Uncertain Death and Impending Doom—A glance into a day in the life of those who have survived
Originally published – Mar 8 · 5 min read
Have you ever thought you were going to die?
And I don’t mean the everyday fear of death that all humans experience.
I mean, have you ever faced sudden possible death? Have you ever thought, at any moment, that you may die before the next? Has dying ever been that close to you? Has it ever been that real?
Maybe there was a fire and you barely got out in time. Or maybe, you got T-boned at an intersection and as that car slammed into you in slow motion, your life flashed before your eyes. Some people have drowned and survived. Many have gone to war. Some victims of abuse face fear of death or severe harm on a daily basis. The list goes on.
Some of us have experienced this feeling and some of us have not.
Those who have know exactly what I mean. It is that feeling that, at any moment, that car will hit you or that burning ceiling will fall.
I can only describe it as the most extreme and intense feeling of vulnerability. But not the everyday sort. It is the vulnerability that triggers your wildest instincts — the feelings that your life could end in the blink of an eye.
Many who live with PTSD have this feeling all the time.
My severe trauma
I do not share these details of my personal experience because I want a cookie, or extra credit, or a pat on the head.
Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the sentiment beyond measure. But for those of us who are — or have ever been — dis-abled, the focus on our perceived challenges, as opposed to our strengths, can be disheartening.
Yes, we all want our resilience in the face of adversity to be acknowledged for the valuable gift that it is. But sometimes, it feels like our work is honored less, the moment people are distracted by our challenges — not more.
However, no-one wants to hear about what PTSD is like from someone who has never, themselves, been through severe trauma.
Between the ages of 15 and 25, I was raped on multiple occasions, experienced severe and long-term mental abuse and witnessed horrendous acts of violence. I have been threatened, at gunpoint, on more than one occasion. I have been beaten with such brutality that half of my hair was ripped from my head and I was on bed rest for weeks. That is only the blunt tip of the iceberg.
A decade of trauma and degradation has now been followed by a decade of life. I am 35 and soon I will have spent more of my adult life living than I have dying.
Yes, I have been through some shit.
Honestly, when I say it out loud, it is hard to comprehend anymore. It sometimes feels as if I was not even there for any of it. But I was. And the further I am removed from my past life of pain and misery, the more I can see the scars left from my trauma.
They call those scars PTSD.
A day in the life
The longer I am out of danger, which used to be a lifestyle, the more I am aware of PTSD.
It is not, however, because my PTSD gets worse. It is because the safer I am the more I can feel it.
When you live for any period, feeling like your life could end at any moment, you get used to the chemicals your body releases when you are in danger.
There is an instinctual and uncontrollable drive that kicks in when your life is in danger. But when your life is always at risk, you notice it less.
If I had to describe what my PTSD is, simply, it would be that feeling. It is that drive and the sudden need for a reaction that comes with it — when you must suddenly shield yourself or someone you love from harm or uncertain death.
It can be as small as shielding your child with your arm when you have to hit the breaks fast or as big as lifting a car that is crushing someone and is about to explode. That feeling. That’s the one.
My PTSD is that feeling of impending doom in all the wrong places and at all the wrong times. It is that life-threatening feeling when I cross the street or hit my head on the fridge. It is when my heart races because a man’s voice raises.
PTSD doesn’t show up on a calendar or follow any type of schedule. It doesn’t always show up when I am in perceived danger, but it usually shows up when I am safe.
All the wrong places and all the wrong times
We will take me driving through an intersection for example.
Yes, heavy traffic scares me to death, literally. Like, I think I am going to die. I have to do a weird breathing thing to get through it.
But generally speaking, the unexpected smack in the face from my PTSD doesn’t come when I am crossing the busy intersections. It comes when no-one is around.
It is when I am crossing an empty intersection in the middle of nowhere. It happens when there is no logical chance in the world of danger. But that is the elusive shadow of PTSD. It comes when it makes sense the least and when you least expect it.
So, I am crossing. I can see miles in either direction and I know there are no cars in sight.
Across I go, jamming out to Free Fallin like Jerry McGuire. Not a care in the world.
Nothing can hurt me and I am but a free bird crossing this empty and open road.
Bam! Something smacks me out of nowhere and I didn’t see it coming.
I am immediately crushed by anger at me for trusting that safe-looking road and fear of death. My brain releases a magic substance called adrenaline and my body prepares for battle.
That all happens in an eighth of a second. Then, I realize that nothing came at me. There was nothing there. It didn’t happen.
No, I didn’t hallucinate. I saw no actual vehicle flying at me. It didn’t happen and I didn’t even see it. I felt it.
It is difficult for people who have not experienced PTSD to understand how one could be so drastically affected in such ordinary situations. But that is exactly what makes PTSD so debilitating — its ability to make your body react in a way that is not in alignment with your surroundings.
You could reasonably assume that — after that eighth of a second — those afflicted with these moments of dread would be fine.
You may think that once I realize I am okay, intellectually, I will be okay. But that’s the point. I already knew intellectually; I knew the whole time.
The knowing doesn’t stop the reaction in my body. It doesn’t stop my heart racing or my hands shaking. Knowing doesn’t keep the welts from appearing on my body or cure the emotional pain that PTSD forces me to experience repeatedly — without my permission.
That empty road perfectly represents the way that PTSD manifests in all areas of my life. It rears its ugly head the most in places that should be safe havens and it comes when it makes the least sense.
Like many mental health issues, PTSD robs countless humans of their dignity and even their lives. But it is greatly misunderstood. It is hard to imagine what PTSD would be like for someone who has never experienced it. If you are someone who hasn’t, I hope I have helped you imagine.
Written by Holly Kellums
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One thought on “Life After Surviving Severe Trauma | PTSD”
This is a very moving piece, Holly. You are amazing!