In her own words: living with post-traumatic stress disorder
Sandra, 35, thought she could pull her life back together in the months following a knifepoint rape at her Florida apartment. But weekly rape counseling didn't ease the emotional and physical pain. Sandra had developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
What was your first sign that something was wrong? What symptoms did you experience?
Flashbacks during the day were very frightening and powerful. It's like losing time. During something as normal as washing the dishes, I'd be taken back. My body and mind felt like I was reliving the moment it happened. Flashbacks would last a second, a minute, or longer. I had nightmares at night. It was hard to fall asleep, and I'd wake up, afraid from the nightmare. Days, I was exhausted and had no energy. The slightest noise made me jump. I wouldn't be able to breathe. My heart pounded. I couldn't make simple decisions, like what to wear. I was trying to do things, so I wouldn't get attacked again. I was questioning my decisions. It was hell. I couldn't concentrate. I couldn't even focus long enough to watch TV. My mind was in chaos, jumping from one thought to the next. My friends wanted to talk about it, so it became easier not to be with anybody. I wasn't getting any better after months of rape counseling.
What was the diagnosis experience like?
The turning point came one night in the shower. I broke down crying, sobbing—I just curled up in pain. The emotional pain became so intense; it was a physical pain. Every inch of my body ached, even my toenails. Parts of me that I didn't think could feel were throbbing in intense pain. While I wanted to live, I understood why some people commit suicide. The only way out is to kill the body that is feeling the pain. I knew I needed help and called my mother. Mom wanted to take me to the emergency room, but I was afraid they would lock me away. In the morning, she took me to the county mental health department. A therapist listened to me, then reached behind him, pulled out a book and started reading aloud. The book listed all the symptoms I had told him. Then he told me I had PTSD.
What was your initial and then longer-term reaction to the diagnosis?
My mouth opened wide. What I had was in a book. Somebody else had this. It had been studied. There was a way to get better. I felt so much better knowing there was a name for it. I always associated PTSD with war veterans. I didn't think someone like me could have it. With counseling, I discovered amazing, great things about myself. I had the strength and tenacity to keep going and the ability to get back up.
How is PTSD treated?
I started taking Zoloft. I was afraid to take medication at first. I didn't want anything that could make me numb. I wanted to be alert at all times, so I could protect myself. But I read about the drug and decided to try it. My mom and boyfriend noticed that I stopped snapping at them. And I was able to sleep. Zoloft quieted my mind, so I could concentrate on counseling. The counseling gave me tools to move forward. For instance, breathing exercises to help me work through a panic attack.
Did you have to make any lifestyle or dietary changes in response to PTSD?
No. My boyfriend and I got married. And I needed to do something positive with the anger and rage. So I formed the nonprofit SOAR (Speaking Out About Rape) and share my experience with others, hoping that someone will benefit from it. And I skydive every year on the anniversary of the rape. I could scream at 15,000 feet. And there's an adrenaline rush. I screamed the night I was attacked and felt that flight-or-fight sensation. Later, whenever I was startled, it came back. And my body would ache. I wanted to re-circuit my brain. So now I have good memories of screams and adrenaline rushes.
Did you seek any type of emotional support?
Yes, counseling. And it was wonderful. It's impartial, and you can yell and scream.
Does PTSD have an impact on your family?
My mom and boyfriend were happy they did not have a psychotic person on their hands. They had been tiptoeing around me, afraid to get me upset. They both went for counseling to deal with their own issues. I was very fortunate to have strong support.
What advice would you give to anyone living with PTSD?
I'm a strong believer in counseling. You can't pop a pill and expect the feelings to go away. You have to share what's inside, or it will seep out. The more you talk about it and process it, the more it loses some of its power.