This piece is part of our Darkest Day series, a collection of stories from people who’ve made it through the worst of their illness and now light the way for others.
Images flash back through my mind.
I am locked in a dark office in the corner of another locked room during a free class period of the high school day. I’m balanced precariously on the edge of a desk with my legs wrapped around his body, the bulge in his pants gyrating in the crook between my legs. My mind wanders and eventually lands on my aching muscles, my trembling arms and legs. They’re not going to hold much longer.
He is standing fully clothed, his usual beat-up brown loafers planted on the floor. I smell his Cheer-washed dress shirt and Dial soap-scrubbed skin. His Docker’s are hemmed a couple inches too short. He is 43. I am 17. Those loafers rise and fall off the floor with every thrust of his crotch into me, the friction of fabric on fabric a barely noticeable sensation. All my attention focuses on my awkward position on this desk — my muscles ache and burn in protest.
He grinds away, oblivious in ecstasy, his face turned upwards, making those moaning sounds. Finally, my body overrides my mental willpower to stay upright and my muscles collapse. I start to fall off the desk, headed toward the floor, before he catches me and props me back on the desk.
Other memories follow.
My first kiss is stolen away behind the beat-up upright piano. There’s nothing romantic about it. He pushes into my face until it hurts.
I am yanked out of a shower like a puppet and thrown on top of some towels on the hotel bathroom floor. His naked pelvis grinds on my back until he finishes.
I lie on the gray sleeping bag fully clothed while he looms overhead. With him on top of me I am suffocating. I can’t breathe.
Flash forward nearly 15 years.
I can’t breathe. I sit on the edge of the tub in the bathroom, a plastic bag tight over my head. I only realize my predicament when my diaphragm starts spasming from the lack of oxygen.
I don’t remember how I got there, on the edge of the tub, trying to suffocate myself out of existence. My mind is blank, save for getting home from work several hours earlier. It’s not a surprise I find myself in this position, nor is it unusual at this point. I don’t look forward to reporting this incident to my therapist, again.
My therapist says I have PTSD, and the two therapists before her agreed. According to the National Center for PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder includes four categories of symptoms, including reliving the event, avoiding situations that remind you of the event, having more negative beliefs in general, and feeling “keyed up.”
I experience all of these, and they were what got me into therapy in the first place. I can’t point to a specific moment that spurred me to action, but I know something isn’t right, that I shouldn’t feel the way I do. I am supposed to want to live. Something in me wants to survive, so despite my general hopelessness I try to find professional help. It’s either that or die, really. I cycle through 10 therapists, quitting and starting over each time, before I find one who understands what happened to me and who can really help.
When I start therapy with my current therapist, I think I handle my symptoms pretty well — I hold down a job, put on a good face for friends and family, and generally keep functioning.
Yet this notion quickly unravels as we discover my anxiety runs sky-high. I frequently feel like nothing is real, like I live in a movie. I dissociate and there’s a lot I avoid. I self-injure away any overwhelming feelings, which is most of them. I can barely shower regularly, and I eat only french fries and cookies for lunch and dinner, respectively. I avoid people and stay in my apartment as much as possible. I don’t plan on living past 30.
This combination eventually lands me in the hospital at the strong urging of my therapist, a trauma recovery program that proves to be a turning point. It sets me at position “zero” on my recovery journey. This is an improvement from the constant drowning sensation of my prehospital existence.
Not only do I learn about PTSD and skills to manage my mental illness, I meet other people like me at various stages of recovery. From them, I realize I want to learn to be close to people again, to feel present, to live my whole life. I want to escape the shadow of sexual abuse and the resulting PTSD.
Despite my general impatience, this does not happen overnight. After leaving the hospital, I still struggle with suicidality and self-injury. The problem is the anxiety and overwhelm, that feeling of being “keyed up,” or as my therapist would say, my alarm system going off all the time.
At the time of a traumatic event, the body and brain go into survival mode, cutting off emotions and memories automatically, without any thought on the part of the victim. These defenses are baked into the very physiology of what it means to be a living animal. That doesn’t mean the fear, sadness, pain, terror, anger, rage, or helplessness disappear, even if we can’t feel them in the moment. They’re only stored for processing when we’re safe.
When trauma reoccurs or isn’t fully processed after the event, PTSD is often the result. To heal, those memories frozen in temporary storage need to be moved through the body and brain to bring us back to equilibrium. It takes time to be ready to do this. In fact, most people aren’t ready until 15 to 30 years later. It’s not a small thing. This is why short statutes of limitations are cruel to victims — when they are finally ready to deal with the trauma, their recourse in court is already long over. Lucky for the offenders.
Many of my feelings are old, I learn, and as I begin to thaw, these will come to the surface and look like the truth. Really, they’re just echos from the past, emotions that were never felt, suspended in time until I could handle them. I have a hard time getting used to this, because they feel so real. PTSD makes it hard to tell the past from the present.
Eventually I am strong enough to give up suicide, and later self-injury. I commit to never putting another plastic bag over my head again. I find the courage to face the past without these old tools, trying to create new neural pathways in my brain that will steer me clear of PTSD. The progress is slow, but I start to gain traction, start to learn I can handle my emotions, that I can recover. There is maybe hope after all.
There’s a before trauma and an after trauma. I will never be the same person as before. My meditation teacher agrees: “No, nothing is ever the same after trauma.” She says it so simply and with so much acceptance. I want to find that much acceptance for myself, for my past, present, and future. I will never be the same person, but I potentially have my whole life ahead of me. I’ve let my abuser take up space for too long. I am not going to give him another minute.
As the clock ticks past the 15-year mark since the abuse started, I’m learning to appreciate how my PTSD symptoms are tied to my survival, from the dissociation, feeling unreal, extreme anxiety, and even the self-injury. This knowledge does not make recovery easier, but it helps me be a little more patient with myself when I don’t feel up to socializing like my friends do, or I have days when I am too tired to get out of bed.
While I have made progress, with no small thanks to my killer support team, there’s still a lot of work to do. But I look forward to the day when these old memories no longer cause a five-alarm emotional meltdown that can last days. I know my life will be mine again, my PTSD symptoms will lessen and these old stories will be just that — stories.