June is national PTSD awareness month, so every week this month, I'll be writing about my own journey with diagnosed complex-PTSD. Today, I want to share how I use Instagram reels as part of my mental health toolkit. We hear so much negativity surrounding social media, and I myself have struggled with how to interact with it. Today I want to show one way it's actually helped my PTSD journey, and how I'm turning to it again as I feel some symptoms begin to rev up again.
I was first diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2014. My diagnosis came in a most surprising manner, I wasn't even in therapy. I took my daughter to see a therapist for some things she was working through, maybe someday we'll tell that story together, but for now, that's what it was. I took her to therapy and at the start of her second session, her therapist came out to me and asked if I'd be willing to fill out some assessment forms myself. She said her supervisor had expressed concern about my health and wanted to talk with me if I was open to that. Thinking this all had to do with helping my daughter, I said yes, and I filled out the paperwork.
The following week, my daughter's therapist came to get her and told me that her supervisor would be coming out to get me for a session. A couple minutes later, a tall woman with wide shoulders and long black braids down her back met me in the lobby and introduced herself as the director of the center. Her name was Sherry, and she had super long, perfectly painted purple nails and wore a bright pink skirt. I'm pretty sure she saved my life.
I followed Sherry back to her office at which time she pulled out the assessment forms I had filled out, and she asked me if I was familiar with PTSD. I said I'd heard of it, and I'd cared for a couple patients who had it in my time as nurse. Sherry explained that the forms I filled out were PTSD assessment tools, and that I scored on the high end of where she saw combat veterans returning from war scoring. She said she was concerned about my safety, and she asked if I'd allow her to help me.
I was 38 years old, the adult survivor of ongoing child rape and sexual abuse, severe poverty, domestic violence, a narcissistic mother who blamed me for ruining her life, and the adult survivor of a date rape. I'd never been to therapy outside of 4 state-mandated visits when I was nine-years old. I'd never touched any of it. I lived with it all balled up inside of me, kept myself running at full speed at all times, over-functioned in every area of my life, and never allowed myself to look at any it. But Sherry saw me, and I am forever grateful to her for cracking me open and making me look at it.
Forward forward to present me and I've done an enormous amount of work since Sherry. I now have a substantial toolbox of therapies and techniques I can draw from when I feel my PSTD symptoms begin to amp up. That's the thing about PTSD, it's a brain injury. You can manage it, you can dial down the symptoms, but you can't cure it. In my case, my brain is oriented towards hypervigilance. Fight or flight is my default nervous system state, so I have to consciously work to get and keep myself in a parasympathetic state. It's exhausting, but it is necessary.
Because I'm wired for fight or flight, anything that revs up my nervous system, even times of good stress, can activate what I call the trauma cascade: my body feels revved up and it associates that feeling with trauma, and so it behaves as though I'm about to die. When my nervous system gets activated like that, my brain believes death is imminent, and so it does things like shuts down my digestive system and won't let me go to sleep. Once I'm in that nervous system state, the other symptoms spiral after it: cognitive difficulties, short term memory loss, the nightmares, and the dysregulation of my immune system. I already have three autoimmune diagnoses I worked to keep in check, that's enough.
Along with my bodily responses from PTSD comes the depression. I'm reluctant to call it that even though I know that's what it is, but it doesn't feel like depression. It feels like someone has turned the lights out, like the whole world is dark and it will never be light again, and I can't imagine a time when it was light. It's that quick, and it's that severe. When the darkness comes like that, I still fear myself. I don't trust myself with myself in that space, because in that space, all there is is insurmountable darkness. BUT I've learned a trick. I've learned a way to leave myself breadcrumbs, so that I can find my way back out of the darkness. My trick is Instagram reels.
I work with great intention to make fun, beautiful IG reels of me living my best life when I'm living it. I used to not even publish them. I'd just make them and download them, keep them for myself. But I've found that having my feed filled with reels--and it does need to be reels for me, the moving image part matters--of me enjoying a lovely life offers an even more substantial boost in the dark.
Creating a living, public record of me being happy not only serves to directly counter the voice that comes with the darkness, the one that says everything is hard and heavy and lonely and always will be, but it lifts my spirit. Turns out, I love to see me happy. It's just, when the dark times come, I forget that I ever was, and I can't imagine I ever could be again. The reels serve as breadcrumbs, and they help me find my way out of the darkness. They are concrete evidence that I have been happy, that I am living a wonderful life, that life is worth living. In my darkest moments, those brief, living, visual memories help me stay. They help me find my way back. And in my current situation--the one in which I'm starting the business of my dreams but feeling the scale start to tip and the nervous system rev and knowing the PTSD cascade is at the ready--they're serving to proactively diffuse the downfall. Yes, I watch my own reels, again and again and again, and they ground me in moments of joy.
So I'll be making lots more reels as I move along this process of becoming a small business owner. It's a stress-filled time, good stress, but again, when you live with complex trauma, your body doesn't know the difference. I want to enjoy this journey, and so that means I have to do some extra work to keep myself safe along it. Building a visual record of moving memories is one significant way I've found to leave myself a trail of joy to follow should I get lost again.