Student of Life (continued)

 

I had been placed in a mental ward at a hospital at 14 for five and a half weeks after having been gang raped. The psychiatrist that met with me daily was the assistant to the head of the psychiatric department. She administered medication initially that, at first, was too strong and left me semi-comatose. She thought at that time that I was avoiding her. I just couldn’t wake up to even tell her it was too much. Finally, in one of our meetings, I was able to get it out. She immediately changed my medication and I was able to stay awake.

My parents had me tested and examined for epilepsy as they had heard that this might have caused me to run away. Anything but look at any real issues. Though it was recommended that they also go into therapy, my father refused and that was the end of it. He stated then and maintains to this day that it was my issue and my problem.

Simultaneously with therapy at the hospital, my parents were trying to convince me to leave, come home, and return to school. I didn’t want to go home. That is where the problems were. However, I was finally given no choice. A few months later, I had an episode where I had taken too many pills that I had found in my parents’ medicine cabinet. They thought I was trying to kill myself. I just wanted an escape. I was returned to the psychiatric ward for the weekend but didn’t want to stay this time. I met with my psychiatrist while there and she deemed me “ok” to return to home and school.

I was very convincing in those days and, given that professionals did not know what to look for in any case, I was able to pass as being in good mental health. I was not and wouldn’t be for a very long time. People will see what they want to see. I recognized this and learned to exploit it very early on.

As an adult, I continued to seek therapy periodically but not much had changed. I had learned to act in an acceptable fashion with society so as not to raise any alarms. I often sabotaged myself with contradictory behaviors, but it was not enough to trigger any recognition by any professionals or even those in my life that should have known. For my family, their attitude had long taken on the “there she goes again” attitude and had written me off as troublesome and problematic.

Rape Crisis Center

Decades later, I had found a rape crisis center that was functioning and had a support group that I could join. In the first meeting, everyone introduced themselves. I had a career at that point and had risen to a senior management position. I looked the part and came across as polished and professional. As we went around the room, I introduced myself and shared the experiences of sexual assault / violence that had brought me there. At that point, many had already introduced themselves and the group had been friendly and supportive to everyone. There were two young women there that were observing as part of their college program. After I had introduced myself, I looked up and around the group expecting the same type of friendly and supportive reception. Everyone was in shock. The silence was deafening. The two young women were green, literally, and looked as though they might vomit at any moment.

That was a breakthrough moment for me. The past that everyone had normalized and convinced me that I should ignore came crashing around me. I was anything but the typical professional persona that I portrayed, and not long after that realization I had my first nervous breakdown.

I found another therapist. It was difficult and has been difficult. While there are any number of available therapists that have a focus on stress and anxiety, I have found that there are very few that have an educated background on sexual assault. When I am lucky enough to find them, they often do not have availability. That has been and continues to be my experience.

Scream Therapy

At this time, following my nervous breakdown, I was unable to work and immediately took a leave of absence. I found a few books on sexual assault and cried every day while I read them. I found a therapist that had a focus on anxiety. She told me about a program that might be of interest. It was scream therapy. I would not have been able to handle this as a child, clearly, and it was not attractive to me at that time. I was a bit afraid of it, to be honest. However, I was desperate and had an interview with a counselor there. I was accepted into the program.

This was my first experience with group support and my first experience with scream therapy. The focus was on speaking to traumatic experiences, and then screaming out the emotions you were experiencing as a result. I just listened in the first session and it was scary to think that I would have to do this. I knew I needed help and I was so tired of carrying everything around with me. The biggest hurdle for me was identifying my own emotions. The emotion that was easiest was anger. Anger is easy to accept and understand. Shouldn’t I have been angry? I had been raped violently and repeatedly as a teen, I had very little support, and no one seemed to be interested in helping me or knew how to help me.

What I learned is that there are primary emotions: fear, hurt, anger, happy. I believe there was a 5th, but I don’t recall it. Anger was my biggest challenge. I had used anger, both passive and open aggression, to cover everything else. All other emotions, except for the love for my children, had been obliterated. Why? Because it was so much easier to be angry than the feel the depths of fear and hurt that lived within me. I did not want to go there. I don’t know what finally drove me to do this; but I knew I couldn’t turn back and, as out of touch as I was with my feelings, I couldn’t stay where I was emotionally. My life wasn’t working, I couldn’t make it work, and I needed help. It remains the hardest thing that I have done since living through my violent traumas, but I did it. I completed the program year and a half after I started.

I had cleared out and recognized much of the pain, fear, and anger that had caused me to self-sabotage, destroyed relationships, and kept me stuck in a cycle that might have eventually destroyed me once and for all.

And I had more work to do.

Twelve-Step Groups

While I was undergoing scream therapy, the counselor for my group had recommended attending a 12-step program. There are many of them representing different groups, such as AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and NA (Narcotics Anonymous). There are 12-step programs for those that are codependent (CODA) and those that live with and / or are impacted by alcoholics (AL-ANON). I chose to try AA. Though I wasn’t drinking much at this point, I had previously had difficulty with reigning in the amounts of alcohol I drank when out so thought it might be an issue. My counselor didn’t feel I was an alcoholic but also felt that any 12-step program would be good for me and put me with good people working on themselves. The 12-step programs have many of the same basic tenets.

I attended AA meetings for a couple of years. I enjoyed it. There were good people there and I was impressed with the stories being so openly and humbly shared by people from all socioeconomic groups and backgrounds. I respected everyone there and hoped to become someone that others respected as well. Respectability, other than professionally, was elusive for me.

