For sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) it’s often quite hard to remember that there was a time before. A time when you didn’t have to check for chinks in your armour before you faced the world. I had forgotten that too but I remembered it when I watched a clip of Lady Gaga visiting the Ali Forney Center for young LGBT homeless people in New York. She took gifts – warm socks, comfy clothes; the small, “hugging”, kind things that make life bearable – and as she sat on the floor, tiny and perfect, she dropped into her conversation the fact that she suffers from PTSD and I glimpsed a time before Gaga when a 19-year-old Stefani Germanotta had been vulnerable. Unless you were paying attention (and the cameras hadn’t been there) you might have missed it.
Ah yes, the cameras… these celebrities and their publicity, eh? But take a minute to think of the human cost of confessing this kind of thing. Whether you’re a globally famous multi-millionaire singer-songwriter, a professional footballer or a star-struck 1970s teenager in the audience on Top of the Pops, once you’ve said it, once it’s out there, you can never take it back. Everyone you know will know what happened to you and then they will have to come to terms with it too and they will feel guilt that they couldn’t protect you, that for all those years they haven’t helped you, that they weren’t there. To say it on camera takes courage, whoever you are.
In my experience there’s a process to PTSD and more often than not, that process doesn’t start immediately after whatever it was happened. It’s fairly typical that Lady Gaga kept her secret for years. It can take a long time to work out what’s going on with you and in the meantime you build an impenetrable shell to keep everyone out, not realising perhaps that it also keeps you in. The face you present to the world gives nothing away. It doesn’t help that not much has been said about it except in a military capacity – I think most of us understand that combat veterans frequently come back with “baggage” and that this “baggage” can wreck not just their own lives but the lives of those around them. I think most of us can comprehend that the horror of surviving a terrorist attack or a terrible car crash would leave us scarred. But these are big public things over which we have little or no control. To have endured abuse, bullying or a sexual assault is a private suffering, something we internalise as shameful. It’s something many still believe we should be able to escape, to fight our way out of – yes, Eric Bristow, I’m looking at you.
One of the things about PTSD is that you’ll do anything to avoid going back over what happened. You’ve got it pushed down in its box, padlocked, weighted, chained up, buried and harmless
It goes to the heart of what makes us human – the loss of dignity and self-respect, the cruelty, violence, the invasion of self…the liquefying shock. Whatever was inflicted on you, it is your belief that you were not strong enough to make it stop. You were weak. Frailty and weakness is what got you there in the first place (you think) and you power on, shouldering the shame and blame, ignoring the warning signs that you’re about to unravel, because to stop is to admit to being what you can’t accept. To show vulnerability, to ask for help, to understand that something is “off” and that it is – and this is the big one – a mental issue sets off all the alarm bells you have. You feel as though you’re hanging out a big neon sign saying “PUNCH ME”. Such is the stigma, still, of mental illness.
One of the things about PTSD is that you’ll do anything to avoid going back over what happened. You’re fine. You’ve got it pushed down in its box, padlocked, weighted, chained up, buried and harmless. It becomes a circular argument you have with yourself. Imagine you’re running round in a giant hamster wheel and following you on the opposite side is PTSD, matching you pace for pace, lap for lap. Neither of you will ever meet unless one of you stops. It isn’t going to be that sack full of festering memories so it has to be you. This is unfortunate because the terminal velocity when it hits you is likely to be a nasty surprise. Sooner or later you will have to stop running and face it. The good news is that once you do it brings freedom and eventually you learn that you’re not weak, or frail, or helpless but quite the opposite. It brings strength and peace when you expected, and felt you deserved, none.
“Secrets,” said Lady Gaga, “make you sick with shame.” Shame makes me angry, it controls and it silences. It’s what abusers rely on for camouflage. Your shame is their protection. When Lady Gaga, or anyone in the public eye, finds the courage to say “this happened to me and this is how I live with it” it helps someone else to live with it too, or to recognise what that “off” thing they live with is. It was 15 years before someone spotted the signs in me and gave them a name and since then I have discovered that there is more kindness in the world than I ever expected to find.