Shouting “STOP!” in retrospect (content warning: rape)

a cure for what ails you, abuse, personal experiences, ptsd, relationships, therapy

Hey readers!

I had a great, if intense, EMDR session this afternoon. I’ve mentioned X a few times before, especially in my last post, and he was the subject of today’s sessions.

I’ve mentioned before, in very vague terms, that I have a long history of sexual abuse. Those of you who have listened to the RISK! episode have heard me say it directly: I never talk about it. I’ve been to literally a dozen other therapists in the last eleven years, but due to insurance issues or money in general or whatever, I was never able to see a single counselor for more than a few sessions.

As a result, I am extremely uncomfortable discussing any of the rape-and-what-have-you in anything less than broad terms. I can vividly describe everything else–the physical and emotional abuse, what it did to me psychologically, how the effects have rippled through time and still mess with me to this day. But if you sit me down and ask me to tell you exactly what happened, to describe it? Then I clam up and can’t even say the word “sex” without looking at the floor.

I had to do that today. I had to lay out the details of a memory that I very recently had a flashback about. I had to describe how we were positioned, to talk about that rolltop desk and how I used to lean into it and stay absolutely silent because I knew if I made a sound or asked him to stop, he’d be angry. And when you’re in abuse-victim-survival-mode, avoiding that anger is pretty much all you think about. I just had to get through that moment and then things might be better. (This is called “conditional assumption” or “deferred happiness” and is extremely common in abusive relationships.)

I want to pause to make an important distinction here, since we are talking about rape and consent–by “had to,” I mean that my therapist (who we’ll call S from now on) invited me to talk about my flashback in very general terms: “Can you tell me what the flashback was about?” She never probed for details, and her sensitivity was much appreciated.

We began by identifying my negative false belief: He is raping me and hurting me but I’m not saying anything because “I don’t matter. I have to do this.”

She asked me, as is typical by now, to rate how disturbing I found that belief while I was thinking about the scene I’d described. Then, she asked what I’d like to replace that belief was (and how believable it was to me as I was sitting in her office, pre-EMDR). This is what I replaced that thought with: “I do matter, and I don’t have to do this.”

I’ve probably mentioned this before, but I prefer to use the hand buzzers for EMDR–I’m migraine-prone so the lights don’t work well, and because I have that thing where sudden and/or loud sounds in my left ear trigger an uptick in the dissociation. So, I relaxed (as much as I could) into the couch, a buzzer in each hand, and willingly stepped back into that moment.

It was like entering a time capsule. I was disturbed and amazed at how easily I could reenter the memory. I saw myself, leaned against that desk, slipping my fingers, one at a time, into the grooves in the wood as a distraction. My abuser–my rapist–was not there, only a strange, smooth grey nothingness behind me. It was like my mind wasn’t even going to let me go there, to see his face. I’m actually grateful for that. I imagine my mind saying, “Okay, so you have to relive this a little so you can rewrite it and feel better, but you do not need to see his face. I’ve got your back.”

I was standing in the corner of my bedroom, just at the foot of my bed, and looking across at that girl by the desk, that girl who was me-and-not-me. I saw our dresser. I saw the window–the light outside was, as in most of my memories of X, a strange grey-blue that could have been dawn, dusk, or midnight. In my memories, it is often all three.

S. stopped the buzzers and had me draw a deep breath, as is our custom by now. She asked what I saw, how I felt. Then we started the second round.

This time, the details were clearer–the way the yellow light cast shadows at the corner of the desk, the frayed edges of the area rug behind the dresser. I began to feel angry. I wanted to scream at him to get off her, to let this girl–this child–go. To stop filling her head with bullshit and lies.

I was 18. I’m 29 now. Looking back, I was a baby. I was coming out of this intense childhood full of abuse and anxiety and no one had taught me what a relationship was supposed to look like. The only relationships I saw were dysfunctional ones; later in life, I sought out and clung to what was familiar to me. Unfortunately, what was familiar was also rape-y and weird, which are two words that could pretty accurately sum up my life from ages 17 to 19.

