So, last night, I linked one of my more recent posts to a friend of mine on Steam who plays several of the same games I do. It was my feminist analysis of one of those games, and she decided to read more of what I wrote throughout the blog. We’re both aces, but she remarked that it seems that being trans is far worse than being ace. I remarked that it’s the intersection of those identities, along with all of my other ones (including baggage) that forms who I am. She also remarked that it seemed impossible for anyone to come out of this war without it. I briefly hinted that my PTSD goes further than that, from my childhood, but did not go into specifics. Today, I’m going to go into some specifics so I can make some other things clear. So settle in folks, because this is not gonna be a happy one today.
I’m not going to spell out every trauma of my life, but I will discuss one specific event, just to give you an idea. My father had decided to punish me, I honestly forget what for, especially seeing as punishment of this sort was common in the household. The typical punishment I received for just about anything was about 10-20 lashes with the belt, which my dad justified using by saying that he “didn’t want to hurt me with his hand.” Never mind that he ended up doing that as I got older far more often anyways. Anyways, after my beating, he told me to get a bath and go to bed. I locked myself in the bathroom, crying and screaming at him that I would call child protective services on him for abuse. He merely suggested, calmly, that they wouldn’t do anything about it. That I wasn’t worth their time. Later that night, after he had gone to bed, I snuck into the kitchen, opened up the knife drawer, and began searching for one that would properly make it through my sternum and pierce my heart.
I was only 7 years old at this time. I stopped myself just short of following through, with the knife to my breast. But here’s the thing, that was one small trauma in a lifetime of traumas that I experienced. While many would simply say that I (and others with PTSD) just need to “get over it,” it’s not that simple.
Simply put, mental illness is also a physical illness. Many forms of mental illness are brought about by physiological irregularities, such as schizophrenia being caused by an overabundance of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Interestingly enough, Parkinson’s is brought about by a lack of that same neurotransmitter. Depression is caused by too much or too little of a couple neurotransmitters in specific regions of the brain. However, in other mental illnesses (such as PTSD), something external happens that causes the illness, which in turn causes physiological changes. Depression can also work this way sometimes, where a more normal depressive episode (such as the loss of a loved one) causes long term physical changes in the brain resulting in a depression that doesn’t go away.
The changes that are most pertinent for a layman’s understanding of PTSD are the effects of cortisol (the stress hormone) and epinephrine/norepinephrine (adrenaline). In short, at normal, calm moments, someone with PTSD actually has lower levels of cortisol but higher levels of adrenaline than are normal. Essentially, even when calm, someone with PTSD is in a constant state of “fight or flight.” However, whenever a stressor of some sort occurs, both of these chemicals have levels that skyrocket, pushing the body beyond fight or flight into life threatening situation. This occurs no matter how minor the trigger. Being misgendered, for example, results in much the same hormonal and neurological changes in me that someone coming at me with a knife would. In fact, just a week or so ago, I got misgendered on campus, with someone I had just passed doing the whole “that’s a man! Dude, that’s a man!” routine for a good minute or two until I was out of earshot. Being in public in downtown Atlanta, I was already running through scenarios in my head of someone (or multiple someones) trying to mug me, and how I would deal with them. I was completely calm doing so. However, when this incident occurred, my body reacted in such a way that I NEEDED to have someone attack me in order to let me come down from this surge of adrenaline. I needed some way to burn it off, and unfortunately, nothing socially acceptable to do so was available while walking across campus.
So, the next time someone with a mental illness comes to you for support, think twice before saying any variant of “just get over it.” One that I remember distinctly was “it’s all just chemicals.” Well, yeah, all of life is “just chemicals.” But those chemicals and how they work are what makes our lives the quality they are.