Owning the Past and Moving to the Future: A Battle with PTSD

 

Lately, I think of myself as a hypocrite. I spend all this energy trying to encourage my kids to own who they are: I want Theo to be proud of the fact that he’s autistic, and not see it as some sort of negative aspect of who he is. And I want Sam to be proud of the fact that he has Down syndrome; I don’t ever want him to feel ashamed or as if he’s less than other people. Autism and Down syndrome are just part of who they are, and I want them to be proud of every part of what makes them the people they are.

And yet here I sit, not doing what I encourage them to. Here I sit, hiding behind decades-old shame about events that my logical mind knows I shouldn’t even feel shame over.

I want to change that. I want my children to see me being as brave and truthful as I encourage them to be. In the spirit of that, I have been mulling over for weeks—months?—how to be truthful about the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And I have finally decided that plunging in is the only way to do it.

Note: This post may be triggering or disturbing to those with a background of assault or abuse. I will try not to make it so, but I cannot know what would trigger anyone who might read this. So please, read on with caution if you read on. Second, if you know me personally, I ask you to please not speculate about the actual events related to what I’m going to discuss. They aren’t the point of this post. The point is how I came to be barely hanging on by a thread…and how I am working my way past it. The subject of the event isn’t anyone I’ve mentioned in this blog, and it isn’t anyone I’ll ever mention. The event is in the past, and that’s where it will remain. And no, I’m not trying to protect the person in question; I’m trying to protect myself. I need to be honest, but that doesn’t mean I need to publicly rip open a very tender wound that is still healing.

Falling

The first time I knew something was amiss, I was almost sixteen years old. I had gone to the doctor for my first female exam, not expecting anything other than the usual discomfort that any girl or woman feels. I went by myself because I had no reason to think anything would be problematic. I was wrong.

I had my first panic attack that day. Everything turned black as I lay on the exam table, and I sobbed uncontrollably. I couldn’t breathe, and I couldn’t keep myself from slapping, kicking, and fighting. It was, in a word, humiliating. And I had no answer for why it happened.

My doctor asked me if I had been molested or abused. “No!” I replied indignantly. He calmly (and not unkindly) told me that my response to the exam was quite unusual. He suggested perhaps I try a female doctor instead.

I did, and the result was no different. Another day, another panic attack. I remember clearly her asking me whether I had been abused, and then telling me, “You’re never going to find Prince Charming if you don’t get this worked out.” As if I didn’t already feel badly enough.

I finally had a successful exam by doping up on a hefty dose of Xanax before I went, but it still wasn’t pleasant. I still cried through the whole thing. And the next year, when it was time to go again, my fear overrode the Xanax that I took before the appointment, and I had yet another panic attack and was unable to complete the exam.

I just stopped going to the doctor after that. It was too humiliating. I know full well that it’s dangerous to play games with your health, but I couldn’t take the humiliation. No matter how nice people are to you, it’s embarrassing to have them look at you and wonder why a simple exam sends you into a panic attack.

There were the nightmares, too. The theme was always the same, even if pieces of them differed. My attacker was always faceless, and I could never make a sound or run. I was frozen in place and voiceless. The situations varied, but the faceless attacker was always there, and I could never speak or move.

Sometimes the nightmares were just nightmares. Other times they turned into panic attacks. In a semiconscious state, I would gasp for air, unable to breathe. I felt as if I were suffocating, and I knew it and tried to wake myself up, but I was paralyzed. I would try to throw my body off the bed, smash my head into the wall, or do anything that would wake me up. I thought I was going to die in my sleep because there was no air. If only I could wake myself up, I’d be able to get out of the panic attack and breathe.

Sometimes I’d wake up briefly and fall right back into the same panic attack, no matter how hard I tried not to. In time, I learned to force myself to sit up, get up, move so that my body wouldn’t immediately fall back into the nightmare and panic attack. Is it any wonder I have insomnia? Sometimes it was terrifying to go to sleep.

