Warning: the following story has trauma triggers for those with PTSD, rape, or sexual assault backgrounds. Sometimes I trigger when I hear others' stories. My INTENTION is not to trigger you. Go Slow.
THIS IS A VERY PERSONAL STORY and if you know me in real life, this can be a lot to take in. People don't know what to say to me after they find out. after reading this, you are not allowed to treat me any differently and I'd love to have a conversation about it. :)
It's hard to put into words what is in my head. I've been silent for decades. I just recently found my voice on this, so forgive me for the length and the rambling. I have struggled with making my story public and the effects it will have on my work and my family, but I'm tired of getting sucked into the dark, so I'm taking some scary steps toward the light. And I want other women like me to know what's going on. I'm not alone. There are multitudes of women like me and limited info available for us. In the last 25 years, I've been on a mighty quest to learn everything I can about how to heal myself. And I want to share what I learned with others. Here's my best shot:
I've struggled with PTSD for 25 years. I didn't know it was PTSD until about a year ago. Before that, I just thought I was crazy. I did crazy things. I got offended easily. I distanced myself from everything and everyone. I startled easily (still do). I raged out of control in my head. I looked for stupid, unnecessary risk. I ran away. I ran away from everything and everyone. I had nightmares that made my nights hell and frankly, my days were pretty hellish too. I now know that I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
I was violently raped in the late 1980s. I was 18 years old. Hit. Kicked. Stomped. Raped. Broken. Campus police found me close to death. Or maybe I just wanted to die. I had three broken bones, multiple lacerations and bruises, a tear in my bladder (where he kicked me with a cowboy boot), and I developed pneumonia from aspirating my own blood into my lungs. I begged police and doctors not to notify any family. Because I was over 18 and an adult, they didn't. It happened on a college campus, so the college paid the medical bills and my parents never knew. I blamed myself. I was walking alone at night. Who does that? Who doesn't know better than to walk alone at night? I am so stupid. I did recognize who it was (although I did not know his name at the time). He was bigger than me. Older. Stronger. Angrier. I put up a good fight, but he won. Charges were pressed. I did go to court (alone) and although I vomited four times in the courthouse bathroom, I held it together to say what I needed to say to the judge. Because I was not his only victim, the man went to jail for about two and a half years, and he's still married to the same woman who he was married to when he did this to me. I know because I spy on him on Facebook. (You can read more about that in my Recovery Blog tab.) After the attack, I returned to the same campus, and even though the campus newspaper didn't put my name in the article they wrote, anyone who was paying attention to my bruised face knew it was me. I didn't go home for 6 weeks while my bones healed, I failed a class, my grades dropped, I lost my academic scholarship, and I never spoke of it with anyone. I did some rape counseling, but it was easier to not process the events, and I considered myself "better" and "healed".
And I was better for a time. I would tell myself, "Get on with it. Get over it." I've done therapy several times over the years. Each time deeming myself "better". But "better" didn't work. I've spent YEARS and over $50K trying to fix me. Trying to stop my past from swelling up and pressing against my present. It took an enormous amount of energy to contain it enough that I could do the minimum required in my current day-to-day life.
I was frustrated. I knew that I was broken. I saw it. I sensed it. I felt it. And sometimes I reacted in ways that were difficult to explain and even occasionally embarrassing. I always considered this to be just the way my brain is. But guess what? It is PTSD.
I know I'm not alone. Even though I felt VERY alone. Current statistics say 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted or raped in their lifetime. There are armies of women like me. I want them to get a glimpse of my world. Even a little window into what I've been through. It would make them (and me) feel less alone. But feeling isolated is a key symptom of PTSD. My trauma was horrifying. You do not know the depth of it. It was brutal and cruel and intended to kill me. It disrupted my life. It altered my being. It is deeply embedded in my nervous system and brain. Experts agree that trauma changes biology and emotional reactions to the world in measurable, physical ways. I just wanted to get back to a place where I could relax and feel innocent. I lost my sense of safety and control. This is not justification for my situation or things I did when feeling "crazy", but an explanation. Writing this helps. Seeing the words on the screen reminds me of how much I've overcome and tells me that I'm not just an oversensitive wuss with a boatload of shame. Oh the shame. I tell myself that it's not my fault and some days I almost believe that this shame is unwarranted. Almost.
