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What's it like living with PTSD?

A close-up photo of woman's face who lives with PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is far more common than you might think, and it’s not only war veterans that can suffer from it—everyday people can get it too, from experiencing trauma, abuse, or accidents, witnessing these things, or interacting with someone who has experienced them.

Chris says she has lived with life-affecting symptoms nearly all her life, but she was only recently diagnosed with PTSD. She’s also had to overcome a fear of being stigmatised—personally and professionally—for her mental health condition to talk about it publicly for the first time.

This is her story.

Chris is 50 and lives in Griffin, Queensland, with her rescue cats and guineapigs. She has two adult children—a 24-year-old son who is a chef, and a 23-year-old daughter who is studying archaeology—and she works in community health.

Despite being successful in her career and in raising her children, she has suffered almost all her life from low self-esteem, severe anxiety, vivid dreams and nightmares, and constant fight-or-flight responses to all kinds of situations, including seemingly ordinary ones, such as getting a coffee, a timer going off at the hairdressers, or someone dropping a weight in the gym.

“I wasn’t diagnosed (with PTSD) until November last year (2020),” Chris said.

“I just thought I had some kind of mental distress … The symptoms were presenting themselves again and again, all throughout my life, all of my childhood, all of my adult life, and it was interfering with my life.

“I had another nervous breakdown (in November 2020). I’ve had approximately four or five severe nervous breakdowns throughout my life. I just always put it down to stress … the birth of my baby … it was always someone else’s fault in the workplace … it was the divorce … there was always an excuse for the breakdowns that I had, and the symptoms that came with them.

Substances

“My symptoms did dramatically change after I gave up drinking and drugging, which was about 11 years ago. I obviously drank to subdue the symptoms, but obviously it made the symptoms worse.”

It’s not uncommon for people with PTSD (and other mental health conditions) to use alcohol and other drugs as a way of coping with distress.

One study found that 65% of men and 32% of women with PTSD also had substance use disorders.

“So, understanding my triggers, that’s what I do now, trying to avoid them. But when I was drinking, I was behaving recklessly. I’d blame myself for things, everything that happened. I had self-destructive behaviours. I was very angry. I’d pick fights with people. I’d argue a lot with people.  All those negative symptoms have subsided since I’ve become sober.

Symptoms

“But I have other symptoms in my everyday life, which, now that I have a diagnosis, I can understand and I can work through with my support worker at Neami, and just in general reading and research that I do on my own.

(Neami is a community-based organisation that provides services to improve mental health and wellbeing in some local communities, with different organisations available in other communities.)

“Every day, normally—and this is since I can remember—up to now, I’ve got constant anxiety. So, constant heightened awareness, all the time. It’s a fight-or-flight response, in any situation, whether it’s making a coffee or … going to a job interview, I’m constantly in that heightened anxious state.

“A lot of the physical symptoms come about with the constant anxiety, so I'll be really restless, like I can't just sit still. I'm walking, I'm moving, I'm doing something, even while watching TV, I've got to do something, constantly, and move.

“I do have a giggle sometimes, because, for example, I was at the hairdresser the other day and the timer went off and I just flew out of my seat,” Chris laughs, “because of the sudden noise.”

“I'll go off onto different subjects really quickly. I really have to stop and listen when I'm taught something new or if I'm with new clients in my job.

“I lose interest in things that I enjoy. I like gardening, but I haven't been out in the garden for a while.

“One of the … the big symptoms I have, is that I have vivid dreams and nightmares … connected to the … the fear of the event … or the feelings. So, by morning, I haven’t had a good night’s sleep. I’m feeling really tired, every day, on top of the anxiety, and I’m trying to push through."

Trauma

Despite working with people with PTSD – including WWII and Vietnam veterans in aged care or disability care settings—Chris did not realise what her symptoms were pointing to.

“I become easily irritated and I’m triggered by trauma-related subjects. So, whenever there’s a triggering subject to do with abuse—children or animals especially—I really have to just remove myself from the room or the situation as soon as possible. I become teary and distraught and distressed.

“I only knew basic stuff about PTSD because I supported people in my job who had PTSD. But … I thought, ‘Okay, it does come from a traumatic event’, but then my low self-esteem (was) saying, ‘No, you're not good enough to be diagnosed like that’. You know, (when) most people hear of PTSD, they think of returned soldiers.

“I have low self-esteem, although I have been successful—you know, brought my children up successfully, held down jobs, including the one I have now, and achieved things in my life—I still have low self-esteem ...

“… I was physically and emotionally abused as a child, although my household was the last household you would think something like that happened.

