PTSD Awareness Month: Final Poems

Thank you all for following me through PTSD Awareness Month as I try to create more understanding around the issue of trauma and it’s aftermath. These last two poems have a bit more of an empowered tone, and the last one was written quite recently. I hope you’ve enjoyed or at least gained some new insight from reading this month’s posts. I appreciate each one of you who takes the time to visit.

11/4/11

 

Echoes

 

The echoes of trauma are hollow and deep

The penetrate even the most peaceful sleep

 

I wish for the day I will hear them no more

When they won’t come knocking on my bedroom door

 

I thought I was over this, thought I was done

Thought I’d beaten the trauma, thought I had won

 

But it’s back to haunt me, filling my dreams

With more rape and more terror, more silent screams

 

Why is this happening, where’d I go wrong?

I thought I was doing the right things all along

 

And yet it is back, toying with my fear

The echoes of trauma so loud in my ear

 

And all that I know to do in response

Is do my best not to give in to its taunts

 

To go back to therapy, listen to what’s true

And remember that I am stronger than YOU

 

© Sarah Ann Henderson 2011

 

 

5/28/17

 

The Other Side

 

There’s a kind of victim cycle

The experts never talk about

 

Not victims who become victims

Or victims who victimize

 

It’s the victims who grow to help other victims

A cycle of healing, not hurting

 

What the experts don’t tell you is that once you’re a victim

You are inextricably tied to every other victim

 

In that intangible yet undeniable way

That only shared experience can create

 

It’s like this horrible club that you never wanted to belong to

But once you’re in it, you’re so glad you’re not alone

 

In this club we share the most holy words of comfort

One victim can offer another: Me too

We share words of encouragement and empowerment

 

Some victims dedicate their whole lives

To the plight of other victims

 

So as the cycle of suffering continues

Let us remember that right alongside that is a cycle of healing

 

As people choose to use their pain to help others in pain

Or to prevent that pain from ever happening

 

As we stand together in our shared experience

We are stronger than the violence

 

Our voice will overcome the silence

And someday there will be more healing than pain

 

© Sarah Ann Henderson 2017

 

 

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and                                      not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

Jeremiah 29:11

Feeling Father’s Day: Nothing There

After the deluge of posts that poured out of me around Mother’s Day, I expected a similar flood for Father’s Day. I expected to feel, well, something. 

And I haven’t.

In my house, we generally celebrate Father’s Day as Second Mother’s Day, for several reasons: 1) my sister and I don’t have a father, 2) my mom does the work of two parents and therefore deserves to be honored on both days, 3) this way we don’t have to think about the guy that was our so-called “father” for all those horrible years before we declared him dead to our lives.

It works for us.

In previous years I have felt various reactions to Father’s Day: bitterness, anger, sadness, grief, loss, trauma-reactions, etc.  It used to be really triggering to see a day that celebrated, for me, the person who literally tortured me and made my life a living hell. This year, though, I don’t feel anything, and I’m not sure why.

Maybe it’s because I’ve forgiven him for everything. Maybe it’s because I truly feel no anger at him anymore. Maybe it’s because I’ve really let go of it all. Maybe it’s because I’m just indifferent to him and everything to do with him. I can even pray for his soul. I can’t think of any other reasons that I’m so non-reactive.

Whatever is going on, I’m grateful and glad. I can celebrate Second Mother’s Day with the parent I have, the one who loves me and supports me no matter what, the way a parent should. She deserves all the days. All of them. And I can celebrate them with her without any invasion of memory of the “parent” who doesn’t deserve anything.

 

Strength and dignity are her clothing,
    and she laughs at the time to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom,
    and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
She looks well to the ways of her household
    and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up and call her blessed…
 “Many women have done excellently,
    but you surpass them all.”

Proverbs 31: 25-29

Loving My Body: How Trauma Stole That From Me and How I’m Reclaiming It

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Yesterday, I shared this photo collage on Instagram with the following message:

“What would happen if you allowed yourself to love your body? Not as it could be 10 lbs from now, not as it was 10 years ago, but as it is right now, today. What would you do of you didn’t care what other people thought of your body? What would happen of you embraced with compassion everything your body has been through: all the traumas, the scars, the tattoos, the marks that tell its story. How much more space and time would you have if you weren’t worried about how your body looked to others?

Imagine being free from caring what anyone thinks about your body, and instead living in it with love, honoring it as the precious vehicle that houses your mind and your spirit. Imagine fully accepting where you are, so if you want to make a healthy change you can move from a place of empowerment. Imagine knowing that you can have peace within your body.

I invite you to think about those questions, and look back at your own photos. Stop editing, cropping, filtering. Be as you are. And imagine where you can go from there.”

This was also shared on Facebook, and a friend encouraged me to expand on this and share it here on my blog. So here you are!

Each of the above photos represent an important moment when I gave up self-consciousness and judgment and let myself live in my body with love.

