BY BETSY CORNWELL
When I was 19, a therapist told me she thought I had post-traumatic stress disorder.
"Like a soldier?" I asked, halfway laughing.
She pointed out that I was extremely anxious in our meetings, that I couldn’t sit still, but bit my nails to the quick and glanced around the room and at the closed door. I couldn’t sit with my back to an open window, and I talked as if I had to get the words out quickly, quietly, before someone else heard. That I often looked as if my heart was beating too fast. (It often was.) Hyper vigilance, she said.
And then there were the nightmares, which were the 'symptom' that had made me seek out therapy in the first place. Intrusive dreams about my father hurting me, often with my mother’s assistance. Dreams that felt like memories, and memories that were starting to surface even while I was awake.
She asked me where I felt safe. I laughed again. Nowhere, of course.
I’d started coming to her, over the summer vacation between my sophomore and junior years of college, because another counselor back at school had told me I needed to. I had to go back to my parents’ house to work over the summer, and we both knew I’d need a trained outside listener to get through it. I can’t remember what we decided to tell my generally therapy-averse parents that convinced them to let me go; I certainly didn’t tell them the real reason.
We talked more about PTSD during that session, and I recognized a lot of the symptoms she mentioned. Frightening, immersive flashbacks or panic attacks brought on by seemingly minor triggers; nightmares; memory trouble. Anxiety, exhaustion, absentmindedness, conflict aversion. Heavy, constant, seemingly sourceless guilt. Eating disorders. Shame. Self-loathing.
I told my boyfriend about it that evening, lying on our backs in the seaside park where we often met that summer. He said he thought it sounded right. He had talked me through more than a few panic attacks over the four years we’d been dating, held me when I’d woken up screaming or sobbing.
He’d known about my father’s verbal abuse back when we were still in high school, back when I had no real memories yet of the other kinds. He was the first person I told about the memories that I didn’t want to, and often couldn’t, remember. We broke up a few years later and haven’t looked back, but I still feel grateful that I had someone supportive with me during that time.
It took a long time to tell anyone else. It was less than a month before my twenty-fifth birthday when I finally told the police. I’d known I wanted to make the report for years, and had only been waiting for the strength. That year, my youngest cousin turned the same age I was when, as far as my foggy memories can tell me, the abuse started. That year, I finally talked to someone who had once seen it happen, but who had been persuaded into silence, too. That year, I had to tell, so I did.
The memories are still foggy, though, and some of them are still absent. Is it possible to know that you don’t know, to be certain that your brain is still protecting you from some things?
Someone with PTSD would say: hell yes. Emphasis on the hell.
I’ve built my life in such a way that my anxiety, memory trouble, and conflict aversion aren’t major issues: I work from home, with lots of time to myself, a flexible schedule I share with my horse trainer husband, and unconditionally loving animal friends (shout out to my goats). I live in a quiet place in a different country, an ocean away from my parents.
Their stance on this whole thing, as far as I hear, is that I’m mentally unwell. Mental health issues run in the family, don’t you know, they confide. But I think it’s also important to mention that they haven’t contacted me, haven’t tried to help or confront their crazy daughter, even once since I made the report. (They’d lawyered up by the time the police talked to them, though.) By now, two years after the fact, I think that speaks for itself.
The thing is, they’re the ones keeping secrets now, not me. I don’t keep anything that has happened to me a secret any more, and that in itself has been incredibly healing.
Still, according to that therapist, I am technically mentally unwell. I have a Disorder. Certainly there are situations in which my brain reacts in ways I’d prefer it didn’t. I’d like fewer nightmares about my father bending over my bed, fewer full-blown panic attacks when there’s a rape scene on TV, fewer days when I barely have the will to move or breathe, much less write or teach or talk to my friends.
But I don’t really see it like that. I’m now a part of an online group of women who have PTSD, and they are not only some of the toughest and most resilient people I’ve ever known, but also the most empathetic, the least judgmental. They make me feel tough and kind, too, and those are great ways to feel, and great things to be.
My husband once said to me: "What happened to you was disordered, not your reaction to it. Plenty of reasonable people, having the same experience, would have the same reaction."
He’s right. The disorder is my father’s, not mine. I still own the PTSD label, because it helps me to understand myself, to be kind to myself when I have reactions that are frustrating or counterproductive. Calling my reactions PTSD helped me come to terms with my past, and it’s helped me find a place in an extraordinary group of women, as I mentioned.
But I agree with my husband: it’s not a disorder. Maybe it’s PTS. I am a normal person with a weird past, and most days, that’s about it.
Aren’t we all?
Betsy Cornwell is a New York Times bestselling author with two young adult fantasy books published and two forthcoming from Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and she's the story editor for PARABOLA. She first published a version of this essay as a post on her personal blog, betsycornwell.com, in 2015.