Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Can Happen to Anyone

A close-up photo of a page of a book that says "PTSD."
Photo: Feng Yu/Shutterstock

Content notes: PTSD, sexual trauma, religious trauma, suicide


Earlier this month at a press conference, Representative Ilhan Omar mentioned her post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which she developed after her experience as refugee from war in Somalia. In response, Representative Jim Banks tweeted, “this a disgrace to our veterans who actually do have PTSD.” News anchor Chris Berg tweeted that Omar’s behavior is not characteristic of someone with PTSD.

During World War I, PTSD was known as shell shock. During World War II, it was called combat fatigue. The name PTSD came about after the Vietnam War, and because it was officially first identified in veterans, it is often viewed as synonymous with being a veteran, although that’s far from the only cause of PTSD. In fact, about eight million Americans have PTSD and the most common cause is sexual assault or abuse.

I’ve suffered with PTSD for years, but it wasn’t until three years ago that I was diagnosed. When I first heard I had PTSD, I thought I never experienced trauma; I never experienced rape, physical abuse, or war. I was told about people with worse lives. I was taught to be grateful for my food, home, and education. But as I talked with my psychiatrist and studied the condition it made sense. My psychiatrist pointed out my intrusive thoughts of shouting and cruel words. My inability to move during moments of high anxiety, and nightmares of arguments and threats of abandonment. I am fortunate but I am also traumatized.

The Center for Anxiety Disorders defines trauma as “a psychological or emotional response to an event that is deeply distressing.” How we interpret events is an individual experience, and causes of trauma are diverse. Most of my trauma experiences are atypical and never mentioned as examples in discussions of PTSD.

In my case, as an autistic person, I have developed what’s known as complex trauma, caused by a harmful experience that occurs repetitively resulting in cumulative effects. I experienced years of emotional abuse because I am autistic and mentally ill. I was forced to endure and desensitize myself to painful situations that most people considered harmless. Literature and culture around autism was insisted that our nervous systems and sense were wrong and through forcing ourselves we could experience painful sensations without acknowledging our pain. Many of my symptoms, which were actually Complex PTSD (C-PTSD), were confused for symptoms of autism.

Furthermore, I am a survivor of religious trauma, defined as “both the chronic abuses of harmful religion and the impact of severing one’s connection with one’s faith and faith community.” I grew up in what I describe as a soft cult.  Months before I left, I dealt with breathlessness and sharp chest pain whenever I attended church or discussed my religion. I also had difficulty regulating emotions like anger and sadness. When I decided to leave, I had near hallucinations of the devil chanting to me. And yet, the idea that religion can cause PTSD is never discussed openly.

Whatever the cause of someone’s PTSD, the symptoms remain similar. One aspect of PTSD is the increased risk of suicide. I am a suicide attempt survivor living in a state where suicide is the leading cause of death amongst young people. I wonder how many people impacted by suicidal thoughts deal with undiagnosed PTSD.

Just because PTSD has common symptoms, doesn’t mean all people act the same in reaction to their symptoms. PTSD is an internal diagnosis, so there is no way you could tell if Ilhan Omar or any other person has PTSD. In Representative Omar’s case, she has most likely learned techniques to remain composed when exposed to her triggers. In my case, much of my work in mental health advocacy triggers my PTSD, but through therapy and relaxation techniques I can retain my composure in public. But when I come home, I am emotionally exhausted. PTSD takes many shapes and forms, and we must stop making assumptions that invalidate the experiences of those who are suffering.


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Whitney Lee is an autistic disability rights and mental health advocate. She author's the blog Autistic Observations which focuses on autism, mental health, and chronic illness. She currently works as a research consultant and is assisting her state in policy for young adults with mental health problems.