Hello! Who are you?
Hi! I'm Lacey Cottingham, and I live in Durham, North Carolina. (Which itself is in the United States of America.)
I am an outpatient (psycho)therapist. In my free time, I proofread sci-fi and fantasy books. If I don’t feel like reading, I crochet hats, scarves, and blankets.
Compared to before, my life is practically blissful. There are so many things I simply don’t think about or need to account for anymore. That freed-up mental space has given me room to grow a connection to my inner self, my environment, and the world around me. I actually feel safe.
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What is your struggle and when did it start?
Technically, the struggle started when I was born. But it didn't become a problem until an unfortunate series of events in 3rd grade. When I hear noises, they are just louder than most other people hear them.
When I was really young, my mom noticed that toilets flushing scared me, and the sound of the vacuum cleaner was panic-inducing. For unrelated reasons, my parents homeschooled me for a few years.
When I went to a charter school in 3rd grade, my mom decided to take me and help out the teacher with normal classroom prep. (Write the names on the desks, sort the supplies, decorate.)
All of a sudden, the fire alarm goes off. It hurt. After a couple of minutes, it stops again, and the overhead PA announces that the fire marshall is testing all the alarm boxes.
My mom asked if I was okay to stay, I didn't want to make her feel bad by leaving, so I decided to push through it. I'm not exaggerating when I say the alarms went on for 3 hours. We finished up our work, and I thought I'd never have to deal with anything like that again.
Well, two-ish weeks later I headed into school one day, and they announced there would be a fire drill. It hurt, I got through it and told myself it would only be a once-every-three-month thing. I hated them, but I dealt with it.
Fast forward to 4th grade, and I'm thinking they won't be doing them. They always used a secret code over the PA system. “Teachers, there will be a teacher-faculty staff meeting at 9. Please take your grade books with you.”
The first time I heard that phrase in my 4th grade year, I felt this roaming dizziness start in my stomach and wrap itself around my chest. It was so bad that my classroom bully looked legitimately concerned for me. It was so bad, that I thought I could hear the fire alarms echo down the hall in micro-second increments.
But what made it really bad, was I leaped out of my chair, ran to the classroom door, and froze. I was legitimately stuck, locked in place. After what felt like 5 minutes, one of my classmates pushed me out of the doorway and popped my hand off the door frame. We got outside, and after a head count, were told to go back inside.
The principal came over to the PA and lectured the entire school about the importance of taking fire drills seriously and exiting the building in a timely manner. I was mortified. But the worst part was he said they had to repeat the drill. This time I flew just as fast out of my seat, but someone got to the door before me, so there was someone to follow and someone to guide me out the door.
For unrelated reasons, my family moved states, and I was homeschooled for a few years after that. In 8th grade, I went back to public school. I remember being excited to have new friends until I heard someone in the main office whisper to another about whether they'd had the monthly fire drill or not. My skin went clammy and I told my mom I'd made a mistake. I wanted to go home and go back to homeschooling. She told me it was too late and I had to go back to school.
How did this struggle make you feel at your worst moments?
The worst part was how teachers would look at me, but do absolutely nothing. As an adult I can empathize with them, but it still hurt. Three memories really stand out though.
A 4th-grade teacher looked at me with extreme concern as I asked really forcefully if we could go to recess early since I knew a fire drill would happen 5 minutes before recess started. She wasn't scared of how I knew, she was scared of how scared I was. She knew something was up, but never actually asked me, never actually asked my parents (that I know of), and nobody, did anything.
The second and most worst moments did not happen until high school. In high school, I eventually got fed up with having hair-trigger panic attacks. I got tired of being tense during class, unable to really focus until 10 minutes into class, and not really feeling relief until I was on the side of the campus that had the “quiet” fire alarms.
I went to the guidance office, worked up the courage, and asked if I could leave the building early during fire drills. The guidance counselor said, rather quickly, absolutely not. I had an immediate panic attack and bolted out of his office.
I went to the stairwell and just sobbed. I texted my mom that he had said no. She ended up calling and then texted me to go back in. After getting the accommodations, things didn't get as better as I'd hoped. My ears were safe, but the social aspect was still a problem. This led to the actual worst moment.
My high school was and still is directly across the street from a gas station. A girl was texting while driving back from lunch and crashed into a gas pump. (She survived. We saw her the next day at school.) This created a huge plume of smoke that blew onto campus.
The principal came over to the PA and announced there'd been a minor accident, and if the fire alarms went off to stay in class. I immediately bolted out of the classroom and flew down the 6 flights of stairs. I ran out of the building and began pacing around the courtyard, completely incoherent.
I glanced up and saw 6 or so classmates standing in the window, staring down at me. I kept pacing until my heart rate slowed down. Not a single person came down to see if I was ok. After 15 minutes and no fire alarms, I went back upstairs and back to my seat. No one said anything.
I felt so. Very. Invisible.
As weird as it sounds, I developed this skill. I could look at a teacher, or an assistant principal, and just know if we would have a fire drill that period. There would always be this tension in their eyes and their shoulders. While it was very helpful, it put my happiness and peace in the hands of others.
In college, it wasn't better, per se. But having more control was better. My final internship for my undergraduate degree was at an adult care facility. I loved it. We did chair yoga, played (seated) balloon volleyball, had lunch, and played games with the participants.