In the first image, I am being Confirmed in the Episcopal Church. The guys next to me is our Bishop Suffragan, the one who actually confirmed me. For the non-Episcopalians out there, Confirmation is like taking a repeat of the promises made for you at your Baptism, only now taking them intentionally for yourself as an adult. We call it our Baptismal Covenant. Anyway, this was a big moment for me, and I was incredibly excited and happy. I was being Confirmed on St. Mary’s Day, which is our patron saint’s (the Virgin Mary’s) feast day, and sort of like a parish festival. For a couple of weeks leading up to this, I was searching for a nice dress and was having shit luck, because I hated how I looked in everything. Finally I settled on the purple one I’m wearing in the photo (thanks, Dress Barn). The great thing was, during the service and the ceremony and reception, I forgot all about the damn dress and how I looked. I was filled with the Holy Spirit and was just happy and thrilled to be a Confirmed member of my church.

In the second photo, I am sitting by our community pool. I’m wearing a swimsuit for the first time since I was 16; in the photo I am 32. This was a big moment for obvious reasons. I experienced a lot of trauma in our swimming pool growing up; my father molested me in the pool a lot. I became very frightened of them, and of water in general. I never wore a swimsuit because the anorexia told me I looked like a humpback whale in every single one. But last summer, I decided to just fucking get over it. I’d lived just blocks away from this pool for nearly ten years, and I was going to fucking go and swim like a person who lives in Houston in the summer. I wore a basic black tank suit and felt a little uncomfortable but whatever. I swam! And people saw me! And I didn’t shrivel in shame under their judgmental gazes! Big moment.

The third photo is a picture of my left side, three weeks post-surgery. I was 23 years old and had managed to develop a rare pneumonia that led to doctors needing to crack open my chest and remove part of my left lung. The other scars are from chest tubes. That surgery was an extremely traumatic experience, as it all happened very fast, and I nearly died four different times. (Actually, I did die once, in surgery, when my heart stopped for over a minute.) This photo was taken just after I had the last of my chest tubes removed. I still have the scars, of course, but they and this photo remind me just how much a body can survive. I developed a lot of respect and affection for my body after this experience.

The fourth photo is of me and my brother Bryan’s family. His wife Cristina, my other sister, and their kids Caleb and Abby. I was 25, and I was visiting them in Austin. I felt really fat during this whole trip. But in this moment I was just a sister and an aunt, being with my family.

The middle photo is of me at the gym, about a week ago. First time since last summer, huge deal!

The next photo is of me and part of my nursing school class. I was 29, and even though I was struggling with my eating disorder then, I have to say, when I had my scrubs and stethoscope and badge on, the last thing I thought about was how my body looked. I felt a sense of purpose and pride in the work I was doing and the skills I was learning that couldn’t be touched by my disease. I still feel that way every time I wear scrubs.

The lower left photo is of the last tattoo I got. It’s called the Miraculous Medal of the Virgin Mary. Each of my tattoos represents Mary: this, a blue rose, and a gold and blue Fleur-de-Lis. I plan to get more tattoos. For me, they are a way of taking my body back. My whole life, people marked it without my permission: rapists, surgeons, even me when I cut myself. I don’t consider myself-harm scars to be consensual, because they are born purely of trauma. I live with other’s marks on my body, but tattoos are a way to reclaim markings, and make my own. Make conscious choices about what story I want to tell with my body; what’s meaningful to me, and leave positive markings alongside the negative ones. This is an act of body love.

The bottom middle picture is of me being silly at our church Halloween fest.I came as a feminist cat; my shirt says “Cats Against Catcalling.” This was a moment of pure whimsy where I didn’t care what I looked like or if I was being foolish and I was just having fun.

The last photo is of me serving as a worship leader and Eucharistic minister at the Great Vigil of Easter this year. I was in a cassock and wearing a cross that belonged to my grandmother. It was my first time serving in a large service where we wear vestments and everything, and I was a bit nervous. But as soon as I put that cassock on, I felt something like awe; like nothing was important but being in the moment and loving what I was doing. I felt filled with the Holy Spirit and so privileged and honored to be part of this holy service. I just felt love.

These photos represent my growth over the years as I have come to love and trust my body more than I distance myself from it and distrust it. When you grow up abused, trauma teaches you that the one place you are not safe is in your body. Why? Because the body can be attacked. The body is what’s weak and vulnerable. In your mind, you can go elsewhere, but your body is stuck in the situation, left to be battered, raped, choked, tortured. When you return to it mentally you find it bleeding or bruised, physical evidence of its weakness. So you separate from your body. You dissociate your mind and your soul from it in order to stay protected so that when your body, which cannot escape, is being abused, at least your mind is safe.

You grow up deliberately trying to erase your body’s existence. Anorexia is pretty efficient at this, but cutting and beating yourself make their point, too. It never occurs to you that this is abnormal or a problem. It never occurs to you that one of the reasons you’re being revictimized is because you are so disconnected from your body’s basic instincts that you can’t determine a dangerous person from a safe one. It never occurs to you that hating and destroying your body means that you’re also hating and destroying your mind and your soul, because your body is not just a part of you, it is you.

Trauma, especially in early childhood, damages or destroys the basic trust and love we have in our physical existence. It delvers the clear message that the physical world is not safe and therefore the body is not safe. That loss of innate trust disturbs basic concepts of survival such as, do I deserve to live? Do I deserve to have good things? Do I deserve to be loved?

