Trigger Warnings: Caring or Coddling?

CW: potentially triggering words

 

A couple of weeks ago I was in the middle of taking first half of US History. During one class, my professor used all of these words in some capacity (and I promise they all made sense in context): penis, vagina, uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes, obstetrics, gynecology, prostitute/hooker/whore, sex, sexual assault, rape, erection, damn, crap, hell, and ass.

You could argue that his lectures are rather…adult.

Like I said, all of these words made sense in context. All the anatomy was describing how Elizabeth Blackwell became the first female medical doctor in the United States, and began the specialty of obstetrics and gynecology, because up until that point men had not thought it important to study women’s reproductive health. They thought women were defective men, and that their uteruses just floated around their bodies when not pregnant, causing “hysteria.” All the other words had good reasons too, and the last four are just because he likes to mildly swear.

So why is this a problem?

On the surface, it’s not. Not really. This is college, and we’re all adults, and we’re all paying to show up and listen. And I actually appreciate that he covers perspectives many professors don’t; his specialties are women’s history and religious history, so we hear a lot about both. White male rhetoric stays at a minimum. It’s the first history class I’ve not been bored in.

So while I appreciate that, I often find his language startling for a classroom environment, particularly since he’s prone to nearly shouting. As a rape victim, I can find a man shouting the words “rape,” “erection,” and “assault” at me pretty triggering, even now, even as healed as I am.

So what’s the solution?

What about trigger warnings? This has been a topic of debate for a while now. I don’t know about trigger warnings for the classroom. This is US history. It has slavery, war, racism, misogyny, genocide, and all sorts of other ugly shit. If you have issues with violence, expect to be triggered, and take responsibility for your own self-care. Like I said, this is upper education. It’s meant to be adult conversation, it’s meant to make you think and push your boundaries, and you’re showing up voluntarily.

I have developed ways to protect myself. Things like picturing a force field around me that the triggering words can’t penetrate. There are any number of ways to cope with triggers, and this is necessary to do everywhere, not just in the classroom. However, not everyone is at the same stage of healing that I am, and not everyone has the resources to go to therapy. Some people may not even be aware that they have PTSD yet. And some people just need a little warning so they can engage those coping skills. Usually the argument against trigger warnings in college is that the rest of the world doesn’t have them, and that people need to develop a thicker skin instead of being coddled. One could argue, however, that trigger warnings are simply another way of making school an accessible and safe environment for students who have a psychological issue, not unlike having elevators for people who can’t climb stairs. Some people can’t listen to certain lectures. Perhaps educators need to be more sensitive to that.

The truth is, under all that bluster, this professor cares deeply about his students. When he saw the old cutting scars on my arms, he took me aside and asked if we needed to go to the counselor’s office (I thanked him and told him I was good.) He told us on the first day that if he thinks a student is depressed, he will take them to the counselor’s office because he doesn’t play with suicide. I think he doesn’t mince words because we don’t learn anything from history unless we look at as many perspectives as possible– even the ugliest ones.

Everyone has some ugliness in their history. Those of us who have a lot of it may need to be supported more than we currently are.

 

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:9

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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

 

 

 

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

 

 

The Exhausting Everyday: How PTSD Makes Everything Hard

Content Warning: Sexual Assault

I went to a sporting event Friday night.

As you may guess, this is not something I normally do. I have social anxiety and PTSD. I hate crowds and loud noises. A stadium with thousands of people and a cannon that goes off when a home run is scored is a bad place for me. However, it was “Episcopal Night” at the ballpark, and a bunch of people from my church were going. My sister really wanted me to go. And it was my two-year-old godson’s first baseball game; how could I miss that?

The things we do for the people we love.

Everyone met at an Episcopal church a few blocks away from the stadium a couple of hours before the game for hot dogs (ew) and socialization. On the 45 minute drive from our suburb to downtown, I had to take a milligram of Klonopin, that’s how anxious I was. Once we saw some people we knew, it was better. And once my best friend and godson were there, that’s when I actually started having fun. I loved seeing how excited he was. That child is the light of my life, no matter where we are.

We walked the few blocks to the stadium, and as we filed through the metal detectors one of the security guards told me to smile. I suppose I must’ve had a more grim look on my face than I realized. Also, to the men, seriously: STOP TELLING WOMEN TO SMILE. IT IS OBNOXIOUS.

