'Each time the holidays come around, I'm scared they'll be my last': Why the holidays trigger my PTSD

Hattie Gladwell
·6-min read

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The holidays are particularly stressful for writer Hattie Gladwell due to medically related trauma that left her fighting for her life - twice.
The holidays are particularly stressful for writer Hattie Gladwell due to medically related trauma that left her fighting for her life - twice.

The following article discusses subject matter like mental health issues, eating disorders and PTSD which may not be suitable for some readers.

For the past five years, Christmas and New Years have been hard for me. I spend the build up to both events feeling increasingly nervous and on-edge – because each time the holidays come around, I’m scared they’ll be my last.

I have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) based around medical trauma after I was hospitalized and nearly died twice — in December, 2011 and January, 2015.

My first symptoms of PTSD were horrible flashbacks and visions of myself and other people being surgically operated on. They were nightmarish visions that left me cold and I began to develop anxiety about my health. I was constantly checking my body for symptoms that something was wrong and became convinced that I was going to have another major life-or-death surgery at Christmas.

In 2011, I developed bacterial pneumonia which caused my lung collapsed. I had been pleading with doctors and nurses that something was wrong - but my my cries went unnoticed. Eventually, three litres of fluid were drained from my lung while I was kept in hospitalized in the intensive care unit (ICU).

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Although my first experience in the ICU was difficult, my second experience in 2015 was far more traumatic. For two years I had been begging for my doctor to listen to me: I had lost an excessive amount of weight, I had chronic constipation, severe abdominal cramps and bloating and rectal bleeding.

My concerns wereI dismissed by my doctor who gave me different explanations each time. I was told that the rectal bleeding was “my period” and the excessive weight loss was an “eating disorder.” The intense stomach cramps were just “that time of the month.” It didn’t matter how many times I disputed these claims – and continued to explain where the blood was coming from – in their eyes, I was just a silly 18-year-old. I eventually stopped going to my doctor after my doctor rolled his eyes and told me that I was a hypochondriac.

The holidays can trigger mental health issues - including medical related PTSD.
The holidays can trigger mental health issues - including medical related PTSD.

Fast forward to three months later. I got very, very sick and would become so violently ill that I would pass out. I was constantly cold, sweating, a super high fever, delirious and using the bathroom more than 40 times a day (yes, really). I went to the emergency room three times, and was sent home each time with a case what doctors believed was gastritis, an inflammation of the stomach lining.

I was in so much agony by the end of the week that I went with my mom to a different doctor, who told me they suspected I had appendicitis.

Two weeks later, I awoke from emergency surgery to remove my large intestine and looked down at my stomach to see a stoma bag (also known as a colostomy bag). I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a form of inflammatory bowel disease, shortly after.

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My life has changed in a number of ways since that day. Since having the surgery, and then another to reverse the stoma and allow me to go use the bathroom “normally,” I’m pretty much housebound. I live with chronic diarrhoea and rectal bleeding and occasional incontinence, and if I need the bathroom I have to sprint there to make it. I go through flare-ups where I cannot even function, and I’m stuck in pain in the bathroom.

Two traumatic hospitalizations during the holiday season have had lasting impacts on writer Hattie Gladwell's mental health.
Two traumatic hospitalizations during the holiday season have had lasting impacts on writer Hattie Gladwell's mental health.

But my life hasn’t just changed physically, but mentally, too. I developed PTSD not long afterwards. I didn’t know that medical trauma was even a real thing until I experienced it. It didn’t actually show itself until two yeast after the surgery.

Initially, I had just blocked everything out. Instead of facing up to how painful that time was (both physically and mentally), I would make jokes out of it, or shrug the subject off completely. There were aspects of that time that were too difficult for me to remember.

According to Huw Williams, an Associate Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology and Co-Director of the Centre for Clinical Neuropsychology Research (CCNR) at Exeter University, PTSD reactions to unexpected medical and surgical emergencies are well-documented within medical literature.

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“The trauma of being rushed into the operating room or being acutely unwell in the ICU can cause massive anxiety around the threat of imminent death, pain or life-limiting disability,” Williams said during an interview with Yahoo Lifestyle Canada. “Extremely distressing and emotive events as such are often very strongly consolidated in our memory which can be easily triggered in day-to-day life.”

Williams explained that specific cues and triggers can cause people to recall their strong memories, which causes them to re-experience their trauma. Re-living the trauma prompts an acute stress response which we call the three Fs: fight, flight or freeze.

Christmas can trigger mental health issues - even PTSD.
Christmas can trigger mental health issues - even PTSD.

“‘The symptoms of PTSD are many and overlap with many other mental health difficulties,” Williams said. “Although in the context of emergency surgery... PTSD can be preceded by various events. Some can be single event traumas, like sexual violence, while others can be longstanding exposure to repeated trauma, like bullying.”

Huw notes that there are specific symptoms associated with these states, such as panic-like symptoms, hyper-vigilance, outbursts of anger, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, dissociative states and nightmares.

ALSO SEE: COVID-19 and the holidays: How to help feelings of loneliness and stress this holiday season

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Now, every time December and January passes, I feel a little better. I’ve undergone cognitive behavioural therapy, and over the past two years, things have got easier. But I’m still not quite there.

Whenever we enter the holiday season, instead of getting excited at the Christmas music playing on the radio, I’m reminded of a time that has now become my worst nightmare. But for every Christmas I make it out alive and all in one piece, I’m thankful.

If you or someone you know is suffering, please contact Crisis Services Canada at 1-833-456-4566, call 911 or go to the nearest hospital.

For a full list of resources including mental health services in your area, visit the Canadian Mental Health Association.

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