Do I have the right to even be here?

I still struggle with that question sometimes. Do I have the right to exist? To take up space, to need things, to be loved, to ask for help? Losing that innate trust in your body makes you question things such as, am I worthy of a decent home, of food, of sleep, of self-care? And often leads to guilt and/or shame when you receive what you believe is “too much.” But depending on where you are in your healing, “too much” could mean a 20 minute nap, or a tablespoon of fat free yogurt instead of a teaspoon (that’s a real example from my life).

Healing requires answering those questions with the reality that grounds you in truth: You are worthy. You are loved. You deserve good things. You have the right to be here. Everyone should know that simply by virtue of the fact that they were born and they are a child of God that they have the right to be here, to be loved, to have good things. Not everyone does.

Relearning those concepts and loving my body again go hand-in-hand. Because as I recognize my right to be here, I feel my body become more present in the world. As I recognize my right to have food, shelter, sleep, and other things, I am able to take better care of my body and develop respect for its needs, as opposed to contempt. As I recognize that I am worthy to be loved, I feel less of the need to control what other people think of my body and instead focus on developing my self, and on receiving love that is offered.

I still have a lot of healing to do. But like I said in the beginning, I invite you to look back at your photos. Ask yourself some of these questions. Stop editing your body out of your life, because you’re editing yourself. And you have the right to be seen– to have your whole self be seen.

 

I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.

Philippians 1:19-20

 

 

PTSD Awareness Month: Poems

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Here are three more poems from my various collections on the nature of the violence I grew up with and PTSD. Than you for reading!

 

7/21/02

 

Family Values

 

Denial carves deep, the truth betrayed

As she watches her soul drip off the blade

 

Pain becomes comfort, trust becomes threat

She’s beginning to break, but they’re not finished yet

 

Love is divided: dominion/defeat

With no middle ground in which to retreat

 

Again and again they annihilate her soul

Splitting her brain, wanting total control

 

“Snap out of it now, it isn’t that bad

Nothing is wrong, stop looking so sad

 

Now, this might hurt, but it’s for your own good

Stop sulking as if you’re so misunderstood

 

It’s all out of love that I invade this space,

Erase your reality, leaving no trace

 

I’m saving you, trust me, you don’t want to know

Perhaps this won’t affect you if it doesn’t show”

 

Shadows and secrets, the family’s domain

A prison of dread in which she remained

 

Blinded, noiseless, bound by fear and shame

Awaiting rejection, assumption of blame

 

We blocked the scenes, smiled, waved to the crowd

Each taking up no more space than was allowed

 

The lesson was learned: you should be what you’re not

One child submitted, the other one fought

 

Needing was selfish, a luxury shunned

“You may BE a child but stop ACTING like one

 

For crying out loud, I’m doing my best

Your father’s a bastard, I can’t ever rest

 

Sweetheart, can you help me in all of my strife?

It’s not asking much– all I want is your life”

 

© Sarah Henderson 2002

 

8/13/03

 

Blind Fury

 

What was that omnipotent power he had

To control your emotions while driving you mad

 

Then somehow make you feel that you were at fault

For every abandonment, wound, and assault

 

So slight that you couldn’t articulate it

A snake in the grass that suddenly bit

 

With no way to explain just how low you feel

And no one to believe that his harm is real

 

You naively try to block out the world

As you switch back and forth from woman to girl

 

Pretending so hard that nothing is wrong

Telling yourself you have to be strong

 

While watching your mother continue to fade

Losing life and love slowly, shade by shade

 

Seeing the small deaths he inflicted on her

Wondering how much more she could endure

 

Again you are struck by the weight of his word

When you think about everything that has occurred

 

How he was able to slowly destroy

Every last bit of our innocent joy

 

Simply by looking at us with disdain

Casually triggering torrents of pain

 

While knowing that no one would stand up to tell

He imprisoned us all in invisible hell

 

© Sarah Henderson 2003

 

2/7/04

 

Stalker

 

You don’t have to be there to see it

You don’t have to see to believe it

 

You can only tell what you feel

You can’t tell that it isn’t real

 

There are fears you cannot explain

And some unidentified pain

 

That keeps you locked in the past

Under shadows that memory has cast

 

While clawing to stay in today

You’re suddenly hurtled away

 

To times when you were not safe

From violence, dysfunction, and rape

 

When your life was always at stake

There was only so much you could take

 

And it stays with you year after year

‘Till you hit that final nadir

 

When so much as a hand on your arm

Can be felt as serious harm

 

And what’s seen when you lay down your head

Prevents you from sleeping in bed

 

The curtains are always pulled tight

For the fear that during the night

 

A shadowy figure will pass

And their eyes will peer in through the glass

 

You will always be watching your back

You will never feel safe or relaxed

 

Sudden noises will cause you to start

Put your hand over your pounding heart

 

 

And resign to lifelong nightmare

Of which you will always be aware

 

© Sarah Ann Henderson 2004

 

Do not fear, for I am with you;
    do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

Isaiah 41:10

Revictimization: What It Is and Why It Happens

Content Warning: Sexual Violence

 

First, let’s define “revictimization”: the idea that people who have experienced sexual violence once, particularly in childhood, may be at increased risk of experiencing sexual violence again in the future.

