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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How to feel feelings

abuse, anxiety, personal experiences, ptsd, relationships

It occurred to me the other day that I do not give myself permission to experience the full range of human emotions. In fact, I don’t think I ever have.

As a child, I learned that expressing anger, frustration, or sadness in a visible way (tears, lashing out in age-appropriate ways, and so on) meant being yelled at, often brutally. The yelling often came with personal attacks–most frequently, the dreaded “You’re just like your mother!” Since everyone in the family was quite vocal about their dislike of my mother, that phrase packed a particularly potent emotional wallop, especially for a child not even near the cusp of adolescence.

Later, when I was dating X in my late teens, I was met with the same type of response, although more overt emotional and psychological abuse was the result (and occasionally, the abuse also carried a more tangible element).

I am often described as even-tempered and “sweet.” While I do my best to be kind to others because the world is already a brutal enough place without me adding to it and want to be liked more than almost anything, these traits are due in no small part to my early experiences with learning to stifle my less-desirable emotions.

Earlier this week, I had an evening where I was feeling particularly testy–my post-surgical pain from May 4th was giving me trouble, and Sunday was Mother’s Day, which is always a rough day for me for obvious reasons. I also had an IUD implanted during my surgery earlier this month, so my hormones are in major flux right now.

I remember responding to my fella in ways that I considered “snappish,” though he has since disagreed–I tend to think the worst of myself and perceive myself as ruder or more hurtful than I probably am. Anyway, the end result was that I got massively depressed and disappointed with myself because he is wonderful and does not deserve to be hurt.

I’ve learned since that one of the after effects of being abused is the overwhelming fear that you’re being abusive to your current partner–after all, we constantly hear about the cycle of abuse and how abuse survivors often become abusers themselves. When that fear collides with my already harsh self-evaluation and my tendency to worry about my partner’s well being and satisfaction with our relationship, it creates one hell of an emotional mess.

My guy has been fantastic with comforting me when I cry–because the tears are rarely just about me being snappy and feeling guilty–and reassuring me that it’s okay, that we’re okay. I don’t often snap at others, so when I do, I feel godawful because it’s not the norm. And I’ve been doing extra little things to be thoughtful to soothe myself (and because I genuinely enjoy spoiling him).

Yesterday, I spent most of the afternoon baking a giant chocolate layer cake with Swiss meringue and homemade cream cheese frosting–all from scratch. It was delightful because it kept me occupied–I love baking–and I got to practice a few new skills (piping and making meringue!).

One goal for myself, which I will share with my therapist on Monday, is to allow myself to experience the full range of emotions and not feel bad when I do. Obviously, I don’t want to become a raging monster, but I need to learn that it’s okay to be irritable from time to time and that it doesn’t make me a bad person. I certainly need to address the root cause when it happens, but I am allowed to have those feelings.

How are you with your own feelings, readers? Can you accept them for what they are, or do you place value judgments on them (like me)?

I wish you peace and, of course, sanity and happy thoughts as we sail into the weekend. As always, stay safe, readers!

On Vulnerability

a cure for what ails you, abuse, anxiety, memories, ptsd, therapy, three hopeful thoughts

There are so many words in the English language relating to innocence and vulnerability, and most of them can bring me way down if I’m not careful. They provoke some ancient anxiety that I’ve come to realize, with the help of my excellent therapist, are linked to what she calls my “wounded younger self.” (I was incredibly skeptical of inner child work at first, but it is incredibly effective and incredibly healing.)

“Little” is an adjective that, when paired with certain words that also remind me of innocence, usually messes me up emotionally. That’s the word that got under my skin tonight.

I’ve been feeling kind of “off” the last few days. I recently blocked my mother completely on my phone–including the second number I thought she’d deleted until she used it to contact me after I blocked the first number–and was treated to some really unsettling dreams on Monday and Tuesday night.

Monday’s main feature involved me skipping my grandmother’s birthday party because my mother was going to be there and I knew she’d be drunk. Tuesday’s late-night horror show involved a healthy helping of guilt because I was hiding from her (in a Target, of all places) while she wailed and lamented that she “couldn’t believe [I] didn’t want to talk to her.”

Naturally, this put me in a pretty weird headspace today. Wednesdays are my big clinical days and I do group as well as individual client work. As such, I generally store my feelings away to deal with later and do a pretty good job of not thinking about them at all during the day because I’m 100% focused on my clients. (Side note: I adore them, and I’m bummed that I’m leaving my practicum site in a few weeks!)

