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The Body Keeps the Score

CW: Rape & Trauma Processing

Recently I’ve been faced with a health challenge that is draining my physical reserves.  The cell phone battery of my body charges to an unpredictable level… when I wake up, usual daily chores/activities are taking everything for me to get through.  Often even walking upstairs causes me to need to lie down for a bit.

This lack of autonomy/function in my body has caused me to have increased flashbacks as of late.  My heart is already racing from basic activity, so it doesn’t take much for my mind to jump into a PTSD moment.  Something as simple as my child accidentally scaring me, or even the sound of a male voice can fast-forward my memories into trauma.

Flashbacks aren’t new to the survivor, and I’ve certainly had them before, but the flavor of these have been particularly intense.  During the actual assault, I did what many people do in traumatic events, disassociated.  I recall leaving my body behind and watching from above.  In the actual moments, I don’t recall feeling pain, as my body protected me from the physical trauma by disconnecting my body from my brain.  However, in the past month, my flashbacks have incorporated split seconds of “pain memories.”

The first time I remember feeling actual pain was in the hospital after the assault.  I was numb, and I don’t actually know how I got there (obviously I drove, but I don’t remember the act of getting there).   I looked down as I stood on the collection paper, and saw blood, and a lot of it.  In that moment, I started to “wake up” and realize what I had seen wasn’t a movie, but rather something that happened TO me.

My body told the tale that my mind protected me from.

Very quickly, though, my brain shut down those pain feelings… and filed them.  Until just recently.

The lack of autonomy that I feel in a body that is not at its best is wildly triggering.  I sit in therapy trying to hear what she’s saying… at the same time as I hear voices in the foyer that are male and try to manage the flashes that happen.  When I’m alone at home, it’s even harder as my mind spins on the possibilities of what “could” happen. I check the doors, make sure they are all locked and crawl into bed and wait for the moment to pass.  Sometimes it passes quickly, but more often than not it lasts for what feels like an eternity.

PTSD is a bitch.

Process

Same office, different hour.

Once (sometimes twice) a week I walk into a room where I don’t have to speak French to talk about trauma or “not trauma.”  I can walk in and speak about whatever I want, and know that I can be understood.

At times, that is the most freeing experience ever, and at times the most frustrating as I can’t hide anything.  I can’t hide my microexpressions, my breathing, nothing.

Trauma is isolating. Survivors are isolated from the world, from non-survivors, and from each other.  We are on an island.  I don’t get to therapy early because I don’t want to sit there in the waiting room and see other trauma survivors and not talk to them.  It’s already so isolating.  I don’t even look at anyone in the eyes in the office because I know that they have a story I can relate to, but I’ll never know it.  It’s worse to be surrounded by them, and know that you can never know.  Being aware these are your people, and you’ll never know them, it’s incredibly hard.

It’s worse to be lonely, than alone.

One day when I walked into Jess’s office there were drawings left over from the previous hour, another client… a drawing of a spider, on pink cardstock… with the words “fuck u.”  I saw that and just got them.  I got IT.  Sometimes that’s just how we deal.  We sometimes feel like we are just balloons floating around the world that doesn’t get it.

For me, I often have/had to approach the world with a “fuck u” attitude.  You think I can’t make it? Well, fuck you.  You think I need to trust everyone?  Fuck that and fuck you. (And so on.)  The Survivor’s Guide to Life is defense AND offense.

This little glimmer of the Fuck U spider was a moment of the humanity of someone else battling their own war.  Jess cut it out for me, and I have it in my wallet, to remind me that even though I don’t see them, somewhere out there, there is someone out there who gets it.

Over time, I’ve formed a music playlist that has been my go-to source of inspiration, and often play it in therapy.  I shared it with Jess and she asked if she could share this list with another one of her other clients.  Music is a huge part of my soul, and to pass it to another going through trauma was a gift I was thankful to share.  It gave me comfort to know that the notes that I curated into this list were being given to another.  Eventually, the idea was floated to connect the two of us. This person had no name, it’s like they weren’t real.

Until they were.

 

I got an email in my inbox, from the same office… different hour.

Subject line: Insert Awkward Subject Line Here.

