Trigger warnings: mental illness, trauma, PTSD, death
On my social media, I try to be as open as possible about my mental health struggles, especially about my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In the above picture, I ‘came out’ about my PTSD on my Instagram account. It’s been an extremely long journey and I’m glad and proud of how far I’ve come. However, I still remember how difficult things were in the depths of my PTSD. I wish I had more support and or knew others who went through similar things as me. I’m sharing my story in hope that it will provide some relief to people experiencing similar struggles. If you’ve never had mental health struggles, hopefully this will give you an insight into PTSD or just allow you to understand how Rainbow Nourishments came about!
I was 19 and, due to an ugly relationship breakup and other life circumstances, I developed severe depression, anxiety and panic attacks. I hit ‘rock bottom’, starting seeing a psychologist and taking meds out of desperation. I didn’t tell anyone what was going on. In attempt to heal myself, I spent more time with my best friend of 9 years (Michelle). We went to dancing classes, ate til our hearts were content, went to theatre shows and were planning a getaway to Melbourne. We planned on doing international student exchange overseas (me in UK and her in the USA) at the same time so we could travel together. She was doing her exams for her B Comm/Law at the time and promised that we would start planning holidays after she finished.
It was the most severe depression that I’ve ever had but was starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel. Michelle’s birthday was on the 13th November so I called to wish her a happy birthday and the best of luck with her exams. I couldn’t wait to start planning everything.
I was at rock bottom and she was my only life line.
A few days later, I received the worst call I received in my life……….. ‘We had lunch with Michelle at the beach…. she slipped off a cliff…. and she didn’t make it.’
Once I hung up the phone, I went ballistic…. You see, in a normal circumstance where I was really upset, I would normally just retreat to my bedroom then cry. However, this was no normal circumstance. I started screaming, shaking, grabbing my hair, pacing back and forth. I cried and screamed…. I screamed a lot. I was overwhelmed. I didn’t know what to do or say.
My mum grabbed my shoulders and said something like ‘Face the truth. It happened. She died’…. I went even more ballistic.
I thought I was at rock bottom before but I hit completely new depths of ‘rock bottom.’
Dealing with the grief
The next few days were pure hell. I visited the beach where Michelle died. I saw her blood on the rocks and lay down right next to it. I visited her family and friends. I was retold the story of her death countless times through photographs, illustrations and acting. You have no idea…
Two weeks later, on the 1st December, I spoke at Michelle’s funeral in front of 200+ strangers. It was the hardest speech of my life. Any of my other public speaking experiences cannot compare.
Over the next year, I occupied myself to the point of exhaustion. Full time university, two casual jobs and one internship. Michelle’s death was too much for me to handle so I did everything I could to keep busy.
My symptoms became really bad. I couldn’t see two people/friends on the street without literally gagging in my mouth. I couldn’t attend any of my friends’ milestone birthdays without crying. Every time the phone rang, I would jump (then cry) because I thought it was Michelle. Every time my mobile phone rang, I feared that someone else had passed away. Relationships were literally petrifying. I couldn’t make simple plans for the weekend. Everytime anyone asked me about any of my future plans, I would dissociate then break down when I was alone. And you know what? I told no one about these intense symptoms. I didn’t want to say anything as I knew how ‘crazy’ I would sound.
Over the next few years, my quality of life improved and most of my symptoms were relieved. I still got upset whenever I thought about Michelle, but I ended up doing international student exchange and travelled independently with no issues. I socialised a lot and got really good grades at university.
A few years later, I moved interstate as I was offered a reputable job in Federal Government. However, I felt lonely in a city away from my family and friends. A few small things such as entering a new relationship and trusting new people triggered my PTSD symptoms. I got flashbacks in certain social situations and developed severe insomnia. My memories of Michelle’s death resurfaced and I remembered everything vividly as if she died the day before. According to my psych and my readings about PTSD, intrusive flashbacks happen as the memories are unprocessed in the person’s mind (usually because they were too overwhelming at that point in time) and the mind is replaying them to force the person to process them.
If you’ve never experienced PTSD, just remember the worst thing that has ever happened to you and multiply that by three. Then imagine your brain somehow tricked you to believe that event was happening three times a day. The flashbacks are out of your control and can be triggered by the smallest things, such as music in a shopping centre, a certain scent or person. Your flashbacks felt absurd and no one believed you. That’s the best I can describe my experience of PTSD.
