Students
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Ninah put on a play about her PTSD

'Jeez, it’s not like you went to Iraq'

PTSD, isn’t that something that only soldiers get? Definitely not. Due to a painful period during her childhood, RUG student Ninah Tiemersma was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder when she was only ten years old. She put on a play to tell her story. ‘I came really close to hurting myself.’
By Joas de Jong / Photos by Reyer Boxem / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

He’d call sixty times a day and send threatening text messages: ‘this is your last day on earth, enjoy it.’ After Ninah Tiemersma’s (22) parents got divorced, her aggressive, presecription-drug-addicted father harassed Ninah and her mother for a long time. ‘After that, I completely stopped trusting people; they might pull the same shit’, she says. ‘I instinctively stay close to the door, so I can always get out when I need to.’

Ninah was only ten years old when she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She didn’t tell anyone in school, worried that the other kids would think she was crazy. ‘I was going to therapy, but I didn’t want to be that kid, you know?’

What is PTSD?

A post-traumatic stress disorder is when both your body and your brain react to a traumatic experience. Usually, something happened that was so terrible that you haven’t been able to properly process is. The symptoms of PTSD can be severe and influence your daily life in such a way that you have trouble functioning normally. You relive the traumatic event and the emotions that came with it again and again; you avoid situations linked to the event; or you’re constantly stressed out and exhausted because your brain hasn’t processed the trauma. You’re stuck in the past because it still influences your present. It’s a disorder that can last a lifetime.

So she kept her trauma to herself and buried herself in her studies at university: Greek and Latin languages and culture. That more or less worked until last year, when she had a breakdown. ‘I lost thirteen kilos. I came really close to hurting myself. That was a sign for me that I’d been suppressing my traumas.’

She decided to face her pain by writing her educative master thesis about women in classic literature who have PTSD. The project gave her the courage to write her own story as a play, Niet meer alleen (No longer alone), in which she talks candidly about her childhood and how classic literature saved her life.

Locked away

Niet meer alleen is about how she felt so lonely for such a long time; not because she was lacking in love or attention, but because she had locked herself away in her past. She would relive the bad experience from her childhood over and over again. ‘I felt like no one understood me, and I often felt like packing it all in. Whenever I did tell my story I just felt like a burden to others, because people can’t really imagine what I went through. They think I’m exaggerating.’

Then she found the book called Achilles in Vietnam, by Jonathan Shay, and it made her think differently. Shay compared the behaviour of Achilles, the Greek hero in the epic The Iliad, to that of Vietnam veterans suffering from PTSD. Ninah studied classic literature in high school and university, reading all about the rape, suicide, and madness inherent to those works. After reading Shay’s book, she realised she was so interested in the Greek tragedies because she recognised herself in the extreme emotions the tragedies explored. For her master thesis, she decided to focus on two famously traumatised women: Andromache and Creusa. She went through Euripides’ tragedies, looking for words that referred to madness and grief to find instances of what today would be known as PTSD.

If Creusa had been in therapy today, she definitely would have been diagnosed with PTSD

‘I felt like I was doing something really weird’, says Ninah. ‘It’s very anachronistic of course, so I had to be careful.’ She tried to avoid the term PTSD as much as possible, since it was only introduced in the 1980s.

In the end, Ninah concluded that Andromache couldn’t clearly be diagnosed with PTSD, even though she lost her entire family in the Trojan war and spent the rest of her life as a slave. ‘Creusa’s situation was much clearer. If she were in therapy today, she would meet all the criteria for a diagnosis.’

‘Creusa was raped by Apollo. But she initially says a friend of hers was the victim. She tries to distance herself from the event, but slowly starts revealing the details. When she sees Apollo’s temple, it’s almost as if she’s back in the place she was raped.’ Ninah says this can happen to people who suffer from PTSD. They dissociate or hide their trauma because what happened is too difficult to deal with.

Thanks to characters like Creusa, Ninah feels a lot better about her own issues. ‘For the first time ever, I felt seen. If people were feeling like this 2,500 years ago, I have nothing to be ashamed of today.’

Push

This realisation prompted her to write a play in which she links the stories of women like Creusa and Andromache to her own experiences. She wants to let other people know that they’re not the only ones with trauma.

‘Young people suffering from PTSD and depression don’t get enough help, and I don’t think that’s okay. We have to be able to show that there are people who have gone through terrible things – at home, in their relationship, wherever – and give them the attention they need. People shouldn’t respond with stuff like “jeez, it’s not like you went to Iraq”.’

Ninah did have to push herself. ‘When I was writing the play I was like: am I just looking for attention?’ She always assumed that people didn’t want to hear about all her misery. But she found out that’s not the case. ‘Your story made me feel less alone’, someone told her after she’d done the show in Leeuwarden.

Earlier this month, Ninah also published her first collection of poems: Zwemmen Zonder Zijwieltjes (Swimming Without Training Wheels). It’s a selection of poems she has written over the past few years: Ninah has been writing about her feelings since she was twelve. The play and the collection of poems are meant to close out a bad time in her life, and she hopes to take others with her to better times. ‘I don’t want pity. I’m not pitiful. Working through what was done to me has made me stronger. I want to show others that trauma is something you have to figure out on your own.’

Ninah will perform Niet meer alleenin VRIJDAG on Saturday, September 21. You can order tickets here. The play is in Dutch.

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