Now, let’s look at some stats. (“CSA” here means “child sexual abuse.”):

  • Women who experienced CSA were twice as
    likely to report adult sexual victimization as
    women who did not experience CSA.
  •  Women who experienced both CSA and
    childhood physical victimization were three
    times more likely to report physical or sexual
    victimization in adulthood.
  • Women who experienced CSA were twice as
    likely to experience intimate partner physical
    victimization. However, women who experienced
    CSA were not more likely to have experienced
    sexual violence by an intimate partner in adulthood than women who had not
    experienced CSA.
  • Men who experienced CSA were almost six
    times more likely to experience adult sexual
    victimization than men who did not
    experience CSA.
  • Men who experienced both physical and sexual
    victimization in childhood were six times more
    likely to experience sexual victimization.
  • Men who experienced CSA were thirteen times
    more likely to experience adult intimate partner
    sexual victimization. Men who reported both
    CSA and physical victimization during childhood
    were 10 times more likely to report adult intimate
    partner sexual victimization

So we can see that the rates of revictimization for people who experience sexual abuse in childhood are extremely high, and crazy high for men.

I am one of those people that was victimized over and over again. First, the physical abuse, the neglect, and the psychological and sexual torture from my father was really at it’s worst from ages 3-9. From ages 8-12 I had a gymnastics coach who was your generic perv, flashing the girls, making lewd comments, borderline inappropriate touching, etc. There were rumors that he molested some girls, and a few years later he was arrested, I had to speak to a detective, a DA, it was a a mess. When I was 16, I was raped at Abilene General Hospital when a Shades of Hope counselor dropped me off there and left me alone. He was a radiology tech, and when he took me upstairs for a chest x-ray, he locked the door, got on top of me, and said, “I won’t hurt you as long as you shut up and don’t move.” I had been given a drug down in the ER, and I couldn’t move, so he raped me, and I never said a word about it until three years later. When I was 19, I was on a date, and the guy attacked me in his car. I managed to escape before he actually raped me. When I was 20, my college professor called me into his office, smashed his mouth against mine, and shoved his hands up my shirt. I didn’t even consider this sexual assault until my therapist said so ten years later. When I was 29, another professor sexually harassed me so badly that I had to report it to the dean. (The only time I’ve ever reported anything.)

I used to believe that life was an endless cycle of trauma. That, like a girl in a therapy group I was in once said, “What, do I have the words ‘FUCK ME’ stamped on my forehead?” It really feels like that. Like there is something inherently wrong with you that attracts this violence, and you believe what you’ve been told: you are a slut, a whore, worthless, just a fuckable object for men to use and abuse.

There are many theories as to why revictimization occurs, but mine is actually that the above line of thinking has a lot to do with it. When you think of yourself this way- I’m worthless, I’m nothing, etc.- that is a victim mentality. You are thinking of yourself as a victim, and you expect to be abused. You walk around with the expectation that any man could be your next rapist. Which means that you act like prey.

And guess what? Predators pick up on that.

Now, let me be clear: I am not blaming victims. What I’m describing is completely unconscious behavior, that is a conditioned response to sexual abuse/violence. You act like a victim because you’ve been a victim. You act like prey because you’ve been preyed upon. The problem is that people who want to hurt others, people who commit sexual violence, are predators. And like any predator in the wild, they hunt by scanning for and attacking weakness. They recognize people who are hypervigilant, dissociated, depressed, anxious, people who lack self-worth, carry shame, or excessive guilt. Even if the predator’s general intelligence is low, they are highly skilled in seeing through to this victim mentality and hooking into it.

Why was I raped at 16? Because that guy was a predator, and he saw easy prey. Why did my date, my professors attack me? Because they could see the ability to get to me.

It’s as simple and as complicated as that.

There are many other factors I could describe, involving neurobiology, family templates, and a bunch of other things. But for me, this is the one that sticks out. And what I noticed was that when I really found my self-worth, when began to heal in earnest, and when I stopped carrying myself like a victim; well, I haven’t been sexually attacked or harassed since.

This is about a fundamentally changing a belief system that gets embedded when you’re abused as a child. The system that tells you that you’re worthless, you’re nothing, you’re responsible for the sexual abuse, you deserve harm to come to you, and all that bullshit. When you heal, you change that belief system to reflect reality: that you are worthy of life and love, that you were innocent, you were not responsible for any of the things that were done to you, and that you deserve every good thing just like anyone else. When you really come to reality, predators don’t have a chance, because you are strong in yourself, and they don’t attack the strong.

Because of the chronic nature of the violence I encountered, I still deal with Complex PTSD today. However, I don’t worry about getting attacked anymore, outside of normal caution. Because now I believe that while I was victimized, I am not fundamentally a victim, and I do not have to live my life as one. I hope people who have suffered similar things come to understand that changing that belief system is something that’s completely withing your control. You have the power to do this. With the right support, victimhood can become a thing of the past for you. And how amazing does that sound?

