I still sometimes feel like I should be over it, or I’m being melodramatic.
Sometime in the fall of 2006, I was in a fluorescent-lit room staring at posters of happy cartoon animals when a nurse pricked me with a very small needle. It wasn’t painful in the slightest. It was an allergy test, the prick no sharper than a light pinch.
But immediately, I burst into tears and started shaking uncontrollably. No one was more surprised by this reaction than I was. I remember thinking, This doesn’t hurt. This is just an allergy test. What’s happening?
It was the first time I had been pricked with a needle since my release from the hospital several months earlier. On Aug. 3 of that year, I had been admitted to the hospital with stomach pains and wasn’t released until a month later.
During that time, I had two emergency/life-saving colon surgeries, in which 15 centimeters of my colon was removed; one case of sepsis; 2 weeks with a nasogastric tube (up the nose, down to the stomach) that made it excruciating to move or speak; and countless other tubes and needles shoved into my body.
At one point, the veins in my arm had been too exhausted by IVs, and the doctors put in a central line: an IV in the vein under my collarbone that was more stable but increases the risk of bloodstream infections and air embolisms.
My doctor explained the risks of the central line to me before he put it in, noting it was important that any time the IV was changed or altered, nurses should swab the port with a sterilizing swab.
Over the next weeks, I anxiously watched every nurse. If they forgot to swab the port, I battled internally over reminding them — my desire to be a good, not annoying patient in direct conflict with my terror at the thought of another life-threatening complication.
There was the physical trauma of being sliced open and emotional trauma of being packed in ice when I went septic, and the fear that the next thing that could kill me was just a forgotten alcohol swab away.
So, it really shouldn’t have surprised me when, only a few months later, the slightest pinch left me hyperventilating and trembling. What surprised me more than that first incident, however, was the fact that it didn’t get better.
I thought my tears could be explained by the short time it had been since my hospitalization. I was still raw. It would go away in time.
But it didn’t. If I’m not on a healthy dose of Xanax when I go to the dentist, even for a routine teeth cleaning, I end up dissolving into a puddle of sobs over the slightest pinch.
And while I know it’s a totally involuntary reaction, and logically I know I’m safe and not back in the hospital, it’s still humiliating and debilitating. Even when I’m visiting someone in a hospital, my body does weird shit.
I had the best possible care when I was in the hospital (shoutout to Tahoe Forest Hospital!). There was no roadside bomb or violent attacker. I suppose I thought the trauma had to come from external trauma and mine was, quite literally, internal.
Turns out, the body doesn’t care where the trauma comes from, only that it happened.
A few things helped me understand what I was experiencing. The first was by far the most unpleasant: how reliably it kept happening.
If I was in a doctor’s office and hospital setting, I learned that my body would reliably behave unreliably. I didn’t always burst into tears. Sometimes I threw up, sometimes I felt angry and scared and claustrophobic. But I never reacted the way the people around me were.
That repeated experience led me to read about PTSD (one very helpful book I’m still reading is “The Body Keeps the Score” by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, who helped pioneer our understanding of PTSD) and getting into therapy.
But even though I’m writing this, I still struggle with really believing this is a thing I have. I still sometimes feel like I should be over it, or I’m being melodramatic.
That’s my brain trying to push me past it. My body as a whole understands the larger truth: The trauma is still with me and still appears at some awkward and inconvenient times.
I started thinking about this because my therapist recommended I try EMDR therapy for my PTSD. It’s pricey and my insurance doesn’t seem to cover it, but I hope I have the chance to give it a whirl someday.
Here’s more about EMDR, as well as some other proven treatments for PTSD.
Eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
With EMDR, a patient describes the traumatic event(s) while paying attention to a back-and-forth movement, sound, or both. The goal is to remove the emotional charge around the traumatic event, which allows the patient to process it in a more constructive way.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
If you’re in therapy now, this is the methodology your therapist is probably using. The goal of CBT is to identify and modify thought patterns to change moods and behaviors.
Cognitive processing therapy (CPT)
I hadn’t heard of this one until recently when “This American Life” did an entire episode on it. CPT is similar to CBT in its goal: change the disruptive thoughts that resulted from the trauma. However, it’s more focused and intensive.
Over 10 to 12 sessions, a patient works with a licensed CPT practitioner to understand how the trauma is shaping their thoughts and learn new skills to change those disruptive thoughts.
Exposure therapy (sometimes called prolonged exposure)
Exposure therapy, sometimes called prolonged exposure, involves frequently retelling or thinking about the story of your trauma. In some cases, therapists bring patients to places that they have been avoiding because of PTSD.
Virtual reality exposure therapy
A subset of exposure therapy is virtual reality exposure therapy, which I wrote about for Rolling Stone a few years ago.
In VR exposure therapy, a patient virtually revisits the scene of the trauma, and ultimately the traumatic incident itself. Like EMDR, the goal is to remove the emotional charge around the incident(s).
Medication can be a useful tool, too, either alone or combined with other treatments.
I used to associate PTSD exclusively with war and veterans. In reality, it’s never been that limited — lots of us have it for lots of different reasons.
The good news is there are several different therapies we can try, and if nothing else, it’s reassuring to know we aren’t alone.
Katie MacBride is a freelance writer and the associate editor for Anxy Magazine. You can find her work in Rolling Stone and the Daily Beast, among other outlets. She spent most of last year working on a documentary about the pediatric use of medical cannabis. She currently spends far too much time on Twitter, where you can follow her at @msmacb.