Today as part of our #MHYALit Discussion we are honored to once again host Tom Leveen. Yesterday Tom shared a post with us about Panic. Today he is discussing PTSD. We will have a new post every week day in January on the topic of Mental Health in YA Literature and the life of teens.
The best friends I made in high school are my best friends to this day. Most of us came from homes that were broken in one manner or another: alcoholic parents, absent or neglectful parents, parents who had died young. That kind of thing. Pretty much all of us were carrying around a lot of baggage centered around the things we endured as kids.
Several years ago, one of these best friends told me, “You know, out of all of us, I think you had it worst.”
Come on! That’s patently false. My parents didn’t get hammered. They didn’t divorce. We had a big house with a huge backyard. I went to private school for kindergarten through eighth grade and went swimming at the country club, for crying out loud! We had a fully separate freezer in addition to our full-size refrigerator, while one of my friends sometimes wondered when he was going to eat next. How could I “have it worst?”
I mean . . . okay, there were some bad things that happened . . . maybe my family didn’t always make the best child-rearing choices, sure . . . but everyone makes mistakes, right? I mean, what they did wasn’t that bad.
In a previous article I wrote about an incident when I was 19, in which three of my friends and I got jumped by four or five guys. Strangers. Young guys, like us. Their motive? None that I’m aware of. No racial epithets shouted at us, no money demanded, no threats, no name-calling, no anything. Just a group of guys apparently out looking for a fight and they found us. The cops urged us not to bother pressing charges, because “nothing would come of it.”
So we didn’t. Those guys walked.
They walked away free and clear, and never knew that a few months later, a car full of people trapped me in a school parking lot late at night and screamed they were going to “kick my ass.”
Happily, they didn’t. I went home unscathed.
When I got home, however, I collapsed to the floor and lay there barely able to breathe for I don’t know how long—feeling both cold and hot, shivering, chest tight, feeling like I was dying, unable to blink. It might have been two hours, it might have been two minutes.
Ha ha, I’m kidding of course! . . . It was not two minutes.
From that point on, for the next several years, I was unable to leave my house at night. I had to change jobs. I lost friends and girlfriends. I could not and would not step outside. When I did, panic gripped my lungs and squeezed. I got tunnel vision and searched desperately for a way out of whatever situation I was in. Usually, this meant standing up on shaky legs and announcing, “I gotta go,” and then running full-tilt for my car. I missed my own birthday party at a friend’s house because I couldn’t make myself leave my room.
Now for the punchline:
The fight I mention here is not where I developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). No, it turns out I’ve had PTSD for a long, long time. What I developed after those two incidents—getting jumped and the threat in the parking lot—was a severe, near-crippling panic disorder. But PTSD and panic are not the same thing. I’m telling you this because that was news to me, and it might be news to you.
The first thing I want you to know about PTSD is this: You didn’t have to be in a gunfight in a foreign nation to develop it.
At first I spent a lot of time feeling guilty over my diagnosis. “How can I have PTSD? I was never shot at. I was never imprisoned by murderous zealots. I never served in a forward area in war. I haven’t earned this diagnosis.”
That kind of thinking is a trap that we who have been so-diagnosed need to avoid. I am not trying to, and would never, take away from our veterans and first responders who develop PTSD in the line of duty. Our stories are not comparable. But that does not change the fact that I have this disorder. It does no one—least of all ourselves—any good to wander around comparing our stories to someone else’s and judging which one is “worse” or which one is “earned.” PTSD is a real thing, and it happens for a lot of reasons.
Secondly, a diagnosis is the most important start toward feeling better. If you’ve been avoiding therapy, please don’t. Please. Having a professional listen to your story, then look you in the eye and say—not unlike the film Good Will Hunting—“It’s not your fault” is the most valuable step toward recovery. You’re not crazy; something bad happened (or is happening) and it’s messing up what should be a well-lived life. Go get someone who can name this issue so you can own it and learn to control it.
I’m writing to you today because there is good news, and you or someone you care about needs some good news. Here’s the first part: the panic disorder I developed after being assaulted is pretty well under control these days. I don’t remember the last time I had an honest-to-goodness panic attack. For me, desensitization helped, as did the encouragement of friends who never gave up on me.
But my PTSD is something that developed when I was a very little kid, and I still struggle with it today. Being locked naked in chicken coops and having actual, literal human shit rubbed into my face has that effect, apparently. Wow! Who knew things like that—and others too numerous to mention—could give a kid PTSD?
Oh, wait . . . my doctor knew.
I can look at those events, and many like them, and name them. Own them. Say, “That was wrong.” Believe it was wrong. And then, finally, begin the process of dealing with what it did to me. Today, my PTSD manifests as destructive rage, depression, and a severe dislike of surprises, such as sudden loud noises. When I land in a bad mood, when I get depressed and angry and certain the world is out to get me, it lasts for several days in a row. I can’t count how many times I’ve quit being an author during these phases. How many times I’ve wanted to quit life in general, for that matter. It’s exhausting for me and my family to go through this every few weeks or months.
Maybe you know the feeling.
But let me tell you something: You’re not crazy. And in case you missed it, it’s not your fault. No one is born with PTSD. No one is born with a panic disorder. Bad things happen to us, often at home or at school, and our brains do their best to cope. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it doesn’t make you any less a human being. It doesn’t make you less important, less valuable, less loved.
I turned my feelings into fiction. So can you, if you want. Or art, or poetry, or music, or sports, or cooking, or gardening, or anything at all. My most recent novel, Shackled, is about a girl who has both a panic disorder and PTSD, even though the plot—about her search for a kidnapped friend and what she actually finds at the end of that search—is not something that ever happened to me personally. My ghost-story novella Those We Bury Back touches on some of those real-life things, but even in that story, the truth is partly fictionalized.
But writing those stories helped. Reading about it helps. Finding books, characters, and other real people who understand the struggle helps.
So to recap:
If things just aren’t going well in your head, heart, or soul, and it’s been that way for awhile, please find a professional to help you figure out what’s going on and name it. Naming it takes away a lot of its power. Next, find people who understand what you’re going through, or who will love you no matter what.
Trust me: I’ve tried hurting myself to make it go away. I’ve tried a variety of chemicals to make it go away, legal and otherwise. I’ve tried hiding from it, lying about it, concealing it. What has helped the most is the truth, and speaking the truth in a safe place with safe people. Find those places and people. If I’d ever let this stuff get the best of me, I wouldn’t be here writing novels for a living. I wouldn’t have a beautiful wife and an amazing son.
I wouldn’t be telling you all this.
I have bad days. And weeks. But we keep pushing through, because it always ends up worth it.
Hang in there with me. Okay? Maybe my friend was right after all, maybe I did have it worst. But it’s gotten better and it keeps getting better.
One last thing before I go:
If anyone has ever or is currently hurting you, you did not deserve it. Period. No one is allowed to hurt you physically, sexually, emotionally, or spiritually. No one. For any reason at all. If you are being hurt, get help now. Now. It is never ever okay for someone to hurt you.
Tom Leveen is the author of seven young adult novels including Shackled, Random, Party, and Sick. His novel Zero was a YALSA Best Book of 2013. You can connect with Tom at tomleveen.com (http://www.tomleveen.com); on Facebook at /AuthorTom Leveen (http://www.facebook.com/authortomleveen); and on Twitter @tomleveen (http://twitter.com/tomleveen).
Some Additional Resources:
Library Thing Tagmash has a list of YA Fiction with the PTSD Tag (we are working on developing a book list as part of our future posts).