With June being Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Month, I thought it was as good a time as any to open up, and expose myself a bit, about a very personal issue that has had control on my life for years, and has really changed & sculpted who I am as a person. Living with PTSD is no joke! And unless you have it, or have had it, I don’t think you can ever truly understand it. But, I am ready to share my experience, and hope it helps someone, somewhere understand it a little bit better. I am a survivor. And I’m proud of how far I’ve come.
Get a snack, get some tissues and a nice hot cup of tea. It’s going to be a long one.
Before I get too deep into it, I just want to say that am I, by no means, looking for sympathy or for people to feel sorry for me. I want to share my story, and let people know that they are not alone. I have been blamed for what happened to us so many times, I have actually lost count (which I will cover in another blog later this month) and I felt alone for so long in my pain, that it’s so important to share and raise awareness that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a VERY real thing.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, communally known as PTSD, is a mental health and stress related condition which causes high levels of anxiety and visual flashbacks that can be brought on by someone experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. Events that can trigger PTSD include, but aren’t limited to, near-death experiences and accidents, physical & sexual assault, something as awful as being involved in war, long term exposure to abuse of another or even a traumatic break-up. It can happen to any one, at any age. But, they do say that women are twice as likely to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder than men.
It has been one hell of an emotionally draining, strenuous, agonizing journey, and something I still fight with every single day of my life. Some people’s PTSD lasts a week, others can last a life time, sometimes it only starts effecting the person years later. It can totally consume you or it can be water off a ducks back eventually. I wish the latter was the case for me. But, it’s now a part of who I am at the moment, and we can deal with that. And I have accepted it. And hope that one day, it will be a thing of the past.
So, my story is a lot like many in South Africa, and all over the world, actually, and trust me when I say that I know how lucky I am, and how lucky we were, to have got out alive and physically unharmed.
In early January of 2015, Gustav, myself and a close male friend were dropping another work-friend off close to home, after a long night at work, in the early-ish hours of the dawning morning in Salt River, near Groote Schuur Hospital, when we were hijacked at a Petrol Station by four men with guns. They may have taken my beautiful, brand new car and all of it’s contents – but they took so, so, so much more from me than just my possessions.
The first hour after the incident was traumatizing on it’s own. I remember sitting in a heap on the very cold floor of the Petrol Station shop after getting away from the guys, who took their sweet time searching my body for possessions, double checking my front and back pockets, very slowly. They even took the money that was in my hand ready to pay the petrol attendant. I remember hearing them drive off with MY car and looking up to see Gustav in front of me, unharmed after what felt like hours. I remember hearing our friend call my sister to get my mom to come and help us (as we were now stranded 42kms away from home, car-less, money-less and Gustav and I were now phone-less) and cleverly calling to stop all of our bank cards. I remember, when the owner of the Petrol Station arrived, and repeated over & over that he didn’t believe what had happened because ‘it had never happened before‘. I remember speaking to the policeman who wanted details that I didn’t know I remembered yet, and when he got stern with me, I remember wondering if he had ever personally been through what had just happened. I remember being made to watch the CCTV video footage of what had happened, and how the whole incident happened in less than 2-minutes, if felt like an out of body experience. I remember my sister and mom arriving to come and pick us up, and I remember holding my mom for ages feeling so grateful to have had the opportunity to do so again, and I remember leaving the petrol station in my step-dads car and falling asleep for the whole ride home, curled up on Gustav’s lap in the back seat almost immediately.
The first 24 hours after the incident is a bit of a a horrific, hellish blur. I remember telling my mom, in a panic, sometime in the morning that I had post with my address on it in the car, which now was in the hands of some bad people. I remember waking up at home, sometime much later in the day and my mom had already had all the locks on the doors changed by a locksmith. I remember, but very vaguely, sitting on the edge on the bath after my shower, wrapped in an ice cold towel, with tears running down my face and my mind running through everything that had happened that morning. I know my dad came to visit me sometime that day, and the knock on the door gave me such a fright, I stopped breathing for a second and then started to cry, and then I know that Gustav went to work that night, and I cried at the thought of him being in a car, and made him promise me a hundred times over that he wouldn’t take the route we had been on the night before. My sister slept in my bed with me that evening until Gustav got home, when I cried that he was safely home with me. I remember almost nothing else of that day.
