by Amy Stringer
TW/CW: PTSD, Trauma, depression, talk of suicide
“Trauma is a deeply personal thing. What may be traumatic to you may not affect another person at all. It can be big and it can be small…”Pastor Ivan
Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional, this is purely my own personal experience.
Buckle up friends, Pete has a lot to unpack.
Before the attack, the only people I’d really heard of having PTSD were veterans. This led me to assume a number of things but the main one was that it was a result of sustained exposure to truly awful things.
I had some idea but didn’t really believe that anything less extreme than literal war could cause PTSD. While my case was hardly “unextreme” there was still some level of surprise and disbelief at my diagnosis. There was always something that seemed worse.
How could I have PTSD when there are people alive today who watched their friends get blown to pieces?
How could I have PTSD when there are paramedics who go to the scene of horrible accidents on a daily basis? Or who, maybe daily, lose patients that were too injured to save?
How can one instance of a thing end in the same diagnoses as months or years of enduring a similar or worse thing? Or how can one instance of a thing lead to a diagnosis that even THOSE people don’t always end up with?
I know better now but it’s these things that can make it difficult to seek help for PTSD. An important lesson I learned is that trauma is trauma because of how it affects you and different things affect people in different ways.
I did what everyone told me to do and I got help. I did it relatively quickly too, almost within days.
I work at a university and there is a free counselling service on campus. This was where I went first. I did a couple of sessions with the psychologist there before I got a doctors referral (which you need by the way!) to see a forensic psychiatrist who specialises in trauma. Thankfully the doctor set me up with someone who bulk billed (this is also available if you’re a student or low income, you just have to look around). After about 3 or 4 months I was deemed fit to return to work but it was still a long road ahead.
The Pete diagnosis didn’t come right away. Before that came a diagnosis of acute stress disorder (I didn’t start naming things until recently, so this guy doesn’t get one). This is characterised by PTSD symptoms occurring in the first three weeks to a month after a traumatic event.
There’s a long list of symptoms but the way they manifest varies greatly from person to person. For me, it was recurrent nightmares, reliving of the trauma, phobias, survivors guilt, depression and general anxiety about day to day activity.
Acute stress disorder can go away, but if these symptoms persist longer than a month, then you end up with a PTSD diagnoses. This is what happened to me. There is no cure for PTSD, it simply needs to be managed and may go away or become less severe over time.
The symptoms were persistent for about a year, but some never really left me.
I don’t think I could count the number of times I’ve seen myself die. Night after night after night after night I would wake up in the foetal position, shaking and crying.
I would watch myself die in fire and fire after fire after fire. Sometimes I’d even watch close friends and family die. I wasn’t always in a bus either. Sometimes it was a forest fire, or a house fire, or maybe a car would explode after I tried to help someone stuck in the vehicle. Sometimes a wire would get crossed somewhere and I’d die in other ways too; drowning was common, falling too.
There were also stress dreams. The main one that happened a few times consisted of me, sitting in a white room with no door, by myself. I’d feel a little tickle in my mouth so I’d reach in and wiggle my tooth a little and it would come out. After the first tooth, the rest just start falling out and before long I was losing my skin as well, as if I was melting. This is usually when I’d wake up.
These dreams have mostly subsided, appearing only when really stressed, but there are some effects from them that have persisted.
I’ve always been scared of a few things; spiders, clowns, creepy porcelain dolls. But nothing I’d experienced prepared me for the things I’m going to talk about next.
Phobia: A persistent, abnormal, and irrational fear of a specific thing or situation that compels one to avoid it, despite the awareness and reassurance that it is not dangerous (American heritage dictionary of the English language).
Dreams, persistent and terrible dreams, can really mess a person up. Talking about this is hard because it’s still very much a part of my day to day life. I think the best way to approach the topic is to just make a list and then unpack each fear one by one.
