When I first started Journaling Through I thought to myself, I have so much academic and in-field experience to create these specially guided journals that I didn’t think much of sharing my own story. The journals can, and still could stand on their own just fine.
However after some messages from the universe through people, conferences and businesses I realized that my story is worth sharing. If you asked me in person I wouldn’t think twice about sharing my experiences. So thank you for asking, here is my story:
Born and raised in South Africa I grew up in a household that legally owned 12 guns. Some were for hunting and some were for self-defence. Instead of going to family fun events on Sunday afternoons, we spent our weekends on the shooting range practising gun safety and learning how to handle yourself in a life-threatening situation. This was commonplace for most of our family and friends.
After high school, I enrolled to study Commercial Law at the University of Pretoria. One day, just before my final exam, I stopped at the traffic light at four in the afternoon and heard a big smash. The glass shattered from the passenger side window and my bag was stolen with all my notes and textbooks for the exams. Without hesitation I drove myself to the police station from where they called my parents. The police officer, clearly overwhelmed by the crime statistics himself said that he’s really glad I wasn’t raped or murdered. He gave me the form for insurance purposes and we were on our way home. We were well aware that this crime will never be solved.
The worst part of coming home was seeing the helplessness, frustration and complete heartbreak from my brothers. There was nothing that they could do to prevent this. Rage, anger and defeated emotions ran high as we sat down and asked, “who’s next? What will happen next time? Why didn’t you take a gun with you?” The domino effect of blame, guilt and uncertainty was in full force.
At some point in the journey, there isn’t even space for anger anymore. All we did on a day to day basis was survive and tried to make the best of the situation. Our housekeeper had a small child while she was living with us. One morning she didn’t come back to work after the weekend away. She and her husband lived in a community outside of our city and she would commute by train or taxi. On her commute, they were stabbed by knives as tensions grew. How can we let our anger get in the way of people who are just trying to make a living wage and offer a better future for their children? This wasn’t about race, this was about those who had and those who didn’t. A collective anger about promises made and not kept, governments looking after their own and placing the blame on minorities and perpetuating a divisive state-sponsored agenda.
We had a lovely home before we moved to Canada. It was different, however, a high-security fence before you could enter the yard, bars on all windows, every door to the outside had a security gate and yet another security gate inside the house in the hallway protecting the bedrooms. When our outreach started in the rural communities, fear again transcended the walls of race. Young black men protected us as we, along with the other black women, reached out to the caregivers who were helping those with HIV/Aids. Whatever little they had, they shared. The women always sang and opened their hearts and ears to what we had brought them. Our first order of business was to provide them with income-generating projects so that they can become a self-sustainable community. With the original help of international funding, the project is still going strong today.
Our efforts switched to cancer care and as hijacking and assault violence rose, ever time we drove home was a roll of the dice. The last Mother’s Day in Africa we gave my mom a purse-sized revolver as a gift.
Fear of going outside, fear of living inside your home. FEAR FEAR FEAR. The all-consuming, anxiety-generating and soul-crushing FEAR.
When we arrived in Canada, we heard about the gruesome murder of my uncle. At the time I didn’t quite realize how intense these life-threatening events affected my life. After only a few months the nightmares came. The first night I had a blood-curdling scream, the next moment I woke up and my whole family was standing around my bed. My nightmare triggered them back to that day I came back from university.
Small things started to trigger me. I became hypervigilant. I’m still like that but not as intense, which I figure is a good thing for when the zombie apocalypse comes. I would always know all the exit points, where the knives are and the phone. Because Canada has extremely strict laws when it comes to handguns, in the beginning, I even felt unsafe not carrying one.
I was living in my head, dwelling in my fears and drowning in my anxiety bordering self-diagnosed paranoia.
I moved out of my parents home and was in a stable relationship with my, now husband, living on my own. At nights I would not be able to fall asleep, fearful of the nightmares returning. I realized that I needed help. It felt like the room I created for myself was getting smaller and darker by the day. Like most defence strategies, mental health issues are easy to hide and mask once you get the hang of it. Inside though, when it’s just you and your fears it gets real, fast.
One night I screamed so loud from a trauma nightmare that the neighbours actually called the police, thinking that there is a domestic disturbance or homicide taking place. Yeah, it was that bad.
Growing up in a very academic household in human sciences, my first life-line was seeking out therapy. Making just above minimum wage at the time, the company benefits for alternative medicine made it possible for me to seek the help I needed. This wasn’t an easy task however, most therapists were more interested in Africa and my stories than actually helping me.
I found a registered psychologist in Waterloo. Her demeanour was calm, she walked me through more than just the PTSD to gain insight into what had happened to me. In our first appointment she confirmed that the answers are already inside me, it was like a ball of wool that just needed to be untangled.
After each session with her, I would journal down what I’ve learned, realized and the action items on how to get better. I accepted that this is a condition that came about because of what was done to me, I had no say in where I grew up or the circumstances that I was in. There is no place for self-blame in true recovery. With less than a year of therapy and ten journals filled line to line, I was able to manage my triggers much better.
I still don’t watch excessively violent horror movies and guard against toxic conversations and energies. When I play Star Wars or hide-and-seek with my children they take full advantage of my survival training. When I catch myself clenching my keys when walking, I go back to journaling and find out where this trigger came from.
Sometimes we don’t realize the little triggers, a news headline, a word from a passerby or simply our thoughts going back to that time.
Another valuable lesson that came out of therapy was that I needed a non-threatening environment. Immigration literally checked that box. It’s not all that easy though, moving across the world comes with loss, grief, finding yourself again and in our case dealing with lots of snow. Yes, I said it, stereotypical winter talk.
I asked my therapist why I didn’t feel like this while I was still in Africa? I lived there for twenty-one years and not once did anxiety climb to these intense heights.
When our minds are dealing with basic survival, there isn’t a lot of space left to deal with such matters. It’s only when our emotions are more relaxed after a trauma that we can start dealing with some of the bigger issues. Our physical environments can either be conducive to growth or keep us locked up in the prisons of our own minds.
Journaling helped me to calm these emotions and guided me towards a higher state of well-being: understanding, empowerment and enlightenment.
This is my story, I own it, but it doesn’t define me.
Although there is no “cure” for post-traumatic stress disorder according to the DSM-5, there is a great amount of healing if we are willing to put in the effort and commit to our own mental, physical and emotional wellbeing.
Know when to seek professional help and go get it.
Find a professional that you click with. This may be the first one or it may take a while. Make sure that your mental health is also their priority.
Take control over your journey, while remaining open minded and open hearted to healing.
If possible, remove yourself from the toxic environment and give yourself space to heal, mentally and physically.
Don’t think your problem is ever too small or insignificant. Mental health MATTERS! It affects all aspects of our lives and the lives of those around us.
Why isn’t there a specific guided journal for PTSD?
Cancer is trauma, loss and grief are traumas, divorce is trauma, infertility is trauma and caregivers deal with trauma frequently, their own and those they take care of. Although there isn’t a specific journal called Journaling Through PTSD, these journals deal with the aspects specific to a trauma caused by a life-altering event.
If you are dealing with mental health concerns, pick up a journal and seek professional help. The only way that we can change the stigma around mental health is to speak, act and promote change.
Keep Journaling, Keep Growing and thank you for reading my story!