The Elephant(s) in the Room

For quite some time now, a daunting assumption has grown into empirical fact for me from plenty of corroborating evidence (and that evidence not only coming from my own life and experiences, but from hearing other people’s stories as well): (Complex) Post-traumatic stress disorder is an invisible illness as the injuries don’t readily manifest on the outside. This might sound mundane, but I think, it isn’t. For while people with more apparent injuries or illnesses can at least enjoy some level of understanding and compassion in the general public, people with invisible, “mental” illnesses can’t hope for being met this way as their injuries reside hidden from the public eye and as those never having battled with such conditions often fail to understand what particular challenges they pose (as they lack the experience and IMO competence in dealing with those challenges). What is more, those battling “mental” illnesses (need to) hide their ailments as best as they can, because these western, competitively organized societies simply leave no room for vulnerabilities of any kind and as vulnerabilities usually get exploited to give someone else an advantage. I would think that the same is true for almost any illness that is broadely categorized as a “mental” illness. (I keep putting quotation marks around mental, because I think it’s a misnomer. I have found that – except for maybe schizophrenia – most people with some sort of emotional injury sport minds that don’t work all that different or not at all different from anybody else’s. What sets them apart are the non-ordinary outcomes of unfortunate events in their lives they do their best to accommodate and which often leaves them operating in some kind of ongoing “emergency mode”).

I call it the elephant in the room, because for me dealing with the extremely distressing – and often embarrassing – outcomes of complex PTSD meant to allocate a large portion of my overall energy and attention to concealing the physical manifestations resulting from anxiety or panic attacks that sometimes got close to dissociating (and an experience of getting retraumatized in 2009 actually manifested an extremely progressed and disstressing bout of dissociation). Dealing with this illness often felt like trying to order an elephant around and keep it from stomping down everything around him, be it the capping of physical symptoms or emotional overreacting due to triggers getting activated from something someone says or does. However, just like a real elephant, I was never able to completely hide the underlying disturbances simply for their sheer magnitude. And sure enough – whatever “aberant” behaviour shone through, I got penalized and sanctioned for it, where getting bullied was the most common response to a behaviour of mine that may have gone only a hair beyond the threshold of the accepted norm (while I had already and virtually suffocated myself with impulse control). I say “a hair” beyond what’s accepted, because acting on my genuine impulses would have probably gotten me in really deep trouble and potentially at cross with the law at some point. The pressure coming from the need to hide this elephant puts more stress on a survivor of PTSD – or possibly anyone dealing with and concealing a “mental” illness. (I shouldn’t even employ the wording any longer as I find it to be an additional stigmatization of the affected individual)

And there is another elephant, possibly even more grave and limiting one than the first – at the very least an isolating one: Opening up and speaking about your troubles to friends or otherwise inclined people sympathizing with you often proves to backfire in ways that single you out even more. What I’m trying to say is that time and again I have experienced that those who make an effort to listen in the first place quickly move on to invalidating you and your experienced reality as if it were just a mirage or a figment of your own imagination, as if everything you’ve ever felt or thought had all come from a place of sickness and despair, as if you lacked any signs of good judgement in regards to your experiences, intuition, self-compassion. I find this to be truly mind-blowing, but more importantly, blatantly disrespectful, if not plain degrading! It’s actually an expression of incapacitating a person suffering from the outcomes of emotional injuries and as such discriminating to the n-th degree! It’s as if the “coalition of the healthy (or healed)” turned against you and dictated the course of action, ripping you from any shred of autonomy or even just willingness to take responsibility for your thoughts, actions and healing trajectory. It brought me to a place where I no longer think, it’s a good idea to talk about any of the challenges I have not only faced, but many times braved, in so far as reprimand is quick to follow on the foot of opening up. In yet shorter words: Trusting and becoming vulnerable has never yielded a good outcome for me, not even minor relief. I’m sharing these fairly devastating findings as I seem to see a pattern here that derives from the general societal conditioning and programming we’re all subject to. And that pattern reads: “Being vulnerable equals weakness.” From my own experience and empirical evidence, I think that’s the biggest misconception about individuals suffering from outcomes of emotional injuries anyone could possibly have! Because I think that the exact opposite is true: He or she who has battled one or the other “mental” illness was forced to muster insane amounts of courage and personal strength simply to just get by for all this time!

To me, it’s one of the saddest and poorest aspects of our (western) societies that we simply allow no commonly accepted, let alone practiced concept of holding the space for he or she, whom struggles with personal issues of whatever nature. We may drop a nickel into a vet’s coffee cup at the mall, we may support charities that benefit people with apparent illnesses, we may readily help those who are challenged in some physical, visible way. But I haven’t found good places outside the conventional medical context – and hardly ever within, either! – , where simply standing with he or she undergoing a darker patch of road was an accepted and employed course of action. A very select few exceptions may apply or else I might not even be here any more. But by and large and from 50 years of living with the outcomes of C-PTSD, this is what I see in regards to how society responds to me or others stricken with the outcomes of grave emotional injury as a result of (violent) abuse of one or the other kind. Correct me, if you feel I’m in the wrong here. But those are my preliminary findings.

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