When we were finally sitting down, I was focused on my godson and so I was ok for a while. We pointed out colors and shared some apple slices. Loud announcements were a bit unnerving. I only sort of paid attention to the game. I was having more fun taking photos of my godson. He was adorable. He only lasted for a couple of hours, though, which was understandable. When they left, it was harder. I became more tense.

I found myself sitting there, looking at all the tiny kids around me. Wishing I had a tiny to take to a first ball game. That hurt. Fucking grief, again. I found myself with my arms wrapped around my body protectively, my shoulders practically in my ears, feeling dissociated from what was happening around me. Towards the end of the game, the husband of a church member, who was sitting next to me, patted my knee to reassure me that our team would pick up a few runs and pull out a win. The first thing that ran through my head was, “GET YOUR FUCKING HAND OFF MY LEG.” The second thing was, “That was unreasonable.”

Here’s the thing about PTSD: Your brain literally believes and lives as if you are constantly in danger from everywhere. So there’s this low-level anxiety that hums in the background all the time, and it sends you signals of total overreaction to completely innocuous events, people, and actions. It makes things that are simple and ordinary for most people difficult, exhausting, and sometimes impossible for people with PTSD.

We left before they set off fireworks, thank you Jesus. I would not have been able to deal.

And the next day, I was completely exhausted. I slept the majority of the day, because I had to recover from trying to maintain seeming “normal” while inside parts of me were screaming. Let me tell you, that takes a tremendous amount of energy. It drains energy from your body, from your mind, from your spirit.

Ordinary things. The most ordinary things can be a nightmare. I got home the other day, and my mom had put shampoo in the soap dispenser because we ran out of hand soap. Creamy, white shampoo. And as I went to wash my hands, this creamy, white substance forcefully spurted out of the dispenser onto my hand and a bit onto my arm. I froze, because in my mind, this was not soap. And I was not clean right now.

I felt suddenly sick. I washed the stuff off my hand and arm, sat down on the edge of the tub, and freaked out. I was shaking and crying. I was an abused child in that moment, a rape victim. I was not a confident adult with a voice, a woman who can heal and protect herself. When trauma kicks in, it kicks hard. I recovered after a little while, and went on with my evening. But I was angry. Because that type of rude interruption is so unfair, and so frustrating.

It’s not always this bad. I can have months where things like this don’t happen at all. For me, PTSD get worse when my general stress level gets worse. So right now, with all the commitments I have and worrying about school and money and processing grief as well, trauma becomes a part of my life again. Which stresses me out. Which makes me more prone to experience the trauma. It’s an ugly cycle that I truly hate, because all I want is to be a person.

I just want to be a person. Not a victim, not a survivor. Not a person who can’t go to a ball game without taking medication. Not a person who sees semen in shampoo. Just a person, whose life isn’t interrupted by trauma.

Will I ever get to see that?

 

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God,which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4: 6-7

We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

Romans 5: 3-5

Tears from Fears

Having PTSD is weird.

Having Complex PTSD is weirder. You know, I have needed to cry for a while now. After a year of grief, death, loss, stress, excitement, pain, hard truths, and very little time to process, I have needed to cry. Really cry. The kind of crying that leaves you a red-faced, snotty, puffy-eyed mess. The kind of crying that comes from your gut. Loud, ugly, soul-cleansing crying.

Thanks to PTSD, I have not been able to do this. In order to cry like that, you need to relax. When your body stays in stressed-out survival mode the way mine does, your sympathetic nervous system does not allow your brain the luxury of feeling safe enough to feel emotions deeply. So they get shoved away, stuck on a psychological shelf somewhere. They wait. The weirdest triggers can bring about the crying, though, and it happened last night.

It was nearly two in the morning. I was about to try to settle down to sleep when I got a message from a dear friend: her cat, who is like her baby and her best friend, had unexpectedly died that day.

Suddenly, it happened. I was crying, and I couldn’t stop. The crying got loud. I didn’t want to have any attention or talk about anything with anyone in my house, so I crept downstairs, grabbed my keys, and went and sat in my car in the driveway. I just sat in the silence of my sealed car, like my own soundproof booth, and wailed.

