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Living with PTSD and the cycle of sickness

The toll healing from sexual trauma can take on our bodies
picture of medicine and flowers
Content Warning

This story may contain descriptions of PTSD symptoms, discussion of child sexual abuse, and the effects of trauma.

It’s time for some hard truths, isn’t that what this website is all about? So here it is:

If the zombie apocalypse is coming, I am not your girl. Leave me. Let the zombies eat my face. I had a good run.

Lesley Jones saying she'll kill zombies with a baseball bat

It’s not just that I lack basic survival skills like how to build a fire or pee in the woods without urinating all over myself. Dude, we wouldn’t even get to the woods. We’d be running for the car and I’d stub my toe and accidentally break my leg in some overwhelmingly banal way and then while trying to build a stint develop some antibiotic-resistant stomach infection get a lethal dose of diarrhea and later, when the zombies find me, they’d be like man, this bitch didn’t stand a chance.

I get sick and hurt all the time. I get sick and hurt more frequently that most people that I know, and when I do, it takes me longer to recover. This is not to be mistaken with friends of mine who have dealt with cancer and other very serious diagnoses, I do not demean or belittle what they’ve gone through. I’m talking about the everyday shit that just stops us long enough from being fully functioning people.

Chris Traiger in mirror

But it happens often enough that I try to avoid telling people I’m sick, for fear that they’ll think I’m weak or bad at taking care of myself, or for the jokes they make about how I’m broken all the time.

And most of all, I hate telling people because deep down I blame myself for it, the way I blame myself for so many ways that my trauma manifests itself within me.

Mean girls

The relationship between trauma and our immune systems

Like so much having to do with our mind/body relationships, scientists are still studying the long-term effects that PTSD has on our health, but what is clear, is that there is a relationship between PTSD and our immune systems (you can google if you’d like to find scientific articles about it, I don’t link to them because I don’t really enjoy the way they write about survivors and their prescriptive language).  There is also a significant body of research linking child sexual abuse survivorship to later-in-life immune system diseases. (Again, not linking for reasons above).

In writing this, I also want to acknowledge all of the physical tolls that trauma takes on our bodies that I’m not going into in this piece. The list is very long, and all of those experiences matter. Today, I’m simply writing about the feeling of getting sick all of the time.

It's always sunny in philadelphia sick character

While I hate reading articles about health outcomes for child sex abuse survivors, for a whole host of reasons, I did find it a relief to have an explanation for what I had been experiencing in my body and helped me (a little bit) to stop blaming myself for being sick and hurt all the time.

Beyond scientific evidence, I can feel when I am triggered that my body is undergoing extraordinary stress, from headaches, stomach pains, shaking arms, racing hearts. Often, there is focus on the mental tolls that triggers take on us, but physically, they are absolutely grueling as well. It is an extraordinary task for our bodies to be constantly fighting to prevent fight/flight/freeze mode or navigating through it when triggered.

It’s like when we are at the beach and playing in the water and an enormous wave comes. (The wave is the trigger, deep and original metaphor, I know). We’ve learned to be able to dive under the wave, instead of standing and letting it crash against our bodies and that’s fucking amazing and huge progress. But still, to dive under an enormous wave requires so much from our lungs in order to hold our breath long enough and so much strength from our bodies to propel us back to the water surface when it’s safe to breathe again. That takes a toll.

moana playing in a wave

Being sick and losing control over our bodies can be triggering

There is definitely a chicken/egg situation that goes on for me when I’m sick. I can get physically ill because I was triggered and it took such a toll on my body. Then, once I’ve been sick for long enough for me to feel like I can’t control my body and health, my PTSD is triggered. It’s like this one big sexy devastating cycle. Which came first: the PTSD trigger or the illness?

The stressors I am describing don’t even include all of the trauma that can be wrapped in the medical system for so many survivors. I am privileged and have health insurance and money to pay for the care that I need, but for many survivors that is not the case. Additionally, many survivors endure the trauma of transphobia, homophobia and racism while trying to seek medical care. So for many of us our trauma and health are inextricably linked together.

For me, the biggest challenge in dealing with illness is the loss of control over my body. I It feels safe to say that for any survivor, feeling control of our bodies is a big fucking deal. We know what it feels like to not have agency over what is happening to our bodies and it is awful. So when dealing with illness, and despite taking all the “right” steps to take care of myself, I am still sick, that is triggering as hell. It can take me right back to all the times I didn’t feel safe and in control of my body, and it can be hard to navigate all those old toxic memories when I’m not feeling well and my defenses are down.

And this cycle leads me always back to the same question: is there really any difference to me of being physically sick and sick with my triggered PTSD, and is it helpful to even ask this question? I think I ask it because I just wish that we lived in a world where mental illness was better understood: that my doctors took me seriously when I discussed my mind/body connection, that people in my life didn’t see me as the Bubble Girl who is always sick, that I didn’t internalize the garbage and see myself as weak.

Lesley knope saying Jerry looks tired and sweaty

The negative self-talk around being sick sounds a lot like trauma

Which leads me right into the negative self-talk that happens for me when I’m sick. This feels like an important opportunity to explain why I’m writing this post. First, I am writing it because if I’ve learned anything from writing, it’s that if I’m struggling with something it means other people are too. Second, writing is the way I am able to make sense of things I am grappling with and of course I currently have a upper respiratory infection, reoccurring UTI and a yeast infection (I swear the yeast infection showed up in my body just for comedic purposes) and my PTSD is just begging to come out and play. And finally, it’s usually when I write about the things that I feel like are most self-exposing that end up connecting with more people. So here I am, me and my broken vagina and compromised respiratory system.

rising loaves of bread

Which leads me to the hardest thing to write about: the negative self-talk that happens when I’m sick. Here’s how it goes inside my head, are you ready? I hate my body and I cannot control what is happening to it. I am useless, I am not any fun, I am falling behind. Why I am weak? I should’ve done something to prevent this. Why can’t I be like other people who can just manage? Why am I so high-maintenance? Why do I need so much?

Those are the same terrible voices and old records that use to play around my trauma: feeling like I did something wrong to deserve this happening to me, blaming myself for something that isn’t my fault and resenting myself for having needs.

I don’t have a solution to all of this. Lord knows this blogpost isn’t ending with a recipe for a green juice and manuka honey salve that is going to make it all better. That’s not how we roll here. And oh my god do not send me your remedies for medical problems, please and thank you in advance.

Hannibal Buress saying you need to eat lettuce

But what has helped is writing this. It helps to openly acknowledge that this happens, give it a name, and know that it isn’t my fault that I was abused, it isn’t my fault I have PTSD, and it isn’t my fault that it takes this toll it does now on my body.

For now, I will work on practicing what I preach: trying to be kinder to myself. When I hear those voices I will imagine they’re not coming from me, but rather from a friend, and I’ll try responding to them the way I would someone I love deeply.

And most of all, I’ll remember, just like I remind you, that I’m not alone. There are so many of us struggling with what it means to heal from trauma in our mind and bodies and I know I am in the best company of all.

If you’d like to share with me about your experiences or thoughts, shoot me an email through my contact page.

puppy with broken leg