Most people know that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a result of trauma, but unless you’ve lived with it, it’s hard to really understand what it’s like. Everyday experiences and objects become terrifying. Having PTSD is like living in a haunted house, but the ghosts are your trauma and they follow you everywhere.
The house I grew up in was haunted. There were strange noises, like creaking and footsteps. There were occasional cold spots or feelings of being watched, especially from the woods behind my house. While I loved that forest during the day, I wouldn’t go anywhere near it once the sun went down. I just knew something bad would happen if I went there at night. I felt it.
Believing that someone—or something—was there and I couldn’t see them, but they could see me—it was scary. No matter how much I tried to talk myself out of my fear, I couldn’t. It was like my body knew something my brain didn’t.
It’s not uncommon for people to say they’re being “haunted.” By the past, by memories, by loved ones, by trauma. What most of us mean is that we think about it sometimes and it’s upsetting. But for someone with PTSD, being “haunted” is almost literally true.
When someone is being haunted by an actual ghost, ordinary noises can become frightening. The sound of footsteps in the attic is no big deal—unless you know that no living person is upstairs. If I’m at the coffee shop and I feel watched, I turn around and maybe catch someone looking in my direction. But if I’m alone in my room, feeling watched is scary.
Living with PTSD is like that. Most people aren’t afraid of the sound of storms or riding in a car. But for someone with PTSD, those experiences can be terrifying. Not because storms or cars themselves are scary, but because they’re a trigger.
For combat veterans, the sound of thunder can remind them of gunfire and explosions. People who’ve been in car accidents might be fearful of driving or being a passenger, depending on who was driving when the crash happened. Or they might be afraid of driving in whatever weather condition contributed to the collision, like heavy rain or snow. Triggers can be specific or general.
Most of the lore on ghosts say that they stick around when they have unfinished business. That they can only be put to rest when they’ve resolved whatever it is that they needed to.
And that’s a perfect description of trauma. It’s unfinished business. It’s in the past, but it hasn’t been resolved. It hasn’t been healed, which makes it a challenge to move on. It’s easy to say that we should leave the past in the past when ghosts aren’t jumping out at us, forcing us to relive something terrible.
People with PTSD don’t want to be stuck in a loop of the worst thing that ever happened to them. But laying those ghosts to rest aren’t any easier than laying real ghosts to rest. They move on in their own time.
When I talk about my experiences in that haunted house, many people will laugh it off, like I’m joking. I don’t really believe in ghosts, do I? Often, people who haven’t experienced something paranormal prefer rational, logical explanations. But fear doesn’t respond well to logic. It’s our brain’s way of telling us that something isn’t right. It’s important to listen to that fear. Healthy fear keeps us safe. And because fear is designed for that, it doesn’t just go away because we want it to.
Because those of us who don’t have PTSD experience the world in a certain way, we see a car as just a mode of transportation. A storm is an exciting spectacle with the rain, the dramatic flashing and booms of thunder so loud that they shake the house.
People with PTSD often have to deal with doubt and skepticism. They’re sometimes described as “dramatic,” as if they have to justify their fear. I had a friend who used to laugh at my fear of the woods until they experienced something frightening they couldn’t explain. Then, suddenly, they got it. To many of us, an unusual experience isn’t real unless we’ve the ones it happened to.
Most houses aren’t haunted. The dead stay dead. The past softens and blurs. We remember pain, but can mostly leave it behind. When I walked out the door of my childhood home, I left the ghosts behind.
When someone has PTSD, the ghosts follow them everywhere they go, popping up at unexpected times. Even when you know the house is haunted, the jump scare still works.
For most of us, we remember the bad things that have happened to us. If you want to hear about how scared I was when I ran from my car to the house after dark, I’ll be happy to tell you all about it. But that’s all I’d be doing—telling you. I remember the fear, but I don’t feel it anymore. In the moment, I was terrified, but now, it’s in the past. I’ve moved on.
People with PTSD don’t have that luxury. Their past feelings are just as big and frightening as they were when their trauma (or series of traumas) happened. It’s as intense as it was when it was actually happening, like they are physically in that moment. Their ghosts refuse to be put to rest.
Growing up in a haunted house, I couldn’t just move out. I had to learn to live with the ghosts. Sometimes that meant avoiding them, like how I wouldn’t go in the woods after dark. Sometimes that meant talking myself through it. If I heard footsteps in the attic, I’d remind myself that nothing bad had ever happened. I developed strategies to live with my ghosts.
People with PTSD are far braver than I’ve ever had to be. Their ghosts can be anywhere, and they still have to live life, even knowing that a ghost might jump out from behind any corner. They learn to avoid triggers when they can, rationalize what’s “real” and happening now versus what isn’t, and talk to trusted people so they have support.
As an adult, I remember walking through my childhood home. I could still hear footsteps in the attic and feel how wrong the forest was at night. No matter how much I’d changed, the ghosts were still there, waiting. Because that’s the thing about ghosts. They never get tired of waiting. And when I least expected it, they’d jump out at me for one last scare.