And wailed.

I’m really not sure how long I stayed out there. I was messaging with my friend for part of that time, when I was able to stop and gather myself for a few seconds.

Here’s the thing about this type of crying: while it’s uncomfortable, I find it to be an incredible relief, almost like a prayer of supplication through my body: God, please take these things which have been weighing on me. As I express them through my tears, please take them from me and by your compassion replace them with your grace. Amen.

You want to know something weird? I almost enjoy crying. I’ve done a lot of it since September. That’s when I figured out how to cry.

See, when I was a child, I literally never cried. Ever. Not when I was being abused. Not when I broke my arm. Not when I smashed my finger in a heavy wooden door and my fingernail came off. I just. Didn’t. Cry. And I thought that was like, just an “abused child” thing. Like I was just super tough, because I had to be. But it wasn’t.

Through counseling I figured out that when I was being abused, it was my father’s specific goal to make me cry, to make me react in pain. He wanted to see me hurting and terrified; he got off on that. I must’ve intuited that, and as a way to defend myself, to hold some control, I stopped crying. I stopped reacting at all. I refused to give him what he wanted. Which meant that he became more and more violent to try to elicit the reaction he wanted from me. Which meant I withdrew deeper and deeper into myself to survive, until I didn’t know how to feel anything.

When I realized this, it was huge. I was able to see my inability to cry not as a fault but as an act of heroism on the part of the child that I was, who refused to feed the evil energy attacking her. And therefore, I was able to redeem my tears as something safe, something holy. Withholding them once protected me. Now, every time I’m able to cry it’s like spitting on my father, and saying: you won’t take this from me. Every tear is like a tiny baptism, a birth by water into the newness of life beyond that trauma.

So you can see how, even though crying is painful, for me, it’s an experience I’ve only really been fully having for a few months, and so in many ways I almost relish it. It’s a release most people take for granted that I never really had. I’m grateful because, even thought crying is usually seen as something negative, to me it has made me more whole, more human. How could I be anything but glad about that?

So yeah, PTSD is weird, and you never know what will set you off crying. I’m just grateful that at this point, that’s something I can do.

 

‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Revelation 21:4-5

 

 

Forgiveness: Defining and Deciding

Content Warning: Sexual Assault, Incest

When victims of violence, particularly sexual violence, are on their healing journeys, the topic of forgiveness often comes up– and it can be a very touchy subject.

Forgiveness means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For some, it means the total absolution of any wrongdoing on the part of the person who hurt them. For some, it goes so far as reconciliation with one’s assailant. For some, it has absolutely nothing to do with the other person, and it’s solely focused on the victim; forgiveness simply means letting go of the guilt, shame, pain and other feelings associated with the trauma. For some forgiveness simply means moving on. I know a lot of people who have been told, to their detriment, that they cannot “move past” their trauma until they “forgive.” Most of these comments come from people of a religious persuasion. Don’t get me wrong, I am a woman of deep faith and forgiveness has been part of my healing journey. However, I do not believe that it needs to be part of everyone’s journey, or that it is necessary in order for someone to heal and move past their trauma. Deciding whether or not to approach forgiveness is a very personal choice, and no one should be forced into it based on other people’s beliefs.

For me, forgiveness was definitely a spiritual process, and one that had nothing really to do with my father or other perpetrators. It had everything to do with me and my own healing. And I never really made a conscious decision to approach this; it honestly felt more like God led me down this path and I had to try to keep up.

It began with praying. I began praying for my father, for the man that raped me when I was sixteen, for all the people who had hurt me. I wasn’t ready to pray for anything good for them, so I started out praying for one thing only: that I would be their last victim. That they would never hurt anyone else.

It was a start.

After a while I was able to pray that their hearts would be turned to Christ and they would repent of their actions. I prayed that Jesus would forgive them (because I wouldn’t.)

Things really began to shift in June of 2016. When the shootings occurred in that Orlando nightclub, my priest Beth+ preached an incredible sermon. She said that it’s easy for us to be Christ-like towards the victims of mass shootings like this. It’s easy for us to be Christ-like to the families. It is not easy to be Christ-like, to love as we love ourselves, the perpetrators of these mass shootings. But what if, at some point in their lives, someone had been Christ-like towards them? Someone had loved them, helped them, supported them, taught them, the way Christ did? Would these events have occurred then?