However because there was a daycare onsite that received federal funding, monthly fire drills were required. After a very embarrassing series of begging and panic-induced moments, the director sat me down during monthly supervision and told me I had to get “it” under control.
He didn't know what it was, and I was just barely coming to discover what it was. I never had “flashbacks” until that month, so I had escaped a formal PTSD diagnosis until then.
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Was there a moment when you started to turn things around?
When I graduated, I very promptly put the whole thing on the backburner and just lived for a while. For about 2 years I worked at a private group home, taught English to UNHCR refugees, and just played housewife.
It was great. I had peace. But I knew I needed to go back to graduate school to get my therapy license. The morning after my celebration of getting accepted into an MSW program, I woke up with a feeling of dread. Going back to school meant going back to fire drills.
I went online and decided to find a therapist. During high school, I had seen one briefly to set up accommodations, but I wasn't ready to talk about the trauma. Now, I was.
I found a lovely therapist named Dawn. She took my insurance and her office was about 20 minutes from my house. I made a plan with myself that I'd let myself buy fancy coffee on the way to her sessions, something to hold and sip while going scary places mentally.
She introduced me to a therapy method called EMDR. It worked like a charm. My fear of loud noises evaporated, and part of the PTSD was cured. I ended up leaving very happy with her services.
After graduate school I realized the feeling of never being seen, never having someone at school ask or mention how not okay I was, and the sheer invisibility I felt had to be addressed.
I went back for more EMDR and was able to resolve that pretty quickly as well. Because that was a more complex and subtle trauma, it took a few months longer, but definitely less than a year.
What steps did you take to overcome your struggle?
It was scary to know I had the same disorder that military veterans had, but it was also so immensely validating to have a name for what was happening.
There was a trial and error in finding the right people to tell. I didn't have to find people who went through the exact same thing, but more people who struggled in the same area.
For me, that was people who struggled in school and people who didn't like being in noisy environments. I never had someone with the same struggle, but people with similar struggles gave me the validation I needed in my healing journey.
One activity I enjoy doing is imagining I'm standing next to myself, thanking her for her strength, and when possible reminding her of how I have more power now than I did as a child.
In therapy, I was encouraged to thank my younger self for her strength, while also pointing out that the skills she learned (running, overanalyzing people) weren't helpful anymore. I learned to let her drop some of the need to be on alert.
Have you shared any of this with people around you in real life?
At first, I didn't share my diagnosis with people. The very first time I told someone outside of my parents, I saw this bit of life die in their eyes. I kept it to myself unless I absolutely had to, and even then, I usually only said “Oh I have sensitive ears, I've been to a doctor about it. They said....”.
I had one high school and one college professor I told, and I absolutely loved how they reacted.
The high school teacher reacted with such warmth and love that I just melted. It was so nice. She never told anyone, but she apologized for not seeing it sooner. I really feel like my 4th-grade self got her healing from that teacher.
My college professor, I told him after people kept using the emergency escape door to leave class. It would produce this loud sharp whine. I told him about it, and he started the next class by loudly announcing the door was off-limits.
The first time a student tried to use it, he very firmly chewed them out over it. (And he did so, without saying who or what the medical disorder was. Only that the person was harming someone's medical disorder!)
Once I was fully healed of PTSD, I did start sharing my journey a little more openly with friends and family. In my day job, I very rarely share it with my clients. I have to judge if the disclosure would be helpful to them, or if they'd perceive it as a “pain olympics”. But I'm not ashamed of it.
If you could give a single piece of advice to someone else that struggles, what would that be?
Go to therapy. While EMDR is great, nowadays I recommend Internal Family Systems or Ego State Therapy. They won't get rid of you not liking loud noises, or having sensory issues, but the removal of the panic makes it so much easier to get back to your life after something startles you. It makes you less alert and hypervigilant for threats.
I want anyone reading this to know that there are hundreds of thousands of people in the USA that had big scary events happen, that created PTSD, and hundreds of thousands that had big scary events that didn't. The same thing can happen to two people, but the one who came away hurt isn't less of a person/adult/strong simply for getting injured.
There's a really old saying, “The same water that softens the potato, hardens the egg.”
And if you're still struggling, or not able to access help yet, I'm proud of how well you've made it so far.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, YouTube channels, or other resources for you?
- Tapping my hands back and forth on my chest (“Butterfly tapping”) or going on a short sprint. You can look up the effects of Butterfly tapping. Going on a run is especially nice because it tricks my body into thinking I've outrun the threat.
- For anyone who has PTSD in 2023, this is the therapy method I would use. This YouTube video does a great job of explaining it.
- EMDR is still a great and well-researched therapy method, you can learn more about it here. You can use eye motion like I did, or you can use pulsing vibrators that you hold in your hands.
- When out in a loud noisy social situation, set a timer and give yourself permission to leave when the timer goes off. Mine was usually an hour and a half. That was long enough for the house party host to feel you care but short enough to not drain me the next day.
Where can we go to learn more about you?
I'm trying out the idea of writing more professionally about the intersections of neurodivergence and PTSD. If you've resonated with my experience, you're welcome to follow me on LinkedIn.
If you live in North Carolina and want to start your therapy journey, you can find me here.
💡 By the way: If you want to start feeling better and more productive, I've condensed the information of 100's of our articles into a 10-step mental health cheat sheet here. 👇
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