PTSD Survivors Speak: Surviving Sexual Assault

Some guest posts really need no introduction. This is one of them….

Ten years ago, I was so destroyed by a traumatic experience that had occurred during my adolescence that I couldn’t hold a job,amy-ramsey couldn’t speak to strangers, had difficulty even talking to people on the phone, and would rarely leave my house. I suffered from intrusive memories; vivid flashbacks during which I would relive the event. These were easily triggered and I spent most of my time just trying to avoid the triggers; sights, smells, and sounds could easily send me reeling. But then something happened that made me realize that I had to take responsibility for my healing before it was too late. The steps that I took to be proactive in my recovery made all the difference in the world.

My Wilderness Journey: Recovering From PTSD and Healing After Violence

When I was thirteen years old, I was sexually assaulted. For a long time after the attack, I didn’t think about or really remember what happened. In a way, the assault was like a book on a dusty shelf inside my mind. I knew the book was there, but I never took it down or opened it to see what was inside. After four years of ignoring what had happened, one morning the lid flew off my memories and I couldn’t contain them anymore. Full onset recollection went off inside me like a nuclear warhead and the fall-out was devastating. I went from being a confident college freshman to a shivering wreck, huddled on my bed, caught up in flashback after flashback, reliving those moments over and over.

At that time, I didn’t know that people other than combat veterans could develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I was doing research for a project in my composition course and stumbled upon an article in the college library that related the symptoms of PTSD. Though it was designed for veterans, the author mentioned that often, survivors of violence, car accidents, abuse, or rape would exhibit the same symptoms. There was a checklist at the end of the article. I had most of the symptoms listed. It was an “aha” moment; at that point, I should have begun seeking treatment. But I didn’t. I was too ashamed of what had happened; treatment would have meant telling my parents, and I couldn’t face that.

PTSD is insidious. I looked the same on the outside. There were no visible wounds or scars. There was no visible reason for me to feel so horrified, so frightened, so sick. I was hyper-aware and easily startled, so that it seemed my heart was always racing. I developed insomnia and when I was able to sleep, I had nightmares so terrible that I woke up crying. Still, I didn’t tell anyone what was happening. I tried to cope on my own, and developed a binge eating disorder. I gained weight rapidly, but I felt safer wearing the fat like a suit of armor – I felt that it was a way to make sure no one would want to sexually assault me again.

After a year of “coping” in this manner, I dropped out of college. By this time, I had changed so much that I hardly knew myself. My dreams and ambitions were dust. I had no energy and my hair was falling out by the handfuls. My mother thought I was taking drugs and began searching my room. I had finally told my boyfriend about the assault but not about the PTSD. Telling him a little of my trauma story seemed to ease the symptoms a bit, and once he knew about what had happened, he changed behaviors that had been triggering me. That also helped. By this time, I had learned to avoid my triggers and I found that if I cocooned myself and was very careful about where I went or who I was with, I didn’t experience the PTSD as much.

That was 1991. I married my boyfriend that summer, at the end of June. I was nineteen years old. For the next nine years, I virtually hid in our home. We had a few friends who were welcome in our house and whose company I enjoyed, but I rarely went anywhere or did anything, and never by myself. I was afraid of what might happen – what if I went out and had a flashback? How would I deal with that? I believed that I couldn’t deal with it – I had disempowered myself so thoroughly by that time that even making telephone calls was an ordeal. Something as simple as calling out for pizza was momentous; my heart would pound and my mouth went dry. If an adolescent boy answered the phone and if he sounded like one of my attackers, I knew I’d be triggered and would be right back in that moment again.

I existed this way for an unbelievable length of time. During those dark years in the wilderness of PTSD and self-loathing, my only outlet was writing. I wrote every day, for at least eight hours a day, and sometimes much more. It was common for me to turn out sixteen thousand words of fiction during the course of a single day. I lived through my characters and the stories I created. This became another coping mechanism, and I quickly realized that though I could not talk about what had happened, my characters could. I began telling my own trauma story through my characters. It poured out in story after story and became a theme in each of the novels I wrote. My characters dealt with violence. They suffered PTSD but they overcame it. Their voices became my voice. My symptoms eased. I became less frightened, less easily triggered. Speaking out, even vicariously, had begun my healing.