Right then I knew, Hannah was good people.  Right off the cuff she was snarky, fun, and made fun of the therapeutic process, as we hardcore PTSD clients are prone to do. (It’s a coping strategy, don’t judge.)  Within days we developed a good rapport where we were able to express some of our challenges (what brought us to our hour) with ease.  It was amazing to be able to not only talk about those challenges without needing to interpret why xyz might be complex for us, but also knowing Jess allowed us to understand how that expression might play out in the hour.

My therapist offered a bridge between our two islands.

Suddenly, I wasn’t quite so alone.

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Fear

Fear: an unpleasant emotion or thought that you have when you are frightened or worried by something dangerouspainful, or bad that is happening or might happen:

In Star Trek Voyager (yup, I’m a nerd!) Captain Janeway is battling a character that is the literal embodiment of Fear, in this case, a clown.  She is negotiating with Fear to release several hostages, and this quote comes from her lips:

“I’ve known fear. It’s a very healthy thing, most of the time. You warn us of danger, remind us of our limits, protect us from carelessness. I’ve learned to trust fear.”

As someone who grew up surrounded by trauma, encountering abusive people and scenarios from a young age throughout my young adult life, fear was a familiar feeling.  The longer I lived, the more of a foundation fear built of my eventual psychological construct.

What became different and what may resonate with other trauma survivors, is that though fear built my foundation, I was unable disallowed to head its warnings.  Fear would tell me that someone was dangerous emotionally, but I would need to use them to get where I needed to go.  Fear would tell me about how stairwells were dangerous places, but unless I walked through them to get to class I wouldn’t be able to graduate college.  Fear would tell me that I needed to stay with this partner because without them, maybe I would never find someone who would see me as anything other than broken.

If one sits down with a trauma survivor and attempts to logic them through why they shouldn’t fear (a stairwell when they have been raped in one) (people taking notes when information has been used against them in the past) (providers when helpers have abused their power) (the church when they have spiritually/emotionally abused them) (the male voice outside the window that sounds just like ‘him’) (et all) they will fail gloriously.  We’ve learned to trust fear, to a fault.

It’s impossible to bring people into our world, without them truly sharing our experience.  This can cause us to form these inner worlds of fear, no one can understand, why attempt to explain?

We see danger everywhere, and it is all in our minds.

And it’s real to us.

 