My saving grace was work. I threw myself into work so I didn't have to think about anything else. My long list of achievements has only been efforts to prove to myself that I'm not a wuss. My moments of greatest shame have been when I've been overpowered by others or my own neediness. Or when I've let my someone down. Little things would happen, and this professionally respected, well-educated woman would collapse sobbing, shaking, and cowering in a corner. I would surface disoriented, emotionally drained, confused about the severe intensity of my feelings and feeling really, really ashamed. Why does this happen? I've had plenty of therapy. Maybe I flunked therapy. I always felt like such a fraud because people would comment on my strength. Was I really, deep down, crazy? I now know that I have flashbacks from PTSD. Through my healing work I can recognize that they are flashbacks and that helps. I understand what happens, and that provides some logic to my experience, which that makes me feel less psycho. It does not, however, make the flashbacks feel less random. I have chronic PTSD, which means that it's not ever going to go away. I've discovered how to manage it and live with it. But my mind can be yanked back to that rape hellhole at any second. That constant fear is a piece of my days, my nights, myself.
A symptom of PTSD is living in constant anticipation of the next bad thing to happen. The clinical psychological term for this is called hyper-vigilance. It's an over-the-top awareness of any slight sign of impending danger. There's a military saying that goes, "There is not terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it." I have unrelenting anticipation. It's like being trapped in a haunted house, always anticipating major shock. I am extremely hyper-vigilant. I always sit facing the door when I'm in a public place so I can see my escape (many times I count the steps between me and the exit). My children were NEVER allowed to play hide and seek. I hate hiding and I hate surprises. My own sweet husband enters a room (when I know he's home) and startles me to panic in our own home at least once a week. I have 17+ worst case scenario contingency plans for every scenario and I've wasted a lot of my life trapped in worry about what bad thing could happen to me next. It's exhausting. My hyper-vigilance has a good side, it has
helped me in my workplace and my prior planning for the worst has actually prevented it a few times. So there's that... :)
I have a problem moving forward. I've learned that PTSD is past-oriented, and people with PTSD have a shortened sense of future. The most intense aspect of my past was horrible. I could be attacked or die in the very next minute, so why try? My life has consisted of me moving quickly in some direction trying to escape my thoughts and my shameful past event. My strategy, until recently, was to keep my brain and my life so busy that I was forced by sheer overload to avoid thinking about the shame or the rape. I stuffed it down deep and disguised it to hide what was inside. It sometimes worked, but this buried shame and fear slowed me down, and frequently it would unbury itself like a zombie and engulf and incapacitate me, and turn me into that quivering puddle that I knew was the real me. I am a master at numbing the pain. Numbing is a symptom of PTSD. I created a layer to separate me from my scary stuff. It's the layer that allowed me to move through life without quite living it. It allowed me to function as I thought people were supposed to function. I numbed myself by throwing myself into my job and getting really good at it so I didn't have to think about what was really going on in my head. I numbed myself with food, with medication, and other ways. I got really good at numbing my pain. But numbing also makes life flat. Flat is better than hellish, but when flat got boring I picked fights and did other hurtful things to stop the flat. Flatness also took me to thrill seeking behavior, to create a paradox that even though I was a wussy coward on the inside, I appeared to be a brave warrior on the outside.
My conscious thoughts are usually controlled. My unconscious thoughts are dangerous and unruly. They thrash about like a spooked and angry herd of stampeding elephants in my brain. The unconscious thoughts bring flashbacks as constant, uninvited companions. These intrusive thoughts are unrelenting and the current focus of my natural remedies, medication, and therapy.