As Beth+ was asking these questions, I found myself sobbing in the pew. At first I didn’t know why I was crying and then I realized: I was feeling empathy. Empathy for my perpetrators. For my father. For the man who raped me. For all of them. Because somewhere in their lives, they had been broken. They had been lost. Somewhere in their lives, they became gripped by sin and death. How horrible a life they must have led, to have ended up people that would commit such evil acts. How much pain they must be in.

And I didn’t know what in the hell to do with that.

I was terribly confused by this feeling of empathy. Normally, I would have gone to Katie+, the priest I had been seeing for pastoral counseling on and off for the past two years. However, she had just left for a new parish, and I was kind of feeling at loose ends. God works, though, because a priest from our sister church came to visit St. Mary’s in Katie’s+ absence. And just a few weeks later, when these feelings arose, I called on him.

Now, why did I call on a virtual stranger to help me with this? Um…good question. I still have very little information on that. All I know is that I felt God nudging me. So I heeded that, and tried not to wonder about it too much.

Going to him turned out to be an excellent decision. Through a few months of counseling with him I managed to do a huge amount of spiritual work, not just around my father, but around my grief over my infertility and my trauma in general. I accepted things that I had never accepted before, certain memories I had kept secret, even from myself; shoved into a back corner, unacknowledged, deemed unnecessary to my narrative. What I discovered is that it’s those unacknowledged things that end up controlling the narrative until you give them exposure, and dispel the shame.

As for the forgiveness part, what I had to do was really develop not only empathy, but compassion. First, compassion for myself. For myself as a child, as a teenager, for everything I endured and everything I did to survive what I endured. I completely forgave myself for everything I did to survive, everyone I hurt or lied to during my eating disorders, my self-harm, my drug abuse. I recognized the fact that those things wouldn’t have even existed had it not been for the trauma. I take responsibility for my actions, but I refuse to blame myself for developing those conditions.

Then, I developed compassion for my perpetrators, especially my father. I had to find the reasons why he did what he did. I’ll never understand (who can?) but I can gain enough insight to feel compassion. My father was also abused as a child. He was sexually abused by his mother, and physically and verbally abused by his father. He had mental illnesses, clinically diagnosed with bipolar disorder, antisocial personality disorder (aka sociopathy), and substance abuse. (Please note: none of these things are excuses for his behavior, and it is highly unusual for victims of sexual abuse to become perpetrators themselves, or for people with mental illness to become violent.) Even his own history of abuse and mental illness did not explain to me what he did though. Because I can’t quite explain it, but what I saw in his eyes when his face was above mine and he was sexually assaulting me, his own daughter, was evil. Just evil.

I don’t really believe in Satan, as in the cloven-hooved personification of evil who lives in hell, etc. But I do believe in evil as an entity itself, because I have seen it. I saw it in my father: in his dead soulless eyes, in his voice as he growled unrepeatably cruel and disgusting words in my ear, as he did unspeakably violent and dehumanizing things to my little girl body. I experienced evil in a way that no one should ever experience it, up close and extremely personal. And I carried with me a fear I didn’t even know until the priest I was working with said it out loud to me: that this evil was somehow inherent to him, and because I was his daughter, it was somehow inherent in me too.

What I eventually discovered as invited God into these traumas is that, unlike I had previously thought, He was always there, protecting me. Not in the ways I imagined, but He was there. He protected my mind and my spirit. He kept me sane and kept my soul from being touched by the evil inches away from me. He sheltered those parts of me until I was out from under that tyranny, and it was safe for them to come out again.

I also eventually discovered something else, that was maybe the most important thing in the whole process: that I had to stop mythologizing my father. I had always called him things like monster, viper, etc. But he wasn’t. He was simply a man. A human being, weakened by abuse, illness, and a lack of any spiritual beliefs or morality or conscience, which left him vulnerable to the evil entity that took over. When I saw him like that– as a  weak, pathetic person overcome by evil– I had compassion. I had compassion for the little boy that was abused, and the man who suffered from mental illness, who had no one to teach him about God or bring him to Christ. And when that happened, all my shame, guilt, and anger fell away.