I told S. about my anger. We chatted for a few minutes to decompress, then jumped back in.

This time, I was furious. I was screaming at him, telling him that I am a human being, not something to masturbate into and that I do matter. That I don’t need to perform for anyone. That I am not a dog that does tricks and licks its owner’s boot even after being kicked. 

That my body is mine, and that my ownership means something.

By the end of the session, I found the false belief, the “I don’t matter and I have to do this,” disturbing for a different reason. I find it disturbing that I ever felt that way. And above all, I find it disturbing that another human being was not only capable of doing that to me, but that he enjoyed it.

We’re going to pick up again next Monday. In the meantime, S. told me to keep yelling at him in my head. I left her office with a smile.

You know how in Dogma, Alanis Morissette plays God and absolutely destroys Bartleby with her voice? That’s how the scene with X is going to play out in my head from now on. I’m also picturing the final stanza of “Lady Lazarus” by Sylvia Plath:

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

I am wishing you a wonderful week filled with ferocity, dear readers! Y’all come back, now, y’hear?

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Reclaiming my body, or: ¡Viva la Revolución!

a cure for what ails you, abuse, anxiety, dissociation, memories, personal experiences, ptsd, relationships, therapy, three hopeful thoughts

Sometimes, EMDR can take a while.

This week, my therapist and I tried to pin down a common theme in some of my more disturbing memories of X. We essentially started freestyling at each other, throwing out possibilities and ultimately ending up…pretty stumped. She thinks it all goes back to what she calls “the rabbit hole”–dysfunctional patterns with my mother and my other relatives that began when I was a child and are coloring how I interact with the world even now, twenty-odd years later. We also had a really great conversation about body autonomy and ownership, and how I’ve been seeing myself as a commodity for so long and “going along to get along” for pretty much my entire life.

My existence has been defined by one thing: the need to protect myself at all times, to defuse all the bombs, to take all the right steps so I don’t fall into a crack or a lava pit or inadvertently provoke someone else’s rage. I make myself as pleasant and agreeable as possible because I grew up learning that rocking the boat meant someone screaming in your face.

I am a nice person, yes. The whole thing isn’t fake or some survival mechanism from long ago. I don’t see a reason to be unkind to people, when giving a stranger a compliment takes less time and brightens someone’s day. But I am gentle with others because I am so often afraid. As a child, survival meant being quiet, being kind; never confronting, never correcting.

My therapist and I have also spent the last few weeks working with my deep-seated body image issues. It’s a topic I don’t often talk (or write) about because there’s a mountain of shame that comes with it. However, I try to be transparent in my posts and other communication with you, readers, so let me bring you up to date.

My family-of-origin is weird in a bunch of ways. Even if you’re relatively new to the blog, you’re probably aware of this. But one of the most pervasive and insidious messages I received as a child was that my stomach was ugly and needed to constantly be “held in.” You know, like how you sometimes suck in a bit to zip up a new pair of jeans? Like that, except all the time.

Long story short, we were at Disney World when I was nine or ten and was wearing this cute little biker-shorts-and-crop-top deal, neon green and black. I thought I looked so cool with my white bucket hat, despite the fact that it was 95 degrees and I was wearing, well, a bucket hat. We were posing for a picture in front of some palm trees and one of the relatives who’d brought me on the trip poked my stomach and said, “Suck that in.”

Again: I was, like, nine or ten when this happened.

And I had been holding in my “gut” every day for the next twenty years. I was terrified to let anyone see me not “holding it in.” Even as a 90-lb freshman in high school, I still held it in. I was terrified of sleepovers–with friends in school, and with lovers later in life–because I knew I would not have complete control of my body and what it looked like while I slept.

It took two long, very difficult EMDR sessions, a ton of self-care, and lots of encouragement and positive feedback from my fella, but I am slowly letting go of the compulsion to suck in my stomach at all times. As I write this, I’m slouched over like an overstuffed possum* (thanks to our wedding food tasting this weekend!) and I do not care. I know no one here is going to judge me. I am comfortable that I am not some hideous trog if I’m not pretending like I don’t have organs in my abdominal cavity.