During this time period, I gave birth to my first daughter. That stopped my writing, which was extremely difficult to deal with. I felt as if I was in limbo in a lot of ways; the healing process stalled out and I didn’t know what to do with my life. I had lost my voice, but I immersed myself in caring for my daughter and went back to the old ways of coping – in other words, ignoring the PTSD and binge eating. In the year 2000, when I was pregnant with my second daughter, two momentous things happened, and though both of them were painful, they served as impetus to finally accept that I was responsible for my own healing.

In March of 2000, my husband asked me for a divorce. He couldn’t handle my mental anguish and my inability to help myself any more. Though he changed his mind and stayed in our marriage, the fact that he finally openly addressed my issues helped me to see just how sick I had become. I stood on the edge of losing my marriage, breaking up my family and all because I could not “cope” with what had happened and the fall-out from it. I knew that I had to change.

In June of that same year, my mother-in-law was diagnosed with and succumbed to terminal pancreatic cancer. As I was helping to care for her, I came to a deep understanding of what it means to give love to someone; to find in that person a place of worth in sickness and helplessness. In watching her decline, I saw how hard and unloving I had been toward myself in my own sickness. I had treated myself abominably. Rather than offering myself love and understanding, as I would a friend in need, I had been harsh and unforgiving, blaming myself for what had happened and for my reaction to it.

In the year that followed, I became my own advocate. I worked hard to find forums in which I could safely tell my trauma story, because that had been the one thing that had helped me in the past. I joined an online group of survivors of sexual assault who offered me support, commiseration, and love. I found that I had something to offer in my own experiences. I checked out books from the library and read about how to handle PTSD triggers; my avoidance of them had been the worst thing I could have done. I learned that I could use exposure therapy by myself or with someone I trusted, and reduce my anxieties and other negative reactions to triggers.

Within a year of beginning my healing journey, I was able to get and hold down a job. I still had bad moments – certain voices, certain scents, a song on the radio – these things were still triggers, but I learned how to breathe through the panic, how to count down from ten to one and concentrate on my breath as it flowed in and out of my body. It became second nature to just close my eyes and think “breathe” – after a while, that was enough to bring me out of a flashback. In 2007, twenty-two years after the assault and nineteen years after the onset of symptoms, I declared myself healed. I no longer experienced PTSD. The insomnia, the nightmares, and the flashbacks were gone. I had no more anxiety or panic attacks. I could experience a trigger and have no response. Life was peaceful and I felt incredibly free. I was able to begin losing the weight I had gained through my detrimental coping mechanism of binge eating; 130 pounds came off slowly and in a healthful way, and has stayed off.

It would make a happy ending – but of course, there’s more to the story. My marriage ended in 2009; even though my husband and I both tried very hard to salvage it, in the end, we had grown so far apart and I had changed so much that there was just no way to bridge the gap between us. I became involved with someone else during and after my divorce, and before I ended that relationship in December, he became violent and abusive. A week after I left him, I began having symptoms of PTSD again. However, I employed all my old techniques and fought the intrusive memories and flashbacks. I never thought of myself as lucky, but I know I am fortunate to have laid such good groundwork and to have the knowledge that I have. This time, I have refused to remain silent, and have already shared my trauma story and sought counseling. A combination of talk-therapy and confronting my triggers has kept the symptoms and occurrences to a minimum. At the moment, I am not completely PTSD free, but I know that with work, I will be. I am committed to healing.

My life is my own. The things that have happened to me are just experiences. I can integrate them into my being; they may leave scars, but growth will occur around these scars as I learn to be a stronger and better person. I can use these experiences as tools to help others who may be faltering in their recovery journeys. I have a deep, profound empathy for those who suffer from abuse, assault, and PTSD; from this understanding, I can give the kind of encouragement that truly makes a difference.

The ideas contained in this post are solely those of the author. To contribute to the Survivor Speaks series, contact Michele.


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