On the drive home from class this evening, though, those neglected feelings reared their ugly collective heads and roared.

The anxiety and guilt were so powerful that I considered just going to bed early and sleeping it off.

Instead, I took a shower.

I focused hard on those thoughts and attempted to get a good, cathartic cry in. Nothing happened.

I turned the focus to that wounded younger self I mentioned and took the opportunity to literally hug myself while I waited for the conditioner to work its magic on my decidedly unruly hair. I decided to speak aloud because I’m home alone most days during the week and hey, I knew the cat wouldn’t judge me. (Audibly, anyway.)

I told my younger self that it’s okay. I told her I love her and that I’m sorry she felt like no one could keep her safe. I told her that I’m going to do it. This changed into me speaking to whatever hypothetical future child I’ll end up having. I promised that child to take the best care of it I can and to make sure it never feels afraid or lonely.

And I cried. Instead of stifling it or trying to be tough, I gave myself over to it completely–ugly, wracking sobs. After a while, those sobs turned into relieved laughter that I’m sure sounded like I’d finally gone completely ’round the bend.

I think there’s something to be said for having a good cry.


On Monday, I spoke to my clients in group about the concept of “ghosts”–they had all shared some intense and profound stories about their deepest wounds, their secret shames, their most painful memories. I told them that while they can haunt you, they can’t physically hurt you. You can start to let go of them.

I led them in one of my new favorite exercises, which is “HA!” breathing. Basically, you take a deep breath and push that breath out while making a “HA!” sound. I opened the group with the exercise and invited them to imagine themselves yelling at someone or letting frustration out. I demonstrated (because I am not afraid to look silly anymore), and they loved it. After the big, intense sharing session, I led them in the exercise again, this time instructing them to imagine the “HA!” on the exhale as them blowing out part of their ghosts.

I’m glad it was a hit, and I encourage you all to try it, readers. Howling into the void or, as I called it, “therapeutic yelling,” is incredibly cathartic.

 

Archaeology

a cure for what ails you, abuse, anxiety, dissociation, memories, ptsd, therapy

This afternoon, my therapist and I had planned to do some EMDR related to X, but we started talking about my birthday (which was last Tuesday, which means I survived another trip ’round the sun, which is excellent!) and the somewhat messed-up present my biological mother sent me.

I won’t go into details on the gift because details are irrelevant. The important part is, we started talking about The Night My Mother Tried to Kill My Grandmother™.

I’ve written (and spoken) about it pretty extensively before–or at least made reference to it–but the gist of it is, there was a huge argument that culminated in my (very drunk) mother assaulting my grandmother.

(There is a brief, yet potentially disturbing description of assault below, in white; please mouse over only if you are comfortable with and prepared to read it.)

My mother knocked my grandmother’s walker away.

Side note: My grandmother had broken her hip a few years before and was still having trouble getting around. Plus, she was around 73 years old by this point. My mother stood on my grandmother’s feet and punched her repeatedly in the face.

All of this was relayed to me, years later, by one of my aunts.

When it happened, I was seven years old.


At this point, you may be wondering why in god’s name I would want to go dredging that up. After all, memories are repressed for a reason, right?

Basically, we mapped out the first few years of my life and discovered that my grandmother was my strongest attachment figure, which is kind of a no-brainer. The woman was the one constant in my life. When I was four and she broke her hip shoveling snow and had to spend months in a rehabilitation facility, I was gutted. Sure, my great-aunt was around, and I loved her dearly, but she wasn’t my Grandma. She wasn’t my mom.

Side-side note: Anyone can be a mother, but not anyone can be a mom. Also, anyone can be your mom–it doesn’t matter whether they gave birth to you.

We’re finding that a lot of my anxiety–most notably my fear that something bad will happen to my fella or someone else I care about–stems from my overwhelming terror that on that night, my grandmother was going to die.

She didn’t, thankfully. But from that point on, I was a different child. True, unfettered happiness no long existed. It was tempered by a constant watchfulness, the fear that she would be taken from me again.

I couldn’t sleep in my own bedroom for a year or so after that night. My grandmother, in her infinite wisdom, noted that there were two twin beds in her bedroom–she’d previously had them pushed together and was using the space in between as a quick place to stash her books, a flashlight, tissues, and so on. However, she cleared all of that out and I started sleeping down there, which helped.