When this happened, my priest said something revolutionary to me: “You now know that this evil was not inherent to your father. So it’s not inherent to you. So now you can stop hating and fearing yourself for being your father’s daughter.”

Whoa.

He also told me this: “You faced down a demon as a child. One who looked you in the eye and told you you were unlovable, unworthy even to live. And you survived and grew into a place where you know you are loved and worthy. That makes you a total badass.”

He said a lot of cool stuff.

When my priest and I ended our time in counseling, I wrote down all of the terrible things I wanted to give to God, as well as all of the things I wanted for my future, on magician’s flash paper, and burned them on the Paschal candle in the nave. Then he anointed me for healing.

I can’t say that I have never struggled since then, because I still do. What I will say is that going through the process of finding empathy, compassion, and ultimately what my personal definition of forgiveness is for my father (end everyone else, though I didn’t focus on my process with them) was a giant step in my healing and finding peace and acceptance with what happened. And I will also say that it changed the tenor of my struggle; when my PTSD does flare up, it feels less chaotic, less out-of-control frightening than it used to. Maybe because I know that no matter what, I am anchored in God, in hope. I have a peace that passes understanding in Christ Jesus and all things are possible through Him who gives me strength. So though I struggle, I am held.

This is the story of my process, and my process only. I hope it is helpful to someone in explaining how a victim might end up forgiving, because there have been some that have said to me that they can’t understand how I could. This is how. Maybe it will show other victims that it’s possible. I just want every victim to approach the idea of forgiveness carefully and thoughtfully, and with support. Because it may be helpful, or it may not be. It’s totally up to you.

 

But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven.

Luke 6:27, 36-37

In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:37-39

Joy Comes in the Mourning

Content Warning: Rape

Today was a holy day. I went to ACF (Adult Christian Formation, aka “Sunday School for Grownups”) and the discussion was incredible. The fact that our church (and our Church) deliberately takes time to wrestle with questions of faith such as, “Why did Jesus have to die?” is so wonderful to me. When we question faith in community we become seekers instead of heretics, people on journey to understanding. Rev. Beth preached a beautiful sermon about a life of abundance in Christ. I got to experience that abundance in community with this amazing group of women just afterwards at the Daughters of the King luncheon. I adore being surrounded by these women, doing what Anne Lamott says are two of the most holy activities: overeating together and creating art. After that, I had to spend some time studying chemistry, but at least I got to do it in my favorite Starbucks with my sister. And after my memory and my laptop gave out, we sat in the sun and read for awhile, just enjoying the day.

It really was a beautiful day.

Which is why it was so difficult to be having intrusive trauma-related thoughts and images flashing through my head at random times. Which is why it’s hard to feel the old impulses to self-harm, and not act on them. Which is why it’s so, so hard to explain to people how I can have such a wonderful day, and still come home exhausted and wanting to cry.

Because inside I’ve been fighting a battle that you’ll never see, and I don’t ever talk about. I could be in the middle of singing a hymn when the image of semen in my hair comes back to mind, and I feel sick. Things like that, they happen at the worst and weirdest times. Mostly, I just shake my head, shove the image away, and get on with things. But let me tell you, that takes a tremendous amount of energy. And I end up with this feeling like I need to cry, and I literally can’t. It’s strange, this duality.

The joy I experience in my day is real and lasting and I truly appreciate every second of it. But feeling joy does not negate struggle, and I do still struggle. Right now, in particular, with my C-PTSD. At another time it will be something else, but today, this is what it is. And I just want people to know how possible it is- and how common it is- for people to look totally “OK” and still be struggling on the inside.

Part of the grief I’ve gone through is accepting that the traumas I experienced carry a lifetime of echoing consequences. I have to accept the fact that there may be no “full recovery” or “complete healing” from what was done to me. I can only pray for that, and I do. I also have to grieve for the loss of what one might deem a “normal” life. A “normal” childhood. The ability to go through a day without flashing back to suffocating under a body that’s on top of you, raping you.

I grieve normalcy. I grieve health. At times, I grieve sanity.

While I do though, God has given me plenty of other things: joy, grace, sacred beauty, hope, resurrection, creation, prayer, and so, so much love.

Today was a holy day.

For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.

Psalm 30:5