 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:9-10

 

 

 

The Third Step Prayer

Content Warning: Anorexia, Specific Weight

 

When I was sixteen, I was at the very lowest point of my anorexia, literally and figuratively. My weight was hovering in the upper 60’s, and I was nearly in liver failure. I had a heart arrhythmia, I was vomiting blood, and I was terribly anemic. I looked like those little gray aliens, all spindly limbs and big head with black holes for eyes. I looked like the walking dead.

My mom had tried outpatient treatment, and it obviously was not working. She needed to do something drastic, which meant sending me to residential treatment. The place that was chosen was called Shades of Hope. You may have heard of this place, as Oprah did a short-lived TV show about it. It’s basically a few cabins in a horrid town outside of Abilene, Texas called Buffalo Gap. I hated this place the minute I arrived. It was based entirely on the Twelve Steps, was incredibly controlling and manipulative, and had some pretty crazy rules about food for a place that was supposedly treating eating disorders.

(Additionally, this is the place that let me get raped by a guy at a hospital in Abilene, but that’s a separate story.)

Don’t get me wrong; I believe the Twelve Steps work. I have seen and continue to see them work miracles in people’s lives. I think they are limited, however, and are better suited for drug and alcohol addiction than they are to eating disorders, which are inherently more complex in nature because one cannot completely remove food from their lives the way one can remove alcohol or drugs.

I remember that before every miserable meal at this place, lovingly referred to by residents as “Shades of Hell,” we recited the Third Step Prayer. I did it so many times in my few short weeks there that it sticks in my brain even today:

God, I offer myself to Thee
To build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt.
Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will.
Take away my difficulties,
that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help.

Of Thy Power, Thy love and Thy way of life,
may I do Thy will always.

As I was praying last night, or trying to pray, I found myself stuck. When this happens, I stop trying to talk to God and instead just sit silently with Him for a minute. As I did, this prayer popped into my head. I realized that it was exactly what I wanted to say right now.

As I begin this summer- going to school, working in a new business, working hard in therapy and spiritual direction, continuing to take on more responsibilities at my church- I realized that I need to focus on one thing: praying for discernment so I may try to align my actions with God’s will for me. Because there are my ideas about what I think I want. But when I really dig deep, all that I really want is to please God. So I will go where He wants me to go, whether or not that lines up with my current goals or plans.

So I will be grateful, even for my time at “Shades of Hell,” and I will continue to pray:

God, I offer myself to Thee
To build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt.
Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will.
Take away my difficulties,
that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help.

Of Thy Power, Thy love and Thy way of life,
may I do Thy will always.

 

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
    and he will make your paths straight.

Proverbs 3: 5-6

 

Poems for PTSD Awareness Month

June is PTSD Awareness Month, so all throughout June I will be posting poetry I’ve written related to that topic, several in a post. I hope you find them eye-opening, informative, inspiring, and hopeful. Thank you for reading.

Content Warning: Sexual Assault/Rape, Violent Language

3/10/14

 

Try to Remember

 

She asks me to remember

And I try, reluctantly

She asks questions for which I have no answers

No answers

Not even God has satisfied the curiosity here

 

Think back

 

When the young were meant to be innocent

And the cared-for not meant to be doing the caring

What did you daydream about?

Were you allowed to dream at all?

 

When you danced and twirled like the girl in your music box

When you lived two lives side by side

How did you manage your plentiful secrets?

How did you weave your lies?

 

When you lost your body so you could lose yourself

When you turned the pain inside out

What did you grab at the end of your rope?

Who introduced the concept of hope?

 

Think back for me, she said

These things

Are still important

 

© 2014 Sarah Ann Henderson

 

2/16/14

 

And Then

 

And then

 

I am hurtled slo-mo down the rabbit hole

My brain decides down is up, safe is dangerous

I am snowblind to comfort

 

Trauma is a form of time travel

An emotional Tardis

Triggers spin me back without warning

 

And then

 

I awake to find that I’m drowning

Disappointed in my brain for falling into this trap again

Though I understand the cause

 

It takes weeks to sort out

To stem the tide of trauma

To see the signs and symptoms

To get myself in line

 

And then

 

I may have a space of “normal”

Where no triggers happen to lurk

I get used to feeling ok

 

And then

 

© 2014 Sarah Ann Henderson

 

9/1/16

 

Beyond This

 

With your hand over my face

You told me to keep my whore mouth shut

 

With a gun to my head

You told me no one would listen

 

With a knife to my throat

You reminded me that it wouldn’t matter if I talked

 

Because I was nothing

Because I was no one

And my words were worthless

 

You didn’t need weapons to terrify me into deathly silence

Just the look in your eyes was enough to do that

A black beyond black

 

Yet they gleamed when I cried

When I bled

When I begged

 

Evil enjoys cruelty for cruelty’s sake

 

Pretty soon I went quiet

Not wanting to give you the satisfaction

At that you became more violent

And I, more silent

 

Until you were essentially raping a corpse

My soul having long fled the scene

 

By the time you had sunk to torture,

I was existing in a tomb of silence

 

I kept your secret so well and so long

That I eventually kept it from myself

 

Wrapped in so many layers of terror and shame

Of guilt and disgust

Degradation and pain

This secret stayed secret

 

It took unlearning every word you ever said to me

Every lie your evil tongue spat

To unwrap those layers and speak the truth:

I never deserved any of that

 

I was an innocent child

Completely blameless

Every bit of that shame belongs to you

 

I won’t carry that now

I won’t die or stay silent

Your secret is no longer my burden

 

You called me slut, whore, worthless, unloveable

But all that is meaningless now

Because God calls me His:

Daughter, beloved

What you should have called me but chose not to

 

I’m beyond that now

Whatever evil facilitated your sadism belongs to you alone

I will not hate myself for being your child

 

And I will forgive you

Not because you deserve it

But because I do

 

© Sarah Ann Henderson 2016

 

 

 

Being In My Body: PTSD and Exercise

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Gym selfie: no makeup, no filter, no problem!

