I was in my late fifties, and even then, I gave the notion short shrift because I was working to earn a living as a writing teacher and had no time to deal with PTSD symptoms.  I had lived with them for as long as I could remember, so I could continue to live with them as long as I was able to ignore them and put them in a box in my mind labeled “to deal with later.” 

Well, now is “later,” and now, after having some horrendous flashbacks and dissociative episodes that sent me reeling, I am in therapy and am getting some relief for my symptoms.  And now I wish I had done something a long time ago to get this relief. Since my symptoms have decreased, I have become more aware of their impact on my life, and I feel as if I’m looking into a deep, dark well of lost time and lost opportunities. I know now that despite the episodes of dissociation and depersonalization, and despite the fog that sometimes still descends upon me and clouds my perception of the world beyond my own mind, and despite all other lingering symptoms of PTSD, I have an efficient brain and an intact mind.  I am intelligent, and I am quite capable of functioning effectively at whatever I choose to do.  However, I am now seventy-two years old and am not able to revisit my youth and apply what I have learned since I have started getting help for trauma damage.  I can, however, make this last part of my life different, better, as free as possible from the chains of PTSD.  That I can and will continue to do!

So why didn’t I get help for my PTSD a long time ago?  Fear and ignorance! Oh, for the past thirty years I have seen no fewer than sixteen therapists, but I have steered clear of psychologists, for the most part, because I was afraid of them.  My first therapist was an MSW, and she saved my life at a time when saving my life was the most urgent task.  Later, when I sensed I needed help, I saw social workers or counselors, most of whom were supportive and helpful in some respects but none of whom really seemed to focus on my PTSD symptoms.  Of course, they didn’t focus on my PTSD because I didn’t tell them a lot about my symptoms; I was afraid to tell them.

Now that I have educated myself somewhat and am seeing a psychologist who is skilled in treating PTSD and trauma damage, I realize that my fear of psychologists was groundless and that I if I had seen a psychologist such as the person I am seeing now about ten years ago, I might presently be enjoying a life free from many of my PTSD symptoms.  I was ignorant.  I didn’t know that my symptoms are typical, garden-variety PTSD symptoms related to trauma inflicted on me over the period beginning with my birth and moving on into and through my twenty-year marriage. Now I know.  And now I also know that I am not crazy and am not likely to be “put away somewhere.”  I am no longer afraid to talk about my symptoms and to tell people I am in therapy, working to find relief from PTSD symptoms and trauma damage. 

Am I mentally ill?  Technically, I am.  My diagnosis appears in the DSM, so, yes, I am mentally ill.  Can I function in society and on the job?  I have had PTSD all my life, and I have always been able to function well in the workplace and in my social interactions.  As a parent in a domestic violence situation, I don’t know how I would score.  However, to give myself credit, I put a non-violent end to the violent situation, so I was still capable of functioning despite the circumstances and despite my PTSD symptoms.  After my divorce, I put myself through two graduate programs and went on to teach in a community college for about thirteen years before I retired at age 65.  Now I am finally addressing my PTSD and have already reduced the severity of my symptoms after a year of therapy.  I plan to continue in therapy and reduce my symptoms even more.

So, yes, I am mentally ill.  If I were in a large gathering and somebody asked the people diagnosed with mental illnesses to stand, I would stand without hesitation.  As Cindy Becker states: “The only way we can break down the stigma around mental illness and addictions is to learn about it, to reach out to others and to talk about it.” That’s the purpose for my blog, “to reach out to others, and to talk about it.”  I pray that this blog achieves its purpose.

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