In the end, I realized and was grateful for understanding that I was not an alcoholic. It took me awhile to get there. My sponsor at one point kept asking me when I was stressed if I wanted a drink. I didn’t. She finally told me I just wasn’t an alcoholic confirming what I had already been told and suspected.

My counselor told me that I had used alcohol to deal with my sexual assault issues and once recognized drinking would no longer be of interest. She was right. That time that I spent there is something that I look back on with my own dose of humility and appreciation.

Body Image

During this time, money became tight. I recognized that I was not yet ready to return to work. I was at a social gathering and a woman overheard me telling a friend that I wanted to bring in some income. She came over and introduced herself. It turned out that her husband owned an art studio in a nearby community and she felt that I would be a perfect candidate for modeling. Nude modeling.

I didn’t know whether to be insulted or flattered. I was older than what you would think of as the typical nude model and had had three children, the last of which was a Caesarean delivery. I had always felt that I was attractive but was not sure how I would be received by the artists.

I’ll get to the point. I tried it. I also contacted several of the local colleges and universities and got tons of work. It was an amazing experience for me. When I saw the artwork, in a variety of medium, that was produced in the sessions that I was involved in, for the first time, I saw my abused body as a piece of art. It did not start out as intentional therapy but certainly ended up that way.

Life Change

I returned to work because we needed the money to survive and so that I could keep my family together. I had divorced my first husband years before as he had become alcoholic, perhaps always was, and drug-addicted to the point that his life was spiraling out of control and I didn’t want him to take us with him. I felt grounded for the first time in many years, had new confidence, and my career moved forward once again.

Early in my life, before I had been raped, I had been raised to believe that I could do anything and be anything. That belief waged war within me after trauma struck. I had an opportunity to take an international transfer with one of the companies that I worked for and I took it. It was to the Middle East (Israel), and I was not in anyway prepared for it. What I thought would be a great adventure turned into a combination of exhilaration and terror. As a Jewish woman, I was thrilled to see the historical sites that I had learned about as a child and to be in a place where my heritage was accepted and exalted.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the real-life experience of being in a country that, at that time, was on the verge of war, and was constantly being attacked with bombs and snipers. It was another trauma, and I took responsibility of understanding that I had, once again and though with best intentions, placed myself there. I recognized my own limitations as a person with PTSD and clearly understood that this was not a healthy environment for me. I left and returned to my company in an assignment in the States.

I was shaken but felt that I was on safe ground of sorts. A month later 9/11 happened. I had just left a country that seemed continuously at war and returned to an attack on my country that had previously been unheard of. I worked for another year. I took a sabbatical for 8 weeks, a company benefit, and came back to work refreshed.

There was a co-worker that we all knew had serious behavioral issues. We were told one day that he had committed suicide. My immediate reaction was as it should be. I was upset and took some time away from work. But I started sliding downhill rapidly. We had all known there were issues, but no one stepped in and the unthinkable occurred. What if that happened to me?

Jungian Therapy

I had been seeing a new therapist that practiced Jungian analysis. The focus is to bring together the conscious and unconscious parts of the person. We met regularly and often discussed my dreams as part of my therapy and subconscious or repressed beliefs. For a brief while, she had also prescribed Wellbutrin, but it made my feel foggy and I stopped taking it after a period. Though I do believe there are those that need and should have therapeutic medication, for myself I’ve always felt that it was a deterrent to resolving my traumas.

She and my new boyfriend, of 5 months, encouraged me to take time away from work and take care of myself. The work culture that I was in was clearly unhealthy. I worked non-stop and my personal life and relationships were impacted. I took another medical leave.

It was the best thing I had done for myself in a long time.

New Therapies

I took this time to try new things that might relieve my PTSD and associated anxieties. I found the PTSD: National Center for PTSD sponsored by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. I read it avidly to try and understand what I was going through. To this day it has been one of the best resources I have found and filled in some of the holes around PTSD that I could not find answers to elsewhere.

 

My relationships with my daughters, now young adults, improved. My boyfriend and I took a trip to Hawaii, and he eventually became my second husband. I took a course in holistic nutrition and became certified as a holistic nutrition educator. That course changed the way I looked at my body and health in positive ways. I tried and became an advocate for acupuncture. I invested in regular and therapeutic massage. I started practicing Focusing and attended workshops that taught me to be in touch with and give a voice to that young child and woman that suffered trauma. I worked out on a regular basis and felt healthier in mind and spirit than I had in a very long time, if ever as an adult.

Full Circle

Another decade and some years later, I find myself with three degrees: 1) BA in Psychology with a concentration in Industrial / Organizational Psychology, 2) MS in Psychology with a concentration in Educational Psychology, and 3) PhD in Psychology with a concentration in Educational Psychology. I had always loved learning; however, my formal education had been interrupted by life events and circumstances. My three beautiful daughters are now with their own families, my husband was extremely supportive, and I returned to school to finish what I had started as an undergraduate at Temple University decades earlier. The feelings of accomplishment and completion that came with each of these degrees is impossible to describe. I will just say that it was its own brand of therapy for me.

My family (I’m referring to my three daughters here) is beginning to understand my traumatic history, my life with PTSD, and coming to grips with it. It has been a shock for them and painful to hear. But it also explains so much to them about why and who I am as a person. I am excited about sharing my life experiences with those that might be interested in the hopes that it might help those that have similar experiences. I also hope that it will give insight to those that love and support these individuals.

For so many years, I struggled to return to the person that I was meant to be before the tragedies that interrupted my life. And now I know I am there. I say with pride, this is who I am.