Today I went to the gym for the first time since last August. It was good. I did twenty minutes of cardio (walking on an incline on the treadmill) and some core strength exercises. I’m starting small.

Exercise is an issue for me for a number of reasons. A former eating disorder is obviously one of them. My chronic pain is another. One that I don’t really talk about, though, is my PTSD.

The way that PTSD makes exercise difficult for me is a little difficult to explain. I suppose first I have to explain something about how I survived my original trauma.

One of the most common survival mechanisms in sexual and physical abuse is called dissociation. Dissociation occurs along a spectrum, but in its most simplistic terms, it’s a way for the mind to kind of separate itself from the body during a trauma so that it’s not experiencing it. For example, a good portion of my traumatic memories are remembered not from my perspective as I was there, but as if I were viewing them from above. This is one aspect of dissociation; the sensation as if one were floating outside one’s body. Another aspect, for me, is feeling detached from my body, even now. I’d say that, in order to function with the level of pain I live with, I have to live at about 2% dissociation all the time. I keep things pretty cognitive, focus on what’s going on in my mind and keep my body an afterthought. It’s the only way I can get up and do the stuff I have to do without taking major painkillers or crying some days.

As a trauma victim, I grew up dissociating from my body. I had to, to survive. As an anorexic, I dissociated from my body in order not to feel hunger or pain as I starved and abused myself. When I cut and beat myself, I was again dissociating from my body. I avoided touch. I abused pills. I did everything I could to basically not even have a body. 

As I’ve grown and healed, I have become better friends with my body. Even so, I have a hard time feeling present in it. When I decided to start exercising again I had some significant anxiety, and when I really explored that I realized that some of it was because I didn’t want to feel my body.

Exercising means moving, feeling, existing in the physical presence of yourself. I fear doing this because when I’m in my body, I open myself up to the presence of the traumas that still live in it. Being in my body makes me aware of my physical self, the self that was beaten, raped, choked, tortured. My body holds so many memories, and when I’m really in it I’m vulnerable to feeling those things. When it comes to PTSD, body memories are really the fucking worst. It’s not seeing what happened, it’s feeling what happened; as if his hands are still on you, as if he’s still forcing himself inside you, as if you still can’t breathe, in this moment.

The worst.

In the past, I have literally tried to rid myself of even having a body through starvation and self-mutilation. I’ll never do that again, but my connection to my body is still not what I’d like it to be. I think being grounded and comfortable in your body is something you have to learn as a child. It’s something I never had the chance to learn; after all, I was only three when the sexual abuse began. When you start dissociating from yourself at that young of an age, it probably takes a lifetime to build the connections that never formed. I’m continuing to try, through therapy and energy work, and now, through physical exercise. I hope that by being more present in my body more often, I can begin to heal the disconnect that’s still the norm. I hope that I can process that trauma energy out, so I no longer have to feel like the ghosts of the past are haunting my body.

Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.

Mark 5:38

 

 

Choosing the Middle Ground: Learning Balance in Life and Recovery

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Like a Phoenix, my body has risen from the ashes. My spirit is home.

Content Warning: Descriptions of eating disordered behavior

For those of you who may not know, I recently became an ambassador with Plexus Worldwide. (Check out my website: Shop My Plexus- Sarah Henderson)! Before this, I had been using their products, and I really believe that they can be life-changingly beneficial to people’s health and wellness. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have signed up to help other people access them!

Even though my personal Plexus journey is about reducing the inflammation in my body, healing my gut, and treating my chronic pain and fatigue, a lot of people use Plexus to lose weight, and a number of their products are made with that intention. When I joined, there was a recommendation that I take measurements of my body, my weight, and pictures of my body so I can have “before” numbers and photos for when I ostensibly reach “after.”

This presented a dilemma for me. As a lot of you know, I’m in recovery from an over twenty-year struggle with anorexia and bulimia. Numbers used to be one of my triggers, so I haven’t owned a scale in ten years. In fact, the last one I owned, the one that had seen the worst of my anorexia, I threw off the balcony of my apartment down onto the parking lot pavement, and watched it smash into pieces, which was pretty satisfying. However, ten years is a long time, and a lot of healing and recovery has taken place since then. I wondered if I should do this, for my business. Everyone wants those “before” and “after” photos, right? And I want to see my progress in that area too, if it happens. Weight isn’t the focus of my journey, but my body may change, and I’d like to see that.