The first week after the incident was horrible. Every single thing was a trigger. What had happened played over and over in my head, non-stop – awake or asleep. Every time someone asked about it, I basically relived that moment over and over and over again, to the finest detail that I could remember at the time. I remember taking what felt like forever to get in the car to go to work that first night back, three days after the incident, because I didn’t want to be in control of the car and get us into another situation of danger, but I didn’t want to not be in control to be able to save us either. So, Gustav suggested I drove. On my way to my first shift of work after the incident, a man selling magazines at a robot stuck his hand through the sunroof of the car I was driving, and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. At work that night, everyone shared their condolences and love and wanted to know every little detail of what happened. So, that night, I relived the incident over and over and over again, until I had to get back in a car, in the dark, and drive home again – to a place where, in my mind, the people who had done this terrible thing to me knew where to find me.
The first month after the incident was trying. I realized I had a very serious problem – I was scared of living life, and I felt that nobody understood that I was feeling. Even the people who had been in the incident with me didn’t understand what was happening in my head because I felt that I was reacting so much worse than they were. I quickly learned that three people will never take the same feelings and experiences away from an incident and this was a road I was going to walk alone (although, that being a little dramatic sounding, because I was never really alone). Although I was surrounded by people who were trying to understand by my side – I still felt completely alone in my head. I remember my heart skipping a beat every time there was a knock on my front door (this went on for the rest of my time living there – which was until December last year). I remember learning that there were certain places I ‘couldn’t go‘ or drive in to anymore, places I associated with being unsafe, and that there were now things I wouldn’t be able to do because they caused me to have panic attacks before leaving home. And that not everyone would understand this. I remember battling to find parking close to a restaurant in the Cape Town CBD about three weeks after the incident, and having to walk a city-block at dusk, and having a total meltdown in the street because I needed to cross the street and there were men standing on the other side of the road where I needed to be, and making Gustav take me home because I just ‘couldn’t‘ do it. My feet wouldn’t let me cross that road and I couldn’t explain it. In that first month had to deal with insurance and paperwork to get a new car, a new phone, and then have to deal with getting a new drivers license and replace all of my bank cards that were in my purse, (let alone replacing everything else that was in the car), spent days on end on the phone with the police officer who had come in at the end of my interview on the day of my incident, who I think was trying to council me, but left me feeling helpless and without answers more than give me the help he thought he was.
The first year after the incident was difficult. I soon understood what my PTSD was doing to my life and how IT was in total control of what I did, where I went, how I dealt with situations and what triggered panics & heart-stopping moments, and I had no control of any of it. I remember people asking me for lifts home to places I ‘couldn’t go‘ and them not understanding why I couldn’t go there, and getting angry at me for not being able to help them. I remember starting a new job and my new job not understanding why I couldn’t go to Woodstock or Salt River and making me go there, park my car and walk in that area during the day, around once a week for six months – and me just doing it, because I really wanted the job. Every single one of those trips made me drive passed the place where my life had changed forever and re-live, over and over and over again what had happened to me. One of those trips ended very quickly when a man ran up to the car with a pocket knife and tried to open my door, just outside of a takeaway lunch shop that the job made us go. And still, nobody could understand why I ‘couldn’t do‘ these things and go to these places.
