Sunday, October 4, 2009

Dealing with PTSD while being a student

I'm having a rough time with anxiety this morning. Not sure why. Yesterday was an emotional roller-coaster for me, and this morning I am fidgeting with these intense feelings of unrest and anxiety and my stomach is nervous and my whole body is tensed and I don't know what to do. I can't calm down enough to do my homework, and that's probably making this worse. Which reminds me of a topic I've wanted to write about for a while-- PTSD, and specifically how it affects students.

A little overview of PTSD: 
After experiencing a traumatic event, most people will go through a variety of behaviors and responses. However, depending on the person--e.g. his/her past and personality--and the trauma itself, these physical and emotional responses may continue for months or even years. This is a normal response to an abnormal event.

Here are some common characteristics of PTSD:
  • Flashbacks (reliving the traumatic event)
  • Upsetting dreams about the traumatic event
  • Attempts to avoid anything associated with the trauma
  • Worrying or ruminating -- intrusive thoughts of the trauma
  • Hyper-alertness/hyper-vigilance: being easily startled or frightened
  • Memory problems
  • Trouble concentrating, often caused by intrusive thoughts
  • Irritability, restlessness, outbursts of anger or rage
  • Feelings of helplessness, panic, feeling out of control
  • Overwhelming guilt or shame
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Difficulty trusting and/or feelings of betrayal
  • Feelings of detachment and disorientation
  • Difficulty maintaining close relationships
  • Tendency to isolate oneself 
  • Concern over burdening others with problems
  • Avoiding activities you once enjoyed
  • Hopelessness about the future
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Irregular sleeping patterns-- i.e. sleeping too much or too little

I have personally experienced most of those reactions. There are some I would like to expand on and discuss in more detail in future posts. However, for this particular entry, I want to talk about what it's like to be a student with these physical and emotional feelings.

My first experiences with coercion, pressure, and non-consensual sex occurred while in a relationship. I was stressed with schoolwork and extracurricular activities and lonely and isolated from my friends, so I repressed most of my feelings and continued on with trying to get through each day. It wasn't until a year or two later that I began to remember bits and pieces of what happened and started to talk about them. The final opening of the floodgates happened when I was raped by someone I considered a friend during the first weekend of my senior spring.

I tried desperately to continue my schoolwork. I loved both of my classes, and I really wanted everything to be okay. However, I could tell that something was really wrong starting the day after the event. I have always been easily startled, but suddenly every little noise and movement made me tense and anxious. I couldn't sleep at night, and so I became completely nocturnal, sleeping from about 8am - 5pm everyday. But most frightening to me was the fact that I couldn't read a textbook for more than two minutes at a time without intrusive thoughts about the rape and feelings of intense panic or depression, and the fact that my memory was gone.

I have always prided myself on my memory. I did dorky things in high school like memorizing 150 digits of pi. I often didn't need to study because I remembered details from class lectures. While I wouldn't say I had an amazing memory, it was pretty good. However, everything changed in the blink of an eye, and it terrified me. I would be speaking to someone and suddenly my mind would go blank, and I wouldn't remember what we had just been talking about two seconds ago. I would read a sentence from a book and have no memory or comprehension of it when I reached the period. Oh, I remembered most of the details of the event itself just fine--I certainly thought about the damn thing often enough--but I couldn't use my memory in day-to-day life.

As you can imagine, that really sucked as a student. I tried for three or four weeks to continue my coursework, but it just wasn't going to happen. I couldn't go to class because being in a room full of people I didn't know for two hours made me panic, and I couldn't do any of my reading. It destroyed me to have to go on medical leave, but I didn't really have a choice, and part of me knew it was for the best.

This summer, a year and a half later, I returned to college to complete my last four courses. I decided to divide them into two terms of two classes each (here the norm is 3 classes per 10-week term), and I am currently taking the last two courses of my undergraduate career (finally!). While my PTSD has certainly gotten much better, traces of it still remain. There are some evenings when I am pre-occupied--obsessed, even-- with thoughts about rape/sexual assault and I cannot do my work. Some days I am anxious, tense, really easily startled, and unable to give or receive any kind of physical contact. I still have terrible dreams where I wake up screaming sometimes. Some days I feel emotionally numb and detached, like a shell of my usually cheerful self. But things are getting better, and I have been able to return to a pretty normal life as a college student.

Most importantly, my memory and concentration are starting to return. They are still not as good as they used to be, but they are better. Being able to handle schoolwork again has been one of the most empowering things for me. Losing that was devastating, because I had built my life around academics. But now I'm back, and with an added vengeance-- I am starting to apply my love of learning and researching and writing to the issues of rape/sexual assault, with the hopes that I can make a difference somehow. Take that, trauma.

1 comment:

  1. I think, of all the things my brain is spitting out in response to this, the best is "Fight the power!"