Since witnessing the brutal murder of my bus driver I am now very much afraid of:
- (untreated) schizophrenia
- confined spaces
For a short time after the event, I was also scared of catching buses, short, heavy set, bald men and walking past the attack location (it was only a few blocks from my house). And when I say scared or afraid, I mean it. I don’t mean that I’d just rather not be near that thing, I mean I physically couldn’t be near that thing without quivering in fear and crying. It was visceral.
Thankfully these last three became less and less of a problem as I, on my own terms, forced exposure and tried to rationalise with myself. “It’s okay Amy, not every short bald man is out to get you”. The “on my own terms” part of that sentence is VERY important. You cannot force a person to face their fears, however stupid you may think their fears are, the affected person needs to be ready to do that themselves.
Let’s talk about some of these other fears. A few of them, at least to me, seem obvious and a few, well, one in particular, I am deeply ashamed of. Schizophrenia. I want to do a separate post about this because there is a lot to unpack, but the man who killed my bus driver was psychotic, violent and delusional as a result of his untreated schizophrenia. Before the attack, I had only ever met one person with schizophrenia, no one knew he had it, and he is now in prison for murder. This, to me and my scared mind, is a pattern of violent behaviour surrounding (at the very least) untreated schizophrenia and as a result of these two occurrences I am now terrified of what schizophrenia, or more specifically, what psychosis is capable of. I hate that I fear this disease of the mind because I know it can be managed with treatment and medication, and I know not every person with schizophrenia is dangerous but the fear remains simply because they are more capable of terrible things. I guess that’s where the “irrational” part comes in, and I hope that one day I can overcome this.
Fire. I hate fire. It took me a long time to even be able to light or blow out a candle but I’ve pushed on. I can light candles now, and sometimes I can even light the temperamental burner on a gas stove. I can go camping and sit around a fire, but I catch myself staring into it and getting lost in my head, kind of paralyzed, and I’m yet to get close enough to cook with it. I’ve been to a couple of bonfires since the attack, but I stand way back where I can barely feel the warmth. The warmth… it brings things back, as does the smoke. This one has been a slow process to recover from because, living in the city, there isn’t a lot of circumstances where I’m really faced with fire, meaning it becomes very easy to avoid it. I still cry whenever I hear news about the wildfires across the planet. I cry because I’ve seen it in my dreams. I cry because I can understand that fear.
Death. When you’ve watched yourself die over and over in a million different ways, it becomes hard not to fear it. I think this might be the greatest lingering effect of Pete. I was almost killed while doing a completely normal thing; catching the bus to uni. I almost died in a completely normal location; my local bus stop, right next to when I get my hair done and where I do my grocery shopping. When this happens, you realise how easy it is. How you could die at any moment and you wouldn’t even see it coming. This presents in several ways in my day to day life but the most visible is probably my cautiousness around traffic. It takes me a long time to cross a busy road, and some busy roads I won’t cross alone without lights. I’m too scared that if I look one way, then look the other that all of sudden, back the other direction, a car will appear and run me down. I’ve flinched and braced for impact crossing the road on many occasions because I thought I saw a car coming, but when I looked back up there was nothing there. I also don’t swim unless I can easily get to somewhere I can reach the bottom, and while I love rock climbing, I struggle with the whole concept of falling. These things possibly seem so small to someone who hasn’t experienced trauma but they’re very, very real to me.
There are a few other fears I listed, but I think you get the idea. Trauma completely shattered my sense of security and I’m still very much working through this.
Survivors guilt was easily the worst part of Pete, and I’m so happy that it didn’t stick around. I think also, this might be something people don’t expect from trauma.
Constant questions like “why did I survive?”, “Why did that man die and not me?”, “What gives me the right to get out while that man had to die?” Sometimes you even find yourself wishing that it’d been you instead.
As I’m sure you can imagine, this was where the real suffering came from. I don’t really know what to say about it other than that through therapy and time it got better. At the time my fear of death was only just brewing and if I didn’t have help with this… I don’t know if I’d be here today.