The first three years after the incident have been a painful, learning journey. I’ve turned down a huge social event because I couldn’t use the highway that lead there, because my ‘safe’ road was closed. I remember getting a call from a friend one afternoon, around almost two year ago, letting me know two of our friends had been in a serious accident, and I needed to get to them at Groote Schuur Hospital. I knew I had to go to the hospital, but I remember standing frozen in my tracks at my front door with my keys in hand for a couple of seconds, talking myself into going. I quickly worked the route out in my head (avoiding the no-go areas) and readied myself to leave the house, and had to remind myself why I was doing this the whole 42km drive there. I remember getting in my car to leave a dinner in Tokai, one night about a year ago, and realizing that was the first time since my incident that I had driven myself to dinner, and driven myself home, in a car alone. I still ‘cannot’ go to a lot of those places, and it has really affected my living in and enjoying being in Cape Town.
But now, almost four years after my incident, I’m at least able to live a relatively normal life, with my set things in place to curb my anxiety. I am able to openly speak about what happened to me, and although I only went to see a trauma counselor once, I do feel that the love and support of my close family helped me work through a lot of the big issues. I’ve got a great few ‘safe’ places that have allowed me to redesign my life to be okay and keep the PTSD calm. Although my PTSD follows me like a shadow and is always in the forefront of my mind, it no longer has total control of me. It has affected my jobs, my traveling, my social life and my ability to be spontaneous, because I cannot leave the house without meticulous planning of the route we will take, knowing where I’m going to be able to park and how far the door is from where I park – and if there are alternatives if the parking I have seen is full. I have never gone to a Petrol Station, anywhere in the world, and not thought about what happened to me. It took years, as in I realized a couple of months ago that it was no longer happening, before I could get into a car without thinking about what happened to me.
So, when someone says that they are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, don’t shrug it off as them being dramatic, or as them looking for attention. Because it’s a VERY real thing, and you have to accept that you’ll never understand what is going on in someone else’s head. So be kind, listen to them and don’t force them into situations that you deem safe or a non-trigger, because you will never know how much damage you’re doing, even when you think you’re trying to help them.
If you’re feeling that you or a loved one is needing to speak to someone, please call The South African Depression and Anxiety Group hotline on 011 234 4837 or call LifeLineSA on 0861 322 322. The first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem, and that you need help. Please get help! Speak to your loved ones and try and open up about your feelings whenever they surface. If you need to seek medical / professional counselling, please do so. You’re not alone! It may only take a couple of session of speaking to someone to help easy the initial anxiety, and possibly even for someone to diagnose you and offer you more permanent assistance in serious cases. And if you don’t have someone close to you to speak to, I am no trauma counselor, but I’m happy to listen, so my mailbox and social media inboxes are always open if you need to talk.
Stay Golden Beautiful People x
Just a little FYI ~ My car was actually found the same day it was stolen in Manenberg, but it took the SAPS Impound six weeks to contact me to come and collect it, which obviously was too late as I had already had to submit my insurance claim. They never caught the guys who hijacked us, because there was no evidence pulled from my recovered car due to the time lapse between when it was found and when it was connected to being my reported, stolen car. They pinned the whole incident to some ‘gangsters’ needing to get home, and using an armed hijacking as the method of choice. The case was never closed, but no work has been done on it since June of that year. And I have never felt more like a tiny fish in a massive pond of crime and bad management in our beautiful country.
As a disclaimer ~ my PTSD is an incredibly selfish little demon bugger. I speak of ‘me’ and ‘I’ because MY life is run my MY PTSD and I often forget that I was not alone in the incident, and it can get really mean and nasty sometimes. So, by no means am I ever forgetting that I had my boyfriend by my side in the incident and every step of the way. I still honestly believe that having Gustav there with me that morning saved my life, and I don’t know if I would be alive without him having been there with me. All of my parents and Gustav have been incredibly supportive of me along the way. I do not write this to look for people to feel sorry for me, or victim blame me, but to share a story of a seemingly normal person who has may demons running around and to share a story to let others who are going through the same know that they are not alone. I am thankful that Gustav, Andre and I are safe every single day, but I know that as much as we want to forget what happened to us, I know we never, never will. And I am very grateful for everyone who has held my hand along the way and supported me along my path. It’s been a bumpy ride, and I was never alone #EternallyGrateful #PTSDAwareness