The flashbacks started, too. Little images coming into my memory, though I couldn’t connect them. The first flashback I ever had was one that has come back to haunt me often over the last few decades—and always exactly the same. Same time of day, sun slanting into the room at the same angle, same carpet, same furniture, me at the same young age, in the same position…and the same person looking down at me. But around that image was fuzzy. I could remember the moments before it, but then there was a giant black hole before that same memory would come back into focus.

One day, a memory I had completely blocked from my mind came back, clear as day, when I was heavily pregnant with Theo and up in the middle of the night for a bathroom break. It wasn’t the memory from when I was a very young child; it was a memory from a few years later, and it involved completely different people. It was so clear that I was shocked I had ever forgotten it. How does one forget being a victim? And yet I had. And I realized that my brain is apparently quite adept at protecting me by blocking things. Chris can attest to this, as I have no memory of a panic attack I had with him in our early days together, and yet he remembers it as clear as day. I remember the moments leading up to that panic attack, but I have no memory of the panic attack itself. Go figure.

That first incident from childhood wasn’t the only one. There was the later one that I remembered while pregnant with Theo. There was an incident with a flasher at the abandoned school across from our house. There was another incident when I was a teenager working my first job. And there was a fifth incident when I was nearing eighteen. Apparently it’s not uncommon for an abuse victim to have multiple experiences throughout their life. They even have a fancy name for it: revictimization. We survivors apparently wear a big old sign, visible to predators, that says “I’m an easy target.” I hate that sign.

In all four of the later instances, I froze. And I hated myself for it. I was a fighter in everything else, but I failed in this. When someone tried to hurt me, I froze. I hated that about myself. Absolutely hated it.

Freezing is a vicious cycle—especially when you do it repeatedly. You want to think that the next time, you’ll fight. And then the next time comes, and you don’t. Eventually, you start to think, “Any time someone tries to hurt me, I’m going to freeze. I’d better just not go near people.” Or at least that’s what I did. If I didn’t go near males, I was safe.

I gave up on the idea of ever having a relationship. Doing so would mean putting myself in a position to freeze, where someone might hurt me. I didn’t want to do that. And even more so, I would have to admit to my potential partner what a complete wreck I was. I might look all together on the outside, but faced with the prospect of intimacy or even simple medical procedures, and I turned into a total mess.

But somehow, despite my best efforts to wall myself off, I ended up meeting the one man in this world I knew I could trust. Chris used to beat himself up for being so shy and nervous around women, but as I told him long ago, if he had been any different, I probably never would’ve gone out with him. I went out with him because he was by far the least threatening man I had ever met. I knew instinctively (after talking to him for three hours at a party) that he would never, ever hurt me. I later learned that despite his nonaggressive nature, he would be my greatest protector—in an emotional sense. He may be a pacifist, but he is also a rock.

My issues didn’t suddenly disappear just because I met someone I could trust, though. The panic attacks didn’t leave. The nightmares didn’t leave. The flashbacks didn’t stop. We wanted children, and having them was an incredible challenge for me. Panic attacks prevented me from having the usual prenatal exams, but thankfully I found a wonderful obstetrician who agreed to provide care for me with no prenatal exams. I delivered Theo vaginally because I thought it would be best for him and I thought it might somehow help me break through the panic—if a baby is coming out, you’re kind of forced to get through it, you know? I thought it might be like ripping off a Band-Aid—if I did it once, the pain would be over.

I was wrong. I had an extremely strict birth plan in terms of not allowing anyone to touch me until absolutely necessary (no dilation checks whatsoever!), and the midwives were wonderful about respecting that. But it was a somewhat traumatic birth—it was long, and I literally tore apart badly while delivering Theo. Trying to hold off a panic attack while a midwife painstakingly stitched me up for the better part of an hour was excruciating emotionally. I clutched my newborn baby and talked nonstop to him, trying to focus, focus, focus away from my torn body and the fact that I was having to let a stranger—even one who had just delivered my baby and who I liked—violate me.

It took two years for me to even get back to a point of semi-normal married life. I wonder now how Chris even stuck through that. He is a saint in my book. I was so very, very broken at that time.