A little.

There were many nights when I would wake from a dead sleep in a panic and watch her closely to make sure she was still breathing. More than once, I ran upstairs and woke my sleeping aunt in tears, afraid that my grandmother had died.


My therapist and I also think that this whole attachment thing is the reason I experience love (and most other positive emotions) cerebrally rather than in a true emotional sense. I can’t process those feelings anymore. It’s not that I don’t want to, or that I don’t try. I just can’t access that part of myself and it’s been decades since I last could. I am, in essence, a little bit dead inside.

Our hope is that by filling this gap, by finding the missing pieces that are hidden under the fridge, behind the bookshelf, between the cushions of the couch, I will be able to begin healing and connect my head with my heart. That has always been one of my primary treatment goals. I want to be fully present. I want to feel things instead of having a general awareness that I’m having feelings (and sometimes having brief flickers of actual feelings).

I want that block gone, and I’ll pay just about any price. I’ve lived too long with my head down, shouldering through every obstacle, focused only on getting to the next checkpoint. I’m tired of surviving. I want to live. If my quality of life has to momentarily suffer for that to happen, I can live with that.

For the greater good, right?

Right?

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.

 

Dichotomy

anxiety, ptsd

Is it possible to simultaneously be the most troubled and the most well-adjusted person you know? The deeper I go into my counseling program, the more this question pops into my mind. On the one hand, my demons are legion. On the other, I keep them very well-controlled and they all have little color-coordinated leashes.

Am I well-adjusted because I have to be? Does being well-adjusted look the same, or mean the same thing, for people who have backbreaking loads of trauma and those who don’t?

I used to worry a lot about whether my personal mental health history meant that I can’t be a therapist. I still worry about that, though thankfully not as much. Tonight in class, we were discussing self-disclosure and one of my classmates brought up that exact question–how are our clients supposed to trust us if they know we have our own set of problems?

I guess it’s one of those situations where what you have doesn’t matter as much as how you handle it. I get up every day and even though I do a fair amount of yelling at the intrusive negative thoughts, I still manage to accomplish everything on my to-do list. (Well…most things, anyway. I’m human.)

This has been on my mind for most of the day today, probably because I had intake with my new therapist yesterday and was thinking about the wall between my thoughts and feelings. I depend so heavily on that wall to keep it together, and I’m a bit worried–or, okay, a lot worried–that once I start really delving into the trauma and trying to merge my thoughts and feelings that there will be this monumental change and I’ll basically fall apart. I can’t remember the last time I was able to feel an emotion on an actual deep, meaningful, emotional level for more than a flash before cognition takes over and the brain reasserts control over the “heart.”

I know that’s unrealistic and that no one can do a total 180 in terms of functioning, but the unknowns are scary. As horrible as it is to know certain emotional things but not be able to feel them…better the devil you know than the devil you don’t, right?

I haven’t had self-doubt like this in quite a while, but getting the thoughts down on this little blog has helped a bit. It’s funny how writing about your troubles takes away some of their power, isn’t it? I’m also going to hit the self-care pretty hard tonight because tomorrow I have a phone interview with another prospective internship site–yay! That search is pretty terrifying, but I have a good feeling about the last couple of sites I’ve contacted, so fingers crossed.

Until next time, readers, remember to take good care of yourselves. I will, too.

 

The Cycle of Abuse

abuse, ptsd, relationships

Last night, I had the privilege of counseling a young woman named Jane (not her real name). Without giving too much away, Jane’s fiance had recently been abusive toward her and she was wondering what to do. They’d been together for several years and this was, she said, only the third time something of this magnitude had happened. We talked for a little over an hour and she asked me several times what I would do in her situation.

I told her that only she could make that decision, but we explored her support networks (friends, family, and so on). She said she doesn’t feel comfortable telling them about what’s been going on because she wants her friends to like her fiance and, in her words, she wants everyone to get along. She wants the abuse to end, not the relationship, which is not an uncommon sentiment.

This got me thinking about my own experiences with relationship abuse and, by extension, the cycle of abuse. My fiance and I spent some time discussing the cycle of abuse after my shift had ended; I don’t often identify strongly with my texters, let alone experience such a visceral reaction to their stories, but my conversation with Jane really got to me.

My fella stated he doesn’t quite understand why victims of abuse stay with their abusers, so this morning we had a follow-up conversation about the cycle of abuse (pictured below).

