Trigger warning: This column contains descriptions of endometriosis that some readers may find upsetting.
June 27 is PTSD Awareness Day. Most of us will experience a traumatic event at some point in our lives. This may give us some short-term distress, but it will generally ease off without professional help. Yet, about 20% of people who have experienced a severely upsetting event go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
About one in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Women are twice as likely as men to develop it.
The charitable organization PTSD UK defines post-traumatic stress disorder as “a memory filing error caused by a traumatic event.” In other words, something extremely distressing happens to us, but our brain fails at processing it in a healthy way. Our mind brings up a past event, but we experience it as reoccurring in the present.
When something triggers a traumatic memory, the emotions linked to the trauma feel as vivid as when it happened. Sensations linked to the event such as taste, sound, or even smells can come up in the form of nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, or physical sensations like pain.
PTSD exposes a person to the original trauma over and over.
About three years ago, I went to my general practitioner to talk about my anxiety. Soon after, a mental health professional diagnosed me with PTSD. In my case, the source of my issues lies within a tight bundle of traumatic gynecological experiences from my childhood.
When facing certain situations linked to my disease, such as invasive medical examinations or talk of pregnancies and miscarriages, I suffered from very acute physical symptoms. During any visit to my OB-GYN, my body would seize up, my temples would hurt, and my entire body would shake. If a TV show featured a miscarriage, or if anyone brought up the topic, I would press my legs together. Then a sharp pain on the bridge of my nose would force me to close my eyes. It almost numbed me.
I knew certain episodes in my childhood had been tough to live through, but I didn’t think they had such a lasting, vivid effect. A good amount of triggers and upsetting sensations are linked to them, but I just didn’t recognize them.
In fact, the heavy bleeding that comes with my form of endometriosis is closely related to one of the episodes behind my PTSD.
When I had my first period, I ended up hospitalized due to blood loss.
I remember standing in the bathroom about to shower, and out of me came a puddle of blood a meter wide. It felt like I had just passed an organ. Horrified, I called my mother. When she came in, she turned white as a sheet of paper and rushed me to the hospital.
A doctor I had never met examined me as I lay terrified, covered only by a hospital gown. He had a black beard and shaky hands. He didn’t look at me in the eyes or warn me what he was about to do. Nobody explained anything, and they didn’t allow my mum in with me. I had just turned 12. I was a little girl.
I spent three days in the hospital’s gynecological ward, surrounded by women who had suffered miscarriages or were recovering from hysterectomies. Each time my doctor walked into my room, I wanted to scream. From then on, I was terrified of anything to do with my periods.
The mental health practitioner who’d diagnosed my PTSD offered to treat me using eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, or EMDR. After many exhausting sessions, I managed to face certain medical situations with more ease. Although I still have to be mindful of what triggers my flashbacks and sudden bouts of pain, I manage each situation as it comes.
Mindfulness also has played an important role in my therapy. Meditation helps me manage any intrusive thoughts, and be OK simply sitting with them instead of reacting.
My PTSD has improved tenfold since I was diagnosed.
For too long, I had lived with distressing physical and mental symptoms I couldn’t control. Sometimes, it felt like electricity running through my body. I thought I was weird and possibly crazy. I never thought it had a logical and extremely kind explanation. Having someone recognize my feelings as remnants of past trauma and tell me they could help was life-changing.
In a way, I wish I hadn’t gone through life trying to prove what everyone thought of me: that I was as tough as nails. Turns out I am not a superhero. I was a damaged, traumatized human being that needed help. And I am glad I got some.
Note: Endometriosis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Endometriosis News or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to endometriosis.