Huzzah! My first list-icle. I guess all that Buzzfeeding is getting to me. So I’m taking some time out of my Year of Anger to educate you, the public, on the painful (and occasionally hopeful) truths about trauma and the healing process. This is the world we live in. Thousands of us. Veterans, victims of domestic violence, amputees … PTSD affects so many. And while I can’t speak for everyone, I can speak for myself. Hopefully my experience is in the ballpark.
1. You will be angry ALL THE DAMN TIME.
There’s a lot to be angry about. I spent all my money on therapy and hospital bills; I’m down a Fallopian tube; I work with people who think my rapist is a nice, funny guy; I’m still having panic attacks at work, usually on days when not one of my co-workers talks to me; I’m foggy and dizzy about 75% of the time; walking the dogs in the dark is too scary; sleep is hard to come by, due to the unending nightmares; I gained at least 5 lbs. on my break from work, since crying doesn’t exactly burn too many calories; and things with Mr. T. have been shit about 80% of the time since I started therapy.
So, yeah, you’ll be pissed. And you should be. Something terrible happened to you. Something unfair and violent and wrong. And now you are stuck dealing with it, while chances are that your attacker is doing approximately jack shit.
2. You will feel alone 90% of the time.
People don’t get the angry-all-the-time thing. And they really don’t get the raped thing, or the PTSD thing. So, basically, they don’t understand anything that you’re thinking and feeling. And you really, really don’t have the energy to explain it to them. As a result, you will spend most of your daily life feeling incredibly lonely. Soul-crushingly lonely.
And the thing is, it’s not just a feeling. Even if you have the best support system and therapist in the world, when you go into those dark, scary places of your past, you ARE alone. It’s you doing the work. No one can do it for you.
3. The work will wreck you, emotionally and physically.
I spent half of my time off work in some state of mild illness. And I never get sick. I can usually beat a cold in two days. But my sore throats and my stuffy noses just wore on. In fact, I’m still coughing up phlegm from a sinus thing I had three weeks ago. And I ache. Everywhere. All the time.
Trauma gets stored in your body. To work through it, you have to do body work, too. You have to re-experience the trauma, body and soul. Tense muscles, shallow breathing, racing heartbeat — everything you felt during the assault(s) and abuse, you will feel again. Hopefully, for the last time. But six straight months of panic is going to take its toll on your body.
4. Normal things will suddenly become very scary.
I used to love riding in the car on an open highway. And road trips. City driving, I would delegate to boyfriends. Now, I am afraid every time I get into a car, either behind the wheel (moderately nerve-wracking) or in the passenger seat (absolutely terrifying). I could bike everywhere, but I would have to do so at a glacial pace, because I can’t stand even the smallest bit of speed. I am certain — not just afraid, but sure — that I’m going to crash. I can’t climb trees anymore, or scramble over rocks, or stand near the edges of the trail on my hikes. I imagine that every twisty twig is a snake, and every man on the sidewalk who glances my way is a rapist.
Life becomes terrifying after a trauma. PTSD traps you in that cycle of fear, superimposing your trauma onto everything and everyone. And that’s not something that just goes away. You have to learn how to overcome it.
5. You will spend all. of. the. money.
My few months of therapy cost me roughly $3,000. My trauma yoga class cost just under $100. I spent $240 on a boxing gym membership that I never used, because it triggered my PTSD so badly. And, having taken disability leave from work, I cut my income by about $2,500 for the year.
Life is expensive. And for someone without the strength or presence of mind to participate in the daily minutiae, the cost is high. If you take time to focus on your healing, you are basically checking out of the rat race. The world moves on without you, demanding just as much as it always has, even if you have less to give.
6. You will be a crappy friend.
I have spoken to my two best friends (in Florida) maybe three times this year, combined. I miss birthdays, forget lunch dates and am perpetually late. Not because I’m an irresponsible or forgetful person, but because my brain is stuck in survival mode. Bessel van der Kolk, one of the foremost experts on trauma and PTSD, wrote: “As long as the mind is defending itself against invisible assaults, our closest bonds are threatened, along with our ability to imagine, plan, play, learn, and pay attention to other people’s needs.”
