Veterans with PTSD are more likely to be diagnosed and receive treatment, but our suffering is just as valid.
Tom Daley, the 22-year old British Rio Olympics hopeful and 2012 Olympic bronze medalist, came out publicly several days ago about suffering Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after a dive gone wrong when he was distracted by a camera flash at the London Olympics.
Every time I share with someone who doesn’t know me well that I, too, have PTSD, they respond by asking, “Isn’t that for Veterans?” What I’ve found is that most people want invisible illnesses to stay silent.
It is true that many Veterans have PTSD. In America, 11-20% of Iraqi Veterans have PTSD in a given year and 12% of Veterans from Desert Storm suffer from it as well. In the most recent study, in the 1980s, 15% of Vietnam Veterans still live with the condition. Combat exposure is one of the most common causes of PTSD in men, but so is rape, childhood neglect, and childhood physical abuse. For women, the most common causes are rape, sexual molestation, physical attack, being threatened with a weapon, and childhood physical abuse.
So, like Tom Daley exhibits, clearly it is not just Veterans who are likely to suffer from PTSD, though their statistics are high. Does this invalidate the traumas non-Veterans endure?
The assumption that only war survivors suffer from the condition largely ignores the existence of Complex PTSD, which occurs in people exposed to prolonged trauma, most commonly children under the age of 7 who are abused by their primary caretaker. This abuse can be physical, sexual, or psychological, and all of these are processed by the brain the same way, therefore having nearly identical effects on the body. Living with Complex PTSD is no different chemically than it would be in a Veteran returning from war with the condition. However, Complex PTSD is often misdiagnosed as Borderline Personality Disorder or Dissociative Disorder. And it’s true, we dissociate. But that’s not the whole story.
Not everyone exposed to trauma walks out of it with PTSD. Roughly 60% of men in America will endure a trauma in their lifetimes, and 50% of women, but not all of those traumas result in the condition. Of those percentages in traumas, 7-8% will develop PTSD. Although, despite the higher percentage of exposure, men are only half as like to develop PTSD as women are.
The reality is that all trauma affects the brain and the body of the survivor nearly the same. Some specific triggers are determined by the traumatizing event, but they all fall within a slightly broader category. My mother and I are both in treatment for PTSD. When she was 10 years old, she was shot in the heart in a “freak accident” in her backyard. She drops into the fetal position whenever she hears a loud noise, much like a soldier might. She can barely breathe some days. Even in her suffering, she has to remind me to breathe whenever I am brought back to a moment with my father. In the trauma sphere, we call these flashbacks. Some nights I wake up screaming. Many women I know are haunted by the day or night their bodies were broken into. Some can’t bear to speak about it. I also know men whose parents beat them, and now they find it nearly impossible to trust people. We all forgot how to breathe at some point. None of these are unusual symptoms of PTSD.
However, sometimes symptoms don’t surface until months or even years after the trauma. I developed PTSD when I was between 4 and 5, but was not accurately diagnosed until I was 20 years old. I have lived most of my life without language for what I’ve gone through.
Whenever someone asks me, “Isn’t PTSD for Vets?” I take a deep breath and slowly begin to offer an expanded definition of trauma, and that no one’s survival through this disorder should be belittled or discounted. Veterans with PTSD are more likely to be diagnosed and receive treatment, but our suffering is just as valid. Our suffering is likely very much the same.
You can’t know someone’s story by looking at them. Sometimes the best offering you can make a survivor of trauma is listening when they finally have the words. I hope the world is listening compassionately to Tom Daley.
Summer Krafft is a writer, playwright, performer, community arts organizer, and teaching artist located in California’s Central Valley. Her other work cane be seen in NAILED Magazine, The Manifest-Station, and Penumbra. Her work tends to deal with themes of love, rage, forgiveness, and the body.