How I Discovered That PTSD Was Causing My Post-transplant Struggles
My whole life changed after I had a double-lung transplant three years ago. When drastic life changes occur, they can shake us to the core. We can struggle to understand the implications of what we are going through until we’re already facing the aftermath.
That’s what happened to me when I found myself struggling after getting new lungs.
A word I had heard casually tossed around in college was “trauma.” As a counselor, I need to be keenly aware of this word and its meaning. Yet while I understood it in the context of other people’s lives, it seemed foreign in terms of my own — until I had my transplant.
After my transplant, I was struggling mentally and emotionally. I was a complete mess. My anxiety was through the roof, and I had panic attacks when my mom would leave me alone for five minutes. Everything felt really dark.
I was depressed because my entire world had been turned upside down. Not only that, but I also was grappling with the tension of being grateful while still feeling guilty about being unhappy.
I learned that I had an adverse relationship with my home hospital and the hospital where I received the transplant. The first time I went to my CF clinic after transplant, I went alone. Upon leaving, I froze. As I sat stranded on a bench, my dad had to talk me through just walking to my car.
The same thing happened when I went to my transplant clinic alone. I started hyperventilating as I climbed the same set of stairs I once carried an oxygen tank up.
A therapist had gone through the transplant process with me, so we processed some of the hard emotions I had about having new lungs and feeling comfortable in my body again. But I felt there was more work to be done.
As a counselor, I am obsessed with personal growth. Yet with all the extensive inner work I had done, I was still missing something, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
Before transplant, I had a handle on my anxiety and depression. I had coping strategies for both, and managed them effectively. Somehow that changed after my transplant, and I couldn’t understand why.
I knew something was off, and I ended up going to the ER several times with chest pain. But my CT scans came back clear. So, I started researching, and late one night, I found the answer I was looking for: I had post-traumatic stress disorder.
I Googled trauma therapists in my area. I knew that if I wanted to feel better, I had to be brave and make the call to see one. So I did.
The first session was eye-opening. My therapist and I had a “Good Will Hunting” moment when he told me that what I was experiencing wasn’t my fault.
Tears filled my eyes as relief sunk in upon hearing this. There was a reason I was so anxious all the time: I was having a trauma response. This explained why I froze up in places where I had previously experienced the toughest battles of my life. It made sense that my body would feel like it was jumping all the time and couldn’t relax. The mind-body connection is real.
My trauma therapist explained that because of multiple near-death experiences, my body was operating on high alert. It constantly felt threatened and lived in fight, flight, or freeze mode. This resulted in symptoms such as difficulty sleeping and focusing, and constant heightened anxiety.
National PTSD Awareness Day on June 27 is a reminder to do some self-checking. Be aware of your PTSD triggers and symptoms, if you have them. And remember, you’re not alone. Whether or not you’ve had a transplant, your PTSD symptoms are valid.
We can use various tactics to walk alongside the trauma we experience while living every day with our disease. Please don’t be afraid to reach out for more specialized help when needed.
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