Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Living With Post Traumatic Stress

I have PTSD. Well, technically it's just post traumatic stress, because psychiatrists have recently decided it's not a disorder. Anyways, I was diagnosed this fall and I'm seeing a therapist and working on getting better. I know mental health isn't really discussed openly, but this isn't something I'm ashamed of. 

I thought my behavior was just cautious and a little jumpy coming out of Ecuador, until it became clear that it was much more than that. It's not normal to panic when you hear someone running behind you, or to jump out of a cab and flee if the driver shows the slightest sign of disorientation. It's also not normal to lie in bed at night, unable to sleep because of an overwhelming fear that something bad is going to happen. Or to sit in a coffee shop with a racing heart and panic creeping in because a stranger asked you a simple question. And yet, this is my reality. 

I felt weak for a long time. Why could all of my friends handle living in Ecuador without having these intense feelings I had? But I'm not weak. Having post traumatic stress is out of my control and it doesn't matter how 'strong' or 'weak' I may or may not be. All I know is that I interpreted the situation as being a threat to my physical safety, and I was stuck in that situation for so long that the physical sensation of fear became hardwired in my nervous system (especially in the tenth cranial nerve, or vagus nerve, that runs from heart to my gut). Also, women are more likely than men to experience post traumatic stress.

The worst part of this is that I feel profoundly different from the girl who moved to Guatemala years ago. Latin America changed me. I am extremely introverted now. When I moved to Guatemala, I had no problem making friends, and never turned down an invitation. That is not the person who I am today. When I went to Thailand by myself in October, I spent the evenings after scuba class alone in my cabin, except for one night.

Ecuador felt like a war zone to me. I was harassed, dragged down the street hanging out of a taxi, ripped off, chased, grabbed at by strange men on the street, robbed, scammed, followed, and hissed at on a regular basis. I had taxi drivers mess with me constantly, and most of my friends were robbed as well, oftentimes violently. Some were attacked, kidnapped, or assaulted. I don't need to justify my feelings, but for anyone who says it's really 'not that bad' in Ecuador, I have many personal stories that beg to differ.

My brain knows I am in a safe place now, but my body is hard wired to go into defense/panic mode when exposed to the smallest trigger. It's awful. I can't control it, but my heart starts pounding and I feel a sinking sensation in my gut, and I know I've lost control.

I'm a functioning human being with a job, but that's really all I can manage these days. I haven't pursued any hobbies, and I've found it really hard to put myself out there and make friends here. Most nights are spent in my apartment, my safe space, watching television.

It’s hard not to be my best self right now. I’m in Hong Kong, where everyone works hard and plays hard and manages to be fashionable, fit, cultured, and intelligent at the same time. And I’m sitting home listening to folk music, reading books, and doing Pilates, because that’s really all I can handle.


I think recovery is going to be a slow process, but like I said, I'm in therapy and making a real effort to socialize more. The friends I've made here have been really supportive, as well as my boyfriend and my family and my close friends elsewhere. It's good to have that support even though I am far away from my loved ones right now. So... big thanks, guys. Love you all.

23 comments:

  1. Yo Mck-tangzoor! I can only imagine how living under such conditions can make and break you. Honestly, I have always been in awe of how motivated and driven and the willingness you have displayed in putting yourself completely outside your comfort zone. I was in awe, and I was surprised. Surprised because having grown up with you, transitioning from young girls to young women, i have seen you transform yourself into a symbol of strength stemming from this young timid girl, who always kept her nose in her books, safe but uninhibited by your imagination, to a woman I think all girls aspire to look up to. You took your imagination and curiosity and developed those urges through your travels and your work. But the depths to which you extend yourself, have always left me wondering what perhaps the downsides may be to this extraordinary life you lead? In a way I had hoped that it would never come to this, I had hoped that this persona you developed deflected the coupled negativity that is so very much intertwined with the good. Nonetheless, again you AMAZE me… your openness, your clarity, and sense of self… regardless whatever you face, you remain true to yourself. So you face this next challenge, and without doubt you face it head on, deconstructing your own fears, while allowing yourself to be vulnerable. In a time in our lives, the 20s, where mental health is very fickle, predisposed by genetics and experience, you may have to struggle through this period in your life, but you will get through this. Your mind is your stronghold. I have no shade of doubt, that through those beautiful big green eyes you will find a deep sense of calm and peace, and this will all be behind you. You are a prime example of what someone can do when you put your mind to it… not to sound too cliche, but this is undeniably and irrevocably true. Stay strong, stay connected, and don't let this get the best of you. I love you, and I look forward to our next encounter. Love, Marprincessboobooboo

