It’s not possible to predict who will get PTSD; it occurs in people of all ages and races. Some factors, however, may increase its risk:
To this day, Alexis doesn’t remember how she ended up on Massachusetts Avenue in the middle of the night, high on drugs, wandering aimlessly along one of Boston’s busiest thoroughfares.
Nor does Alexis recall how her mother and grandmother ended up there as well, ordering her to get into their car.
But it happened and, as it turned out, it was the best thing to ever happen to Alexis.
As a college freshman nine years ago, Alexis was enjoying her life and making plans for a career in criminal justice. All of that changed when she was raped by an acquaintance. She was 19 years old at the time and had little idea how to deal with the trauma. She kept the attack to herself.
“At first I wanted to act like everything was fine,” she said. “But eventually, things started to crumble.”
Though she considered herself just a recreational user of drugs, the next thing anyone knows, Alexis is on Massachusetts Avenue. “I just lost it,” she said.
Alexis had never heard of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She says she knew she had a problem but “had no idea what I was going through at the time.”
According to Kathleen Monahan, a licensed mental health counselor at Dorchester House Multi-Service Center, Alexis’ story is all too typical of teenagers suffering from PTSD.
“Some kids are reactive,” Monahan said. “They get tough and fight. They get scared when they are triggered. Others can close down. [But] if a person cannot put it [trauma] away, the problem is that at some point in time, something will trigger it.”
Even now, more than nine years later, Alexis still has triggers. “I do not associate with people who remind me of my attacker,” she admitted.
For instance, if she sees a rapper who looks like the man, she won’t watch his videos. If someone grabs her, especially by the wrist, she has a reaction.
Some causes of PTSD are harder to treat, according to Marie Pierre-Victor, the clinical manager of the behavioral health department at Codman Square Health Center. For instance, physical trauma and sexual abuse — trauma during which a person is invaded — pack a stronger emotional toll. “It affects trust,” she said. “It affects everything else in a relationship.”
Kathleen Monahan, M.Ed.
Licensed Mental Health Counselor
Dorchester House Multi-Service Center
Alexis readily admits that therapy has helped. After the night on Massachusetts Avenue, Alexis finally broke down and — a year after her attack — told her mother what had happened. Her mother quickly took her to a doctor. After a referral to a therapist Alexis was diagnosed with PTSD.
She says that her life has changed completely since the incident. “The person I was before no longer exists,” she said. “I am more guarded.”
Monahan emphasized the need to attack the problem sooner rather than later, especially with teens. But she also stressed the need to be patient. “If you go too fast and they’re not ready, they won’t come back,” she said. “It could lead to a crisis. You have to set up a safe place for them.”
Parents play an important role. First of all, Monahan explains, they have to be on high alert for telltale signs. “If kids stay in their room too much or they’re irritable or their grades are falling, that’s a clear sign that something’s wrong,” said Monahan. “Kids that are scared, have poor eye contact and are anxious or depressed for no known cause make me suspect PTSD.”
Parents also play into the healing process. “They’re the most important thing in a kid’s life,” she said.
Such was the case with Alexis. Though Alexis never completed her degree, she’s not complaining. And she’s not keeping quiet now. She says she knows what it was like to suffer in silence, and she wants to make sure others do not. She volunteers at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center where she helps train other volunteers. “People feel shame [when they’re raped],” she said. “They need to know that it is not their fault and that they are not alone. Support is available to them.”
She remains in therapy and says she is grateful for what it has done for her.
“I’m in a happy place now,” she said.