At the same time, part of me didn’t want to participate in that diet culture that had contributed to my eating disorder and has contributed to so many others. Part of me didn’t want to post numbers and photos that could trigger others trying to recover, and wanted to not do it at all, not on my own behalf, but as a direct protest against that kind of focus purely on weight instead of health.

So in order to get some guidance, I posted my dilemma in several places on Facebook; my personal page, and two Plexus pages. And I got at least fifty comments, most of which were in agreement that I should do what’s best for me and my health, including my mental health. As it turns out, Plexus doesn’t really care about diet culture as I’d feared. As a company, they really do care what’s best for each individual and their personal health journey, NOT on selling weight loss products at any cost. This is one of the reasons I’m so proud to be working for them. The support I received from my team was incredible, and both they and my friends from my personal page really felt that if it would put my recovery in jeopardy, it just wasn’t worth it.

Here’s the thing, though: I didn’t know that it would put my recovery in jeopardy. It’s been a very long time since I’ve even really been exposed to my body’s measurements, so I didn’t know what my reaction would be. I did figure out something interesting from one comment, though. A friend that I was in eating disorder treatment with said: “Absolutely not something you should do. I would stay away from the scale and measuring. It’s not worth the risk of relapse.” And when she said this I thought: I absolutely do not feel at risk of relapse. Ever. Certainly, not at the sight of some stupid numbers.

Over the years I may have used behaviors every now and then when I am especially stressed. I may have eaten only “safe” foods for awhile, or restricted some, or binged and purged a few times. But those are bumps in the road, little rocky times that happen and I get back on the path within a few days. I do not descend into the destructive thinking process that is the eating disorder itself, and I do not continue in that behavior pattern. Which makes those bumps in the road part of recovery instead of precursors to relapse. I don’t ever feel in danger of going to the extremes I’ve gone to before, of treating my body like a disposable object that I can starve, abuse, and kill. I don’t ever feel that I will descend into the obsession that makes a person live on a packet of oatmeal a day, taking two hours to finish it, eating it one oat at a time. (I actually did this.) I will never again spend six hours at a time in the gym, needing the machines to tell me that I have burned every calorie that I ate that day. I will never again eat so much my stomach stretched to make me look nine months pregnant, and then force myself to vomit until I saw blood; and then do this three more times in one night, every day. I will never again be so emaciated that I am in liver failure, and have a heart attack at 17 years old.

I will never again allow myself to treat my body as anything less the the sacred being it is.

In order to be able to do the above things to yourself, your spirit cannot be attached to your body. You cannot see life as sacred or worth living. At the very least, you can not believe that you deserve to live, to exist, to take up space in this world. You cannot believe that you are worthy of the basic necessities of life: love, security, food, sex/touch, a comfortable home, a healthy body. These basic rights are not meant to be yours, for whatever reason. (Usually because you were somehow told or shown that they weren’t.) Your brain and spirit are dissociated from the vehicle meant to carry them and, crazy as it sounds, when you’re doing the above things, it truly doesn’t hurt. In fact, it feels really good. Powerful. You’re in control. It comes at a cost, but you really don’t care. Bodies are disposable.

I know that I’ve entered into true recovery, the kind that’s invulnerable to full relapse, because I’ve crossed that threshold into knowing that life is sacred. My spirit lives in my body now, and I fully understand that to harm my body in those ways is to harm my heart and mind and soul as well. When I fall into those behaviors, it’s short-lived because now it actually hurts when I do them. I feel what used to be numb and I have that life impulse, that inherent instinct that whispers this feels wrong. I know that I am fundamentally worthy to be alive, to exist, to take up space. I am worthy of health, love, food, sex/touch a comfortable home, and safety and security. I have a right to those basic things as a human and a child of God. And nothing that happened to me could ever take that away. Knowing that means that I cannot ever become as self-destructive as I once was, because you can’t destroy what you love and believe is sacred.

Powerful stuff, reality.

So as to my dilemma, I decided on taking a middle way. Today I did take measurements of my hips, waist, and bust, I stood on a scale and took my weight, and I took photos of my whole body from the front and the side. Except, I wasn’t the one who did it. During my therapy appointment today, I had my therapist do it! She asked me all throughout if I was having any feelings come up, any anxiety. I had none. Because I trust her, because I wasn’t alone, and because I had this done in an environment where I feel safe, I think my non-reaction was predictable– but still awesome. I love that seeing those numbers had no effect on me.

I won’t be publishing those numbers or photos; they’re purely for me to keep to see my own progress. I’ll weigh and measure myself again in six months, or maybe three depending on how I feel. I’ll always do it at my therapist’s office. (She’s an eating disorder specialist and works with a dietitican which is why she has those things.) I feel this is the healthiest way for me to track those numbers.

I will be daily tracking other factors, such as sleep, energy level, and pain levels, because those are the things I’m really focused on changing with Plexus. If I lose weight or my body changes, ok. But know this: I’ll never again make that the one, undivided focus of my life. Because sure, being petite again would be nice– but I’m not willing to die for it.

 

Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.

Samuel 16:7

I appeal to you therefore, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12:1-2

 

 

Sophie’s Story

Sophie and I  found each other when I was 18 years old, and she was 8 months old.

