Living with PTSD: My story

There are over 44 million people living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the United States. According to the National Center for PTSD, roughly eight million people find their lives impacted by PTSD annually. I am one of those individuals. It used to be that PTSD was just thought to be associated with wartime or battlefield experience.

That is no longer the case. Life-changing trauma can happen anywhere and at any time. According to the National Center for PTSD, as many as six out of 10 men experience some sort of trauma during their lifetime. For women, the numbers drop to 5 in 10 individuals being affected.

PTSD statistics for veterans is a tale-tell sign of mental illness zipping its way across cultural, gender and ethnic lines. This form of mental illness doesn’t discriminate. According to Heal My PTSD, one in five military personnel that served in the Iraq War or Afghanistan War, have become afflicted with this form of mental illness.

When it comes to Vietnam veterans, people of color (Hispanics, 28 percent; African Americans, 21 percent), come down with PTSD at a higher rate than their white peers (14 percent), according to the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study.

For women performing combat duty, the numbers are even more alarming. According to statistics published by Heal My PTSD, women account for just 17 percent of military personnel. Yet 71 percent of women in the service endure PTSD after being sexually assaulted while serving their military duties. Statistics for provided by the National Center for PTSD on Vietnam veterans are staggering, estimating that the number of these wartime individuals being afflicted with PTSD is somewhere in the range of 30 percent.

mental illness
photo credit: 143d Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) Grit. Guts. Glory: 143rd ESC Soldiers support Tough Mudder Challenge via photopin (license)</a

Recognized as a mental disorder in 1980, PTSD made a home in people’s mind that it was an unwanted exclusive club that only military personnel belonged in. That has now been debunked. PTSD can touch the lives of friends, family members, co-workers, faith-walkers and our neighbors. It also comes with a hefty price tag.

According to PTSD United, which gathered its information from the National Institutes of Health, Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Sidran Institute, the annual cost to treat, diagnose and distribute medication for mental illness cost a little more than $42 billion.

There are four areas of mental illness that engulf the African American community, and they are severe depression, suicide, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI).

My trauma came by way of my childhood. The physical beatings I absorbed nearly destroyed me. My brothers and I would be on the receiving end of such brutal whippings that there were times when we were not allowed suit up to participate in physical education class because of the scarring reminders left behind from the switches, hanger wires and extension cords that tore into our young bodies.

But for some reason, I would get the worst of it, so much so that my siblings usually feared for my life. The harsh vicious verbal taunts from school peers and others close to me have haunted me for years. If I add on the tireless bullying I endured, I went through a day-to-day, mental tug-o-war about belonging and being socially accepted. Depression and self-worthlessness, unfortunately, occupied much of my youth.

It’s been a painful journey for me, but I know now that I am not alone in this fight. With the African American community making up close to a quarter percent higher rate of those inflicted with mental illness than the general population, NAMI noted that blacks (25 percent) are less likely to get help and deal with their mental illness issues than whites (40 percent).

Mental Illness
photo credit: Frédéric Poirot Eternal neck restraint via photopin (license)

Over the course of several decades, I was one of those people not reaching out to get help. But then again, I went about my life as if I did not need medical attention when it came to that. Not in a million years, would I have guessed that I was living with a form of mental illness. For a long time, I walked around like I was okay, quietly putting a smile on the inner turmoil that led me to nearly taking my life as a high school student.

That was truly a dark time in my life. As I stood at the top of the football stadium bleachers where I attended high school, the only thing I wanted to happen was for the beatings to stop. I wanted the masquerade to be over. I still remember the evening where I screamed out all night as my mother lay me face down and rubbed Vaseline all over my back and legs just to stop the blood from pouring out of my skin after I had received a tremendous beating.

Making matters worse was the endless ridicule from peers and tormented bullying, along with the ceaseless whippings drove me to the brink of contemplating suicide as I stood atop those bleachers. I was a broken youth with nowhere to go.

At that time, I didn’t know anything about PTSD or anything like it. I just wanted to laugh. I wanted to smile. I grew up part of a big family with 10 brothers and sisters), yet no one could see or hear me suffering in my silence. The tipping point came one day when my father not particularly happy I was laughing at a joke one of my brothers had made, knocked me down with a back-handed slap, grabbed me by the legs and dragged me on the ground from our front lawn through the driveway until he got to the backyard.

There he began wrapping me up from bottom to shoulders with a long wire cable to teach me a lesson. At that point, all I could see was red in my father’s eyes. This wasn’t my father. It was somebody else impersonating my dad. It was at this moment I knew that if I did not get out of there, something really bad was going to happen to me. I sensed this after hearing my brothers and sisters yelling and screaming at the top of their lungs for my father to stop. I was terrified.

Somehow, some way, I managed to escape this nightmare, but that particular incident scarred me probably more than any other time in my childhood. It would be later, after my dad’s passing, that I found out that my father suffered from being bipolar and schizophrenia, which would explain the duality of his personality. Some people reading this article may try to make my father out to be a monster. He was not. Was he imperfect? Yes, but a monster he was not.

photo credit: Merlin1487 Whirlpool Mind via photopin (license)

I love him. I have no clue what kind of torment my father lived with in trying to slay his bipolar and schizophrenia demons. It is fully understanding my father’s struggle with mental illness that eventually led me down the path to seek help for myself.

A fraction (1.1 %) of Americans live with schizophrenia; 2.6% of all adults have bipolar). Getting treatment for mental illness such as schizophrenia and bipolar, is another matter. Blacks and Hispanics seek and receive medical attention for mental illness at half the rate of whites.

The shock that comes with the trauma of post-traumatic stress disorder can come in the form of depression, anger, feeling edgy, worry and emotional apathy. According to the doctor who originally examined me, I mentally wiped out any part of my life that that had caused me great distress. Even now, as I try to form the words of what exactly happened to me still makes me uncomfortable to talk about.

I decided to speak out on this topic because of the greater need to bring more attention and greater awareness to mental illness and PTSD. I never thought I would become an advocate about this issue, but when I consider the number of African Americans who are homeless in Los Angeles County (40 percent) and dealing with mental illness, I found myself compelled to put together a story about mental illness and its effects on individuals and the burden it can weigh on families and their loved ones.

I was diagnosed with PTSD while undergoing a routine psychological evaluation. I was absolutely stunned when the doctor I saw informed me of my evaluation. I had no clue that what I endured as a child and youth would severely impact me mentally, emotionally and socially. Having confidence in myself has always been a challenge for me, even now. During my formidable years, I struggled with my self-worth. I became a high school dropout.

I wound up being somewhat of a loner trying to figure out my lot in life. Ten years into working as a custodian at a local hospital, I was still trying to figure it out before the light came on when I enrolled into Howard University as a journalism student. At that time, the physical and mental hurts broke me down to the point that I could not even see myself being great at anything except for my love to read.

As I have battled my lifelong journey of depression, reading a good book and my faith in God became my comforters. It is through these avenues I started to see the glass half-full instead of looking at it as half-empty. It is this mindset that led me to embrace healing instead of doubt regulating my life. As I slowly uncover the layers to my struggle from decades-ago experiences, I hope to help and encourage others to get healed as well.

Dennis J. Freeman

Dennis is the editor and publisher of News4usonline. He is also the publisher and editor of the Compton Bulletin newspaper. Dennis has more than two decades of reporting experience. His beats include covering sports, social and racial justice, and equal rights. He earned a journalism degree from Howard University. "I write what I'm passionate about."

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