The way I view my body changes from day to day, of course, but the last week has felt effortless.

But this is only the first step. My body has never been truly my own. Over the course of my life, I have allowed others to pick at me like gulls on a whale carcass: this one takes my body but nothing else–they use my flesh and forget that I am human. That one only likes me when I’m not sad. This person takes for granted that I will always forgive them. And it goes on and on, the give-and-take-but-mostly-take that made up all but the last three or four years of my life.

Think about that for a moment. Twenty-five years of feeling vaguely “other” in my body, like I was driving a leased car. Mine, but not really mine.

And I have allowed–even willingly participated in–this parceling-out of me, of my body, of my mind, of my experiences. I have done this because submission means safety. If I don’t really care either way, I’ve long said, what does it hurt? Why not let someone else make the decision? Why even bother giving an opinion, if it will make this person happy?

It’s funny that I am just now realizing how dysfunctional this mindset is. Having those thoughts on occasion is natural. Having those thoughts form the basis for every interaction you have with another human being is probably not the healthiest way to go about this whole “life” thing.

Those patterns are why it’s so scary to have finally found a partner who wants all of it at once–even the parts of myself I find the ugliest and most shameful. I am learning that it’s okay to express my opinions, even if I’m not 100% sure the other person shares them. Wedding planning has, on the whole, been full of great opportunities for me to test out the whole “assertiveness” thing without the stakes being too high. For the first time in my life, I feel safe disagreeing with my partner because I know it will not immediately lead to a breakup or abuse.

So, my assignment moving forward is to nurture myself, to keep being me, to keep doing the things I enjoy without worrying so damn much about how it’s going to look or who’s going to judge me. I’ve been doing this, to some extent, for a while (my guy and a certain friend can attest to me publicly howling and barking like a dog through a bronze metal sculpture last summer). I vowed last year to make absurdity common in my life and to ask “Why not?” more often than “Why?” when thinking about doing something. I want to be freer. I want to feel that my body is my own. And most importantly, I want to keep being stable and happy.

Now that you know a bit more of my tragic backstory, readers, how many links have you been able to make between your early childhood experiences and the person you are today?

* This guy right here:

possum-150200

We came home from the tasting and just kinda slouched on the couch like this while the cats prowled hungrily, begging for leftovers.

 

Life as a haunted house

a cure for what ails you, abuse, anxiety, dissociation, memories, personal experiences, ptsd, relationships, therapy, three hopeful thoughts

I’ve been having the nightmare again.

In it, I could be seventeen or twenty-nine. In it, I am standing in my childhood bedroom, looking out the window at the front lawn. There’s a weird unstuck-in-time feeling; it could be morning or late at night, but the sky is a flat indistinct expanse over the rooftops and trees. The lighting is confusing, too–is it dusk? Dawn? Just a cloudy afternoon?

His old, beat-up white Buick rolls up to the curb and my stomach twists in on itself, the knots fluttering like anxious birds.

What did I do this time?

He could be in a good mood, or a bad mood, or both, or neither. He could be smiling while walking up to my front door but then want to talk to me, right up close (as Stephen King wrote in my favorite novel of his, Rose Madder).

Or maybe it’s fine. Maybe he’s just going to pick me up and we’ll go hang out with friends or sit in his car down by the river, just talking for hours.

But I know damn well it’s not fine.


I am all ages, all the time. My therapist says that I need to nurture my wounded inner child, which I thought sounded stupid and New Age-y until I actually started trying it out. It’s effective–when I get anxious or depressed, I look at my younger self and pull her close.

You didn’t do anything this time, or any time. It’s going to be okay.

I wish believing was as easy as speaking.


On Thursday, the anxious snakes took up residence in my belly as I cleaned the apartment. My fiance had had a rough day on Wednesday and I knew he was feeling crappy, and also that it had nothing to do with me. He wasn’t rude or snappy with me, but he wasn’t really in the mood to spend much time talking during our nightly phone call. I knew this wasn’t my fault.