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    1. Mariposa, I want to come visit your Dutch castle I assume you are living in. I miss you loads. and loads. Thanks boo. <3

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  2. It’s hard to comment after Marpessa’s perfect and eloquent response. I agree with everything she writes. You are the most fearless and adventurous woman I know. It makes me so sad that you have to go through this and I just want to hold you in my arms and comfort you. I adore you, my beautiful daughter. Please try to get yourself back out there. That may be the most difficult task of all. But the thought of you sitting at home alone, while your future friends are out having fun is just inconceivable. The next time I see you, someone will have to pry my fingers apart, in order to get you out of my embrace! Mom

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    1. You're always a sentimental cheeseball and then I get home and you're like, 'wanna jump out of a plane with me?!' I have to question how much you really care about my safety....
      Kidding! I really do want to jump out of a plane with you sometime though! love you!

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  3. On Friday night I was walking home from a friend's house. I was joking with the girl I was walking with about PTSD, saying how when a car slows down, it sends me into a panic. We parted ways and moments later a car blaring music (well, blaring for Switzerland), slows down next to me and then pulls over on the other side of the road to park. A guy got out and began following me. I walked for awhile telling myself that I was ok but I was super freaked out. I debated whether to barge in on friends who lived closest to where I was or to call Brendan. I called Brendan who immediately put on his shoes and stood by the door, waiting to run outside. The guy ended up going into one of the houses nearby-he was maybe a security guy? But I stayed on the phone with Brendan the whole time. I was terrified. I laughed about it later with friends but after reading your blog, I felt comforted and also upset that I felt the need to make a joke of what had happened. It's helpful to know that other people feel the same way and don't laugh when I grab my purse when someone gets too close to me. Hang in there McKenzie! Know that you aren't alone! Un abrazo, Lauren

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    1. Thanks for the reply Lauren! I think we always have to be overly cautious as females. I used to walk home with my phone in hand with 911 pre-dialed when I lived in Florida. Not sure guys will ever really understand :/ But we are both in super safe places now! Yay!! Love following your blog and seeing photos of the girls :)

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  5. Growing up as a 2nd generation Colombian American I often confronted very negative and judgmental comments about Colombia. People would make snide drug cartel comments- Is cocaine just everywhere there?- or had a look on their face that said "I'm sorry your country is so scary that I would never visit there." I would constantly defend myself, and while many of the comments were misguided and untrue, I have come to realize that my country is still extremely troubled. I say "my" country, but I really don't know what it feels like to live there day-to-day. The truth is my family has gotten robbed and almost brutally wounded over money many times. I have seen a man grab a women's purse, forcefully swing her around to pry the hands off of it, and pull out a gun, all on the side of a major highway with a group of people surrounding them. No one did anything. I cried because I felt so guilty. And while many things have changed in the last 10 years, Colombia still faces an extremely high poverty rate and unemployment. As a result, crime is still widely rampant. Yet it IS an extremely beautiful and vibrant country. World famous writers, artists, and doctors have come from Colombia. I think what I'm trying to say is that it is important to be hopeful and spread awareness that, while these countries are still suffering, they are trying to get ahead. A lot of it comes from spreading awareness of not only the troubles, but the accomplishments.

