PTSD flashbacks steal energy, peace from new mom, who shares her story to help others  

Written by Gretchen Parisi

After complications following the birth of her son more than a year ago, Ashley Testa experienced something she did not expect: post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, that brings on debilitating flashbacks and a feeling that her life is out of her control.

Over the years, Ashley has managed and even grown to appreciate aspects of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD — both diagnosed when she was a teenager. Although these conditions have some less-desirable side effects, she says they also allow her to see the world differently and fuel her creativity.

PTSD, she says, is very different.

"OCD and ADHD are things that I have always had and always will have, and I feel comfortable and OK with that," Ashley says. "But I don't feel the same way about the PTSD. It's not who I am. It's something that happened to me, and I don't associate anything positive with it."

Ashley was able to get help early on to address her PTSD, and though it continues to be difficult, she shares her story to help others going through struggles of their own.   

Worst fears realized

Before Ashley became pregnant, she had fears about childbirth. Not long afterward, it seems as though her worst fears were materializing.

After delivering her son by C-section, Ashley experienced intense pain and illness that caused a prolonged initial hospital stay. Once she was discharged, the symptoms continued with the addition of a fever, which meant multiple calls to her OB-GYN's office looking for an answer.

During this period, she says, "I constantly feared for my life."

A second opinion ultimately revealed the cause of her pain: a retained surgical drape towel, which led to an abscess and infection, requiring emergency surgery. This was followed by an eight-day hospital stay that separated her from her newborn son and began a long and excruciating recovery process.

Ashley feels fortunate that her surgeon quickly recognized her mental health crisis and brought in a psychiatrist, which eventually led to a diagnosis of PTSD.

Although most people have heard of PTSD, they often associate it with trauma experienced by soldiers and other frontline workers. But millions of adults of all backgrounds are affected by PTSD after experiencing trauma.

Mayo Clinic defines PTSD as "a mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying event — either by experiencing or witnessing it." Symptoms can include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

Ashley describes her PTSD flashbacks as making her feel — physically and mentally — that she is transported back to the moment her trauma occurred. "It is such a strange sensation to feel like your body is taking over and your mind can't do anything about it," she says.  

The flashbacks "cause extreme panic and physical distress," Ashley says. "While you may know that you are not back in that moment, it is very hard to convince your mind that (the trauma) is not actually occurring again, or to stop yourself from seeing and feeling everything again."

Ashley says the coping mechanisms she has used in the past for OCD and ADHD — meditation, mindfulness and time outdoors — do not work for her PTSD. And although she takes a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor and another shorter-acting anxiety medication at night to sleep, these medications do not stop her PTSD attacks from occurring.

She hopes that therapy — including a cognitive behavioral therapy called "prolonged exposure" — can help her better manage her flashbacks. "This is so much harder than anything else I have experienced," she says.

Prolonged exposure sessions are challenging and can cause her flashbacks to increase, Ashley says. But the goal of the therapy, according to the American Psychological Association, is to help patients "face stimuli and situations that evoke fear" in a way that desensitizes them by increasing comfort with the memories and reducing fear.

"It feels much easier as a patient who has survived trauma to try to block it out, to pretend it never happened," Ashley says. "That feels OK until the flashbacks return."

Although difficult, the prolonged exposure therapy is expected to be a better solution for her in the long term.

Hope that PTSD's toll will lessen

Living with PTSD is challenging, Ashley says, because flashbacks can occur anytime, anywhere.

"I have wound up on the floor because of a flashback, and even carry a card with me that briefly explains my situation in case I cannot speak," she says. PTSD also drains her energy because it takes a physical and mental toll.

Even simple questions like "How are you?" and "What are you looking forward to?" are hard for Ashley to answer. "I do see progress, but I feel like I am so far from where I want to be, from where I was," she says.

Knowing that PTSD is common "doesn't make it any better," she says. "But it does make you appreciate how many others are going through tough things, too."

As a member of Mayo Clinic's Community Engagement Committee and the Well-Being Coalition in Florida, Ashley is committed to bringing mental health issues to the forefront.

"I strongly believe that mental health needs to be treated the same as any other condition from a medical and human resources standpoint," she says. "Mayo Clinic does an excellent job with this, but the rest of the world needs to catch up."

Coping with PTSD one day at a time

In Ashley's case, prompt medical attention was provided to help her recognize and treat her PTSD. Experts recommend that those with PTSD see a doctor, follow their treatment plan, take care of themselves, do not self-medicate, try to break the cycle and ground themselves in their current surroundings, stay connected to supportive and caring people, and consider a support group.

If someone you care about has PTSD, learning more about it, listening, providing encouragement and support can all be helpful. Ashley thanks her "amazing, incredible, patient and strong husband, Misha, for all of his support through the past year."

For now, she is enjoying time with her son and learning to rethink her expectations of herself. For example, instead of cleaning her whole house in one day as she used to do, she completes one or two small tasks each day.

She also sees sharing her story with others as part of the healing process.

When retelling what she's been through, Ashley says she cried and had flashbacks. "But for the first time," she says, "I had a sense of accomplishment, a sense of a higher purpose, because I hope that some part of this will be helpful to someone else who is struggling."

To care for yourself and bring your best self to work each day, it is important that you nurture your mental health. It's OK not to be OK. Mayo Clinic wants to foster a culture that encourages transparency, collegiality and support. It's not possible to consistently put the needs of the patient first if you do not address your own needs and support our colleagues to do the same. To hear past testimonials, visit the mental health and well-being site here. If you want to share your mental health journey, please submit using this link.