But the ghosts, the echoes, they spun a different story. As I swept and cleaned the kitchen floor (which, with two cats, is a neverending chore), the words kept flowing into my mind.

I have to do this right or he’ll be upset.

My fella? He never gets upset with me, ever. I think we’ve had maybe one argument in the entire three years we’ve been together. He is sweet and gentle and kind. We coo over the cats together, make a game out of going grocery shopping, laugh at hideously dark things that we know aren’t supposed to be funny.

But the trauma said,

Do it right, or else. Or else he’ll be mad. Or else no one will love you.

I paused many times during my cleaning spree to speak aloud to myself, to that wounded, younger part.

He is not like X. You were a baby. It was not your fault.

Sometimes, it works, but I’m pretty sure it’s just me handing a squalling child a piece of candy to shut it up. I don’t actually deal with the feelings. I invalidate and suppress and push, push, push until they go away.

My therapist and I have done three EMDR sessions now, and it seems to be a magic bullet for me. The first two sessions dealt with my childhood and centered around two specific disturbing memories and the phrase, “My mother’s anger is not my fault.”

Today, we dealt with X and the nightmare, which has been occurring with alarming frequency. I recently took an elective on domestic violence, and I know that’s what’s stirred all of this up again.


The ghosts are not happy when you call them out. They want to stay hidden and rattle the windowpanes, throw a few dishes when you’re not watching too closely.

And they expect to get away with it.


Today, we embarked on a grand journey of the hell I lived from ages 17 to 19. We worked on the phrase, “I didn’t do anything wrong.” I’m mostly believing it now, but only as it pertains to that one image. I know we have more work, so much more work, to do before I’m healed.

But the most upsetting part isn’t the actual image or the memory. The worst part is how young I was, how vulnerable. X saw that. He latched onto it. He told me his tales of woe and wept insincerity, and I bought it. He took my kindness, my urge to nurture and pacify, as weakness.

I don’t often cry in therapy, but when I do, it’s because that girl back then was so young. She was a baby, even at 17, and I feel overwhelmingly protective of her, this past-me. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m more self-aware now or if it’s some sort of misplaced maternal instinct, but when we’re focusing on a memory in EMDR, I see myself standing beside her. By round three of EMDR*, I have my arms around her and I am holding her close. I am telling her that it’s okay, that she didn’t do anything wrong, that she is good and lovable and so much more than what the trauma says.

And as the session progresses, the frightened, anxious self–the part that believes she did something wrong–becomes defiant. It was amusing the first time it happened in our first session, when the five-year-old self in the memory we used actually kind of yelled back at my mother.

This time, the wounded self snapped, “If he’s pissy, it’s because he’s an asshole. I didn’t do anything wrong.”

This defiance, my therapist says, is a good sign. I think it is, too. Also, it makes me chuckle–I’ve always been pretty stubborn, and time and time again, I’ve seen that if I’m pushed and threatened enough, I will gain the strength and courage to fight back.

As much as I hate that I’m going to be in therapy for a while (my insurance is awesome, but the co-pays add up), as much as I hate that other people dealt enough damage to put me there, I recognize that I am fighting back. That is so much. That is everything.

I am fighting the ghosts. One day, I will drive the last of them from my house and I will finally feel the peace most people take for granted. Right now, I’m actually feeling pretty peaceful–I went into therapy feeling very tense, and as I drove home, every muscle in my body felt loose and relaxed in a way I don’t often get to experience while I’m awake.

I’m going to leave you with this thought, readers. People may have done damage to you, but you are not damaged. You can fight. And I’ll fight right alongside you.

We’ve got this.


* We typically do three or four rounds with the same memory and the same phrases. Your mileage may vary, but my sessions go like this:

  • On a scale of 1-10, how distressing is the phrase (for example, “What did I do this time?”) to you now?
  • On a scale of 0-7, how believable is the phrase you’d like to replace it with? (For example, “His anger is not my fault.”)