    I'm sorry that you encountered such terrible and unjust acts. You are such a strong and intelligent person, so I know you will come back from this with a wonderful new awareness. However, I hope that you will also focus on the great people and things you discovered in Ecuador. I know it's not easy and resentment may be overwhelming, but I hope you can come back and tell everyone both sides of the story. I know you already have from your prior posts while still living there. What happened to you is real and I am so glad to hear that you are taking care of yourself. I am so proud of you for being open and willing to spread awareness about your experience in Ecuador. Like Marpessa said, you are truly someone to look up to. Since I have met you I have known this. You have had a strong hand is shaping who I have become, so thank you for that.

    I look forward to our next adventure-hopefully winter in Hawaii 2014!!!

    Love you McStrudeldoodle

    -Nicole

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    1. Gotta say, I felt WAY more safe in Colombia than I did in Ecuador. It was a pleasant surprise for me. Still hope to travel some more in Colombia with you some day and eat arepas and drink canelazo. <3

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  6. I wasn't surprised when your father shared the PTS diagnosis with me. Actually, I guessed it before he said it. I was also diagnosed with it during my divorce and custody battle. It's hard to live through a daily barrage of violence, threats and feeling attacked and come through unscathed. It's similar to living in a warzone where you are always on the lookout. I felt as though I was dodging grenades on a regular basis. Living at a high level of anxiety takes time to decompress and function normally again. I still wait for the "other shoe to fall." You are doing what you need to do to heal right now. There's nothing wrong with hunkering down and listening to your music and reading. Socializing isn't what you need right now. You are a strong, brilliant and gifted young woman. Listen to your inner voice. I am so proud of you and your many accomplishments. I am most proud of your boundless ability to throw yourself into new situations and embrace the experience. I moved around a lot in my twenties. I moved to places where I didn't know anyone and involved myself in theatre. I loved having a safe haven to return to, to be with my books and my thoughts. You will continue on your journey knowing you are loved by so many people. We are here for you and look forward to Christmas. I had to make myself stop buying gifts for you!

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    1. Uh oh, how many suitcases am I gonna need after winter break to get back to Hong Kong with all my stuff?! Can't wait to be home with you guys too!!!

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  7. McKenz,

    Sending you lots of light and love from across the world. You are brave to share your experiences with everyone and I admire that greatly. Many of us struggle in our own ways and it can be a very comforting thing to know that we aren't alone. It's so important to recognize the effect that each experience has on us (good or bad) and process those emotions properly. You are clearly very self aware, intelligent, loved and supported and I hope you find some comfort knowing this. Thanks for sharing and keeping me updated. You are an inspiration and will come out stronger and truer on the other end. Lots of love. Um bejao. Jenny

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    1. There was definitely good and bad in Ecuador. J-bomba and Lou were the best things to ever happen to me! I say this in complete seriousness: meeting you two was totally worth the post traumatic stress. Besos, McK

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  8. This life, and every life, is an experiment. And like any great experiment people with courage and enthusiasm try to push the boundaries of what is familiar. You have put so much of yourself out there, it's time to come back to yourself and feel comfortable again. But as you sit in your apartment by yourself regrouping, and rekindling your safe inner core, know that you still are the same courageous and enthusiastic woman who started this experiment.

    I hope you aren't feeling guilty about taking this time for yourself. As everyone above has said you have nothing to prove. We all know who you are. And now it's time for just you to do what feels right for you. And take your time, this is a very long experiment you are involved with and you have many loving friends and family waiting to help you in anyway you need. As part of this help I am sending a letter to Ecuador telling them to get their shit together. We are going to have a fabulous time when you get home.

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    1. You don't need to send a letter to Ecuador, just to the robbers. Say, 'hey guys, Jesus is watching.' I hear they respond well to that.
      Can't wait to see you fajja!

