• Sandra Lee

Reliving the Past in the Present: PTSD & Bipolar Disorder

Unsplash / Anton Darius

I have really debated writing and sharing this post because it's a very personal subject and my last intention is to harm anyone or make anyone close to me feel badly. But the truth is, I feel it's necessary. Choosing to share my story and experiences is the best way for me to effectively manage my own mental health conditions while showing others they are not alone in this battle.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) typically develops after exposure to a significant event: violent personal attacks, death, natural disasters, etc. It's experienced by an estimated 7-8% of Americans in their lifetime. Most common symptoms are:

  • persistent frightening thoughts

  • emotional numbness

  • difficulty concentrating

  • flashbacks / dissociative reactions

  • avoidance of places, things, people that act as a reminder of the traumatic event

  • uncharacteristically reactive to stimuli - jumpiness, etc.

A few weekends ago, I made the decision to put myself into a situation that I knew would likely put myself at risk for PTSD symptoms. It was something my psychiatrist and I discussed extensively before I finally left. But I made the decision to go anyways - because the weekend was important to me regardless.

For the most part, everything went very well. I left Pittsburgh Friday afternoon (right after a psychiatrist appointment! Yes, I scheduled one just for this purpose!) ... and arrived late Friday night. Everything went exactly as planned with no hiccups. And besides nervousness and anxiety about what "could" happen, I was actually having a lot of fun.

But later that night, as I tried to fall asleep... it all came back. I began to have very intense and very vivid flashbacks of the experiences that have led to my PTSD. They came on intensely and quickly. It felt like I was being suffocated, paralyzed, and attacked repeatedly again and again. The worst of the panic and paranoia is feeling like there's no escape. No where to go. No where to flee. You just have to sit. And endure the pain and terror. Repeatedly.

Unfortunately, I had not brought any medication with me for these situations. Eventually, I did fall asleep. The rest of the trip actually went very well. Saturday night I had no PTSD symptoms or flashbacks.

Once I came back, I maintained my composure until I saw my psychiatrist Monday afternoon. Slowly over the following week, I broke down more and more. More memories, more flashbacks, more mental floods of terror - some of which I remembered perfectly and others that I hadn't remembered previously at all.

The most difficult part of the experience was explaining to others how my weekend actually went well while I was simultaneously having such intense, deep, dark pain following the event. Very few people could grasp that my experience was positive but that I was being bombarded by such depressed thoughts and feelings. Everyone tried to make me "look to the positive", "focus on the good parts" BUT there is no changing focus when you're plagued by PTSD triggers. There is no simple, quick fix.

Another fear, that I'm sure escalated my emotions, is that my Bipolar Disorder would be triggered by the symptoms I was experiencing from PTSD. On more than one occasion, I've experienced symptoms of hypomania when having to deal with extremely sensitive subjects in my life that create a lot of anxiety and mental distress. And these periods are always accompanied by a deep depression. The thought of experiencing another Bipolar episode while trying to deal with PTSD symptoms was terrifying.

Living with PTSD and Bipolar Disorder can be so disrupting to your life. Despite what most people think, it can be (and many times is) debilitating to the individual experiencing the retraumatization. Living with one, much less both, can make you feel "crazy", misunderstood, and leads to even further sinking depression and isolation from the world around you.

Personally, I have not won my battle with PTSD. And living with Bipolar Disorder will be a lifelong learning curve and journey. But despite this, I think sharing my experiences are essential to helping others see they are not alone. Even when support is limited physically, there are other places we can look to for support and understanding. We are not alone and the more we speak up - the more obvious this will be.

Speaking up also encourages education. The knowledge that people are finally learning due to the open discussion of mental health in general is encouraging but we still have a long way to go. Mental health is a hard topic to discuss for society. And even more difficult to understand because each individual with their own personal experiences can come with such varied symptoms, feelings, reactions, and outcomes.

There is no one quick fix to any mental health diagnosis and the sooner we are able to educate and open the eyes of those willing to learn, the better off all of us will be.

If you're in need of help and support, please check out my Support Page. You are never alone, no matter how alone you feel. Please reach out if needed.



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