The Pandemic Reawakened My PTSD

Joanna suffers from PTSD stemming from childhood abuse. She had found ways to control it, but the pandemic retriggered flashbacks and panic attacks. Writing, therapy, and creating a new routine help her cope.

by Joanna Maestre

I’d gotten my post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) under control. Then the coronavirus disrupted my routine, and my flashbacks came storming back. But I’m working hard to keep it together with the help of therapy, a new at-home routine, writing, and my partner Taiquan.

I was emotionally, verbally, and physically abused by my mother and stepfather for many years. As a child I believed that I deserved it, that I was the cause of what they did.

I got into many fights at school. I withdrew from group activities. Then, when I was in the 10th grade, I was sexually assaulted in the school library. It took me three days to tell my school counselor about the assault.

The school told my parents, and they came in for a meeting. The police were at the meeting and asked if I wanted them to investigate further. I said yes, but my parents told the police not to. They said they would attend a conference with the boy’s mother instead.

When we got home, my mother and stepfather blamed me for the assault. They called me stupid for not knowing the signs. And they never went to that conference.

That summer, I was placed in summer school classes with the boy who assaulted me! I was terrified, but he went about his day as if he hadn’t harmed me. He even continued talking to the group of friends we had shared.

Fortunately, I met my current partner, Taiquan, that same summer. He and my best friend Brenda helped me get through summer school.

Soon after that, Taiquan and I got pregnant. When my parents found out, they threatened to kill the baby. I ran away from home and ended up in foster care. In December 2017, I was placed in a group home for pregnant and parenting teens.

Getting the Diagnoses

That was when I finally saw my first psychiatrist and therapist. The psychiatrist diagnosed me with PTSD and a panic disorder. Some symptoms of PTSD are flashbacks, nightmares, and uncontrollable thoughts about the traumatic events. I have flashbacks of my abuse, the sexual assault, and my parents blaming me.

I wasn’t surprised, but the diagnoses upset me. I feared I would end up like my mother, who suffers from bipolar disorder.

The psychiatrist tried treating my PTSD with various antidepressants. Many had terrible side effects, so I kept switching. On one medication, when I was angry, I was unable to yell. Instead I would smile a huge smile. I was also unable to cry; my eyes would puff up but no tears fell from them.

I was sent to different therapists, but it didn’t help. I had to keep repeating my tragic story over and over again. I hated crying in front of them. They just kept a nonchalant expression when I said I was sexually assaulted by a classmate. It felt like all I was to them was a paycheck.

In 2018, I went to live with Taiquan’s mother in New Jersey, and Xavier was born in July. I had postpartum depression. It wasn’t as intense as not wanting my son, but there were weeks where I was extremely depressed and couldn’t care for Xavier like I wanted to.

Taiquan’s family took me in, but they didn’t accept me with all of my issues and sometimes dismissed my feelings. One day when I couldn’t do much for my son, Taiquan’s mother told me that I was just like my mother. That set me off. I despised my mother and wanted to be nothing like her. I attempted suicide and was diagnosed at the hospital with an “unspecified mood disorder.”

Making the Life I Want

After being sent to a behavioral institute, I realized that Xavier deserves both parents in his life. I didn’t want him in foster care, so I needed to understand my feelings and control my behavior so I could take care of him and myself.

I started to ask for help—from my foster care agency, my school counselors, my lawyers. The longer I was away from my parents and the more other adults helped me, the more I saw that what my parents had done to me was abuse. It wasn’t my fault.

I focused on excelling in school, and started by controlling my anger. When I got angry enough to fight, I learned to either walk away or yell loud enough for people to leave me alone. My anger wasn’t fully controlled, but I realized that fighting in general was pointless and that teachers are people doing their jobs.

I worked hard to gain my independence. I got an apartment last October. I got Xavier into day care and myself into Co-op Tech, a vocational school where I am studying to be a graphic designer.

After school I picked up Xavier, who’s almost 2 now, from his school and took him to the park so he could run around and tire himself out. Then I would go home and do chores such as cooking and cleaning.

I connected to an in-home therapist named Breean, who I started seeing in March. She told me something I’d never heard from other therapists: “Having suicidal thoughts is normal.” She explained the distinction between thoughts and having a plan, and that made me feel understood.
Breean also helped me calm down by reconnecting me with my senses. When I was extremely upset, she had me state five things I can see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. These techniques ground me in reality. I recognize that I am not in danger and that I am not with my abusive parents. I’m just having flashbacks.

Breean was always there to help me, which made it easier to trust her.

I used my son to motivate me to wake up each morning. I was genuinely getting better. The suicidal thoughts, nightmares, and flashbacks all happened less and less frequently. My routine was a coping mechanism for my PTSD.

