As someone who is diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, I sometimes feel like there is an expectation that my symptoms can be easily traced to one cause. Unlike some “mental illnesses”, where biologically deterministic theories reign supreme, PTSD is most closely associated with particular life experiences. PTSD is what happens after a car bomb blows up part of your convoy, or an earthquake shatters your windows.
I’ve felt this pressure — from friends, psychiatrists, and myself — to explain my PTSD as something caused by a singular event. Most commonly, I point to the time I was jumped just outside of my house. That was not the first extremely violent situation that ever happened to me; the first time of many I was queer bashed was when I was 13. But because this is the most recent, and because I have to walk by where it happened almost every day, it’s this one time that I feel most often in flashbacks and that continues to haunt me most severely.
However, I don’t think this is a very helpful way of looking at PTSD, at least not for me. It’s really impossible for me to isolate one event from the entire context of my life and say “this is what caused it.” The concept of Complex PTSD is a proposed diagnostic category that begins to get at this – it would be used to describe trauma from prolonged situations, such as “chronic maltreatment by caregivers” (which I also experienced, and I believe most trans people who had transphobic parents could potentially be placed under this). C-PTSD is the result not of one traumatic event, but rather a pervasive state of powerlessness and abuse. It was first noted as occurring in prisoners of war, survivors of genocidal atrocities, and child sexual abuse survivors.
After I got jumped, a reporter I knew from my local activism heard about what happened to me. He asked if I wanted him to write a story about it. I said no because I did not want to deal with the exposure of such a hard thing to talk about, but I wonder, if he had written a story about it, what people would have read into that story.
A lot of people, including friends, assumed I had been jumped for being trans or queer. There is obvious reason for them to make this assumption: When a queer trans woman gets assaulted by a stranger in public, it often is an act of transphobic violence. It’s happened to me, more than once, and it’s happened to most trans women I know.
The truth is, I have no idea what motivated my attacker, in this particular instance, to pick me. I seriously doubt he knew I was trans, unless he had seen me around the neighborhood before. I started hormones while I lived there, but by the time I got jumped, I was mostly passing as cis. And it was dark out anyway. It probably had more to do with the fact that I’m a small woman alone at night. He took my purse, so I just figured he was desperate for money. (I only had two dollars and a couple cigarettes anyway and I don’t even know where I’m gonna eat from next, so really this was all for nothing. I’ve stolen many things in my life and I don’t feel bad about it because I had to, but if you’re gonna steal, maybe steal from rich people?)
But regardless, the fact that I am trans still permeates the way I experienced the attack. By this time, I had already been queer bashed previously. I had been openly mocked and laughed out in public more times than I could ever recall. I had been threatened and told to die by strangers. I had known trans women who were murdered. I’ve been targeted by police surveillance for sex work, drug use, and political activism. Moreover, I spent my childhood living in fear of abusive, totalitarian caregivers that involved chronic psychological torture and sometimes physical force.
Long before I was jumped, got diagnosed PTSD, or had my first (recognized) panic attack, I already lived in constant anxiety. And pretty much all of that came from being trans in a cis supremacist culture that constantly threatened me with violence for being different. As it turns out, I’ve had Complex PTSD since I was a child. Many of the symptoms – depersonalization, derealization, migraines, somatic pain, fainting, self-harm, depression, amnesia, hearing voices – I either didn’t have the language to express or didn’t realize were all connected. But they’ve all been there for as long as I can remember.
So when I was jumped most recently, regardless of the motive of the person who attacked me, it was still in the context of my marginalized trans identity. I still had to walk around every day after the assault feeling like a target, like it was going to happen again at any moment.And so the anxiety just got worse. And worse. And the worrying never went away.
I can’t untangle one aspect of me (being trans, living in a transphobic society) from another (having PTSD, being touched by panic). I think all of the different ways I experience mental illness – depression, anxiety, panic, psychosis, mania – are overlapping and interwoven with one another, and with my identity, and the particular circumstances of my life.
I also think this is a point that is crucial to remember as we think about what causes mental illness and how to treat it. It’s not as simple as just “your chemicals are unbalanced, so you’re depressed” or “you got hit in the head, so you have an exaggerated startle response.” (Although both may be true.)
Everyone’s life history is unique, and for me, even if my attacker in that one case didn’t chose me because I’m trans, transphobia still had a lot to do with the anxiety and panic that I still have to this day.