Process

Brokenness

Broken

a :damaged or altered by or as if by breaking 
:having undergone or been subjected to fracture 
:not working properly 
:disrupted by change
:made weak or infirm 
:subdued completely (a broken heart/broken spirit)
:cut off 
:imperfectly spoken or written
:not complete or full 
The vulnerability project was born of brokenness. Of a desire to put together pieces of my soul and spirit in a new and unique way sure, but at its core, out of brokenness.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been processing an event that occurred more than a decade ago.  Part of trauma is the constant cycling of information in your brain, the recycling even of new ways of looking at the same event.  My therapist would refer to it as processing (UGH).
I’ve loved, truly loved, two men in my life.  I’m married to one of them.
This event involved the other.
More than a decade ago, I worked at an overnight camp and fell in love with an amazing person.  He was strong, kind, and knew what it was like to live through something hard.  At the time, I was still going through night terrors and reliving my own trauma, and he was able to empathize as he was a vet with PTSD himself.  The ability to speak the same language with him, without ever actually talking was unique and powerful.  For the first time in years, I felt like I wasn’t alone.
So much could go unsaid. But not like in the outside world.  Words could go unsaid because finally there was understanding.  I could bring up a trigger, and I didn’t have to go through the full story.  He could do the same.  It was like being in a book group, with someone finally reading the whole book, just like I did.  It was a breath of fresh air.
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I felt broken for years, alone, like a jagged shard of glass, but around him… since he had his own trauma, I thought perhaps we could be more like sea glass.  We could tumble a bit together and become something less sharp, if only because we had a mutual understanding.
Maybe together, we could both heal.
One night in the pitch black we went walking together in the neighboring regional forest next to our camp, after work.  It was dark, but I was with him.  I was with him. We were just talking.  I said something that caused him to be upset with me.  I recall he stopped. We stopped. and then he left me there.
And suddenly I was alone.
I remember my thoughts running in fast forward.
Where did he go?
Why did he leave me here?
Where am I?
I have no way of getting back, what will I do?
I.AM.ALONE.
I am going to die here.
And then I started to panic.
My mind flashed.
Suddenly I wasn’t in the forest, I was in my assault, and he put me there.  He left me alone in the middle of the woods, he knew what he was doing, and he left me unsafe.
Someone I loved, someone I trusted.
someone WHO.KNEW.BETTER.
I came back to my body in a violent landing, like a comet hitting the Earth because that’s exactly what I had done.  I was on the forest floor on my hands and knees, wondering why it was so loud.  What is that horrible noise?  What is dying?
That noise was me, screaming.
Time stood still.  I screamed and screamed.  I had no way of getting back, I didn’t know where I was in the park because I thought I was walking with someone safe,
someone I loved,
someone who would protect me.
He was in the army for god sakes, leave no one behind?
I thought I was going to have to wait until daylight to return back to camp, and if I had to scream until then, I would.
Time passed.
Days.
Years.
Minutes.
Seconds.
He finally returned.
We walked back together, and by that I mean somehow his body and mine shared space along the way to where we needed to go.
I moved my things out of his cabin that night, and he kept moving them back in.  I recall sleeping next to him shaking.
I spent time thinking about this throughout the following days/weeks and made a conscious choice to put it aside in my memory.  “You’re broken,” I thought.  “This might be your chance.  He gets that you are broken, and stays anyway. This might just need to be the way it is.”
So we moved on.  We stayed together for several more months together until we broke up in the fall.
Years go by, and we reconnect.  He has married and has a lovely wife and kids.  I do too and we realize that we still both deeply care for each other.  We have great conversations, and I look forward to any time we are able to talk.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago.
Out of nowhere, he says (I’m paraphrasing) “You know, I’m sorry for what happened in the forest. I knew it would trigger your PTSD.  That’s why I stayed nearby, you couldn’t see me, but I was nearby.”
……… And I look at those words and my heart sinks.
He had left me there and heard me suffer.  While he listened nearby, triggering me into a trauma space.  And as someone with PTSD himself, doing that knowingly.  Suddenly my narrative of the situation drastically changed.  I thought he had left and then returned when he noticed I hadn’t made it back.  Instead, he was nearby, listening to me scream.
I spoke with him via skype because I needed to know what he was thinking.  I needed to know one thing.  Had I triggered HIM, with something I had said?  This was the ONLY reason I could come up with, the only acceptable purpose for him leaving me in that moment.  It was the first time that I had HOPED that I had royally messed up and done something egregious.
But I hadn’t.
And I knew I hadn’t.
He said I hadn’t.
I had “frustrated him” he said.
I started to spiral and went into a very dark place.  How could someone I loved so deeply do this to me?  Could I trust anyone to not do this to me?  I had recently lost a friendship with someone I had cared about who hadn’t valued my friendship, was this a pattern?  Am I broken?
Could I trust myself, my heart, with a person who would purposely do something to trigger me into a deeply traumatic space, regardless of our history?  I found myself mourning the idea of losing someone who had been a big part of my life, and someone who was truly one of the only people who spoke the trauma language fluently in my life.
This relationship is broken.

Broken

a: damaged or altered by or as if by breaking 
bhaving undergone or been subjected to fracture 
cnot working properly 
ddisrupted by change
emade weak or infirm 
fsubdued completely (a broken heart/broken spirit)
gcut off 
himperfectly spoken or written
inot complete or full 
e3594e608b8a8ad58cca8201613eb1df--vikings--vikings-lagerthaI HATE that this situation has now spun me into questioning whether other people I love and care about will also “leave me in the forest” triggered, and terrified for reasons that aren’t equivalent to the amount of terror that it imposes on me.
Will my husband?  Will my friends?   Will my care team?
I feel vulnerable.
I feel that I let my guard down, and I’m now reaching for my shield again.
Process

You Have The Floor

Recently I’ve identified as being numb.  This is a scary place to be.  When one feels nothing, there is no place to go but down.