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  9. MckTasty-kins,

    Firstly, I love you. I love you so much. After reading this post, I wished with all my might I had just enough funds for a roundtrip ticket straight to you. It's unbearably hard to realize how far away I am from you. Secondly, I agree with Wanda, Marpessa put everything so clearly and eloquently and I agree with all she said. From the time you started drifting around the world, I have been in constant amazement at how you made it happen. You saw what you wanted, and pursued it until you had done it. Not only did you graduate before many of us did, you did it with a Master's AND traveling to what, like 33 different countries!? When I think about you, as I often do, I see you in all your glory- your intelligent, charming, witty, stunningly beautiful and sometimes utterly disgusting self :) I think you are incredibly brave for putting this out there. I can't imagine how many people go through their lives trying to hold all this in, and by the end of it, they just shut the world out. Don't you dare feel guilty about taking time for yourself. You deserve it, my love. I hope you can find a shit load of sunflower seeds, curl up and watch a marathon of Buffy. You can use my Netflix account if you don't have one. I'm so proud of you for reaching out for help and support when you need it. It is so unfair that you have to go through this, but if anyone could work through it and come out the other side of it as a stronger person, it would be you. I'm here for you, and I love you and I cannot wait to hold you in my arms. In the mean time, please listen to this:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9jqGSYJd5fE
    and if that link doesn't work, find it on the tube under "Oliver heart, I'm here for you"

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    1. I wish I had a round trip ticket to see you just so I knew where the heck you are currently! Alaska? Wisconsin? The Great Barrier Reef? Sunflower seeds and Buffy... you can't even imagine how many nights here are spent on sunflower seeds and Buffy.... hahahahaha. <3

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  10. MckDillPickle,

    I am sorry you are struggling so much. I can completely empathize with the fact that PTSD can just kind of become your "default setting," and you don't even realize that it is something that can be worked through and addressed. You kind of just accept it as your reality.

    I know you are struggling right now, but you should know that I have always envied your bravery. You are the embodiment of the courage that I strive to have in my own life, and regardless of what you are going through, you will never be viewed as or considered "weak" in my mind. You deserve this time to focus on yourself, be introverted and heal. You are brilliant, bold and beautiful no matter what you're going through. And I will continue to follow through on my promise to visit you in every country you live in, no matter where it is and no matter how you're feeling while you're there.

    I love you!

    -Natalie

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  11. I've adopted the tactic this year of just punching every cab driver in the ear as I give them their fare, yelling, "For McKenzie!". Okay, maybe that's just the little day dream I have whenever I think about your general experiences with them. Catharsis aside, I believe in few things as much as I do your strength. I know that you will do what you need to do to deal with this, and then be able to move on. And although it may feel like you are in Hong Kong by yourself, it is clear from these comments that you are not.

    Love,
    Andy

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  12. MckDillPickle, McK, MckTasty-kins, McKenz, McStrudeldoodle, Mck-tangzoor: best part of this whole comment section.

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  13. Ecuador felt like a war zone??? FOR REAL? in that case, it must be un infierno to live in this country as we ecuadorians do and deal everyday with that stuff..!! C'mon, every ecuadorian should visit a psicologist now because they may have as well PTSD!

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    1. Not that I need your validation, but you do acknowledge that some of this sounds familiar. Quito can be hit or miss, some people get by with no negative incidences, and some people experience danger and violence. It seems to me that it doesn't matter how much you are aware of it, whether you travel in groups at night time, drive with the windows up, or avoid certain neighborhoods, being robbed or attacked is mostly random and anyone can be a victim, local or foreigner, female or male, young or old.

      No two people have the same reaction to a situation. Just because I developed symptoms of post traumatic stress doesn't mean it's an issue for everyone else. It also doesn't mean that I am 'weaker' than everyone else. I'm not really sure what point you were trying to make here, maybe it was supposed to be an insult, but I hope you manage to be open-minded and accepting of the fact that we all experience stressful situations differently.

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