Over Thanksgiving break, I was (unsurprisingly) diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Despite the fact that I suspected my condition ever since I learned what PTSD was during our middle school health class, being confronted with the word felt like a slap to the face. I came back to school emotionally drained and numb, and after a torturous week of winter term passed, I decided to return home to begin trauma treatment. For weeks, I wrote down long narratives of the most difficult events in my life, making a book of my trauma — if this was “putting myself first,” it kind of sucked. “I deserve happiness,” I’d tell myself every day before my mom picked me up. And after seven years, I have finally started to let myself have that hope.
As you can probably imagine, navigating high school while battling the trauma of being surrounded by childhood violence and substance abuse is just a little tricky. I had always had the unshakeable feeling I’d inevitably become an alcohol-spewing monster like my dad, trapped in a cycle I had no control over. The psychologist told me that PTSD is a disorder of time, and it’s challenging to distinguish the past from present. We should all have the right to move on, but it’s more difficult when I felt trapped by circumstance. I felt held back by the fact that I’d never see alcohol consumption and relationships like others would. I desperately wanted to just be like my friends, even if it meant painfully pretending like nothing ever happened to me. I’d later learn that my refusal to embrace my pain made me feel even worse.
In high school, I found myself surrounded by everything I needed to ruin my life. I pretended to be comfortable and pushed down my sense of panic when friends from home drank. I used our school’s infamous “hook-up culture” to hide the fact that I was scared to make emotional connections because of how my father treated my mom. I held back screams when confronted with the anger of others. But I didn’t want anyone to walk on eggshells around me, either. I was never the girl who kills the vibe with a traumatic flashback, but part of me didn’t want to give myself the chance to have a happy life away from the unhealthy culture I’d been overwhelmed with in my childhood. In my mind, what happened to me made me different from my friends at Andover; I was cursed to live a life devoid of happiness, but they weren’t. After I left early, I scrolled past pictures of them making gingerbread houses in our dorm on the Andover Admissions Instagram page while I waited in the psychologist’s office to begin another grueling session of exposure therapy. Yay me.
Pushing down my feelings so I could look “chill” in front of my friends led to my spiraling out of control. During treatment, I learned that suppressing natural reactions to triggering events was unfortunately common among people with PTSD. We try so hard to be “normal” that we forget about healing ourselves and moving on. With my psychologist’s help, I committed myself to trying to move on. After I returned to school for the new year, I tried to bring with me what I learned through treatment. The most challenging thing was prioritizing my mental health over trying to fit in with my friends. Sure, it’s earned me a label of “goody two-shoes” or “self-righteous” here and there, but I don’t care anymore. Survivors should be allowed to move on from their trauma without worrying about how others will think of them.
Maybe people like me do deserve happiness after the storm. No one should deprive themselves of the emotional space they need to heal, because at the end of the day, we’re still people. I’m trying to learn that I’m more than a couple rotten years of my life, and I don’t need to put up with it when the behavior of others trigger bad memories for me. The best advice anyone struggling with trauma can receive is to put themselves first. For me, that means being okay with being left out of the party. It means finally being okay with the idea that I deserve love, and that I deserve a good future away from the past. I’m still working on it, but I’ll be okay one day.
Megan Vaz is a two-year Lower from Weston, Fla. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.