It’s morning. You should be waking up refreshed, ready to start your day. But not me. Instead, I usually have to go downstairs, open the linen closet doors and grab a towel to dry myself off.
Did I just work out? No. I woke up like this —literally.
What I’m talking about here isn’t pretty. It’s the opposite, in fact. What I’m getting at is something called PTSD.
Most mornings, I wake up drenched in my own sweat. Why? Because I have nightmares that are so severe, they cause physical bodily symptoms. The scenes rolling around in my head, all appear concurrently as soon as I start dreaming.
So I close my eyes or in this case, hit play, and it all comes flooding back like I’m still there. Somewhere else inside, I know I’m safe. But when that stuff manifests into those damn symptoms, I can’t help but relive everything all over again. And it hurts. It feels weird —like really weird.
At times, it’s hard to string together the right words to properly express how I feel, but you won’t see me stop.
I carry on despite the fact that I was raped.
Yeah, I said it. I can’t tell you how many times my mind has uttered those words basically on a loop ever since. There are moments, even today, where I literally have to stop whatever it is I’m doing because it’s all just too much to handle.
It’s because those nightmares are in fact, real events that I somehow participated in. As a result, I don’t have to be sleeping to watch them. It just doesn’t feel like that was me. For a while, I even thought it was my fault. I mean, I was no angel. In fact, I was literally the opposite. So in a way, my actions inevitably lead me to him.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t just one instance.
For the record though, I said no every single time. But I was a vulnerable addict, chemically chained to whoever had the pills my body literally needed —drugs my mind craved. So yeah, I was hanging with people who wanted to take advantage of a pretty little girl. I was hanging out in places I wouldn’t have otherwise gone.
So in a way, I made it easy for him. I mean, he literally fed me lies as much as he fed me pills. And then he’d get on top of me. He’d push me down and wouldn’t budge. If I tried to move, he’d hurt me. So yeah, that’s intense stuff. Forcible rape doesn’t ever really leave you. In fact, it changes you. It changed me from the inside out. It’s just, I never thought this would be me. I never imagined any of this.
But there I was. Here I am.
I know I’ve talked about these events in previous blog posts (Rock Bottom, Rape Culture & Recovery: Remember, When Things Seem Too Good To Be True, They Usually Are + Blurred Lines & Hard Times: How the After Math of My Second Rock-Bottom Ultimately Drove Me Further into the Ground), but what about right here, right now? Like how does all of this, affect the girl I am today? Because like I already said that stuff doesn’t just go away.
So if you’re wondering like all of the above, that’s exactly why I’m here right now. Ready or not, I’m about to answer six intimate questions about what it’s like living through a sexual trauma —five years after the fact. Because Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) isn’t just for war vets. Because even though I’m OK now, my addiction from five years ago still impacts my new normal today.
You’re about to find out that I’m not the only one and neither are you.
1. Q: Do a lot of people get PTSD after surviving a sexual assault?
A: Yes. Scholars at Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health detail that the development of PTSD is likely found in 50 to 95 percent of all reported rape cases —reported being the key word here.
Most of the time, the crime goes undocumented because there’s an ugly stigma attached to being raped, which can derail the survivor from coming forward. I can attest to that. I felt dirty and gross. I didn’t think anyone would believe me. It was (and still is) my word against his, after all. And, I was literally the boy who cried wolf. So yeah, I blamed myself too.
But now I know just how common all of this is —because it’s shockingly prevalent.
I also know that it can make you feel like you’re all alone in this sick cold world but you’re not —not even close. I say this firmly because according to the CDC, nearly 1 in 5 American women are raped or sexually assaulted at one point in their lives. And it’s usually by someone they know and trust. I mean, that’s exactly what happened to me.
2. Q: It’s like, yeah —I made it out alive but now what? Seriously. Now what?
A: At times, the aftermath of sexual trauma can be almost as worse as the act itself. I say that because its impact goes far beyond any physical injuries. When you’ve been raped, nothing is safe anymore. I mean, I didn’t trust anyone for a very long time —including myself. I questioned everything.
Relationships feel dangerous, intimacy can seem impossible. And on top of PTSD, you may —like many —battle with other mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. So yeah. Your “now what” definitely deserves some freaking merit.
The best piece of advice I can give you is to open up.
Find a trusted ally and talk. If it feels funny to speak these unspeakable acts out loud, say it anyway. I promise you, that someone will listen. But it’s not for them. It’s for you. Like when I talk about it, I feel a physical weight lift from my chest. My negative filled loops vanish. The flashes go away. My anxiety subsides. And I may even smile.
I know it may seem easier to downplay whatever happened or keep it a secret. Except, when you stay silent, you’re only denying yourself the help you deserve. The help, anyone after a sexual trauma needs. We’re only as sick as our secrets. And when we let them out, we’re free. I said, free people.
I mean, that’s literally why I have the word “freedom” tattooed on the back of my neck.
3. Q: What does PTSD from a sexual trauma actually feel like?
A: According to Women’s Health Magazine online, “PTSD typically takes the form of nightmares, flashbacks, and feelings of guilt and shame that can surface right away or years after a trauma.” For me, all of that is true. I have nightmares, flashbacks, as well as feeling of guilt and shame, but there’s more. In my case, more takes the form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which I think my brain uses as a defensive mechanism.
