Right before her sophomore year of college, she was raped at gunpoint while working at Payless—something she shared in her latest book, We’re Going to Need More Wine. And even though she got justice in the courtroom—her rapist took a plea deal of 33 years in prison—the effects of the trauma didn't end with closed case. Fear is still a constant in her life, but she's come a long way since the year after she was attacked, when she hardly left her house.
Now, as part of the Child Mind Institute's Mental Health Awareness Month initiative, Union is opening up about her PTSD diagnosis that resulted from the horrifying experience. She wants everyone to know that she hasn't let the sometimes-debilitating condition define her.
"I didn't want [PTSD] to define my whole life, and it doesn't have to. Asking for help, needing help doesn't make you weak or less worthy of love or support or success. You can literally be anything you want to be. PTSD isn't a death sentence." —Gabrielle Union
"I'm here to tell you that I am a PTSD survivor, thriver, badass, MF-er. I was diagnosed with PTSD at 19 after I was raped at gunpoint, and I didn't let it stop me," Union says in the campaign video. "I didn't want it to define my whole life, and it doesn't have to. Asking for help, needing help doesn't make you weak or less worthy of love or support or success. You can literally be anything you want to be. PTSD isn't a death sentence."
Union is proof of exactly that: She's gone on to star in iconic films following her attack, like Bring It On and 10 Things I Hate About You. And, her message to others who suffer from PTSD is that they too can have bright futures that have nothing to do with the condition.
"You don't have to be alone or feel isolated. There are so many of us out there who are dealing with exactly what you are dealing with, and it doesn't make you weak," she says. "It doesn't make you anything but human. And we all have something. You might even become a successful actress and best-selling author and be dope because that's what you deserve."
Union credits committing to therapy after her incident for empowering her to take charge of her life and regain the confidence that has helped propel her success. And no matter what type of trauma you're dealing with, New York City–based therapist Jennifer Griesbach, LCSW, says getting treatment can help you live a happy, full life.
"I work with people to help them learn to handle their symptoms and triggers better in their lives today so they can process how trauma is held in the body and thus no longer live in a habitual state of fight, flight, or freeze," Griesbach tells me.
To do that, Griesbach first guides people through breaking down their trauma, and then she focuses on the treatment. But don't be worried that therapy will force you to relive your nightmarish experience: "Many effective treatments for PTSD are therapies that use the body as well as the mind," she says. "The focus is on how the traumatic event is held now, rather than going over and over what happened."
While actually booking your first therapy session can be difficult, seeking help might be the first step in making sure neither your past nor your current mental-health status define you.
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