My sister Cristina’s mom Beth found Sophie wandering in her apartment complex parking lot. She was thinking about keeping her, but the second I met her, I knew we were a perfect match. She was all ears and fluffy tail, and she made this little trilling noise when I petted her. I was smitten. Beth said I could have her, and I was ecstatic.

I had just moved into my first apartment; a crummy, 400 square foot box with zero security. But it was mine. All I had was a fish to keep me company, and that wasn’t going well. I needed Sophie, and she needed me. (Sophie’s full name is Persephone, but Sophie has been her nickname since she was a kitten.)

Sophie quite literally saved my life. There were times when the only reason I woke up, the only reason I didn’t kill myself, was because I needed to take care of her. I cared about her and loved her way more than I loved myself. That kept me here. She knew how to comfort me when I was anxious or having a flashback. Sometimes the presence of her little body in my lap was the only thing that kept me grounded, kept me from completely losing touch with reality.

We moved apartments and then eventually moved back with my mom. I had to go to treatment, and I hated being away from her. I have to say, I wouldn’t have gotten through my twenties without her.

The last eight years that I’ve been in this house with my mom and sister, and Sophie has been living exclusively with me in my room (her choice; she refuses to interact with the other cats) have been wonderful. It’s really Sophie’s world. I just sleep here.

Sophie is not just a cat to me. She has literally saved my life at times. She has comforted me through painful autoimmune flares, PTSD flashbacks, depressive episodes, and manic freakouts. She has never cared whether I’m severely anorexic or if I’m overweight. She’s never cared if I look great or I look like shit. She doesn’t care if I’m crying or I’m laughing or I’m panicking. She’s there. She loves me. In the most simple, unconditional, beautiful way. She just loves me.

So no, she is not just a cat. She’s a best friend. The closest thing I’ve ever had to a child. She’s a reminder to me of God’s unconditional love. She’s a furry therapist.

That’s my Sophie.

So here’s the thing. Lately, she has not been doing well. She was diagnosed with early kidney failure a few months ago. She’s been having some kind of allergic reaction, probably to fleas, which we cannot seem to keep up with. She’s had several serious UTIs as well as cystitis. The vet said today he wants to rule out bladder or kidney cancer. When they start asking “quality of life” questions, that a bad sign. And this isn’t even her regular doctor. No, her regular doctor had to go and have a baby, and is on maternity leave until July. My friend Deede pretty much summed about my feelings about this when I told her that even my veterinarian was pregnant and she replied, “Fuck that bitch.” Only semi-sarcastically. (It just seems that I can’t turn my head without seeing another pregnancy.) And honestly, I don’t know what to do anymore. I feel overwhelmed, frustrated, less-than-hopeful, and like I’m just chasing symptoms, not really getting to the root of the problem. Sophie has been my cat for nearly half my life; I know her. I know her energy. And I feel it waning. I feel like she probably won’t make it through the year. I could be wrong, but that is my strong feeling, knowing her as I do. She does not seem herself; she seems tired. And I want to make sure that I do the right things for her.

So here’s what happens when you’re me, or you’re someone else who has C-PTSD: These possibilities turn into what the experts call “anticipatory grief.”

This means that I automatically think the worst. That means the other day, when I found her sleeping in her litter box, which is a sign of distress in cats, I began bawling uncontrollably, and not for the first time.

I spoke to her about her funeral. I promised her I would hold one, a little memorial service. I told her that I would inter her ashes in the garden at St. Mary’s, because that’s home, and no matter where I move in the future I can always come back and visit. I told her that I loved her like I’d never loved any other cat, and that she was my little soul mate.

Here’s the thing guys: she’s not dying. Not imminently anyway, not that I’m aware of. But this is anticipatory grief. It’s a defense mechanism. If I imagine the worst, and I grieve before the worst happens, then my brain thinks it won’t be so painful when it actually does happen.

I have no idea if that’s true. My feeling is that nothing will cushion the blow of losing Sophie when the time comes. It will be extremely painful, as all losses are. I have always called her my “baby” and I’ve always “mothered” her, but I’ve felt particularly maternal towards her since I found out I can’t have my own children. I know there are people who think that people who treat their cats or dogs like children are morons. Look, I understand the difference between a cat and a baby. I’d never compare myself to a parent of a human, or compare my loss of my cat to the loss of a human child. But for all intents and purposes, Sophie has been a child to me, and I have been her mother. And that may be all the mothering I get to do, so losing Sophie will have a particular sting to it.

I hate to admit this, but there are some times I think, am I just dragging out the inevitable? Should I go ahead and let her cross the rainbow bridge now while she’s in decent shape and not in pain? Does that mean I’m giving up on her? Am I being selfish, trying to end my pain now so it isn’t prolonged?

I hate these thoughts. I don’t want to be having them. I think they come from a fearful, grief-filled mind. I want to be doing everything I can to keep Sophie healthy and alive for as long and she seems happy. To make the right decisions for her, to do right by her as her guardian and mother. But I am scared, tired, and overwhelmed, and I have no idea what I’m doing.

Please keep up both in your prayers as we navigate these next few months together.

 

The righteous care for the needs of their animals,
    but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel.

Proverbs 12:10