I use the hand buzzers because I’m migraine-prone so the blinking light isn’t great (and I find that closing my eyes helps me visualize the memory we’re using). Headphones with alternating sounds between the left and right side can also be used, but since unexpected or loud sounds in my left ear makes the dissociation spike for some reason, we ruled that out.

Bilateral brain stimulation is awesome! The brain is so amazing, how it can bend into impossible shapes, at impossible angles, and not break.

Love your brain, your beautiful “broken” brain, readers.

 

Mental Illness in Entertainment: Six Feet Under

a cure for what ails you, memories, rapid-cycle bipolar disorder, relationships, self-harm, stigma, suicidal ideation, three hopeful thoughts

I recently binge-watched “Six Feet Under” for the first time (Michael C. Hall and Frances Conroy being the main draw, though my backup plan for life since I was 15 has been mortuary school) and was overall impressed with the show’s treatment of Billy, who has severe bipolar disorder with psychosis. However, though Jeremy Sisto’s* performance was excellent, I had a hard time fully enjoying it because of the painful memories it dredged up—not because of his behavior, but because of other characters’ reactions to it.

As I’ve mentioned several times on this blog, I wasn’t properly diagnosed until I was 24 years old, a full sixteen years after the initial onset of my symptoms. (The disorder is notoriously difficult to diagnose in children and teens because teens are stereotypically “moody” and, in my case, mixed episodes in children can look a lot like run-of-the-mill temper tantrums.)

The result is that in both of my long-term relationships, I’ve been accused of being manipulative and even emotionally abusive simply for expressing my needs. Most of you can probably relate to how difficult it is to reach out for help when you’re struggling, and I’m not sure how telling a loved one that I was worried about hurting myself and didn’t trust myself to be alone counts as either. Each time, I felt guilty beyond belief for making the person in question cancel plans to sit at home with me when I couldn’t stop crying and generally was not much fun to be around. But at the same time, I doubt many people would begrudge, say, a cancer patient for needing company on a bad day.

It’s true that at times, my behavior was what most people would refer to as “a little off,” and I am horrendously embarrassed by it. I try not to look back at the things I said and did back then because I know that my illness was the culprit and that I was not at all myself.

I take comfort in knowing that I’m stable now and haven’t had a major episode in over a year. I am in a relationship again, and though it’s in the fledgling stages, it’s actually functional and healthy and I can handle prolonged absences (my fella travels for work quite a bit) without panicking and worrying and feeling intolerably lonely. For the first time in my life, I’m experiencing true emotional independence. I’m able to take care of my own needs and create my own happiness. For the first time in my life, I am not hinging my happiness and emotional well-being on a man. I actually have object permanence and can trust that he’s going to return and not suddenly decide he no longer cares about me. I have accepted that if that ever does happen, it’s not my fault. And while I appreciate his presence and that he augments my life and has affected it in a very positive way, he is not my entire world.

This is a huge step. I’m pretty much the last person I ever expected to see in a healthy relationship, but amazingly, I’m managing to pull it off. The entire experience thus far has been incredibly healing, and with each good experience, each good day, I am learning to forgive myself for the past.

Since it's official now, here's a super-cute picture of us. :3

Since it’s official now, here’s a super-cute picture of us. :3

* On a lighter note, does anyone else think he totally looks like Kevin Rowland? (Check out the video for “Come On Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners, then tell me I’m wrong.)

The End.

Authoress, ptsd, rapid-cycle bipolar disorder

There are some topics that I find too personal to discuss on here (which seems ironic, given all the things I’ve written about), but this one’s important even though it’s still raw and very painful.

About a month ago, my husband sat me down and told me he was tired of working on our marriage. He had fallen completely out of love with me and had begun feeling that way two years ago. His rationale for not telling me was that it was painful for him and he wanted to figure it out himself before saying anything.