I thought about ending it, about somehow correcting the balance, a many times and this feeling sent me into a deep depression, one who’s severity I have yet to see again. I felt as though nothing could be worse than how I felt, and maybe I was right, but I also couldn’t see things getting any better. I could see the strain my trauma and my mood was putting on my friendships and I felt like I was a burden. When you’re already questioning your existence, it can be really easy to jump from “they think I’m a burden” to “everyone would be happier if I wasn’t around.” This was my lowest point, but my friends never left my side. They brought me food when I was bedridden for days on end, and they helped me get back on my feet.
Reliving the Trauma
After the attack I really wanted to get back to normal life, and since I don’t have a driver’s license, normal life meant catching buses. The first time (maybe the first few times) I tried it was definitely too early.
I think within a week I tried catching the same bus route. I got to the stop where the attack happened and I was almost hysterical, I cried the the whole time, I wanted to vomit, and I could see everything that had happened, clear as day. The fire, the smoke, the people screaming, everything.
But I got past the stop. I could see people on the bus trying to not look at me.
It took another week or two before I decided to try that again. But this time I tried catching a bus from a different location, so I wouldn’t have to go past the dreaded stop. This was better but I still cried the whole time and still, I saw flames.
The next time I tried to catch the bus from home I called a friend. Having someone to talk to, someone else to focus on, really helped and I’m eternally grateful to this person and the others I called on later trips. I don’t remember how long it was before I was able to catch a bus alone again but I got there and now, most of the time, I can catch a bus without crying or reliving the event.
I still have ingrained habits that I hold onto though. I sit in the same seat every time if I can; the first high one, close to the back door and up so I can see everything. I carry a glass smashing hammer that a friend bought for me and I love it. I still get anxious if a bus is over full, and more so if I can’t see a clear path between me and the exit. I can’t help thinking “but how is everyone, and how am I, going to get out in time” in case the impossible happens again. All of these things are okay, I think. The anxiety is there, but it’s manageable. I’m on high alert, but not so much so that it exhausts me before I even get to work. It’s at a level that I can live with, but hopefully a level that will get better still.
Some of the habits and fears I’ve mentioned here may never go away, but I’ve gotten this far with the help of my friends, family and my mental health support team (doctor, counsellor and psychiatrist). I was really lucky in that I had friends who were willing to listen, and friends who constantly checked in on me. I understand that it’s hard to hear some of the stuff I (or others) have to talk about, and I’m appreciative every day for those who lend an ear, or a shoulder to cry on.
Not everyone has this kind of network though, and not everyone has something so obviously traumatising happen to them either. You may not think they need support and because of this, not everyone who needs it gets it. I had this terrible thing happen, but the rest of my life was still in pretty good shape. I was depressed because of an event, but others may be depressed and suicidal because of the state of their lives. Others too, may be depressed for no apparent reason at all, and this is okay, all of these people still need support. Check on your friends, even if you think they’re fine. You may not be able to fix the source of their depression or their worries, but you can add a little bit of light to their day, and sometimes that’s the deciding thing.
When new people hear about what’s happened to me, or what I’ve witnessed, they’re usually pretty stunned, much like the people who refused to look at the crying girl on the bus. I want to tell anyone reading this, that if I’m willing to tell you what happened, or what’s going on, then I’m willing to have you engage in the conversation. Ask me questions, feed your curiosity, offer your support by talking back and showing you’re interested in how I’m feeling and if it’s too much for you personally, then it’s okay to say so. Not everyone is in a place to take this kind of thing on, and that’s alright too.
If you’re worried about a friend or a family member (or even if you’re not) and want to check in, don’t wait. Do it now.
If you are seeking help, follow the link below for a list of Australian resources
For more information on PTSD you can visit the black dog institute https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/resources-support/post-traumatic-stress-order/ and if you think you might be struggling with PTSD or suicidal thoughts then there are some helpful numbers here https://ptsd.org.au/
Stay safe, everyone.
Next up: eeny meeny miney Po