For more than a decade I have been battling the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sometimes I feel that I just can’t win. Just when I learn to live with a specific set of symptoms they either change or another symptom arises and a new reality emerges.
PTSD is greatly misunderstood in general society. It carries the stigma of mental disorder, and is often interpreted as a singular response to an event or a prolonged exposure to trauma. Defined as a response, and paired with a lack of societal interest and inquiry, PTSD becomes either something one should “get over” or “keep to themselves.” In this environment, those who live with the disorder often become isolated and misunderstood.
After my escape from Sarajevo in 1995, where I lived with constant exposure to severe violence and war trauma, I fled to Croatia. Shuttled from relative to relative, I finally ended up in a refugee camp. It was during this stay that I experienced my first symptoms. I had trouble sleeping and on those rare nights when I was able to, I would awake in a panic. Often I felt certain that I am about to die or that a shell was about to strike the house. I struggled to realize that it was just a dream, and even then I would still feel the same fear and adrenaline rush I had daily during the war.
In those first days after the war, I was often startled on the street by sudden loud noise, to a point where I would duck behind a car in order to protect myself from what my mind recognized as a grenade. Within our small group of refugees we often joked that one could recognize Sarajevans on a street, since they were the ones walking very fast and ducking constantly.
After reaching Chicago I stopped eating, torn by guilt that I was living in peace with plenty of food while my friends and family did not have that luxury. My weight dropped to 96 pounds and I was not doing well. In order to not think about the war and my experiences I completely focused on school and work. I worked long hours and focused on maintaining a 4.0 GPA. I strove for perfection in everything I did, since this complete control would help me avoid possibilities of future trauma.
I focused my research on psychology and social studies thinking that I must do something to help others in need since I’d had the privilege to survive. In my studies I became outspoken and very angry with systems of oppression, with people’s indifference to genocide and famine. It seemed that all I could feel was anger, powerlessness and sorrow. This cluster of emotions became so unbearable that I entertained thoughts of suicide. The only thing that prevented me was the feeling of duty to repay the gift of life and a possibility of a new future, something so many of those living under oppression and in war zones do not have.
In order not to feel I started to drink. Not much, a glass of wine here and there until I could not end my day without my “medicine.” All of this came at a great expense. I became disconnected from my friends and my health deteriorated so much that in 2003 I began to have trouble walking and I lost ability to control my emotions. I was soon diagnosed with a form of autoimmune disorder that essentially destroyed my thyroid and created confusion in my metabolic processes. My mind and body were waging their own war, against each other.
My health is improving now and I do not have so many nightmares as before. I still get nervous during the Air and Water show, and I still have control problems. The feeling of guilt has not gone away and a sense of immediate danger is still here. PTSD is a part of me, an ever evolving organism with its own rules and demands. Every day I struggle to claim my own space.
*Image gratefully borrowed from William Turck