I have joked with certain friends and mental health professionals that anxiety and depression are the “sad puppies” of mental illness. I say this not to demean the challenges they present to those living with them, but because they are rooted in human emotions—grief, and fear, sadness, hopelessness and desperation, insecurity and desire for approval. And because they are emotions, they are relatable—they are things that most people can understand, if you explain it to them. If they’re willing to listen. And because of that, they have become the face of mental health campaigns. They’re like the puppies the SPCA uses in their ads.
Educational campaigns most often use statistics for depression and anxiety when trying to raise awareness. They talk about how those who suffer from mental illness are non-violent, that we’re much more likely to be victims of violence than we are to perpetrate it against someone else. And those things are true. But they are not the whole truth.
There are mental illnesses that are much scarier. Things like schizophrenia and schizoid disorders, personality disorders, PTSD. Those are much more frightening because they impact other people. They aren’t rooted in simple emotions that are universal and easy to understand. They are isolating. They’re terrifying to live with. And, sometimes, it means that the people who have them seem or do pose a danger to the people around them. And the important thing to remember in that case is that, often, it’s not their fault.
I have, among other things, PTSD—Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’m 24 years old and I’ve been living with this for the better part of a decade. I’m not going to recount how I developed PTSD, because it’s a long, horrible soap opera of a story. And it’s not the important part.
The important bit, the part that I really want people to understand, is what it feels like to live with it. Because my brain is not the same as other brains. For me, living with mental illness isn’t about stress management or emotional regulation. It’s not about taking medication or having someone to talk to. Living with PTSD is like living in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Nothing, nobody, and nowhere is safe. If someone isn’t a zombie and looking to kill you outright, they’re a fellow survivor, and they want something from you. They will use you, and manipulate you until they get what they want from you. So, until you know what they want from you, you’re not safe and you can’t trust them.
It means I’m always waiting for a zombie to come crawling around the corner or pop up when I least expect it, because even if I haven’t seen one in a long time, I know they’re out there. It means that everyone is a potential threat—a ticking zombie-bomb. It means that crowds are very difficult to tolerate, because that’s a lot of people to keep track of, a lot of maybe-zombies to worry about.
Living with PTSD means that every sense is permanently cranked up to eleven. I can’t concentrate in busy environments. I will never be able to work in a cubicle, because I’ll hear every passing footfall and my eye will be drawn by every person who walks by; because every ringing telephone and beep of the copy machine and voice will snag my attention; because my brain will always be scanning my environment for the slightest hint of danger. I will always be on zombie-watch.
It means that, sometimes, my body acts independently of my brain. Often, it feels like my brain and body each have a mind of their own. They remember different things, and they can’t talk to each other because they aren’t speaking a language the other understands. So, sometimes, my body takes over and does things that I never meant it to. Because, for whatever reason, my internal sirens and alarm bells went off and I reacted as if I was faced with zombies.
It’s my brain wanting a friendly touch, to be touched in ways that won’t hurt, and being unable to ask, or even accept it when it’s offered, because my body is so convinced that every person trying to get close is a zombie that I just. Can’t. My body flinches and moves away before the other person can make contact, and if I can’t move away fast enough, or if someone got me from behind, I have to deal with flashbacks. With feelings of fear and horror and helplessness. With memories of zombies.
Living with PTSD means knowing that my mind has broken. It’s living with the awful truth that it is capable of breaking. That sanity can only stretch so far before it snaps. There are years of my life that I can’t remember. That I may never remember.
It means insomnia and nightmares the horror industry would kill for. It means dealing with the after-effects of massive adrenaline dumps. It means never wanting to have my back to a window or door, wanting to be able to see the room, because no zombies can sneak up on me then. Leaving the house feels like walking into a war zone, like leaving the one place I know is safe. It’s willingly walking into zombie territory because I have to go to class, or the doctor’s office, or to meet a friend for coffee. And sometimes, I can’t do it. Sometimes I don’t have what it takes to set foot into Zombieland. I hate those days, and the way they make me feel.
I wish I could say that it gets better. That this is temporary; that the right medication and counselling and a good support system will get me through this. But I can’t. This isn’t going to go away. My brain is wired differently now, and there’s no way to fix that. There’s no undoing the zombie apocalypse. Medication can’t help me. Therapy can help, but it can only do so much when my PTSD was caused by a number of incidents rather than a single traumatic event.
What helps is reminding myself that PTSD is an adaptive mechanism. That because of it, I’m the cool head in a crisis. That I learned how to read people—to separate the actual zombies from the mud-caked humans. But it’s hard, because I’m not perfect, and sometimes I see zombies where there are none.
It helps to have people in my life who respect my boundaries. Who ask before they reach out to touch. People talk a lot about consent and autonomy with regard to sex, and that your body is yours, but they seem to forget that consent also means not tapping a stranger on the shoulder, because you don’t have permission to touch them. For someone with PTSD, unexpected touch can trigger all kinds of reactions. Some of them are aggressive, even violent. And it’s awful to be on the receiving end of that, but it’s even worse to be the one dishing it out. Because it’s not a choice—it’s lashing out or yelling or being crippled with fear because suddenly, there’s a zombie three inches from your face. And when the adrenaline clears, you realize that it wasn’t actually a zombie, but you can’t take back what you’ve done. So how do you explain that you were just trying to protect yourself when no one else is living in a post-apocalyptic world, and they don’t understand what you thought you needed to protect yourself from?
It helps to have a safe space to unwind in—a place that always has and always will be a zombie-free zone. It helps to have or build a tribe of people who are safe to be around, who will work with me and help me through the bad days. It helps to remind myself that, while there are zombies, they aren’t actually lurking around every corner. That, while they exist, they are much rarer than my own personal experiences have led me to expect.
I am getting better. But my world will always contain zombies—even if only in my memories.
I think this goes without saying, but as we live in a world of rampant asshattery, please allow me to state for the record: this is my intellectual property. As such, please do not copy, circulate, edit, alter, take credit for, or otherwise appropriate this material without my express permission. Thank you.