'Each time the holidays come around, I'm scared they'll be my last': Why the holidays trigger my PTSD

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The holidays are particularly stressful for writer Hattie Gladwell due to a medical trauma that made her fight twice for her life.
The following article covers topics such as mental health problems, eating disorders, and PTSD that may not be appropriate for some readers.
For the past five years, Christmas and New Years have been tough for me. I spend the preparations for both events feeling more and more nervous and nervous - because every time the holidays come, I fear that they will be my last.
I have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from medical trauma after I was hospitalized and died almost twice - in December 2011 and January 2015.
My first symptoms of PTSD were terrible flashbacks and visions of myself and other people who had surgery. They were nightmarish visions that left me cold and I began to worry about my health. I kept checking my body for symptoms that something was wrong, and I was convinced that I would have another major life and death surgery for Christmas.
In 2011 I developed bacterial pneumonia that caused my lung to collapse. I had asked doctors and nurses that something was wrong - but my screams went unnoticed. Eventually three liters of fluid were drained from my lungs while I was in the hospital in the intensive care unit.
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Although my first experience in intensive care was difficult, my second experience in 2015 was far more traumatic. For two years I had asked my doctor to listen to me: I had lost excessive weight, had chronic constipation, had severe abdominal cramps, and gas and rectal bleeding.
My concerns were dismissed by my doctor, who gave me different explanations each time. I was told that rectal bleeding was "my period" and that excessive weight loss was an "eating disorder". The intense stomach cramps were just "this time of the month". It didn't matter how many times I denied these claims - and went on to explain where the blood came from - in their eyes I was just a stupid 18 year old. I finally stopped going to my doctor after my doctor rolled his eyes and told me I was a hypochondriac.
The holidays can trigger mental health problems - including medical PTSD.
Fast forward to three months later. I got very, very sick and got so sick that I passed out. I was constantly cold, sweating, had super high fevers, was insane, and went to the bathroom more than 40 times a day (yes, really). I went to the emergency room three times and each time I was sent home with a case that doctors believed was gastritis, an inflammation of the lining of the stomach.
By the end of the week I was in such agony that I took my mother to see another doctor who told me they suspected I had appendicitis.
Two weeks later, I woke up from emergency surgery to remove my colon and looked at my stomach to see an ostomy pouch (also known as a colostomy pouch). Shortly afterwards, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a type of inflammatory bowel disease.
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My life has changed in many ways since that day. Since I had an operation and then another to reverse the stoma and allow myself to go to the bathroom "normally", I've been pretty much house-bound. I live with chronic diarrhea and rectal bleeding and the occasional incontinence, and when I need the bathroom I have to sprint there to make it through. I go through relapses where I can't even function and I have pain in the bathroom.
Two traumatic hospital stays during the holiday season had a profound impact on the mental health of writer Hattie Gladwell.
But my life has not only changed physically, but also mentally. I developed PTSD not long after that. I didn't know medical trauma was a real thing at all until I experienced it. It only showed up two yeasts after the operation.
At first I had just hidden everything. Rather than grappling with how painful that time was (both physically and mentally), I would joke or shake off the subject entirely. There were aspects of that time that I found difficult to remember.
According to Huw Williams, associate professor of clinical neuropsychology and co-director of the Center for Clinical Neuropsychological Research (CCNR) at Exeter University, PTSD responses to unexpected medical and surgical emergencies are well documented in the medical literature.
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"The trauma of being rushed to the operating room or being acutely uncomfortable in the intensive care unit can lead to massive concerns about the risk of impending death, pain, or life-limiting disability," Williams said during an interview with Yahoo Lifestyle Canada. "Extremely stressful and emotional events as such are often very strongly consolidated in our memory, which can easily be triggered in everyday life."
Williams explained that certain cues and triggers can cause people to recall their strong memories, causing them to relive their trauma. Reliving the trauma leads to an acute stress response that we call the three Fs: fight, flight, or freeze.
Christmas can cause mental health problems - even PTSD.
"The symptoms of PTSD are diverse and overlap with many other mental health problems," said Williams. “Although in the context of an emergency operation ... PTSD can be preceded by various events. Some may be single event trauma, such as sexual violence, while others may be subject to long-term repetitive trauma such as bullying. "
Huw notes that certain symptoms are associated with these conditions, such as panic-like symptoms, hyper-alertness, outbursts of anger, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, dissociative states, and nightmares.
SEE ALSO: COVID-19 and the Holidays: How to Help Feel Alone and Stressful This Holiday Season
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Now I feel a little better every time December and January go by. I've had cognitive behavioral therapy and over the past two years things have gotten easier. But I'm still not quite there.
Whenever we enter the holiday season, instead of enjoying the Christmas music on the radio, I remember a time that has now become my worst nightmare. But for every Christmas I make it come alive and all in one piece, I'm grateful.
If you or someone you know is suffering please call Crisis Services Canada at 1-833-456-4566, call 911, or go to the nearest hospital.
For a full list of resources including mental health services in your area, see the Canadian Mental Health Association.
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