Anxiety and Depression  |  Treatments

“I Felt Like I Had Brain Damage”: A Story of Recovering from PTSD

BY SHANE TAN

9 December 2020  |   6 min read

Tom’s first episode with Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) happened on a regular day working in the office. He was sitting in front of his computer in the office when all of a sudden, he felt a cold shiver go down his nose and spine. Before he could figure out what was happening, Tom was breaking out in spasms and started hallucinating.

“I started seeing things in green. I felt like I had brain damage. I took out my iPhone, and the SMSes on my screen were all just jumbled up words to me. I was rubbing my eyes and staring at it. Everything around me started looking menacing. Things were morphing,” he shared.

Everything—from his sight, to sounds, to his sense of touch was distorted. “Every sound was making me jump. I couldn’t touch because nothing felt the same. If I touched a hot kettle or a hot cup of coffee, I wouldn’t feel the heat. And at night, it got worse because street lights, traffic lights, or even lamps at home had like a starburst effect,” Tom continued.

Tom’s harrowing PTSD episode came after seeing a loved one go through what he describes as “the darkest period of their lives,” and still grapples with the horrifying memory of that event.

What is PTSD?

PTSD is a mental health condition that develops in people who have experienced or witnessed a shocking, scary, or dangerous event. Tom pointed out that the traumatic event had not personally happened to him, but witnessing it had a lasting devastating impact on him.

Ms Lilyn Leow, Principal Clinical Psychologist, Institute of Mental Health (IMH) explains that with PTSD, the past event continues to affect the person in the here and now, even though the danger has already passed. “The traumatic event keeps coming to mind even when we do not want it to, in form of intrusive re-experiences, which can occur through vivid imagery during flashbacks, nightmares or unwanted thoughts,” added Ms Leow.

The symptoms of PTSD may also manifest as physical, bodily experiences. Some of these include being easily startled or frightened; always being on guard for danger; having difficulty sleeping or concentrating on tasks; being irritable, prone to angry outbursts or aggressive behavior; or consuming more substances such as alcohol or illicit drugs.

“During the traumatic event itself, our body senses danger and needs to ‘get out’ and away. This triggers off a ‘fight or flight’ response, which is adaptive: the heart beats faster, breathing rates increase to get more oxygen to the large muscle groups to allow one to escape from the frightening situation. There is also increased sweating to both cool the body down and to help one slip away,” explained Ms Leow. “These physical responses that accompany fear and anxiety are normal, and probably helped the person survive during the event itself.”

A Turning Point

In April last year, Tom had thoughts of ending his own life. “The sensations were so visceral, I believed that I had actually gone insane and lost my mind,” Tom recounted. After ending up in the Emergency Room numerous times, Tom finally sought help for his condition and decided on Eye Movement Desensitatisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) after discussing it with his doctor and psychotherapist.

According to the U.S. National Center for PTSD, EMDR is a form of therapy which helps clients process the trauma, which in turn, allow them to start the healing process.

“EMDR is best known for, is the directed, physical eye movements, which is part of what is termed bilateral stimulation. However, this is just one component of the EMDR approach,” explained Ms Leow. “Similar to other evidence-based psychotherapy for trauma, including cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), EMDR has a significant information processing component, where the client is helped to understand the traumatic experiences in a more adaptive manner. This core component cuts across both the evidence-based psychotherapy approaches and is crucial in the treatment of trauma-related difficulties.”

In deciding on a form of treatment for PTSD and trauma, Ms Leow said it is important to account for one’s belief system and learning style. For example, “some clients are not willing to talk or write about their trauma. In those situations, they may be less suited for CBT, and more suited for EMDR, as they will only need to call the trauma to mind themselves, without necessarily needing to talk about it with their therapist in detail. Fundamentally, the client also needs to be able the accept the treatment rationale of the psychotherapy, whether EMDR or CBT.”

With Tom, initial sessions of EDMR were a struggle but by the third session, things were looking up for Tom. “The bodily symptoms were changing. I am able to go out, common street sounds don’t startle me as easily. I no longer get the electric shockwaves I used to get running throughout my body, and my hands are not shaking as much,” he said.

A couple more sessions after, Tom found that he could read again. He was able to remember things, and his memory even became sharper. “It feels like my brain is an iPhone and I got an iOS software upgrade,” he said laughing.

Looking Ahead

After experiencing first-hand what it is like to experience PTSD and recovering from it, Tom hopes that more will come forward to seek help. “People who have PTSD don’t always have six months to wait for a diagnosis in order for treatment to begin, especially when they have intention to harm themselves,” he said.

“I went through hell and felt isolated, but I had people who were like guardian angels around me who cared for me like my family, friends, my two doctors and of course, my psychotherapist. I am alive today because they never gave up on me.”

*There are many research-based treatments that can help people living with PTSD cope with symptoms and begin to recover. Please speak to a psychologist or psychiatrist to determine the best form of treatment for you. If you or someone you love is struggling with PTSD, reach out for help as soon as possible.

If you require emotional support, please contact

  • National CARE Hotline – Tel: 1800 202 6868
  • IMH (24-hour Helpline) – Tel: 6389 2222
  • Viriya Psychological Services @ 6256 1311 or email psychsupport@viriya.org.sg to speak to a Clinical Psychologist.

Name has been changed for privacy.

The contributor is a Singaporean writer and journalist based in New York. Shane’s work has appeared in Esquire Singapore, Salon.com, Surface magazine, Yahoo! News, and Marie France Asia. Find Shane on Twitter at @itsShaneTan.