Cycle-of-Abuse.png

Source

I explained to him, using my own experiences, how someone can end up so thoroughly entangled in the messy web that is an abusive relationship. The concept was so utterly foreign to him that he’d never given much thought to it, and we had a very productive and healing (for me) dialogue about it.

At the Risk! live show in Milwaukee in November 2015, I spoke about my relationship with “Chad,” which was profoundly abusive in every way and lasted from when I was seventeen to age nineteen, when I had a moment of clarity and decided I was too young to live that way anymore.

In the beginning, there’s the “honeymoon” period. The exact length of this period varies from person to person; in my case, things were dysfunctional from the very start, but I also grew up in a fundamentally dysfunctional family and was already carrying around over a decade of trauma from my childhood. To this day, I believe that those early experiences led me into the relationship.

I’m not blaming my family at all–I was loved and cared for, though there were some serious problems (mostly stemming from witnessing my mother’s own abusive relationships and later, her internment in a state correctional facility). However, early relationship modeling is profoundly important when it comes to developing a lovemap (a person’s view of an ideal relationship or partner), and I simply didn’t witness any functional, respectful romantic relationships when I was growing up.

Back to the story. You can listen to my Risk! story here for a more in-depth description of the abuse–obviously, the content may trigger some people, so please listen at your own discretion.

My “honeymoon” period with Chad–that period where the excitement of a new relationship is especially intense–lasted only a few months before the emotional and verbal abuse began. He never trusted me around other men; even being friendly and occasionally chatting with coworkers was a cause for suspicion and accusations of cheating (which I later learned was him projecting his own behavior onto me).

As this was my first “real” relationship where I actually cared deeply for and trusted my partner, his words were incredibly damaging. Deep down, I knew how wrong this was, but my self esteem had already been so low when I entered the relationship that I didn’t think I deserved better. I remember crying a lot in those days. After a while, I just went numb.

I can’t even remember how many times we broke up and got back together over the course of those two hellish years. Every time, I begged for him to come back. He apologized, albeit in the “I’m sorry, but you made me ____” way that is so typical of abusers.

One time, we were having our reconciliation in the basement of my grandmother’s house, where I grew up and lived until age 20. We were sitting on a couch taken from my great aunt’s house when she moved in with us, and I remember him brushing my hair away from my face as I cried and apologized over and over again. I had no idea why I was even saying “I’m sorry.”

He looked into my face and said, “You have the most beautiful eyes. They’re like glaciers, and when you cry, those glaciers melt.” I will never forget those words. I knew how messed up the whole thing was, but all I felt in that moment was relief–relief that he had taken me back, broken as I was, and relief that I had someone who truly cared about me (although I suspect some part of me knew that this was nothing like “love” was supposed to be).

We went back into the honeymoon period, and then the whole mess repeated itself. Over and over and over.

In May of 2008, when I was nineteen, there was a huge thunderstorm. The power went out and I was sitting on the floor of my bedroom, back propped against my bed, looking into a candle. At that moment, for no particular reason, I decided that I didn’t want to live like this.

I went into my aunt’s bedroom, which was across the hall from mine, sat down on her bed, and said, “I don’t think I want to be with Chad anymore.”

She looked up from her book, patted my hand, and said, “That’s okay.”

He was on his way home from his cousin’s graduation when I called him. I broke it off and actually told him verbatim that he’d been abusive to me. He freaked out and accused me of being the abusive one. Other words were exchanged, but the point of the story is that I finally broke it off.

In the weeks and months that followed, he blew up my phone with apologies, claimed that he was going to hurt himself, and eventually threatened suicide a few times. I responded by calling his parents and telling them what was up. He never bothered me again.

But I still feel those effects like an aftershock to this day. They don’t come knocking often, but when they do, I instantly feel like that sad teenage girl who was so lost and frightened and desperate for love that she stayed with a profoundly abusive man for two years. Two years.

I don’t view that period of time as a “waste” or anything similar. I learned a lot about myself and after it ended, I found a level of freedom and, for lack of a better word, lightness that I had never before experienced.

I plunged headlong into a less abusive but highly dysfunctional relationship only a few months later which culminated in a desperately unhappy marriage. My divorce was finalized in October 2015 after nearly two years of emotional estrangement (we were, for all intents and purposes, broken up but were stuck living together for financial reasons).

I still say that the divorce was the best thing that ever happened to me.