And for what? Even having triumphed through a difficult birth, I couldn’t manage a simple exam. The next time I needed an exam, several years later, my doctor put me under “twilight sedation” with Versed, which is what they use for many outpatient procedures—and it wasn’t enough. I was “asleep” but became coherent the minute they touched me and started kicking and screaming. I remember well hearing the doctor say, “This isn’t going to work. We can’t do it.” When I was “woken” later, she reiterated that and said I would have to be fully sedated with propofol for all future exams—twilight sedation wasn’t an option. I had failed. Again. And again and again.

I was relieved to hear I never had to try another exam while semi-awake again…but more than that, I was humiliated. I am a person who is always in control and able to make it through difficult things. But this I couldn’t control. My body has a mind of its own and fights as if someone is trying to kill me…and I can’t do a damn thing about it. I’d be lying if I said part of the reason I had a hysterectomy wasn’t just so I could get out of ever having another pelvic exam. No more humiliation was a big draw for me.

Rock Bottom

Day to day, I got along fine. Nightmares sometimes, yes. Panic attacks now and then. A constant appreciation for my very understanding husband, who never once wavered in his support. But those were small parts of an otherwise fine life.

I hit rock bottom on November 8, 2016. It sounds ridiculous even to me, but my breaking point was the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. When it happened, my body shook uncontrollably, and I sobbed and sobbed. And it wasn’t because I don’t like the man’s politics. (I don’t, but that’s beside the point.) It was because over and over in my head, I kept hearing, “Well, America has spoken; being aggressive toward women is A-OK.”

Regardless of what you think about media bias, no one can deny that Trump said of a woman, “I moved on her very heavily…. I moved on her like a bitch.” He went on to say in the same recording, “I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.” Trump himself doesn’t deny saying it, though he dismisses it as locker-room talk.

It took me a long time to understand why I reacted in this way, but I finally pieced it together. My survival method all these years has been to feel like I won because I’m a better person than the person who hurt me—than all the people who have ever hurt me. I’m better than anyone who preys on women and children. My life is good: I have a wonderful husband and kids, an extended family who loves me, and so many friends; I have a satisfying career. I work hard to try to make the world a better place in my own small way. I am a good person. And I have spent my entire life thinking that was my win: You didn’t break me when you hurt me. I won in the long run. I have a better life than you, so I’m the winner here.

Does that sound selfish? Arrogant? Spiteful? Maybe. Probably. But it was my coping mechanism. So when a sexual aggressor got elected to the highest office in the nation, it was a huge slap in the face to me. I couldn’t say I was better than him—here was one person who I couldn’t put myself above. I wasn’t the winner; he was. Filth and arrogance won, instead of living a good life.

It didn’t matter that I’ve never met the man, his remarks weren’t directed at all to me, and in fact I’m nowhere near attractive enough to ever even register on his radar. What mattered was that America said, “You admit moving on women without their consent? Oh, well, that’s okay. Women will get over it, I’m sure.” No. They don’t. Not all of them, anyway.

And the incidence of men grabbing women in the days following the election was just another blow to me. I had worked very hard to feel safe, and suddenly I no longer felt safe. I was shaken to the core in more ways than one.

I sometimes think I should thank our esteemed president, actually. Without him being elected, I might never have hit rock bottom. I probably wouldn’t have been triggered into a major depression. And then I wouldn’t have resolved to finally, finally dig into working on this.

Getting Back Up

Shortly after the election, I commented to someone that I couldn’t believe how any woman who has been assaulted could possibly have voted for Trump. “To me, his behavior is pretty much a slap in the face to any woman who has ever been sexually assaulted in any way. I just couldn’t do it, even if I agreed with him,” I commented. She replied that she, too, was once a victim of assault, but she was able to vote for Trump because she “doesn’t let her past define her.”

