What is PTSD anyway? This is a question that many of my fellow refugees and immigrants wonder and also avoid at all cost. I also admit that sometimes I tend to avoid it too when I’m with this crowd because there are too many negative connotations around it.
For example, in many of our African cultures, we tend not to believe in PTSD or any other mental illness. We feel that when someone is suffering from a mental illness, it automatically means he is “crazy”. Who wants to be labeled as the crazy of the community? No one! So some of us suffer silently and get used to that life, not knowing that there can be some help out there, especially here in the USA.
I hear a lot of people praise refugees, how hard working we are, how happy we are, how smart we are, how mentally strong we are, etc. This is all good. I actually believe that refugees are not more hard working or smarter, etc. than the general public. I believe that people tend to see us this way because they might expect a different picture; a picture of brokenness, beaten, sadness, etc. due to the many horrific events that we have gone through….and I get this. One thing I have to say to this is that once you have been so down and you get the tiniest chance of moving up and seeing a glimpse of the sun, you tend to be more appreciative of the little things. You were so down that the only other way when you get this chance is to move up….and you always try your best to not get back down.
With this praise comes some challenges and even more expectations. We have to live up to these expectations….not only those of the foreigners who think we are superb human beings but also those of our culture. Showing any sign of weakness becomes a no-no. In addition to this, we have to stay strong for our children. Showing vulnerability in front of our children is also a no-n0. So a lot of us walk around with some emotions and trauma that we are not really able to talk about openly. Now, these are the lucky ones. There is another group of us that has some trauma that we don’t talk about AND we don’t even know that this is the case because we don’t really think twice about examining our mental health and status. We choose to be Proud, Tough, Strong and Determined (PTSD). This is what we want our offsprings to see, our community and our brothers and sisters in our host countries. This has become a survival mechanism for many of us.
I have been guilty of this many times. I have given numerous talks about my life as a survivor of the Rwandan massacre and people in the audiences would sit with their mouths open. They would be shocked at what I have endured but yet have a very happy attitude towards life. I have had several audience members ask me if I have PTSD. I never have a good answer for this question because like many of my fellow refugees, I have not sat down to really think this through…so my quick answer is something like “I have never given thought at that” which is true.
Last weekend, I had the chance to share a table with Dr. Stem, a Psychotherapist and motivational speaker at an African Festival in Lowell. We both displayed our books at the festival and had the opportunity to talk more about my experience. At one point, Dr. Stem looked at me and said, “there is no way you don’t have PTSD”. I said, “Really?” and she looked at me and quietly but convincingly said “Yep” and then I had to think. Maybe I should take time to think about this. What if finding out that I may have some PTSD and getting some help could mean that I reach more people in my talks? That I help more individuals who have gone through trauma, such as myself, seek help? That I inspire more people to not hide their mental brokenness but face them and motivate others to do so? I was all in! All of a sudden, something that happened about 18 years ago flashed in my memory.
I was sleeping on a thin mattress on our living room floor in Kenya and all of a sudden, I woke up panicking and thinking I was about to die. My palms were sweaty, my body was shaking, my heart was racing, I couldn’t breath and I felt so cold. I quickly got up, turned on the light and screamed for my mom. My mom came running and asked me what was wrong. I told her I thought I was going to die and she seemed confused at this because I wasn’t ill. It’s not like we had money to take me to see a doctor or get any sort of help so she quickly went into her bedroom, grabbed a Rosary, put it around my next and told me to go back to sleep and so I did. I woke up the next morning alive. I had many other similar episodes around that time and I would always sleep with a Rosary but it came to a point where I dreaded nights. I hated going to sleep because I would always think I would die in my sleep so I made sure I confessed all my sins before falling asleep just in case I didn’t wake up.
After sharing this with Dr. Stem, I asked her if this meant I have/had PTSD, and she said that was a sign. I later recalled having these episodes, at a higher level, after I lost my daughter last year. I would go in emergency rooms aleast twice a week because I thought I was going to die. Or when I was very stressed at work. There would be triggers here and there but I never really thought anything of it because they would disappear and didn’t really interfere with my work/personal life. Just my sleep.
As I continue my journey to learn more about PTSD not just for me but also for my fellow Happily Broken brothers and sisters, I encourage immigrants and refugees to think of mental illness as a disease that can be treated just like a headache, stomachache or malaria. The more of us that are educated about this, the better it will be for our communities. Let’s encourage one another to seek help so that we can be all we can for our friends and families and ultimately, to our host country.