An interview with Trang D. Nguyen, undergraduate advisor at UW Bothell and UW Behavioral Health Learning Community member, on her experiences living with PTSD.

By Vanny Nguyen, UW Bothell School of Business

Contributors: Emily Dinh, Steven Bryant, Jiazhou (Cooper) Chen, and Zach Johnson, UW Bothell School of Business

It was a hazy chilly afternoon as I got myself situated to join my online class from my bedroom. I sat comfortably behind my laptop screen. “Ding dong!” The Zoom sound effect went off as my classmates arrived at the meeting. Once everyone had trickled in, my group members and I moved over to our breakout room and waited to conduct our interview with Trang. 

Suddenly, we heard a ping, and her face illuminated on my screen. She smiled as she greeted us with a happy tone and gave us a friendly wave. Behind her was an illustration of red banners with yellow Chinese words placed around the door, which translates to “good wishes for the New Year.” She cheerfully wished us a happy New Year and told us about her Vietnamese and Chinese cultural roots. Her words came out soft and delicate like a new plush blanket just bought from the store, and almost immediately, I felt safe around her. Like lavender spreading into the air, her voice calmed me. Complementing that, she was also very down to earth. I felt like she was someone you could feel comfortable talking to about anything. 

After introducing herself to us, she shared her story of living with PTSD, which her therapist believed was caused by childhood trauma. When Trang was very young, she witnessed domestic abuse and her Vietnamese mother’s refugee hardships. These circumstances significantly affected Trang; she experienced hardships as she co-parented her siblings when her mom became a single parent. Along with that, during Trang’s young adulthood, she was in a long-term relationship with someone unsafe. 

She expressed how happy and proud she was of herself sharing her story. I would not have guessed that Trang, who embodied sunshine and joy, would have a complex backstory that she proceeded to tell us. That reminded me of the weather that day was cloudy and cold, but the sunrays still managed to appear through the thick, gray clouds.

What is it like living with PTSD? 

TN: I have flashbacks where I completely forget I am a 30-year-old woman who can hold other people’s stories and emotions, who has spent a long time, much effort in creating understanding myself, has protected my sense of self and has worked on these certain relationships. […] Furthermore, at that moment, I am a vulnerable child. I am somebody who had to grow up quickly. In addition, I was in an unhealthy relationship for about 14 years. I am only 30, and it was most of my childhood. But, you know, it was to somebody that ended up being very unsafe as well. So what happens is that I will feel like I am in that situation again. And then what follows is usually high, intense anxiety, but primarily depression.

What helped you with your PTSD? 

TN: I see a therapist; one of my favorite parts of every week is seeing my therapist because I get to uncover new things that have affected me. I get to reflect a lot. I ask many questions. I have been seeing this therapist since 2017, and my heart often feels so full when I am with them, and they are such a safe place for me. So I think that the ongoing treatment and care that I get from therapy helps me. 

How has PTSD affected your life?

TN: So, I am an academic advisor. I am advising pre-major students. For most students, a lot is happening during these years. PTSD positively affects my life in that I can hone in on when a student feels heavy and low. The most positive thing about all of this is that I can see when others are triggered. I can see when others are in turmoil more, and I think that is how I best form these relationships. I ask students, “How are you feeling? Is this what’s kind of happening?” and I hope those conversations help students feel seen and heard. The one thing I want to do in my life is to make sure people are seen and heard just because it feels so wrong to believe that your experiences are not worth telling others and connecting to others, right? And know that you are not completely alone, but that is how you feel at the moment.

Do people seek treatment after going through a traumatic event? 

TN: Studies show that typically when a traumatic event happens in which therapy would be appropriate, most people do not get that treatment until about ten years later, on average. I think it reflects the health system. When you are a child, you are most vulnerable, and you do not have much autonomy in these other things and the learning. So, there is a lot that happens. My childhood causes all of my trauma, and I know other people have trauma in different ways, but you might not have the resources to get treatment at that time. And then later, about ten years later, is when you might be able to have the insurance to seek those things. So, you see more people in their mid to late 20s and beyond trying to get therapy versus when it is happening. Without proper treatment, PTSD can lead to worse mental conditions.

What resources do you think would help someone with PTSD? 

TN: Any type of mental health resource that involves another human is nice. […] I was very depressed, and honestly, hotlines saved my life, when you feel so unsafe with yourself, with any person around you, and what I do when I get overwhelmed or when I feel so low, I have this one terrible thought that is on repeat. […] However, when you are in that much pain, you want it to stop, right? So hotlines were the ones that saved my life. The one that I used was from the Crisis Connections organization, called the WA Warm Line, and the person who picks up the phone is someone going through or has gone through a mental health journey, and they are trained to be there for you. Crisis Connections has a crisis line as well. 

If you or a loved one has experienced a traumatic event, conversing and leaning on the support of others may help. In addition, NAMI Seattle has some great resources posted on their website, which has information onPTSD symptoms and various treatment options. We also invite you to look at NAMI’s “Get Support” page, which lists various crisis lines and links to join their support groups. 

Special thanks toLaura Umetsu and Jasmine Bager for helping us edit our blog piece.