That was hard to hear, because it implies that I’m defined by my past. But then, I suppose I am. With the benefit of hindsight, I realize that there’s no way I couldn’t be. What happened to me occurred when I was roughly the age of my youngest son. There is no way he could process that happening to him. I put myself in his shoes, and I realize there’s no way five-year-old me could process it either. As pieces of that day have come back to me, I remember the confusion I felt. I didn’t understand what had happened, or why. When I tried to tell someone, they didn’t understand either. I don’t hold that person accountable—hindsight has made me realize that I tried to confide in another child. It was an older child, and so to very young me, that person seemed like an adult. When they brushed off my statement, it’s not surprising—I remember trying to put what happened into words and realizing I wasn’t doing it right. And I know now that my very vague, confused statement would’ve made no sense to another child, even a pre-teen. That person didn’t understand it any better than I did. But to my five-year-old mind, that lack of a response meant that what had happened obviously didn’t matter. And so, I shut it away. I locked it so deep in my memory that it hid there for years. There’s a fancy term for that, too: dissociation.

When the election happened and I spiraled downward, Chris and I were already seeing a counselor for unrelated reasons. (Nothing big, just a marriage tune-up, really. A reminder of how to put each other first while in the stressful season of raising kids.) I trusted our counselor and began to speak with her about my past and how badly I had fallen in the past weeks. And she listened.

For the past seven months, we’ve done EMDR therapy, which has been used for more than two decades with people suffering from PTSD. It’s a form of therapy that helps people re-process traumatic memories and desensitize themselves to triggers, more or less. There’s more to it than that, but there’s your two-second overview. There are books and websites devoted to explaining more about how it works. Suffice it to say, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs recommends it as a treatment for PTSD, and although I’m not a veteran, I am very much suffering from PTSD thanks to past trauma.

This therapy has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Probably the best, too, though I’m only partway through treatment, so I’ll reserve judgment on that for now. But I see a little light at the end of the tunnel and keep working toward it, so I’m cautiously optimistic.

It’s hard, though. So hard. I’ve had bouts of depression for most of my life, but this has been by far the worst. There have been days where I literally had to force myself to get out of bed. There have been days when I’ve fallen asleep over and over all afternoon long, because I’m emotionally exhausted and can’t even keep my eyes open. There have been hopeless days where the only thing that has made me want to go on is these three people I live with, who mean everything to me.

This is not a suicide warning, by the way. I will not end my life. I have too much to live for. And even in my darkest moments, where I struggle to find the will to keep putting one foot in front of the other, I know that I cannot leave my boys—all three of them. And I don’t want to—I just want to be finished with the pain and move on.

The good days outnumber the bad, through it all. After days where every minute has felt like a herculean effort to get through, I’ll have a number of good days in a row. Sometimes even weeks of good days in a row. I know this. I know that I can keep going.

I know that I’m getting better as I work through it. I can feel it. My stretches of sleeps are slowly but surely getting slightly longer than they have been in decades. My nightmares have changed. I now have a voice in them. And, as a small amusing spot in all of this, it turns out I have a filthy voice in my nightmares. I cuss up a blue streak as I scream at the attacker. Words that never come out of my mouth when I’m awake come out in my nightmares now. I admit that after I catch my breath upon waking from a nightmare, I snicker at the curse words that have come out of my mouth. If I talk in my sleep, I pity the person who hears me!

Most notably, in my last nightmare, my attacker in my dream finally revealed his face. And it was the face I knew all along it would be, even though I couldn’t admit it to myself for decades. I confronted him in my nightmare, even though I never will in real life. In that dream, I went into a panic attack. I couldn’t breathe. But I forced myself to stay asleep because I wanted so badly to get some closure from confronting him. And I did.

I know what happened now. All those fragments of memories finally came together and told me the story. It wasn’t a pretty one, but it was one I needed to hear and see.

What happened to me will never go away. I don’t expect to never have another panic attack. But I expect to win. Because dirtiness might have won the presidency, but I get to win life. I get to win my life. I get to reach the natural end of it someday and say I won. I have earned that. And I will do it. For my kids. For my husband. But most of all, for me.

Note: If any of this resonates with you, please reach out to someone and get help. This is a beautiful life. Don’t let it be muddied by your past. I never should’ve let my past muddy mine.

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