“Everything was behind closed doors, and my parents were respected members of the community. It started from a young age of knowing that something was wrong. I was scared. I was hurting, and then no one could help me.”

Stigma

People with mental health conditions can be afraid of talking about it, for fear of being stigmatised by society, family, friends, or colleagues.

“It’s real. It happens,” said Chris.

“The (fear of) stigma had a lot to do with me having to fight. For 30 years I have worked in the community health sector, in mental health and in aged care, in both residential and community health. I’ve literally had to hide my diagnosis from my peers and professionals in the field.

“My biggest fear was to be hospitalized with people I worked with or clients that I have worked with … and being ‘found out’, I suppose. That was my big driving force—to dig myself out of every hole that I possibly could, because of my fear of being stuck with the stigma."

Chris said that people who think that are living with PTSD or think they may have PTSD should not be afraid of the stigma and should reach out.

“The (fear of) stigma is … a massive thing, especially if you work in a professional capacity. But there is support. My advice is not to be afraid of that stigma and just to grab any support and care that is available.

A way forward

“The last time I was ill, in November last year, I referred myself to Neami. They have a hub in Strathpine. They have a drop-in centre—a place where you can go to receive counselling. I use it for different psychosocial classes that they run. It’s a mental support hub, a place that’s a bit different than a hospital environment or a more clinical environment. It’s mostly run by peer workers.”

Chris attends a recovery group every Tuesday.

She has been back at work for three months now. She says that having a lived experience of mental illness has helped her relate better to clients and peers in her job.

“I'm ready and I'm able to help in a holistic sense because I've been there, and I know how they could be feeling.

“I'm a disability support worker now, but I'm working with people who suffer mental distress every day. In the beginning when I first started my career, because I was hiding my diagnosis, I found that very difficult.

“But I had a knack—I've received a nomination for a HESTA Aged Care Award in my career and I've received quite highly regarded positions that I applied for—because I have a natural empathy and a natural compassion, which you can't get out of a theory book or in a classroom.

“I never understood that until I was doing some support work with my peer workers at Neami who are open about their diagnosis and used the diagnosis in their line of work.

“I'm only three months in my new job, and I started working again because I started feeling better, and already, my supervisor is aware of my mental health history and is extremely supportive.

“I've got support from Neami. I'm medicated correctly. I'm adjusting my lifestyle accordingly, so I've got every chance of succeeding and not having another breakdown.

“I enjoy going to the gym and just chillaxing, you know, with the animals. Nice quiet life. Reading. Just chilling out.”

With the support and facilitation of Neami and the Queensland Mental Health Commission, Chris decided to share her story with others to overcome her fear of stigma and show other people who are struggling that help and care is available, and that they should seek it out.

Image of a page of a book with the acronym PTSD being highlighted with a pink highlighter

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD is a treatable anxiety disorder affecting around 3 million Australians at some time in their lives.

Following a traumatic event, many people develop post-traumatic symptoms, and a minority develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is a severe reaction to an extreme and frightening traumatic event (Phoenix Australia 2019).

PTSD is typically characterised by all of the following:

  • re-experiencing the traumatic event or events in vivid intrusive memories, flashbacks, or nightmares, typically accompanied by strong or overwhelming emotions, particularly fear or horror, and strong physical sensations
  • avoiding thoughts and memories of the event or events, or avoidance of activities, situations, or people reminiscent of the event or events
  • persistent perceptions of a heightened current threat, which, for example, might lead to hypervigilance, or reacting beyond what would normally be expected to something like an unexpected noise.

The symptoms persist for at least several weeks and cause significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational, or other important areas of functioning (WHO 2019).

In some cases, individuals remain symptomatic for 3 years or longer and may develop secondary problems such as substance misuse (National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health 2005).

How often does it occur?

According to the 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, 12% of Australians experience PTSD in their life (lifetime prevalence), with women being at almost twice the risk of men (15.8% and 8.6% respectively) (ABS 2007).

The 2017–18 National Health Survey said 1.7% of women and 1.3% of men reported that they had been told by a doctor, nurse, or health professional that they have PTSD (point prevalence) (ABS 2019).

Getting help

If anything in this article has caused you distress, or you think you may have PTSD or other mental health condition, speak to your GP.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, or are worried about someone you know, there is help available.

If you or someone you know needs help now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. If someone is in immediate danger, call Triple Zero (000).

Links to support services and more information can be found below.

Support services

More information about PTSD

Mental wellbeing resources

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Last updated: 1 October 2021