Sleeping in a Safety Net: a Metaphor for My PTSD
I recently returned from a month-long trip working and living abroad, in Indonesia. The trip was amazing, but my PTSD presented a fair set of challenges for myself and my roommates. After surviving (and I do use the word ‘surviving’ intentionally) a month living with eight people and my PTSD (because it has a life of its own), it left with me with a lot of reflections on what it’s like to live with the lingering side effects of trauma. Being the Victor of multiple sexual traumas in my life, I now live with PTSD that takes on various forms, and is triggered by a number things. I guess I never realized how much some of my symptoms had become my new normal, until I was faced with sharing a bedroom with someone else, and a home with people I didn’t know. At 28-years-old, I have mastered most of my PTSD side effects, in the sense that I know how to cope with them and I can live a relatively disruption-free life because of the skills I’ve acquired over the years. Like most people who have suffered trauma, certain things can still trigger me. Unfortunately for me, my biggest triggers arise from bedrooms and sleeping, two unavoidable things and two things that caused a lot of grief for myself and others on my trip.
Let me set the stage for you, I travelled to Indonesia with a friend who thankfully knew about my PTSD before we went there, and was supportive of my needs in dealing with my PTSD. However, the seven other people we were going to be staying with were strangers to me, and right off the bat I hit them with my annoying request: “I need my own bed”. For many years, my PTSD has reared its ugly head almost every time I fall into a deep sleep, causing me to rise instantly from bed and run around my home locking doors and barricading myself in my room, until my brain realizes there is no real threat, and then I can go back to sleep. Sounds fun, right? Because I live alone, this is more of an inconvenience that has become the norm for me, but nothing more. The added “threat” of another person in my bed, causes anxiety I can’t even begin to describe.
Because of the lodging situation, I agreed to share a room with my friend, on the one condition that I would be able to have my own bed in the room. However, we realized after booking the villa that there was in fact just one bed in the room, so we had to bring another one in. Here was PTSD inconvenience number one: purchasing and moving a spare mattress into the room.
On the day we moved in the mattress and I was to start the journey of sharing a bedroom with someone, my anxiety kicked in almost immediately. Before my friend had even entered the bedroom, I stared down at the mattress beside my bed on the floor, and my throat just started to feel like it was closing up. I felt short of breath, panicked and scared. I immediately expressed my anxiety to my friend, and bless his heart that he was so understanding through ALL of this process. He came up to the room, and said, “maybe we can close the curtain around your bed at night to give your brain the extra sense of security at night?”. Yes, it was a kind suggestion, but I couldn’t help but think about how this was my life.
The duration of our stay, I had to work very hard to keep my PTSD sleep anxiety at bay, which meant a lengthy process to get to sleep every night.
Check under the bed (seriously)
Position myself in the middle of the bed to allow for the most surface area around my body on all sides
Close the netting around the bed to create imaginary separation between myself and my roommate
Put my headphones in to block out all noise
Turn on a video on my laptop, which was placed beside my head on the bed every night
All of this just to trick my brain into thinking there was nobody else in the room, and no threat in falling asleep. To my credit, it worked almost every night. I only woke up in extreme panic a few times the entire month, and aside from the usual quick wakeup and tossing and turning, I was able to get some sleep while I was there. A true success for me!
While people have been mostly supportive of my PTSD symptoms over the years, sometimes a suggestion is posed that points a touch of blame, though almost always unintended. What I want to express to everyone, is that there is no such thing as an irrational fear when you’ve suffered trauma. Every fear seems very real. When I take a step back, I can see (as I’m a very realistic and logical person) how silly it might seem that I am in essence, afraid of sleeping. But anxiety makes no exceptions, neither does trauma and neither does PTSD. Mental illness, trauma, it can affect anyone. But I share this story not to gather pity or frighten people into thinking PTSD is some inescapable beast. My intention in sharing this story is to show that after many years and a LOT of work, PTSD can still show up. But that’s okay. Every day I get a little stronger, and every day I get a little better. And some days, I get hours of uninterrupted, anxiety-free sleep. Those days are coming more and more often too.
Fear not your experiences or your struggles, they shape us and they don’t have to be burdens. Conversations and honesty can remove the stigma and bring everyone a step closer toward healing.
-Written by Amber Craig