According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 18.5% of adults in the United States experience mental illness every year. That's a significant portion of our population—one in five people—yet the stigma and misunderstanding that surround mental health remain rampant. That's why in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we put the call out to our readers to share their own experiences with mental illness and other conditions: their victories, their struggles, and what it's really like to negotiate a society that makes misguided assumptions about who you are based on an arbitrary definition of the word "normal." Our series My Life With highlights the raw, unfiltered stories of women who deal with anxiety, bipolar disorder, postpartum depression, and more, all in their own words. Below, Beth Grimm shares a look inside the post-traumatic stress disorder she still deals with a decade after a life-altering car accident.
Whenever I used to hear the term post-traumatic stress disorder, my mind was always quick to think of it as a mental condition that only war veterans experienced. More often than not, we associate PTSD with this community and rightfully so. That’s why sitting in a psychiatrist office at the age of 21 gave me a sense of feeling that I didn’t really belong there. But at that point, I was desperate to feel better. My thought while leaving was that it was the beginning of the end of my symptoms. I had been going to counseling, and while helpful, there were plenty of emotions, thoughts, and feelings I just still couldn’t shake. What I didn’t know was this was only the beginning of a (now) decadelong journey.
A journey that I’ll honestly probably be on the rest of my life.
If you can go back and think of a time that drastically changed the course of your life, what were the circumstances surrounding it? My defining moment occurred the fall of 2007. I had recently moved to Florida from my home state of Kansas, and it was my first real shot at being out on my own. After I moved South, I applied to get into the regional police academy and was accepted. I’ll be honest and say that it was one of the happiest times of my life. I lived in a beautiful location, was loving where my career was heading, and was making so many new friends that my confidence was at an all-time high.
That all came to a screeching halt, literally and figuratively, the night of September 29. I was on my way out with some friends and was following solo behind their SUV in my little red Grand Am. As we pulled out onto the highway, I glanced into my rearview window. What I saw was a blue truck flying down my lane. It was going so fast there was no time for me to do anything but brace myself for the impact.
In an instant, I was hit. My car was flipping side over side, and all I could think was, This is it. This is how I was going to die.
If you’ve ever had a near-death experience, it’s kind of similar to what’s portrayed in movies. Time slows down, and everything seems to go in slow motion. During this time, my car had flipped once over, so I had a full vision of the night sky, full of stars. It was here that I heard a voice telling me it was not my time. And it wasn’t.
My car came to a stop, and I was upside down in the median, the opposite way I had been traveling. I had no idea if I was in the middle of the highway, so my fight-or-flight system kicked in. I unbuckled my seatbelt and landed upside down on the seat. My door was smashed shut, so I knew I was going to have to climb out the back windshield, which was now in my non-existent backseat. I was probably out of the car within seconds of the initial impact. I immediately started checking my body for cuts and broken bones. I had a small bump on my leg and nothing more.
At this time, I could already hear the sirens in the distance, and once the EMTs arrived, they strapped me to a stretcher and we were on our way to the hospital. I was so happy to be alive that I was already in pretty good spirits on the ride there, joking around with the EMTs about being in the police academy and eating doughnuts and such.
After the accident, I took a couple days off of school to let the soreness subside but then picked back up where I left off, sans vehicle. But exactly one month to the day of my accident, I had my first panic attack. I had gone out the previous night for a Halloween party and was trying to get a nap in that next afternoon. To say it hit me like a ton of bricks would be an understatement. It was something I had never felt in my life up until this point. I jumped out of bed in cold sweat.
If you’ve never experienced a panic attack, you literally feel like and think you are dying. I can only sum it up by it being the worst feeling in the world: Your mind and heart are racing, and you feel like you’re on the verge of passing out. I spent the next couple days in a somewhat panicked mode. Everything around me felt surreal, and I had a sense of derealization that I couldn’t shake. All I could think about was what would have happened if I hadn’t survived that wreck and why I was still here. My life then started to go downhill.
I started to get super depressed about a lot of things and overly anxious that I was going to have another panic attack—which I would. I ended up dropping out of the academy and went back to my home state to be near my friends and family. My mind was different. My thoughts felt uncontrollable, and I knew I had to seek out help. I found a therapist who I really liked, and she helped me make sense of everything I was thinking and feeling. But the brain fog I had started to experience was overwhelming. The derealization hadn’t subsided either. After seeing that there were a few symptoms that she couldn’t help me with, my counselor referred me to the first psychiatrist to prescribe me an antidepressant. It was here I was diagnosed with PTSD.
I’ve now been on antidepressants for 12 straight years. No one told me when I first started them that coming off of them would be a living nightmare. Seriously—you go a few hours after you’re supposed to take a dose, and the brain “zaps” are unreal. Not to mention the mood swings, fatigue, brain fog, and headaches that occur if you ever start weaning yourself. I think I’ve tried here or there to taper off of them, and I only made it a day before deciding it wasn’t worth the withdrawals.
I also wasn’t told that sometimes the medication can just stop working for no apparent reason. I had one antidepressant stop working seven years in, and I think I cried all day every day for a week straight. Once I made a switch to a new medication though, everything went back to normal. Oh, and having the occasional drink? Forget it. I feel the effects of the alcohol way too soon and way too amplified. Despite all this though, the thing that scares me the most is that there is no study on the effects of long-term use with these medications. So I’ll just continue to take my medication and hope for the best.
Sometimes when I think of the man who hit me, I still get upset. I learned after the accident that he was super intoxicated when he hit me. He had fled the vehicle after crashing into me and was later apprehended. His story in my life would end there, as he was in the country illegally and disappeared shortly thereafter.
I was robbed of something that night that I’ll never get back. Peace, for one thing. The freedom of not knowing what it’s like to wake up in the middle of the night and think that I’m dying, that my heart is racing way too fast to keep me alive. The feeling of not having a panic attack in the middle of Disneyland, the “happiest place on Earth,” and having to leave early. Sometimes I just want to enjoy a full glass of wine without my brain getting so fogged over that it feels like I’m dreaming.
Maybe if that night never happened, I would have experienced some other traumatic event in my life that all led to this, but that’s something I’ll never know. My story is just that—mine. But I don’t walk it alone. We all have our stories that have shaped our lives, whether good or bad. Some of us suffer from a mental illness brought on by tragic events, or a brain chemistry that’s not functioning properly. But whatever the circumstances we have to keep going. We have to swallow our pride and ask for help, however that may be.
After all is said and done, we’ve all made it this far for a reason. Never stop trying to figure out what that reason is.