I met a great guy, got into my first relationship that was truly loving and respectful, and got into graduate school. I am now a student at Johns Hopkins and am engaged to said fella–we’re going to get hitched next November!

The point is, readers, that it can take a while. As depressing as it sounds, your first abusive relationship may not be your last. The patterns we learn from being abused “stick,” often in insidious ways. It’s not uncommon to be totally unaware of the lasting effects of the abuse. If anyone has a statistic for this, I would love to see it–for some reason, I’m unable to find the actual percentage of abuse survivors who end up with another abuser.

In my case, I thought I was totally fine–a newly single, empowered woman who had survived something terrible. In reality, I had not given myself enough time to process and heal, which led me into another unhealthy relationship because I was afraid of being alone.

LoveIsRespect.org is one of my all-time favorite resources for abusive relationships. The website provides a chat, warning signs that your relationship may be abusive, and a quiz, among other information that can help you (or a loved one) escape an abusive relationship.

Until next time, readers, stay safe and lovely. And most importantly, remember to be kind to yourselves.

28.

Authoress, ptsd, three hopeful thoughts

Today is my 28th birthday. I generally don’t put much stock in them–it’s just another day when you get past a certain age, in my opinion. But my fella made today really special (breakfast and a mini scavenger hunt to my gift!), so it’s the best birthday I can remember.

Birthdays are significant to me for one reason: they’re proof that I’m still alive. It might seem silly to most people, but as quite a few of you know, those of us afflicted with PTSD tend to also be plagued by the belief that we’re just not going to live very long.

For me, this feeling of dread started when I was in my mid-teens. I thought I wouldn’t make it to sixteen, then nineteen, then twenty-one…and here I am at twenty-eight, having endured three lifetimes worth of horror and survived it all. Every year on this date, I take a moment to marvel at that.

It’s kind of incredible. And you, my readers–all of you–are incredible for hanging on and being alive. Remember that when the bleakness starts to press close and you feel like you’re buried above ground. You are still here, and you should be so proud of that.

Until next time, readers, stay safe and lovely.

 

News Day Tuesday: Childhood Mental Illness

News Day Tuesday, ptsd, rapid-cycle bipolar disorder, relationships, stigma

Good afternoon, readers! This week, I’m featuring an article from NPR related to the early detection of mental illness in children. Child psychologist Rahil Briggs states that half of all children show signs of mental illness before age 14.

On a personal note, I began experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder around age seven or eight. My mother had gone to prison when I was six years old, and I went twice a month to visit her at the correctional facility that was several hours from my home. By this point, nightmares were a common occurrence–I’d had them regularly since age five–so my guardian and other relatives didn’t think much of it when the frequency increased slightly after these visits began. There was some talk of finding a therapist for me, but the idea was abandoned.

One of the earliest memories I have of PTSD-related symptoms was one night when I was attempting to play chess with my aunt in the basement of my grandmother’s home, where I lived for the majority of my childhood and adolescence. I began to feel odd, detached from my own body and my surroundings. I remember saying to my aunt, “Do you ever feel like you’re in a dream?” because that was the only way I could describe it at the time.

She had no idea what I was talking about and gave me a strange look, a reaction for which I can’t exactly blame her–if I weren’t “in the know” about the symptoms of PTSD, I would have found such a statement very strange.

As a child, I was generally calm and reserved, but I did occasionally “act out.” I would get panicky and anxious, a tiny ball of pent-up energy and what I can only describe as rage at nothing in particular. That energy had nowhere to go, so it was directed inward, causing lasting damage before finally exploding outward. I would storm around the house in a dark mood, only to erupt moments later in a fit of crying so intense I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

My family was helpless to help me because they didn’t understand–or perhaps didn’t want to accept–the reality of what was happening to me. Bipolar disorder, which has spread throughout the family tree like Spanish moss, was beginning to wreak havoc on my still-developing brain.

Childhood mental illness is a tricky subject. It’s hard to recognize, and it’s terrifying, both for the sufferer and the child’s loved ones. It can strike anyone at any time, regardless of socioeconomic class or education level or how strong the family’s ties are. Therefore, it’s especially important for parents to remember and impress upon their children that it is an illness like any other and is not a moral or character judgment. It is not evidence of parental failings or proof that the child has not been loved enough. It simply is, and the earlier it is detected, the earlier treatment and healing can begin.

Did you start showing signs of mental illness in childhood, readers? How did your family/caregivers react?


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