When Tiffany Denny, a domestic abuse survivor-turned-relationship recovery coach in Utah, US, found out she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), she was completely baffled, having only associated the condition with extreme events such as war. But, in fact, the mental health disorder can originate as a result of experiencing or even witnessing any kind of traumatic events such as childhood trauma, physical or sexual assault, abuse, an accident or disaster. According to psychotherapist Nadia Addesi, it can often occur in people who have a history of mental illness or who are struggling with substance use or alcoholism. “Biological factors also play a role in the development and diagnosis of PTSD,” she says.
The effects of PTSD can be debilitating, negatively affecting a person’s relationships, career, sleep, mental health and ability to function day-to-day. In some cases, it has resulted in suicide. “Some people go through much of their lives suffering from PTSD without realising that they have the condition,” Alex Gerrick, CEO of Australian PTSD charity Fearless, tells Vogue. This was the case for Denny. “Others are under the misconception that by admitting they have PTSD, they are admitting weakness.”
According to the World Health Organization, one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders and about eight out of every 100 people will have PTSD at some point in their lives, which is why it’s so important to spread awareness of the condition. “Greater awareness helps to demystify PTSD and encourages sufferers to access treatments and support in an open and inclusive way,” says Gerrick.
June is PTSD Awareness Month, a global campaign launched to do exactly this, shedding light on the impact of PTSD, its causes and cures, and helping to end the stigma surrounding the disorder. To mark the occasion, Vogue talks to four women about what it’s like living with PTSD.
1. Jen Satterly, 45, US
“I was 14 when I found myself in a psychologist’s office after a failed suicide attempt. The childhood abuse [I had experienced] made me introverted and that left me open to bullies. It wasn’t until 2016 that I was diagnosed.
“Educating myself was a huge first step. I started therapy at 14, but it wasn’t until I found Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) that I started to feel better and improve my quality of life regarding relationships. Helping others with their trauma has been massively healing. I have shared my story in a book, Arsenal of Hope: Tactics for Taking on PTSD, Together (Post Hill Press, 2021). While it’s not always easy, speaking about PTSD took away its power.”
2. Krista, 37, Singapore
“When I moved to Singapore, I was sexually assaulted and completely shut down, internalising and masking the trauma. When I wasn’t feeling numb, I was full of self-hatred and shame. When I told my best friend about it years later, she began crying hysterically at the horror of my experience—and it made me realise for the first time that what I went through was actually a bigger deal than I had duped myself into believing. I myself, hadn’t cried about the experience but in that moment, I cried at the pain she was feeling hearing about it.
I also didn’t fully process it until my colleague pulled out a bunch of pills from my drawer at work and asked why my doctor would prescribe me medication for PTSD. I didn’t even have an answer for her but I realise now PTSD affected me in a lot of tangible, physiological ways: the insomnia, brain fog, monkey mind and finally self-neglect. There were some days I’d be so depressed, I couldn’t even shower.
My recovery has been long and couldn’t have happened without the support of a psychiatrist who prescribed me appropriate medication and psychologist who taught me CBT coping techniques. The rise in the Me Too movement and general call for people to not victim blame and to instead believe survivors has also been empowering for me.”
3. Belinda Neil, 53, Australia
“I had an amazing career as a police officer, which included undercover work, murder investigation and hostage negotiation. However, in 2005, after 18 years of being exposed to a number of horrific crime scenes and investigations, I succumbed to PTSD. I was 35 and I literally could not get out of bed. My marriage broke down and my career was over.
“After the birth of my children, the cracks began to appear. I began to get horrendous flashbacks and intrusive thoughts. I was sleep-deprived and constantly irritable. I was forgetful—forgetting to shower, put on deodorant and eat. I couldn’t concentrate.
“At the time, I wasn’t coping, but I was having psychotherapy with a psychiatrist who had expertise with PTSD. I initially refused my psychiatrist’s advice to take antidepressants as I didn’t believe I needed them. I changed my mind quickly after I came close to ending my life. I wrote my memoir, Under Siege (HarperCollins, 2016), to give insight to others suffering from PTSD and suggestions on how their loved ones can help.”
4. Emma Boman Högmark, 31, Sweden
“I got my PTSD after an abusive relationship. I couldn’t cope for many years: I lost jobs, friends and family because of it. I almost lost my kids because of it, too. In 2020, I finally got help.
“I did a year of CBT. Part of my therapy was to tape-record some of the trauma I’ve experienced that affected my life the most. It was so hard—the toughest thing I’ve done in my whole life. I just went to my last session and I no longer have PTSD. It’s been a tough road, but so worth it! I’m free.”
5. Kinoko, 28, Japan
“I was diagnosed with PTSD after experiencing the horrors of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami on 11 March 2011. I was at home when I experienced the earthquake. Since then, I have had nightmares of dying in an earthquake at least once a week. As a result, I suffer from sleep disorders. Hearing an earthquake alert or a similar sound can cause tears or panic attacks.
“I got sick both physically and mentally. I suffer from depression, anxiety disorders, adjustment disorders, and autonomic imbalances. Every 11 March, Japanese TV and the internet is filled with news and special reports to commemorate the victims of the disaster. Although it’s important to remember the tragedy, it’s important for people suffering from trauma to escape from scary and unpleasant things, and protect themselves. So, I spend this day ignoring the TV and the internet.”
6. Danli Lok, 38, Singapore
“I was a freelancer most of my life till I thought I found my retirement job at 27 in an amazing MNC media company. Things were smooth-sailing & fantastic for the first two years, then it went downhill. There was a mass retrenchment due to the economic cross in 2008 and the entire team of 150 were wiped out.
“I was lost and aimless. Then my friend suggested that I should get help and at that time help was seeing a psychiatrist [who later diagnosed me as having PTSD and reactive depression]. I went for one session and stopped as the cost was too high and totally unfordable for a jobless person. Then I found yoga and meditation, it saved my soul. Though it’s been 13 years since being retrenched, I’ve learnt that everything in life isn’t permanent. Like what Bruce lee said “be like water, my friend”.
You are not alone. If you think you or a loved one are suffering from PTSD, talk to a mental health practitioner. Find a counsellor or therapist specialising in PTSD and/or trauma, join a local PTSD support group, and/or talk to a trusted family member or close friend who can listen.