I sat on the floor of my therapist’s office (yes we do this), today and expressed how numb I felt to life, and this alarmed me.  Typically little things like the sound of my child laughing and my husband kissing me on the forehead would bring a smile to my face, but I just had no reaction to them anymore, other than straight apathy.

For 30 minutes I sat there describing my apathy, my numbness while Jess deftly navigated around how I presented.  Until I came to the realization that numb is another presentation for emotionally flooded.

I’m currently overwhelmed with feelings, and when I am overwhelmed, I tend to go inward and shut down.  For the past 6 weeks or so, I’ve been a metaphorical emotional black hole.

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I have a pattern of being very frustrated with the pattern of cycling back on a topic that I feel I’ve “dealt with” in the past.  If I’ve brought the trauma to the surface in the past, talked about it “to death,” picked it apart, and “processed it” I feel like it should be done.

Right?  It’s that simple.

I feel deep shame when I circle around to an issue that I’ve brought up before and feel like I’ve met a conclusion with.  As if there’s some sort of failure curve in therapy.

I’ve wanted to write, and every time I open this page, I felt this pang of failure.  I have a big topic to discuss but felt like it wasn’t the BIG trauma, thus, not important enough to write about.  This came up on the floor today too.  I couldn’t talk about this other trauma because it’s not like my life was on the line here.  I wasn’t going to die in this situation.  So it wasn’t important.  So I turned those feelings inward to apathy.

IT wasn’t important.

So *I* wasn’t important.

I need to get to writing.

 

 

Vulnerability

The Vulnerability Project

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When I started the vulnerability project, I assumed that because I was in control of the situations of vulnerability, that I’d always leave feeling positive about those experiences.

I’ve discovered this just isn’t the case.

The Vulnerability Project is hard.

Vulnerability is hard.

 

Part of me is extremely thankful that those around me can’t relate with trauma.  What kind of person would I be if I wished those around me to have that experience in order to have them be able to be on trauma island with me?

Recently I went to another Authentic Relating event where I shared that I have PTSD.  This is a vulnerable this for me to share with relatively new people, and I didn’t feel seen or understood. Not only that, but focus quickly shifted from me to someone else.  This is a frequent occurrence when people are uncomfortable, and when those around me are unable to relate to my experience.

Recently, my mother was vulnerable with me, sharing her feelings about her parents quickly descending into dementia.  In exchange, I was vulnerable with her I shared that I just wanted to check out of life, and she said “some people just can’t cope with trauma” and compared my experience by proxy with a breakdown my cousin had.  This felt really discounting and dismissive of my experience.

I half-joked with my therapist that I just wanted to have a cot in her office and move in.  There needs to be a primer written about trauma.  Trauma language, how to relate with those who have experienced trauma.  How to be value and share space with people who are sharing their experiences and being vulnerable.

Maybe THIS is what I need to write.

 

 

 

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I See You.

During traumatic times, those of us who have lived through trauma do one of two things.

  1.  Avoid the news like the plague, which is likely the smarter thing.  This was we avoid being re-traumatized by recent events.
  2. Start to look at everything out there that we can, videos, photos, articles, everything we can to try to connect with the traumatic event that is unfolding.

My best friend watches the videos of jumpers from the towers of 9/11 every anniversary.  I believe she does this in order to connect with her own feelings, to connect with that moment where someone made a choice to end their own life (though a quite different circumstance) in order to understand her father, and by extension her own trauma.

Today, we watched as people ran from a madman shooting at Mandalay Bay in Vegas.  But what was different was the cell phone video taken by one of the people in the crowd.  I found myself captivated by it, and horrified, as much of America, but not as a lookie-loo, but as someone who could immediately place myself in their shoes.

The things they said “we have to go or we will be trampled.” the looks they exchanged as they weighed their options of ‘do we stand or do we huddle in place?’

The looks they exchanged as they weighed their options of ‘do we stand or do we huddle in place?’  Where is the shooter? Is there more than one?  Which option will cause our odds to live to increase?

Where is the shooter? Is there more than one?  Which option will cause our odds to live to increase?

