Graphic of a woman with symbols of trauma around her head and body.

PTSD

changing the message

How different would my life have been if after the first time I was raped my parents wrapped their arms around me and told me that I was precious to them? What if they had said they were so happy to have me home again and that all they wanted to do was love and support me? What if they had told me that they were so sorry about what had happened and that they were thankful I was alive and would do everything possible to protect me in the future?

Well, none of that happened. I was shuttled into the psych ward at Duke Hospital and I was evaluated for any possible health issues that might have made me do something like running away, such as epilepsy. Anything but look at the truth. I was fortunate to be in the care of the assistant to the head of the department at that time. I was unfortunate in that at that time, PTSD had not yet been associated with rape victims. This meant that my PTSD was left untreated until many years later. As we now know, left untreated, PTSD has many symptoms with resulting behaviors that can be detrimental in varying degrees.

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Good-bye cruel world

Emotions are tricky things. They are the epicenter of our personas, inform us, and propel us into some type of reaction. In the absence of trauma, that might look something like this:

              Action:                A child is yelled at by a parent for misbehavior.

              Reaction:            A child becomes afraid and cries.

              Action:                Children at school taunt a child.

              Reaction:            Child cries and reports to an adult.

When I was raped the first time, I fought, threatened, screamed, and cried. Nothing I did stopped that rape from going on for hours. At some point, I gave up. I retreated into my mind, closed my eyes, and waited for oblivion. I wanted to go away from myself. I succeeded. I stopped feeling anything and waited for it to end. I accepted what was happening and whatever would happen. I had left this cruel world.

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blank-it!

I had been very sheltered and protected for most of my early childhood. I did not have an understanding of badness in the world or that any harm would befall me. I had also not had an encounter with anyone that meant to sexually abuse me nor any inkling of what that term meant. What was sex? I had no clue.

After my inability to escape my original rapists, nor to have anyone rescue me, I had accepted my fate. I had no choice. That traumatic event became my new understanding of my place in the world. There were people in this world that wanted my body and cared nothing for any mutual feelings or any agreement. They could and would dominate me, I could scream, cry, and threaten, and nothing would stop the violation of my body. My young age mattered to no one. This was my new landscape and I had no idea how to navigate.

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runaway

If you have not heard of the fight-or-flight response, technically it has to do with the nervous system and adrenaline. It’s triggered by stress or the perception that you are in danger. Having chronic PTSD left me in a constant state of fight-or-flight. It is just as it sounds. In any given situation, when you feel stressed or scared you could either fight your way through it or run from it. How this translated in my life took various forms.

As a teen, I constantly felt that I was in a dangerous environment. My reality had shifted so dramatically, Whatever capability to form judgement had been disrupted and I no longer knew where I was protected. I had no safe ground. I ran. I ran away.

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scrambled

After being raped and living with trauma after trauma as a young adolescent, the wires that had previously connected in my brain went quite loose. Some of them disconnected altogether. I am not a neuroscientist so can not speak expertly on exactly on what happens to the brain – though I have read many studies on the topic – but I can speak expertly on how severe and repeated trauma affected me.

Initially, my ability to make decisions for myself was nonexistent. I was quite young the first time I was raped (14 years of age) and had no experience with taking care of myself. I was too young to work and support myself and had no idea how to do that in any case. I was afraid of everything and in so much pain that I could have either been catatonic or run away from everyone and everything. I chose the latter which did nothing but put me into more traumatizing situations. I had no safe haven.

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anger

The first emotion that I was able to connect to was anger. It was an easy emotion to identify and hang onto. For me, at least it was some feeling that got through all my numbness. I could be angry instead of hurt. I could be angry instead of scared. I was, and am, very good at being angry.

My anger took various forms, primarily passive and open aggression. I managed neither of these in a healthy manner with the exception that I was able to keep myself from crossing the threshold to striking out physically to myself or others. I did strike out in other ways.

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avoiding and accepting pain

Avoiding the depths of pain that trauma brought to me played havoc with my life. I was a child and did not know how to articulate what had happened. The shock that came with the sexual assault and violation I endured obliterated my ability to identify what I was feeling. I sank under the tide of emotion into shame and silence. I stayed there for years though I endured several more rapes during that time. Ignoring my emotions became a comfortable habit of pretending everything was “ok”.

I never cried. After all, screaming and crying had not helped me during my first rape. Why should I expect it would help following that? Help did not come that night nor during the several years following. I became numb. I learned how to compartmentalize my life and shut some of those compartments away entirely.

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