COVID-19 Knocked Out My Supports

The coronavirus ruined that routine. No more in-person doctor appointments. No more school for me or Xavier. No more going outside to tire my son out.

The intrusive thoughts about my past have flooded back. I have recurring nightmares of abuse by my parents so frightening I don’t want to sleep. I wake up crying and gasping.

I was taking sleep medication called Trazodone to prevent nightmares, but my medication ran out in March. I haven’t been able to contact my psychiatrist, and when I call the clinic I get no answer. Anyway, you can only enter their office now if it’s an emergency.

One flashback trigger now is hearing screaming. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of that outside the building or from the upstairs apartment. It reminds me of how my parents screamed at me for small things. When I hear screaming, I relive my childhood traumatic experiences in my own adult home.

Taiquan stays with me during the week, but he stays with his mom in New Jersey on weekends. Most weekends, they take Xavier. That is a mixed blessing: My son is safe with them, and I get some alone time. But I also get the most paranoid when I’m alone, sometimes so much that I can’t get out of bed.

I worry that I am not strong enough to be a mother. There are days when I need to stay away from everyone or I’ll burst into tears because I’m flooded with bad memories. On those days, Taiquan watches Xavier, and I stay to myself in the bedroom.

One day recently, I woke up to intrusive thoughts of my past, reliving how much my parents didn’t want me. Xavier looked at me and said, “Mama, I want milk,” and the next thing I knew, tears were rolling down my face and my heart was racing. I curled up into a ball and lay on the bed crying, trying to convince myself I was OK.

Luckily, Taiquan was there. He recognized what he calls my “episodes” and took Xavier into the other room.

Sometimes, all I want to do is sleep so that the thoughts will stop flooding my brain. I’ve also had more frequent thoughts of suicide. The thoughts alone don’t worry me too much, but at least once a month I impulsively tried to harm myself. I’d start burning myself or grab my migraine medication and mood stabilizers, intending to swallow every pill in the bottle.

When I realized what I was doing, I immediately called my therapist Breean and asked her, “What should I do?” She is very helpful at calming me down and helping me regain my senses.

For the past several weeks, I’ve seen Breean every day over video conferencing or we talk on the phone, depending on my internet connection that day. She recognizes that losing my routine and not being able to go outside leaves me without a coping mechanism for my PTSD.

For now I am at a base level, meaning I’m no longer having impulsive actions to attempt suicide but I am still reliving my past. I’m feeling trapped by my past, with no way out.

Writing Is Better Than Speaking

Breean suggested I start writing again. I have always loved to write, but I gave up on it after having so many notebooks filled with my stories thrown into the trash by my parents.

What does NOT help for me is saying out loud—to Breean, or Taiquan, or a friend, or anyone else—details of the abuse I suffered and am now reliving. Talking about what happened brings unwanted memories that I don’t think I can handle now. It also makes me feel as if it will happen again.

I don’t want to talk about anything that happened to me before I had my son. I just want to forget it all. The flashbacks and nightmares make that impossible though. Breean has been trying to talk to me about it, but I have been avoiding it and she recognizes that.

So instead, my therapist and I have been working on trying to create a new in-home routine of eating and exercising, and doing classes, and playing with Xavier at the same times each day.

Even though speaking about the past feels scary, writing about it does not. Writing about my PTSD gives me the voice I didn’t have for years. For years, it was painful to not be able to express my emotions to anyone, because when I did, I was either beaten or dismissed. When I’m writing, I can be as vulnerable as I want and not be called weak or stupid.

Writing this story was a challenge at first. I worried it was going to bring up a ton of bad memories. But then I realized I would be sharing everything that has made me the person I am today. I’ve always wanted others to know they weren’t alone, and now they can read it for themselves.

I was also very happy to be one of the 10 winners from Represent’s Awards for Youth in Foster Care writing contest. Writing used to be my passion, and it’s nice to know I still have the talent.

So I feel better about myself and also lucky to have Taiquan. He stops me from acting impulsively.. He often tells me, “I am here with you. If there is anything I could do to help you, please tell me.” He doesn’t judge or dismiss my feelings.When I’m having nightmares he comforts me. I appreciate him for being there for me during the times I am at my worst.

Even though I only recently got diagnosed with PTSD, I have no doubt I’ve had it for years. I know it was caused by the abuse, but I still want to understand why it all happened. Why did I have to suffer so much, and why can’t I just be happy now?

Please, if you’re reading this, check on people with mental health conditions, especially those with PTSD. Best believe that during this pandemic, we are not OK. Your help can make a difference.

If you are struggling with mental health issues, NYC Well offers free confidential sessions with a counselor via phone, text, or chat and access to other mental health and substance use services, in more than 200 languages, 24/7. They also offer free apps that are content specific for dealing with COVID-19.

Writing about my PTSD gives me the voice I didn't have for years.
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