If you are healing, you probably don’t have room for anything else. You probably don’t have energy to put into relationships. And so, they will suffer.
7. You will lose friends.
I used to have friends at work. People used to talk to me, a lot. They laughed at my jokes and they included me in conversations. Now? Silence. There are days when not a single person says a word to me, other than ‘hi’ or ‘hello.’ And, OK, maybe we weren’t BFFs, but I felt that I was part of a group. I felt valued as a co-worker and as a human. Now, I feel avoided.
I know that the issues I’m facing make people uncomfortable. I know they don’t know what to say. But I wish they would say something. And I wish they understood that saying nothing is the absolute worst thing they could do.
If and when you reveal your assault to your clan — be it friends or family — chances are you will “lose” someone. Someone who doesn’t believe you. Someone who can’t be bothered with your issues. Someone who is too uncomfortable with the reality to continue interacting with you. These might all be understandable, but they are still painful as hell.
8. You will think about giving up.
Not on life, altogether, although that’s entirely possible. But once you’ve made the decision to heal, you have made the decision to live. At least for me, I was less suicidal after I identified what I needed to fix and got started on fixing it. It gave me a purpose. But it also made things 1,000 times more difficult.
Staying numb is easy. Ignoring your problems is easy. Drinking and drugging and sleeping around is easy. And fun. Way more fun than hours of therapy and soul-searching. People like fun party girls. They don’t like girls who want to talk about their feelings, or their rape, or their feelings about their rape.
So, yeah, I think about going back. Back to Florida. Back to bartending. Back to my fuck buddy and my failed relationships. Back to a time before I was diagnosed with PTSD. Back when I didn’t know the words body memory, re-enactment or disassociation. Back when I could calm the panic with a drink or some shameless flirting. But I can’t. And you can’t either.
9. You will realize that giving up is no longer an option.
I can’t, because I’ve put one foot on the other side. I’ve dipped my toe into happiness. And I think it’s a place I would like to spend some more time. I have one hand on the glass, and I can see a life — my life — that I want. There are friends, and family, and Mr. T. There is a good career, some volunteer work, some travel. What I mostly see is what’s not there: Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, nightmares, shame, intimacy and trust issues, isolation.
I want that life. I am working every fucking day to get it. Because I am so tired of where I’ve lived. The neighborhood is bad. There’s trash everywhere, and the people that live here? They are terrible.
10. You will make new friends.
The most profound experiences of my healing have not been personal epiphanies or revelations. Instead, it is the connections I made with others that have helped me most.
Several people reached out to me when I shared my story, some expected and some not. Of those, most have ceased their efforts. But three people have not. Two of my co-workers make it a point to initiate conversation on days that I’m quiet. They engage me when I’m isolated. And that can change a bad day into a good one.
One woman from my support group has continued to connect with me and check in. I have a new hiking buddy and a coffee or dinner date each week. Slowly, they are helping me build the life that I want for myself. They are giving me hope and strength to keep going.
11. It will get better.
If someone has ever said this to you in the middle of a PTSD-fueled crisis, you have probably wanted to hit them in the face. If so, good for you. But also, they were right.
Things change incrementally, but they change. Unresolved trauma is like being buried under a pile of dirt, and every shovelful that gets taken off makes the load a bit lighter. You won’t be able to cure your PTSD overnight, but learning grounding techniques to stop panic attacks, or making a list of things to do to curb suicidal thoughts, joining a support group that listens and understands your story … all these things help. Tremendously, if not all at once.
The first time I found myself implementing self-care strategies after a triggering event (texts from my attacker), I was so proud of myself. I had grown from a place of self-soothing with booze and sex to a place where I identified my panic and headed it off with some herbal tea and a hot bath. (Not as exciting, I know, but much healthier.)
So, yeah, things suck right now. They might for quite some time. But one day, they will suck less.
That might not be the most eloquent of promises, but this is the truth of what lies beneath: If you do the work, see it through, one day your life will be better than it has ever been. So do the work. Heal. Create the life you want for yourself.
In other words, keep shoveling that shit.