Many nights were spent sorting through what transpired over the three years I suffered with PTSD, panic attacks and debilitating anxiety. I feel an overwhelming responsibility to speak out about my story. Everyone’s story is unique which is what makes it so important to share our struggles and triumphs. Each of our stories, no matter how boring, painful, or embarrassing we think they are, have the power to change other people’s lives.
My journey began after the traumatic births of my two children, which you can read more about here. I remember sitting in the hospital the night after I delivered my daughter. My husband and the baby were asleep and the reality of the situation started sinking in. A flood of tears ran down my cheeks and in that moment I made a choice in my mind, a choice of survival. I told myself that I would not let this pain and grief affect my time with my baby and I was going to enjoy every moment with her.
Choosing to put away any pain I felt wasn’t the best decision in hindsight. Nevertheless, I feel I did the best I could given the coping skills I had at that time. The problem with ignoring and avoiding painful emotions and memories is that they will eventually manifest themselves in a much more intrusive way than if they had been dealt with right away.
The trauma from my near-death experiences began manifesting right after my daughter’s first birthday. I don’t remember the exact day that the panic attacks began, but they came on strong and left me totally incapacitated. Most evenings were spent physically shaking and throwing up in the bathroom. I didn’t even realize it was anxiety at first. I thought I was suffering from severe health issues. My body was constantly in “fight or flight” mode.
If you’ve experienced a panic attack, you know the overwhelming feeling of doom and despair that comes over your body. Dizziness, racing heart, choking sensations, and fear that death is right around the corner flood your body. It’s a feeling that makes you drop to your knees in agony. Because I had chosen not to confront the trauma I experienced, it began manifesting as panic attacks.
As a mental health professional, I knew this wasn’t just an anxiety disorder. I started having nightmares of being in the delivery room and flashbacks during the day. I would spend most of my days shaking and unable to swallow solid foods. I started exhibiting symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which took over my entire life and paralyzed me with fear. I was left essentially unable to care for my two children and could hardly leave the house.
It is hard to put into words the deep pain and despair that accompanies PTSD. I felt so embarrassed and confused. PTSD happens to soldiers and people who have risked their lives to save others and have seen horrible things. Researching it further made me realize that it can happen to anyone that has been in a near-death situation or endured trauma.
The aftermath of so many years of chronic stress wreaked havoc on my body and I subsequently developed several physical health issues. I began seeing a cognitive behavioral therapist after suffering for three years and trying everything else I could think of to try to recover. This ended up being the hardest and most rewarding experience of my life. It truly took all of the courage, energy and faith I had left.
I learned how to retrain my brain and reshape negative thought processes. I learned about the severe avoidance behaviors that I had developed to protect myself. Anxiety is an emotion just like sadness, anger, or happiness. Everyone experiences anxiety at some point but it is all about how we respond to that anxiety.
I was able to completely recover after five months of cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy. I no longer suffer from panic attacks or the symptoms of PTSD. I developed amazing coping skills that I use every day when anxious thoughts pop up. Recovery wasn’t focused on how to get rid of anxiety, it was about learning how to cope with it. Anxiety is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to rule our lives. No emotion should hold that much power over you.
Experiencing Healing in God’s Timing
Three years went by before I saw complete healing in my life. I went to battle for my mental health, and let me tell you it was not easily won. In the midst of a crisis or incredibly difficult season of life, our first instinct is to escape. We want the pain and suffering to end as quickly as possible and to avoid feeling grief, sadness, and loss. The hardest part is having faith that God has something amazing and beautiful planned for our lives, despite our current circumstances. We are not fighting this battle alone!
I sat in church mid-way through my five-month long intensive therapy journey for PTSD and panic attacks and suddenly felt that all too familiar sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. At that moment, I cried out to God and said that if ONE person’s life could be changed by my suffering, then this would all be worth it. I could keep going. I could see it through. I wouldn’t give up. There would be purpose from my pain.
For years I had been praying during each panic attack that God would take them away, erase the feelings of anxiety in my body and heal me. I woke up each day already feeling defeated. I struggled to hold onto hope. One day I realized that I had been praying for the wrong thing.
Instead of looking for the lesson I could learn from my situation, I had just been praying that my struggle would end, forgetting that God has a plan for my life and maybe, just maybe this was part of it. I changed my prayer from then on. I began praying that God would lead me to healing and he would reveal to me each step I needed to take as I needed to take it. Absolutely God is capable of miraculously healing us in the moment we ask, but that is not always His plan.
Is it possible that the trials you are facing may be the vehicle God is using to get you to something better in life? – Pastor Mike Popenhagen
God revealed to me, just a few months before starting therapy, that I would be on a journey in which I would not be able to see the whole picture or plan. He showed me that he would illuminate my path as I walked, step-by-step. I didn’t know at the time what this meant. I had no idea that he had given me this vision to give me hope along my journey to recovery, because at that time, I didn’t even realize how badly I needed help. Looking back, that is something I am so thankful for. I would have run the other way if I would have known the bravery, courage and effort it was going to take to fully recover.
After a time, I began to feel God shaping me and my body healing slowly. Building strength that I didn’t know I had, building character that I never would have built if I had not gone through this struggle. It was a journey to healing that redirected my path in life. He is preparing us for the purpose he has already planned for our lives. Walking with us on our journey to fulfill the plan he already set out for us.
In the past, I struggled to be vulnerable even with the people closest to me. God changed my heart so that I was no longer guarding my “secrets” so close. I could feel my heart soften and I developed a desire to reach out to those who were hurting. He made my heart able to give to others, and to also receive from others.
I have never experienced freedom like I feel today.
The fear of dying no longer has power over me. I am not defined or confined by labels of anxiety, panic disorder and PTSD. I can live in freedom knowing I am not chained to a diagnosis or prognosis.
This doesn’t mean that I won’t ever struggle with anxious feelings, it means that I have been given the tools to live freely and have faith in God’s plan for my life.
Your story is yours and yours alone. We may feel like ours is messy and embarrassing, but that’s what He wants us to share. It’s a story only you can tell. Our stories have the ability to change people’s paths in life and to connect us with others who are hurting or need encouragement. Don’t be afraid to speak up!
All photo credit in this post goes out to the amazingly talented Anna Moos. Check out her photography work here!