Which option will cause our odds to live to increase?

These are the moments of trauma.  I watch the video over and over… Because the looks made me feel less alone.  It was horrifying to connect on such a visceral level.  It shook me to the core, you see.

Others who haven’t truly lived through a moment like that can think they get it. But until they lie in a stairwell, fearing to breathe, fearing that the knife that is stuck in their hair might still be used against them, they have no idea.  They can imagine, but that’s all.

Until they have a moment like Mandalay Bay.

 

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“You’re So Brave.”

Brave: having or showing mental or moral strength to face danger, fear, or difficulty; making a fine show 

“You’re so brave.”

When people say this to me in regards to my story, my go-to outer response is “thank you.” My inner response is “I have no choice, so it’s not bravery, it’s survival and even that isn’t always a given.”

The past two weeks have been full of the bravery of a different type, simply figuring out a way to stay alive. I walked among the living, not feeling a part of them.  I smiled and joked, and played the part of the living, but was not one of them. I am around people, but alone.

PTSD is a Liar.  Anxiety is a Liar.  Depression is a Liar. Trauma is a Liar.

As someone aptly mentioned, trauma is like “my neighbors who not only play their music super loud but have extra bass that you can feel from across the apartment.” Wednesday night, that music brought me to the brink after a full week of operating at emergency trauma level, and I took a handful of pills on top of my typical nighttime medication.  This was brought about by quite a few of events involving a mix-up with a member of my care team, a person from my past coming up on Facebook surprisingly, and continuing feelings about the friend-breakup from the prior weeks.

 

My thoughts were scattered when I made this choice.  I can’t describe it.  I didn’t want to die.  I just didn’t want to live.  Or didn’t want to feel.  I’m not sure, maybe both.  Trauma is a liar. You can’t escape your brain, it’s always there.

So I talked about it.  First in a terrifying text to my therapist- where I downplayed exactly what I took.  Second, to my husband when “the story in my head” told me that likely my therapist would call the police to do a wellness check (which didn’t happen.)  Third, I reached out to my sister-wife, Diana.  Fourth, to Katherine.  Fifth, made a small circle post to my trusted people.  Oddly enough, the scariest reveal was to my bodyworker, as I was totally feeling very vulnerable about sharing this very deep scary part of my soul.  With previous attempts, I kept silent.  This time needed to be different.

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I was talking with a gal on Insta today about how she was worried about her mental health stories being depressing.  And maybe they are.  Maybe we ARE telling the depressing stories.  We talk about clawing against the walls to get out of the well.  We talk about the awful side effects of medication and how we want to crawl out of our own skin with it, and without it. But here’s the thing, these stories HAVE TO BE TOLD.

Mental Health HAS to be talked about.

Suicidality has to be talked about.

I can appear at a mom’s group at 9:30 AM on Wednesday looking perfectly functional, joking, and at 5:30 pm try to end it all.  The person right next to you could be struggling with trauma, PTSD, depression, anxiety, all sorts of things and we AREN’T talking about it.

This HAS to change.

I’m not brave.  I’m alive.

Sometimes, despite my best efforts.  This week, despite my best efforts.

Bravery, in this case, is “Making a Fine Show.”

 

 

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Dear Flashbacks,

Flashback

a :interruption of chronological sequence (as in a film or literary work) by interjection of events of earlier occurrence; also an instance of flashback
b :a past incident recurring vividly in the mind

This week, you’ve moved into my body with a vengeance. An interjection of events of an earlier occurrence, an interruption of my normal day by inserting your grainy fingers vividly not only into my mind but into my body, into my lungs, around my neck, through my belly.

You bring the war back into my soul unexpectedly, and by that I don’t mean Iraq or any other desert, I’ve never been there, and by that I mean I sometimes wish that was the case because people might be able to relate in some way or at least ask about the war I lived.  And by that I mean I can’t say that out loud because of the shame of saying I wish I had lived through the war of people rather than the sexual war I lived through sometimes.  I could speak about you more in groups, people would understand better.