For instance, if I hear someone say a certain phrase or I hear a certain song —all of a sudden, I’m triggered. Those nightmares, flashbacks, and feelings of guilt and shame come flooding in. I can’t control it. I can’t control anything. A few seconds go by and, it all seems totally out of control as the intrusive thoughts grow louder. In short, everything is a freaking a mess —physically and figuratively. I hate being trigged but it does, in fact, creep up.
4. Q: When you are triggered, what goes through your head?
A: Like when the items around me —my perfectly arranged belongings sitting in the room that I just cleaned this morning suddenly seem disgusting, therefore, I’m disgusting. It’s like my entire world is crumbling with every piece of dust I see. But it’s not even about being messy or clean because everything is perfectly organized. It’s about why my brain does this because there is, in fact, a reason.
I mean, when I’m triggered, it’s the same thing every time.
I don’t know when it’ll happen but chances are those nightmares, flashbacks, and bad feelings will eventually come back. I know this. My brain knows this. As a result, when that finally transpires, instead of going back there, I internally freak out about whatever is in front of me.
As the dirt and disorganization enter my view, my head spins and I feel overwhelmed —overwhelmed to the point of a panic attack. I usually fall to the ground. I have to put my hands over my head and remember to breathe. It’s actually really hard to describe what takes place during one of my OCD freakouts, but like I said, you won’t see me stop.
5. Q: What do you do when something like that happens?
A: There’s a quote I heard nearly a decade ago. It says that in the end, everything will be OK. If it’s not OK, it’s not the end. So yeah, sometimes, I literally fall to the floor. I sit in the fetal position or Indian style and meditate. I stop. I tell myself that everything is OK. This too shall pass. Nothing is actually wrong, Macey. It’s all in your head. Everything is clean and you don’t have to worry about a thing.
Then, I breathe.
Sometimes, I leave the room. I’ll go to my happy place a.k.a. the downstairs bathroom. I’ll splash some water on my face. I’ll brush my hair and teeth and just sit. I usually put on some music too, which helps my brain and I relax.
A few minutes later, when I’ve gathered my composure, I’ll take a few more deep breathes and return to whatever it is I was doing. And when I do come back, guess what? I realize that the room is, in fact, perfectly clean.
Everything was fine. Everything is fine.
6. Q: What last piece of advice can you offer to anyone recovering from sexual trauma?
A: After my attacks, my need to escape definitely grew stronger. I was still addicted back then when this all went down. As a result, it definitely drove me further into the ground. I found it hard to do anything and any hint of intimacy caused paralyzing flashbacks. So I took more and more pills to shut out the noise. I just wanted to forget.
But I can’t forget because it happened. No amount of pills or drugs can take that reality away. I later found out (in therapy) that my reaction was caused by a biological vortex. In the days and weeks following any sexual trauma, the body is flooded with stress hormones that trigger this fight-or-flight response that can disrupt sleep and cause those to pull back from the ones they love. I often felt like I had to be on high alert. I was never able to fully relax.
Except, I had to learn that all of these feelings are normal parts of the healing process.
More often than not, that healing process gets stalled. Reminders of the assault such as day-to-day activities can spark negative thoughts. But it’s what you do with those thoughts after. If you try to avoid them —chances are, it’ll lead to PTSD. So get it out. Get it all out. Whether that means physically talking or simply writing about it.
Don’t keep it in like I did. For me, before I healed, I’d sit in my room and cry but I wouldn’t tell anyone or say why. It wasn’t until I started talking and writing about it that it stopped affecting my life. I took away its power. So yeah, it still does manifest in other ways but it’s so much easier to deal with today. And each survivor will react to sexual violence differently.
So go at your own pace. Things like personal style, culture, and context may influence these reactions. Some may want to express their emotions while others prefer to keep everything inside. Some may talk about it right away, while others will wait weeks, months, or even years before discussing the assault —if they choose to do so at all.
But I suggest you do it sooner rather than later.
There is solace in breaking our silence. A strength of spirit when sharing our truth. It all starts with the choice to live on the other side of victimhood. And it still makes me sad. All of it does, but in a strange way, it bonds us all together. Because you’re not a victim for sharing your story.
You are a survivor setting the world on fire with your truth. And you never know who needs your light, warmth and raging courage. Because today, five years after the fact —I feel so much stronger than I ever have before. I’m putting the cold nights behind me so I can open a new door. Who’s with me? I hope you say yes.
If you can relate to any of this, you may have PTSD. Most of the time, people don’t understand that what they are experiencing is, in fact, an actual disorder. So please, if you or someone you know has been affected by sexual abuse, there are free resources you can take advantage of —besides messaging me, which all of you can do anytime.
What I’m getting at is a confidential, 24/7 organization for one-on-one crisis support called the National Sexual Assault Hotline. Simply call 1-800-656-HOPE or chat online. These assets are here for a reason.
Originally published at waytomuchtoosay.wordpress.com