For 2-3 years, I would sweat profusely at night and get intense nightmares. I never slept for more than 4 hours in a row. Things got extremely bad and I went part-time at work for about 2 years. On my days off, it wasn’t like I isolated myself and rocked back on forth in a fetus position. I was very proactive in my recovery and saw various psychologists, read up on PTSD and gained as much knowledge as I could so I could recover from the damn illness. No matter how proactive and determined I was to recover, sometimes things just have to take their natural course.
I won’t go into much detail about how bad things got, but just say that things were extremely bad and I hit absolute rock bottom. I relapsed into another mental disorder as a coping mechanism for the PTSD. I got really really sick and had to a bit of time off work. Time after time, I thought things couldn’t get worse but it did.
I was exhausted but wanted to get better. It took a ridiculous amount of patience, years of different types of therapy, psychologists and trial and error to get to a point where I could have a stable wellbeing and maintain a full-time job… let alone a successful business. My flashbacks resided, I have an ok support network and can definitely sleep at night.
In the ideal world, I would never experience mental illness again, but let’s be realistic… Even though I can’t control my life circumstances, I have learnt a few tricks to prevent severe relapse. No one should ever have to suffer what I suffered, so I’m sharing these tips with you.
5 tips to maintain recovery from mental illness
1. Maintain a strong support network.
I relapsed into my PTSD in my early 20s because I didn’t have a strong support network when I moved interstate. A key aspect of my recovery was befriending like-minded people who I felt that I could trust.
2. Make sure you always do something for yourself.
I grew up in a typical Asian household where you are meant to prioritise and look after your family. However, this isn’t synonymous with the Western philosophy of putting yourself first. I tend to bend over backwards and compromise myself for others, but this isn’t good in a Western society as your caring attitude isn’t always reciprocated. I realised that to survive I needed to prioritise myself. My mental health improved a lot when I quit my reputable public service job to pursue a full-time career with Rainbow Nourishments.
3. Try to understand the core reasons of your mental health struggles.
I felt guilty and confused about my PTSD as I wasn’t even present at my friend’s passing. Over the course of my therapy, I realised my best friend’s death was so significant because she provided a type of safety that every person needs in life. She was the only person who I would talk to about any problems that I had. She was the only person who I would turn to when I was scared about XYZ. Every time I felt emotionally manipulated, neglected or dismissed, she was always there. I didn’t have to verbalise what was going, but she just understood. A mental illness is often not just ’caused’ by one event but a greater series of events or circumstances… I’m still trying to understand these things to this day.
4. Listen to your gut and take the time to find suitable health professionals and know which of your family/friends you can trust. Health professionals, family members and friends do not always provide the best advice.
Ok, this really depends on the circumstances. It can take a really long time to find a suitable health professional or family/friends that you can trust or someone who really understands your conditions. I’ve had various GPs and psychologists tell me that I didn’t have PTSD and my flashbacks would ease up automatically. However, when I listed to my gut and reflected on my past experiences with mental illness, I knew something wasn’t right. I knew that I had PTSD because my grief was really intense, lasted for more than 5 years and nothing helped to ease the flashbacks. I knew myself well enough to know that I wasn’t in good shape. When you’re vulnerable, unhelpful advice can be invalidating, make you question yourself and make your conditions worse. Over time, I found an amazing psychologist who specialised in trauma/PTSD and I realised which friends who I could trust. I slowly recovered and would not be where I am today without the help that I received.
On the other hand, I understand that some people identify with their mental illness and tend to distrust everyone around them. For example, it can be really difficult for people with eating disorders to realise they need help and to accept it from other people as many fear losing their safety blanket. In circumstances like that, it is really important to listen to your health professional.
5. Be aware of different self-care techniques and know what doesn’t work for you.
Typical self-care techniques include healthy eating, exercise and mindfulness. However, I have a tendency to under-eat and over-exercise when I’m stressed so any self-care tips in those areas will not work for me. Also, mindfulness often doesn’t work for people with PTSD – in fact, it worsens the symptoms because being aware of your body and surroundings just triggers the trauma that you experienced. Usually people with PTSD just want to feel safe and will do anything to ensure that. When I feel ‘triggered’ or stressed, I like chatting to friends (usually about anything except my wellbeing), writing out my thoughts, writing down all of the things I’m stressed about, planning travels or being creative in the kitchen. Find out what works for you and don’t feel guilty if something doesn’t work for you.
I hope this post was insightful and you enjoyed reading it. Let me know in the comments below whether you like to do certain things to maintain a positive mental health xo.
I’ll be speaking more about my PTSD experiences and mental health struggles at Pip & Lou‘s Invincible Young Women of Adversity Event in Canberra. Early-bird tickets are available and selling fast so, if you’re in Canberra, I’d love to see you there xo