Instead, I spend most waking moments consciously working to keep you in check.  People don’t typically focus on how many breaths they take per minute.  How often I hold my breath and wonder “why am I so dizzy right now?” grab the counter and then gasp when I realize I’ve been holding my breath.   How often I realize how often I feel awful and realize it’s because you have caused me not to leave my room all day and need to eat.

Massage is one of the only places where my main job IS to breathe, IS to relax, and the place that you make me work the hardest.  For months you have been poking at me, knocking at the door of my brain just WAITING to jump out. Only once before have you come out to play, and you scared me.

This week I was unable to keep you put away in your little box.  My feelings were at the surface, I was working so hard just to keep myself together generally that once I got on the table, I realized that the whole 90 minutes were going to be hard work to keep you at bay.  My feelings started swimming at the surface immediately before she even came back in the room.  I became hyper-aware of every single noise.  Every person around the building became my rapist, every voice, the one who was going to come get me.

Once she came back in the room I felt my focus go extremely inward to manage you. You started immediately when she touched me.  You started teasing me with small little memories.  Some were benign compared to others.  Little leadups to the Big T traumas.  Then in one quick moment, you hit, as if physically, and I had no control any longer.  I’ve been able to keep you in check for months, but yesterday I was totally helpless to keep you in your box.

Little t traumas either in Charlie Chaplin black and white skipping silent reels will play, where I can’t keep track of where you are leading me or when you will stop.  A mix of little t and big T traumas will play in mini cartoon style where you insert sound or feelings and my body will start to react. My hands and body will start to shake and my breathing will start to alter. In the largest situations, Big T traumas will play in full film or even 3D fashion, where you just move right into my mind and hijack everything.  This is the scariest part.

I have a deep fear that people around me can’t cope with you, mainly because *I* can’t cope with you.  I can’t imagine what it is like to watch someone experience a flashback from the outside, as I just know what it feels like inside.  The way you make me feel is so out of control.  I can’t breathe, I’m suddenly thrust into 17 years past like a horrific Christmas ghost of trauma.

I told someone this week, “you can’t handle this.”  Truthfully, *I can’t handle this.*

Truthfully, *I can’t handle this.*

I can’t handle you.

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When Anxiety Isn’t In Your Mind

As I’ve become more open to vulnerability, it’s dark sidekick, anxiety has come along for the ride.  When I talk about anxiety, I’m not talking about the basic worry of “did I get milk at the store?” I’m speaking about debilitating “I am not sure if I can leave the house today, and I’m pretty sure I can’t breathe.”

Often those who haven’t experienced full out trauma based anxiety can’t imagine what it is like to live with chronic and unpredictable anxiety. For a more lengthy glimpse into my personal brand on a single day, feel free to visit here.

What is particularly frustrating is when anxiety takes up residence both in the mind and the body.  Anxiety for me has raised shoulders, tensed muscles, intense heat and right now a very sharp stabbing pain when I breathe in right in my Solar Plexus.  Breathing is apparently something people do on a regular basis, so not being able to take full breaths is very frustrating, which in turn raises my anxiety.  It’s a never ending loop.

Nothing brings more attention to my body than massage/bodywork.  This week was a really dichotomous week for me.  Wednesday, I experienced a huge breakthrough of the best breathing I’d had in years.  I felt like a weight had lifted off my body and when I took in air, I could feel it filling up all the way to the top of my lungs, something I never do when I breathe.  I recall sitting down after the session and crying from just pure relief that I actually could breathe, as I didn’t know it was possible to take in that much air.  However, on Friday I felt trauma’s grip on me again, wringing my insides

However, on Friday I felt trauma’s grip on me again, wringing my insides and after session, I sat there feeling nauseous and defeated.  Part of what frustrates me so is this never ending orbit of trauma, one day doing fantastic, and the next feeling like total shit. Today I’m in trauma hangover, and I feel like I’m living in adrenal fatigue.  I feel as though each time I take a full breath, I’m stabbed, so I breathe more and more shallowly, leading to the sense of panic, which of course reinforces the loop.

Do I take a Xanax?  Am I “bad enough” to medicate?  It feels like such a failure to take a pill to “human.”

The Body Keeps The Score.

The Cycle Of Trauma.