I Didn’t Know I Had PTSD

Despite obvious symptoms, it took me months to realize I had PTSD — and even longer to accept it. Here’s why it’s so hard to recognize and to treat.

Sarah Watts
Elemental
Published in
10 min readNov 4, 2019

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Illustration: Ellie Ji Yang

“It sounds like you have post-traumatic stress disorder,” my therapist said.

I was 21 and sitting across from my therapist on the third floor of the university health center, a box of tissues on the coffee table between us and her bulky copy of the DSM-5 spread out on my lap. The book — otherwise known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — listed everything that could possibly be wrong with a person, and over the course of my weekly therapy sessions we zeroed in on one of them for me: PTSD.

I started going to the health center in the fall semester of my junior year, wanting to take advantage of free therapy sessions and figure out why my body had been acting so strangely. Since February, I was having panic attacks nearly every day. My symptoms would strike when I was quietly reading a book in my apartment or riding in a car with friends on the way to a party, or even just walking leisurely to class in the morning. Without warning, my heart would start galloping, a cold chill would run down my body, and I’d have a sudden bout of dizziness or diarrhea. I was afraid to leave the house in case something set it off. I was afraid to stay inside for the same reason. Whenever our doorbell would ring or my roommate would turn on the blender, the symptoms came roaring back. Anything could set me off. I couldn’t figure out why.

During our sessions, my therapist and I had started piecing together some answers. The symptoms started after I flew home from a semester in India, which was cut short due to a medical emergency. One morning about six weeks in, I woke up in my dorm with an agonizing, stabbing pain in my right lower back. The pain was transcendent, a white-hot knife that had jolted me out of sleep and sent me stumbling to the bathroom, retching and crying and trying to pee (without success). With two friends I hailed an auto-rickshaw to the nearest hospital and waited for hours in a crowded triage room to see a doctor, all the while rushing back and forth between the hospital bed and a squat toilet in the waiting room.

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Sarah Watts
Elemental

Musing about mental health, science, pop culture and more.