Naturally, I was pissed. If I’d known sooner, we could’ve had a shot at reconciling, or at least I wouldn’t have had the bomb dropped on me so late in the game. The delay is the hardest part because it feels like the worst possible betrayal. In the beginning, it hurt more than the realization that I had been raped in a previous relationship. It hurt worse than decades of verbal, emotional, and occasionally, physical abuse at the hands of various people. And it happened the day I received the offer for my current job (a temp position as an administrative assistant).

At this point, I’m not sure where to go. We’re living together as friends and it’s mostly working out, but I still cry almost every day. I’ve lost my passion for pretty much everything; my goal of returning to school and eventually earning a master’s degree in counseling seems impossibly far off, and the fiction project I had been so excited to work on has fallen by the wayside.

Most of all, I feel stupid. I feel stupid for not detecting his feelings. I feel stupid for wanting a family, a spouse, a stable home life. I feel like those things aren’t possible for someone like me because I’m so sick and damaged. Rationally speaking, I know that these thoughts are bullshit, but I’ve found that thoughts and feelings rarely match up.

I feel like sick and damaged people only fit with other sick and damaged people, and I know from experience that those relationships can be pretty unhealthy. I feel like anyone “normal” is going to be repelled by me, that they’ll become sick of the melancholy and the moods and the chronic physical illness just like D. did. I feel like a huge energy drain, but at the same time, I am indignant.

This is irrational and unfair, but I feel like anyone who gets tired of being exposed to my illnesses is a little weak. Try living a day, just one day, in this body, and then tell me how difficult it is for you to be on the outside looking in. But I also know that loving someone who’s in so much pain, especially when the pain is emotional as well as physical, can be trying and depressing and just hard at the end of the day.

D. thinks he knows best and is recommending as much distance as possible to help me get over it/him, but that just makes me feel abandoned (something I’ve expressed to him). It’s hard for me because he’s had two years to process and I was just told a month ago that my relationship of six years (marriage of almost-four; our anniversary would have been this December) is over, and I had no say in the matter at all.

I’ve been through worse, and that’s precisely why I’m beating myself up for having such a hard time with this. I’d appreciate some tips for healing; I feel like you guys “know” me well enough at this point to offer some helpful, heartfelt advice. And, as always, I appreciate all of you.

Last night, I felt dirty.

abuse, ptsd

I felt weird for most of the day yesterday, and the actual “dirty” feelings set in sometime late that afternoon. I’ve felt this way before, but not in a long time, and I’m still not sure what triggered it.

I spent an hour or so lying in bed last night feeling as though my skin was too tight for my body. I couldn’t relax and the feeling kept getting worse. This is what rape does to you.

I still have no idea whether or not I was molested as a child. As I’ve explained in previous posts, every therapist and psychiatrist I’ve seen, as well as quite a few of the people in my life, think that it’s extremely likely that something happened (based on my attitudes toward sex, my body, relationships, and my general well-being, as well as my sexual precocity and early sexual behavior).

I don’t know. I have flashes of memory, thirty-second clips of film that play inside my head at all-too-frequent intervals, but there’s nothing conclusive. I’ve recovered a few memories of my mother’s arrest, but that’s all. With that in mind, I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable to assume that there’s more lying dormant inside my head that I can’t access. I pride myself on being incredibly self-aware, which makes my inability to grasp at these memories all the more frustrating.

Sometimes, I wonder if I’ll ever feel clean again. Ages 17 to 19 were particularly horrible, and though I know that everyone makes mistakes, the abuse and my subsequent promiscuity take more of a toll on me than I’d like. I keep most of this discomfort from others and only confide in a select few people. As always, I’m extremely comfortable telling pretty much everyone about what happened, but I always conveniently neglect to discuss my feelings in the narrative. No one asks, and frankly, it’s a relief. As long as I don’t let emotion sneak into the equation, I can remain detached and objective, which is pretty much my default state anyway thanks to the dissociation.

I try very hard not to let myself get lost in my own head, but I find it happening more and more frequently these days. I know it’s my mind finally processing the sexual abuse, but I’m a little lost as to what to actually do about it. 

Rape is the ugliest word in the English language.