Mental Illness is Not Weakness

A few days ago while addressing a group of veterans, Donald Trump said that strong people can handle trauma without getting PTSD. In effect, he was stating that only the weak are susceptible to mental health issues after they experience trauma.

I myself suffer* from PTSD. My case arises not from wartime trauma, but from physical, mental, and sexual abuse. The idea that people with PTSD—and really, people with any mental health issue—are somehow too weak to deal with the fact that life sucks sometimes, and that we need to buck up, get over ourselves, and move on, is prevalent in society. In my case, it’s a belief that hinders my recovery.

I was diagnosed with PTSD about a decade back. At the time, I didn’t really know what the diagnosis meant. I thought PTSD was something ONLY combat veterans had, and thus I thought my doctor was joking. I’d never had to experience the horrors of dodging bombs and watching my buddies get blown apart. What kind of whiney bitch did my doctor think I was, that I would be as traumatized by my own experiences as a combat veteran would be by theirs?

I dismissed the diagnosis and refused treatment of any kind. I didn’t even investigate what PTSD was, or how it might affect my actions. I even went so far as to have that—and my other diagnosis of bipolar—removed from my medical records. I didn’t want to suffer the stigma. I didn’t want people to think I was weak or attention-seeking.

Then, a few years ago, I went through a period of very high stress in my life. The stress coincided with, or perhaps triggered, a severe manic episode, and I started writing obsessively and behaving a little oddly. My husband at the time became pretty snide about it. His behavior triggered something in me that sent me over the edge, I guess because it in some ways mirrored the behavior of a person from my past. He started to smell like this person, and sound like him. Whenever he would say something unkind to me, my emotions became uncontrollable: I’d get really, really angry, or hurt, or hysterical. I began avoiding him, disappearing for weeks on road trips.

The situation became a sort of feedback loop: the more emotional and erratic I became, the more critical my husband became of me. He told me I was an immature loser and that he was done with me, and kicked me out of the house on a couple occasions. For my part, I was drinking heavily and, eventually, cheating on him.

I wanted to either act “right”, or leave, but I literally couldn’t bring myself to do either. I was terrified to be alone, yet incapable of pulling myself together the way my husband wanted me to. I would watch myself do incredibly self-destructive things and be absolutely powerless to stop.

It’s hard for me to say that: absolutely powerless to stop. After all, lack of self-control is the ultimate weakness. I told myself, day in and day out, that my marriage and my life were in shambles because I was too weak to fix them. If I’d had any control over my emotions and behavior, I would have been able to make my husband love me again.

I was already in a severe depressive episode when my husband finally served me with divorce papers, on the day after Valentine’s Day. I had a suicide attempt (a fairly halfhearted one, since the means at hand were poor), and finally ended up in a mental health crisis center where they said, no really, you have PTSD and bipolar disorder, and we’re going to help you with them.

I’d never been able to stay on medication before. I thought the whole point of pills was to dull your brain and render you inert, so you wouldn’t cause problems for yourself or those around you. I thought they’d kill my creativity and prevent me from going manic; that I’d never have fun or feel any real feelings anymore. After all, pills couldn’t fix what was wrong with me, because they couldn’t cure weakness or repair personality flaws.

But I stuck with treatment this time, because I was tired of my life being unstable, and I had a kid to stay alive for. I didn’t know what else to do. I had to try something.

After trying a lot of different horrible meds, I was finally put on a combination that didn’t make me feel like a disjointed, sleepy puppet from the dream dimensions. It actually made me feel better.

The first time I realized they were working correctly was when I got into a very stressful situation. I’d been in the same situation before, when I was unmedicated, and I’d reacted very badly. My anxiety, self-loathing, and other distress had swelled up in me until I couldn’t see; the only thing left in me were those feelings, and so they were all I had that could inform my actions. When you feel like that, you can’t behave in healthy ways. You want to destroy yourself so that you don’t feel like that anymore. However, with the medication, I was in control, and not my emotions. I was still upset, yes, but my feelings didn’t send me skidding into the walls off-kilter.

That’s when I realized I’d never actually lacked self-control. My brain just worked differently than most people’s, and pretty much anyone would have acted the same way if they’d felt like I had when I’d done those self-destructive things. This was probably the most amazing self-realization of my life.

Some people might still think I’m weak—Donald Trump maybe thinks he’d be able to go through what I’ve gone through, and still be his pompous, egotistical self. And maybe I am more susceptible to PTSD than others, because of my bipolar, or for some other reason. I don’t know.

I was in the supermarket once and saw a young woman with no arms, using her bare feet to grab cups of yogurt from the cooler and put them in her cart. I tried not to stare, but it was pretty amazing to me. I’m sure it wasn’t amazing to her, though: it was just what she had to do, because she had no arms. No one with any scrap of insight would call that woman weak. I would even make the claim that nothing was wrong with her whatsoever. If she broke her ankle, it would probably affect her life more than it would someone who had arms, but that still doesn’t mean she’s weak. She’d just have to cope in different ways.

Those of us with neurodiversity and mental illness are not weak. We just have to learn to cope differently than other people. I actually think that my experiences have given me more self-knowledge, depth of character, compassion, and insight into the human condition than someone like Donald Trump will ever have. And that isn’t a disability: it’s a beautiful thing.

*I use the word “suffer” intentionally here. I would not use this word with any other sort of neurodiversity (and whether PTSD is truly a neurodiversity, I will leave others to argue, because I think each individual can choose for themselves how they want to identify). However, PTSD is unlike bipolar, ASD, schizophrenia, and other diagnoses that are an organic part of the brain. PTSD is caused by trauma, is preventable and, unlike those other diagnoses, has no component to it that I would call desirable (and yes, I think that neurodiversity can be a good thing, though there are some struggles that definitely go along with it).

Elizabeth Roderick is an author. Many of her books deal with neurodiversity and abuse issues.

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