Today I am heading off to a wedding. A beautiful wedding with a very relaxed bride and groom who just want a little church ceremony and a family potluck afterwards. I know everyone that is going and everyone is kind, accepting and most are non-triggering.
My nerves are on fire. My anxiety makes me feel like I can’t breathe. It is hard to explain to people who don’t suffer from social anxiety just why a day like today, a fun day with great people makes me feel like bolting out the closest door.
I decided I would try to explain what it feels like when you have PTSD and you must go in to a social situation. This is why it is so hard…
When I go somewhere, anywhere, even a friend’s home with only 1 or 2 people there right up to a mall filled with strangers, my flight or fight response is kicked into high gear. I suddenly feel that I am not at all in control of what is going to happen. I am unsafe. Is someone going to walk behind me? Loud bangs and odd noises may seem rare to a normal brain but with PTSD, I hear them all and feel panic with each one.
I also struggle with “How do I act?”
I am told to “just be yourself” but truthfully? If I acted how I felt? I’d be a wild animal desperately trying to escape from a cage that is on fire. Clawing and fighting my way to safety. Not exactly a socially appropriate reaction to a room filled with friends. I feel as though every nerve I have is hot and tender so even the lightest touch can make me jump. While others in the room seem to be listening to each other, I am listening to them, listening for any potential noise that could indicate a threat, my mind chatter is on full speed and full volume. It is honestly difficult to hear what others are saying on many occasions. I tend to dissociate easily even if only in a slight way. One moment I am trying to listen to someone then my mind has left the building for a few minutes due to being overwhelmed. When I snap back in to the moment, I am lost in the conversation and I feel horrible about it because I would never want anyone to feel ignored.
So what do I do? I put on my happy mask. My face will show no indication of the extreme discomfort I feel. I look relaxed, happy and seem very engaged. It is a mask I perfected at a very young age. I can recall from the age of 4, literally waking in the morning and putting that mask on. The story my face told and still tells is “I’m fine. “I’m having fun.” I’m loving this.”.
In my past this reaction all made sense but this isn’t 70’s or 80’s any longer. I am not in danger now. The people who I have surrounded myself are wonderful people whom I know would never do anything at all to intentionally hurt me. They are compassionate and some even try to understand a bit about PTSD. It all just makes me feel horrible for still feeling so damned uncomfortable.
The good news is that with every good experience where nothing bad happens and I don’t totally freak out, I get a wee bit better. Today I still feel like I am on fire and wanting to bolt but 2 years ago, I would have made myself so ill over it that I may not even be able to attend. If I did force myself to go, it would take me days to recover. Now a good sleep and perhaps a quiet day following a big event are enough to get me back to where I need to be.
So it’s hard. It is uncomfortable. I still feel like a caged animal. My nerves are raw and I feel so incredibly anxious BUT…
I will be okay. No one is going to hurt me. No one is going to judge me harshly. I will get to the end of the day, get back in my car to go home and be proud of myself for putting myself out there again. Another win to tack on to the others.
It’s not an easy journey and it takes a ton of hard work to overcome the reactions that come so quickly and naturally but it is not impossible. There is hope. There is a life to look forward to where these occasions will get easier. I’m getting there and you can too.
Have a great day everyone! I’d better go get ready. I hear wedding bells.