“Finding Peace in Christ in the Midst of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)” Ensign, September 2020
Lying on an air mattress in New York City, staring at the ceiling, I finally said out loud the words I had been thinking for a while: “I think I’m going crazy.”
My boyfriend, who was with me, didn’t deny it. I’d experienced a lot of turmoil over the summer. I’d gone on a study abroad trip to the United Kingdom, which had been a wonderful experience—until May 22, 2017, when a bomb went off in the Manchester Arena.
Sometimes I can still hear the helicopters and sirens and my roommate’s voice as she told her family over the phone, “We’re just a mile away from the attack; we’re a mile away,” over and over again, and the album of piano music I played to help us calm down. Even today, listening to the album brings that night back into sharp focus; I can’t bear to listen to it.
But Manchester wasn’t the end of it. When we arrived in London, the city was reeling from the Borough Market stabbings and London Bridge attack. Grenfell Tower also burned down while we were there. Smoke from the tower hung heavily in the air, and signs for missing persons hung above the many, many memorials for those lost in these tragedies.
I was supposed to be having the time of my life on this study abroad trip, and instead I was constantly stressed and on high alert. Every day felt like rolling the dice to see what horrible tragedy I would witness again. My fight-or-flight instinct was turned on from the moment I woke up in the morning until the moment I managed to fall asleep at night. I had a constant feeling in the pit of my stomach urging me to run, run, run—but there was nowhere to run to and nothing to run from. I had to forcefully try to suppress my panic.
When I finally returned home after that summer, I was thrilled to put all of those negative experiences behind me. But something didn’t feel right. Every few days I’d have a complete breakdown, sobbing hysterically until the tearing, painful emotions in my chest ceased. Each time, I couldn’t quite explain why I’d gotten upset in the first place. And after each time I would swear to not get upset again. But the distressing feelings would always come back.
While visiting New York with my boyfriend and other friends, I hit my lowest point. We explored the city, and the entire experience felt like one over-stimulating mess. Every time we got in an elevator or went through security or walked down a loud street, my brain went into overdrive. Questions like, “What is that man going to try to do?” “Is there enough security?” and “When something goes wrong, where will I go?” plagued my mind throughout the entire trip.
New York was a turning point. I finally admitted to myself: this was not normal. I’d been blaming my behavior on financial stress or tiredness or my own lack of self-control. But after having a panic attack in Times Square and crying again later in my room that night, I finally realized that my brain was not working the way it was supposed to.
I was no stranger to mental health problems. I had been diagnosed with both anxiety and depression in the past. However, none of my usual coping mechanisms helped in this entirely new feeling I was experiencing. I felt like an observer to my own life—while I watched myself eat, study scriptures, and work, none of those things put a dent in the sticky combination of numbness, sadness, and despair that I had lost myself in.
After returning home from the trip to New York, I decided to meet with a mental health specialist, and I actually mustered up the strength to call someone and set up an appointment. I expected that I would just talk about how miserable I’d felt. Instead, much to my surprise, everything looped back to Manchester and London.
I started with how guilty I felt about leaving Manchester after the bombing and how responsible I felt for the people there. I talked about the constant adrenaline I felt while I was in London. After explaining my feelings, the specialist diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD had never crossed my mind. Sure, what I had witnessed in London and Manchester was traumatic, but in my mind, PTSD only affected people who had served in the military or had experienced seriously traumatic circumstances. My experience didn’t seem to be traumatic enough to trigger PTSD. However, I learned that PTSD can affect anyone who has been through any traumatic experience. And at times, the aftereffects of the trauma can last weeks, months, or even years.
Receiving this diagnosis was a huge step forward for me. I could finally give a name to what I was feeling and experiencing. Understanding helped propel me toward healing. From there, I hoped that there would be a neat, linear path toward healing, but in reality it was only the beginning of my journey.
First, I told my family and boyfriend about my diagnosis, in part as explanation for my erratic behavior that summer and in part to ask for help. Second, I had to start paying close attention to my emotions as compassionately as I could. Before, I had tried to smother or discount my seemingly random feelings of panic, fear, and crushing misery. Now I had to take each one seriously and pay attention to what was adding to those feelings and what helped them recede. I had to actively remind myself that I didn’t need to punish myself for my feelings any more than you would punish someone for having pneumonia.
As I tried to be more honest about my feelings with myself, I also tried to be more candid about them with Heavenly Father. At night, when I prayed to Him, I started giving honest, open updates on what I was feeling. They weren’t pretty or optimistic reports, and feeling the Spirit was almost impossible for me, but I tried to keep faith that if I relied on the Savior’s love and help, He would reach out to me—even if I couldn’t see His hand yet.
My experience with healing hasn’t always been an uphill progression; I still have moments that trigger me. However, I’ve learned that “patiently enduring some things is part of our mortal education,”1 and nothing taught me that more than the slow, sometimes painful journey to wholeness.
In the darkest part of struggling with PTSD, I couldn’t feel happiness or at rest, let alone the Spirit. And it had nothing to do with my lack of spiritual practices—I had been regularly attending the temple, praying, and studying the scriptures to draw closer to Christ, but the turmoil in my mind and heart seemed to block the peace the Spirit brings. But I now recognize that it was only through divine intervention that I survived this dark period intact. I recognize that “during such times, our mere preservation is a tender and powerful manifestation of the immediate goodness of God.”2
When I could not feel Christ reaching me directly, He reached me in ways that I could recognize. For example, He’d strengthened me when I was mustering the willpower—and humility—to ask for help. And my boyfriend (now husband) modeled Christlike love that summer as he stayed by my side and comforted me, even when neither of us really understood what was going on. Other friends and family members also provided valuable resources and comfort.
While this mental health crisis was debilitating, I have tried to make this experience a refining experience, not a defining one, as Sister Reyna I. Aburto suggested.3 I have tried to model the grace that was given to me and be the loving friend that my friends can rely upon. We believe that Christ endured everything and has a perfect empathy, but sometimes He relies on people who have experienced similar things to help others feel His love. I have learned not only how to articulate my own emotions and reactions but also how to listen to and validate others who have suffered in similar ways.
If you have been through a traumatic experience, I can say one thing with certainty: things will get better for you. Enduring trauma means that for a long time after the experience, your mind and heart are still in pain, but they will not be in that state forever. As you work toward healing, acknowledge your own emotions and take them seriously. Be compassionate with yourself, and treat yourself like a friend who is hurting. You may feel lonely, but Christ will not let you struggle alone. When you cannot see Him directly, know that He is in the woodwork of our daily lives, guiding us toward healing and wholeness.
And it does get better. Almost two and a half years after my experience in New York City, I was able to revisit. I stood in Times Square again, and this time I was able to breathe deeply and enjoy the people walking among the panels of lights. I felt a distinctive spark of happiness when I realized I could finally recognize how beautiful everything was and how peaceful I felt. Don’t give up.