I'm getting better at identifying triggers for my PTSD. Triggers can be specific or general. Specific triggers for me are weeping willow trees, wind chimes, cotton balls, yellow highlighter, being scared by a movie or a situation, sitting without being able to see a door, being in a place where someone could come up behind me, surprises, holidays, and others I am still discovering. General triggers for me are feeling unsafe, anything that raises my heart rate, reading about rape in the news, being around anything where anyone is oppressed, conflict, or the feeling that I have disappointed someone, and the feeling of someone behind me. I have triggers I haven't found yet. When I am triggered, I get a tidal wave of emotion that I'm going to be raped, and I can't escape it. I remind myself that it's silly, which is somewhat calming, but sometimes not enough. I realize it's a huge illogical leap from "I hear wind chimes" to "I'm about to be raped", but that's my emotional reality. Many times my triggers make me think people hate me. My 23-year-old daughter recently told me that about every four months I think my kids hate me. She's right; I do. I get all psycho and demand they show love. They usually run to my rescue or run away from me, tiptoeing back to see if I'm "normal" again. I've been through lengthy times where I think my parents hate me, or my sisters hate me. They don't. But my mind plays tricks. I often have NO CLUE why I'm suddenly cowering or confused or feeling hated or defensive or battling against everyone I love. My responses terrify and humiliate me. I tell myself to get used to it. So far, I haven't. I'm ashamed of being vulnerable to triggers, to items and situations others manage without thought. It makes me feel like a wuss. And like I've said, I've spent much of my life trying to prove to everyone that I'm not a wuss. I would really prefer to think of myself as someone who could fight off a rapist, someone who can protect others from pain, someone strong. Not someone who cowers and apologizes when a glass accidentally breaks in the kitchen. After the glass breaks, it takes a while to shake myself free again.
After I married my third husband a year ago, I moved to his house. This unknowingly triggered me HUGE and sent me to the only place emotionally I know. To run. To leave. To fight. To create chaos to fight the numbing. To be desperate. To push everyone away. My husband grabbed me by the nape of my neck (figuratively) and told me that I couldn't keep living like this, that I had a problem, and that it was affecting people I love. The entire pile of shame and horror and zombies had unburied itself and as hard as I tried I could not stuff it back down. My husband told me he thought I had PTSD. I told him he was an ass. And I looked up PTSD to prove to him that he was wrong. I spent 6 hours researching PTSD looking for ONE THING that didn't fit me. It all fit. Every study. Every symptom. Every definition.
I got the official diagnosis of rape related PTSD (sometimes called RR-PTSD) from a real, true, board-certified Ph.D. psychiatrist (which was embarrassing as heck but I've grown to love my psychiatrist). And I'm getting to know myself and PTSD better. I realize that I can't just get over the bad thing that happened to me, because, well, it isn't over. It became ingrained in my being, and I'm still living it in my present life.
I'm still learning how to deal with this. I'm desensitizing my triggers. I'm letting out thoughts, ideas, images, etc. out that have been trapped inside me for decades. I'm understanding the randomness of PTSD and learning better responses to it.
I'm proud to say that through my journey I've become a better wife, mother, friend, employee, and person. Do I still trigger? Absolutely. But instead of spending weeks in the PTSD hellhole, I can get it down to hours or days.
I've chosen to become a rape recovery, PTSD, and sexual trauma empowerment mentor so that no one ever has to go through what I went through alone. It's a process and it will take some work. It's not a magic pill fix. I've learned that anyone who promises to fix you, cure you, or get you out of your haunted house quickly is misinformed. But I can teach you to live in your haunted house more comfortably and show you a way to eventually move out. Living with PTSD takes some constant awareness of levels and I can teach you how to manage your symptoms and rejoin your life.
My past moments have tried to destroy me, but they have also shaped me. They have shaped my interests and my work. My emotional reactions have sent me to hell, but they have also sent me on quests. Power fascinates me; I've studied its role in organizations, management and societal policy. I am acutely aware of oppression. It infuriates me and can trigger me if it's too close. Much of my success in my job has come from my PTSD. My hyper-vigilance and attention to what comes next has made me successful in my workplace.
Am I glad that my rape happened to me? Heck no. What I wouldn't give to take it away. Who knows what that path would have looked like and I have caused some pain for people close to me in my life. But this is the hand I've been dealt and I'm going to sit at the table with the dealer and play. And win.