In the autumn of 2017, I sat in my living room with my husband, and I told him, “I feel that I am not connecting with people, I feel that I don’t belong here, I want to die. But before I do something foolish I am going back to therapy. I need help”. I was in the third year of my postdoc, and I was about to write a grant application, but I was crying myself to sleep every night, and when I managed to sleep, I was having nightmares. At some point, I decided to stop many of the things I was doing and took care of myself. It took some time to make this decision, but I believed it was essential to take care of myself. I still believe that taking a break and asking for help makes you strong. So, I went back to therapy, but this time, instead of talking about my mom and how she died, I spoke about the events giving me nightmares. I am not sure what triggered all the symptoms. The only thing that comes to my mind is a conversation with someone dear to me. After she told me about her story of violence, I probably started having flashbacks and nightmares, and then it worsened when one of my childhood friends was killed by her partner.
During the sessions with my therapist, I brought up some of the violent events I experienced. At some point, she asked me to draw a timeline with all the events that I have been describing. I took the paper that she offered me and wrote down some of those events. It was not a shortlist. When I finished, I told her, “I know there are more things ‘. But time was up, and I took my paper home. I couldn’t stop thinking about the timeline. That same night, I opened my computer and started a document with my timeline and the events I remembered. It took me months to write down all that I could recall. As I discussed the events with my therapist, I realised that some were deep in my mind. Somehow I buried them or avoided talking about them because they were too painful. In some situations, I saw them as something normal or didn’t give them importance. I also spend months reading books and blogs, listening to podcasts, watching videos about PTSD, domestic violence, sexual assault, intimate partner violence, trauma due to natural disasters, street violence, and hospital trauma. It was not easy, and sometimes I had to tell my therapist that it was too much. She said to me that it was ok to take a break or tone down my reading. These breaks gave me time to think about everything I learned, and when I was strong enough, I would push my boundaries and learn more. It is still a learning process, when to take a break and when to try again.
While I was writing down those events, I also thought, “there are other things that happened in my life”: I went to school and had the privilege to go to university. I came to Sweden to do a PhD and a Postdoc. “What more?” I asked myself. And suddenly, my timeline was also filled with positive experiences such as sports, dance, theatre, volunteering, hobbies, celebrations, marriage and births. After a year of therapy, when I felt that I couldn’t add more, I printed out this timeline and showed it to my therapist. She said: “What I can see is that you are resilient”. Why would she say this to me? I found myself wondering. At the time, I didn’t know much about the concept of resilience. As any respected scientist, I went back to the books and other sources to learn about this resilience concept. What I learned is that it is essential to connect with people, especially during my darkest moments. But I am not going to lie to you, I find it difficult to trust new people due to the trauma I experienced. I learned other valuable tools to improve my quality of life, proving helpful in the last months.
This past year has been challenging in many ways. For a moment, I was afraid I would go to that dark place I go when things go wrong. Well, I was there for a few weeks, and it was terrible. But I was supported by my therapist, friends, family, and I tried to use what I learned on resilience. One of the things helping is positive thinking. I tend to forget how powerful it can be. Several small things can have an impact. The other thing I have been working on is one of my hobbies -wire bonsai tree sculpture. I am using it as a therapeutic and mindful tool. One of the first trees I made was a gift to one of my first therapists. I did it while we were discussing my mom and how she died. My mom used to do these trees as therapy. There is something about these trees. Every time I make a tree, I tell part of my story of vulnerability, fragility, darkness, resilience, grit, light, life, and hope.
Finally, I want to say that it is a challenging ride to live with PTSD, a long roller coaster of emotions. There is no final cure, and I am well aware that the symptoms can come back. Still, it is a relief to know the name of what I was experiencing. Now that I know, I am looking for ways to improve my quality of life. For a while, I felt isolated and suffered in silence. I know I am not alone, others have walked this path, I heard and read the stories, and I am still learning about the complexity of PTSD and how misunderstood it is. If only we talked more about this. Now I am here writing about PTSD for others. So, if you find yourself reading this story, would you like to talk to us? Here is a kind reminder, you are not alone.
-by Irina Jovel-Dalmau.
Sometimes I write for the Karolinska Institute career service blog if you want to read about my journey in Academia.