Why I Got PTSD When Starting College
The best four years of your life.
That’s what everyone said college would be. I was ready, or so I thought.
In Fall 2003, I had my game plan: I would take full advantage of being on there a week early for band camp to make friends and feel a sense of confidence and belonging on campus. As one of four hundred members of the Georgia Redcoat Marching Band, I would instantly be part of a community.
I was one of 40 piccolo players in the Redcoat Marching Band, here in Fall 2004 with UGA IV, before seeking help.
It didn’t quite work out that way.
The band members were all either super Christian (I wasn’t really into that) or they got super wasted all the time (I had never drank alcohol and was afraid of drinking underage).
It got worse. Feeling lonely and left out, mid-week when the dorms opened and I officially moved in, something really strange happened.
Not having a car, I begged the bellhop at the conference center to break policy and let me use the tall golden luggage cart my belongings were piled on. I pushed it down the hill to my dorm, signed into the building and carried my stuff up to the second floor.
Exhausted and proud, I stood alone with the unopened boxes in my new room, wishing I could unpack but knowing I had to return the cart and attend evening band practice. I paused to stare off at the sunlit blinds in the late afternoon light, heat and emptiness and stillness surrounding me, when a giant image suddenly appeared before me as if projected on a screen.
Like watching a movie, I saw myself as an 11-year-old child being abused by my stepfather.
Taken aback, after a moment my brain came up with a creative solution to the problem. I imagined a bucket of red paint at my feet, reached down to dip a brush into it, and painted over the image with a big red ‘X’. It disappeared.
I chalked it up to being a random memory coming up. I felt annoyed for it to appear unexpectedly and unwanted, but I didn’t see it as too concerning. For the most part it was just annoying. Yes, I know, I was sexually abused. Like, duh.
The memories continued to pop up without warning. Each time I would reach down and paint that big red X over the image. It disappeared and I went on with my day.
I didn’t understand why my brain kept bringing the issue up. I knew what happened to me growing up, but now I’m an adult and out of the house. Why was this happening?
What I didn’t know was that they were flashbacks, and a symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I had no idea that regular people like me could get PTSD, I thought that was something that had to do with soldiers coming back from war.
As more symptoms began to appear and become increasingly disturbing, I knew deep down that it was likely connected to the abuse but I couldn’t see the direct connection.
For example, I noticed I had this funny reaction of jumping violently and screaming whenever a friend would say my name quietly or touch me on the shoulder. It happened everywhere — in the computer lab, at the library, in class, in the dining hall.
Loud scream. Jumping three feet in the air. Strange looks from strangers. Then me laughing, explaining, “I did it again! That’s just this weird thing I do. It’s sooo funny!”
I took pride in my cool new personality quirk, I thought it was hilarious.
I didn’t know it had a name, “exaggerated startle response,” and it was also a symptom of PTSD.
Other symptoms were less manageable. Repetitive nightmares disrupted my sleep. An intense feeling of dread filled my body and immobilized me when I was supposed to meet up with friends. One day I found myself crying bare-assed on the communal shower floor under ice cold water, awareness clicking in to dimly realize this was very strange behavior and something is clearly wrong.
My sophomore year I sought help. The counselor asked me questions for an hour, then said it would take much more than the six free sessions offered by the University to heal from sexual abuse, and handed me a list of referrals in the community.
I sat stunned, the words blurring on the page. It had taken every ounce of strength I had to show up for that intake, and I didn’t have any money to pay for therapy, that’s why I showed up for the free service that I had seen plastered on countless posters and often mentioned by professors. I knew where to get help, but when I went instead my worst fear was confirmed — Yes, I am in fact fucked up beyond measure and need years of expensive therapy that I can’t afford to get.
It would be another two years before I had the courage to seek help again.
The symptoms became more chaotic. I lashed out at others, pouring an iced coffee on a classmate because she didn’t select me to be on the school paper’s photojournalism staff. I physically attacked my boyfriend with my fingernails and fists. It affected my work performance as well, as I habitually missed staff meetings for my job as a Resident Assistant in the dorms, becoming fired and technically homeless the last two weeks of my Junior year.
Somehow with all of my symptoms, I managed to attend classes and graduate on time, double majoring in Spanish and Journalism.
Finally, the breakthrough came. A friend of mine who had found treatment for her eating disorder told me about a therapy group for adult survivors of child sexual abuse. The group experience was profound, to be in the presence of others this had happened to, who had the same symptoms I was suffering with.
From there I went to the Sexual Assault Center locally in Athens, GA where I was met with understanding, legal advocacy for pressing charges, and gift cards for gas and groceries that made me cry in sheer gratitude at being cared for. I can only imagine it’s what a hurricane survivor feels when receiving bottled water or a warm meal from a stranger. Small acts of kindness such as these can truly take your breath away and create a lifelong memory.
I spent several weeks learning to navigate the public health system. I felt like I didn’t belong, like I wasn’t supposed to be there, a young educated white girl mixed in with tired looking adults who were veterans of the system. I found free community services including a prescription for antidepressants and individual therapy, where I finally learned for the first time that I had PTSD.
My life became an even more intense whirlwind of chaos as I began to integrate my past into my present, but it felt like waking up for the first time. The pain was intense, but at least it finally felt like I was alive and living in the truth instead of a confused haze.
After college I worked for a small paper (and got fired) and then served 3 years in the U.S. Army Bands before earning a Master’s in Counseling. I’ve spent a decade studying trauma to understand what happened to me, heal myself and gain the ability to hold space for others to heal.
I’ve worked as a therapist and a life coach, and it is my mission for the science of complex trauma to become common knowledge. I want to prevent others from spending years lost in suffering and confusion when we now have the knowledge about how trauma impacts the brain and how to heal it.
The amazing thing is, I didn’t learn the truth about trauma or healing from my graduate degree. The knowledge of trauma theory, attachment science and how to heal are still on the fringes in the field of psychology. Mainstream treatment is mainly about changing your thoughts and taking prescription meds.
These tools are helpful, but they are not curative. In my personal study of trauma science I discovered that trauma is energetically held in the body, and it can be released and healed with the simple yet powerful healing modalities of meditation, yoga, journaling, nutrition and healing relationships.
The experience of moving away from a traumatic home is just one trigger that can signal to the nervous system that it is now time to process and integrate the past trauma. Other life transitions can open up past trauma, including divorce or breakups, significant deaths, or a child turning the same age you were when trauma occurred in your own childhood.
When I moved away from the home where I was abused, it was like something broke open and my body attempted to move to a state of relaxation and balance. The healing intelligence in my body knew it was safe enough now to process what had happened and complete the trauma response. It’s really a normal and natural response, but in our disembodied culture without proper professional guidance I was unable to heal on my own.
One question I ask is, how many freshman college students does this happen to? I dream of one day funding research to answer that question, and to put systems in place for colleges and universities to identify students with complex trauma and offer effective healing support.
This is just one small facet of what the effects of trauma look like, and it’s my personal, privileged story, but each angle of progress in this arena effects all of us as a collective. We all interact with survivors of complex trauma every day. At the grocery store, at work, with family and friends. We all know trauma survivors, and every one of us has experienced the micro-trauma of being shamed in some way. We carry these hidden wounds in our bodies, and when the buttons get pushed we react.
The system is broken, it values dollars over human relationships. Every bit of effort to rework that system is honorable and valuable and far-reaching. And each of us can help by doing our part to pause. Before jumping to the conclusion that someone is an asshole, or a narcissist, pause to reflect that maybe they are simply a suffering human being who needs to be seen, understood, and healed.