Today, we talk about PTSD.
I am literally roused out of my sleep to write this, so here we are.
I was never an anxious person. While I struggled with depression at a young age, I never had a panic attack until after I was sexually assaulted as an adult. Now I have a panic attack at least once a year.
It's hard to know what will trigger an attack. It used to be any association with someone who was in some way related to the situation - a text, a social media comment - would send me mentally and emotionally back to that night.
It can be the time of year. My body remembers when it happened. Every year around that time, the emotions swell up like a tidal wave waiting to sweep me under with its torrential and inevitable power.
It can be an intimate touch, even by a trusted partner. The risk definitely runs higher if the partner is more casual and therefore no trust has been established.
But let's go back.
As a survivor, I have often tried to downplay what happened to me in my own mind. This is a subconscious survival mechanism many survivors experience post-assault. But the body doesn't lie.
In the days that followed my assault, I was staying at a friend's house so I wouldn't be alone, and she would remind me in my moments of denial of how she had never seen me in such a state. She described me as "zombie-like".
I was in shock.
After the shock came the nightmares. Not necessarily reliving the assault in my sleep, but I often had dreams of monsters, inescapable shadows, and bloody violence in my dreams. In my 20s, I bought my first nightlight. It took me over a month before I could sleep in the dark again.
It took me over a year before I could be intimate with anyone without crying. One of my first dates after my assault, I opted to stay at this man's house because I didn't want to be alone. I woke up to him taking off my clothes and trying to perform oral sex on me while I slept. We had barely kissed on the date. I ran to the bathroom, locked myself inside, and bawled for an hour. I actually apologized for this later, which now seems absolutely absurd.
My most recent full-fledged panic attack happened less than six months ago with my last partner. I had been very verbal about not wanting to have sex for a while, but once we were fooling around, he disregarded my words and entered me. It could have been miscommunication, but either way, I lost it. I started crying. I couldn't breathe. He got offended when I didn't let him comfort me. As I was fighting to breathe, I also had to comfort him to save my relationship that day.
Even as we are re-traumatized through the symptoms of PTSD and the aftershocks of assault, we often still have to protect the ones closest to us. The ones who maybe set off the attacks. The people we don't call because we don't want to alarm them or burden them.
We are still protecting those around us, when we want more than anything to feel safe ourselves.
These days, I feel really anxious if people get too close to me, in my face at all. Sometimes I see a man who looks like him, and it will throw my entire day off. I avoid small spaces, and big crowds.
I am always looking for the escape route, and often drive myself to events so I have the power to leave if and when I need to, and can control how and when I leave.
We never know when the PTSD will hit. What will trigger it. Some of us know our triggers, some of us haven't identified all of them, yet. But even knowing our triggers doesn't necessarily mean we can avoid them.
How then, will we ever feel safe again?
I don't have a clear answer to that, yet. But with time, with therapy, and with trusted people around us, we can begin to live normal lives again. Lives that aren't plagued by PTSD. Slowly but surely, anxiety is working its way out of my system.
We just have to believe and have hope that, even though the memories may last a lifetime, the PTSD won't.
**If you are a survivor of sexual assault, it was not your fault, and you are not alone. The resource that helped me the most was RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network). I used their hotline and their chat services several times in the aftermath of my assault, as well as their wealth of articles and information on what to expect as a survivor. It was not your fault, and you are not alone.
All my love,