In January of 2010, after the great exodus from my abuser’s home, I was alone one Saturday afternoon and I chose to spend it doing my laundry. At that time, I lived in an apartment with an on-site laundry-mat. Carrying my hamper, I stepped out onto the sidewalk and started past the other two apartments in my row. It was sprinkling rain and the air was damp and cold. As I approached unit 3, I could hear voices; as I got closer, there was the unmistakable sound of a fist striking flesh. I heard a woman’s short, startled scream and a man shout, “You can’t do this to me!” before he struck her again. I don't know what happened next, because I was swept away into a moment that had occurred back in November; a moment of trauma and pain that I would have preferred to forget.
I am huddled at the end of the sofa and he is looming over me, his fists pounding the back of the couch in front of my face. His voice, high-pitched in his fury, rings in my ears: You can’t do this to me! I am frozen, watching in horror as he stops hitting the couch and starts hitting me instead, first punching me in the forehead, and then striking the left side of my head again and again, on the temple and above my ear. There is a burgeoning explosion – fire blossoming white-yellow-orange-red. Pain radiates outward across my skull, curling on the edges of this neural flame. I clutch my hands to my head, covering my face, voicing a sharp, startled scream –
When I came to myself again, I was wet with rain, even though it was still just sprinkling. The hamper was overturned beside me and a few articles of clothing were lying on the sidewalk. I was clutching the left side of my head with one hand and guarding my face with the other. The only sound coming from apartment three was from the television, where some unseen salesman was hawking a new kind of furniture polish. I didn’t have to wonder what had happened – I knew: I had just suffered a flashback, a vivid recreation of past trauma. It was the first one I’d had related to the abusive relationship I had just left a couple of weeks before, and a definitive sign of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
PTSD is best defined as a normal human reaction to an abnormal event. Many people are familiar with it as something suffered by combat-veterans; at one point, it was even called shell-shock. What many people don’t know is that anyone who suffers a life-threatening event, or actual or perceived threats to physical integrity, can develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD is characterized by feelings of intense horror, helplessness, or fear, re-experiencing distressingly vivid memories of the event (these are flashbacks), and sometimes, intense nightmares about the trauma. People with PTSD regularly avoid reminders of their trauma – these reminders are called triggers. They often show symptoms of increased arousal such as sleep difficulties, hypervigilance, irritability, and an exaggerated startle response. A diagnosis of PTSD is given if these symptoms are experienced for more than a month (RAINN, 2009). PTSD is a disease of darkness and helplessness, it traps and entangles you; your body is no longer yours to control. The fear engendered by flashbacks is almost indescribable – how dreadful to know that you are safe and yet to be unable to feel it, how awful to know that you are free from the danger but to re-experience that trauma again and again. Your body disengages from your will and you may even feel ghosts of the pain you once felt.
What happened to me that day on the sidewalk was a deep flashback, triggered by a fight between my neighbor’s daughter and son-in-law, who had moved in with her when they lost their home due to unemployment. I was unprepared for the swiftness of the symptoms though not unfamiliar with them – for years after the sexual assault that happened when I was a teenager, I had suffered and dealt with PTSD. I knew my triggers and I assiduously avoided them: pine-scented cleaner, the echoing sound of running water in a public restroom, adolescent male voices with no visible source, the taste of Dr. Pepper, and the smell of bourbon. But after the violence of my recent relationship, it appeared there were new triggers to be learned and dealt with. It was a depressing thought. I knew as well as anyone how debilitating PTSD can be – for me, it had led to a kind of quiet, social anguish that kept me cloistered at home and unable to work or even deal constructively with people at all. Things as simple as making telephone calls or paying bills had become an ordeal for me in the past, and it had taken a lot of conscious work to overcome the symptoms and be able to live my life again. The last thing I wanted was to have to go back through those days of darkness.
Soon after the flashback that January afternoon, I began experiencing nightmare-flashbacks of being trapped in a car with my abuser; snow pelted down and the sensation of reckless speed made my skin crawl. He screamed, pounding the dash and the windshield, threw wild punches at me, connecting with my mouth, my jaw, my shoulder. Sometimes the dreams were not memories, but were new fears being expressed during sleep – I would be moving through my day and would look up to see him, standing somewhere near, watching me… Probably the most horrific of these night-terrors were the ones in which I was frozen and unable to move as he slid into bed beside me; I could actually feel his body against mine and would awaken with my heart pounding and my throat aching from screams I could not voice.
Fortunately, I had developed some good coping mechanisms during my struggle with PTSD. For example, I had learned how to ease myself out of a flashback by concentrating on the ocean-sounds of my breath as air moved in and out of my body. This grounded me and helped me to focus on what was real. Another tool was counting down from 10 to 1 as I inhaled and exhaled deliberately, controlling and calming my breathing. As the weeks and months went by, the flashbacks became fewer, though they have not completely gone away even now, over a year later. I am still learning my new triggers; the sound of a man shouting, driving in snow, and the sound of breaking glass to name just a few. They are little things, but they plunge me down into darkness, and it is hard to climb back up.
Women who suffer sexual assault are at high risk of developing PTSD. In the month after a rape or assault, 94% of women report symptoms of PTSD. Nine months after a rape or assault, 30% of those women are still experiencing full-blown Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (US Dept. of Veterans Affairs, 2007). Throughout their lifetimes, 11% of women who survived rape will continue to experience PTSD. So does that mean that there is no cure?
No – it just means that our society doesn’t always know how to help sufferers of PTSD. However, there is help if you are experiencing symptoms. You should talk to a mental health professional. The treatment you receive could range from talk therapy to cognitive behavioral therapy, to EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) to medications. Your health care professional should be able to help you discover the best treatment for you, but be careful to choose someone who has experience in dealing with survivors of rape and assault, and the treatment of PTSD in survivors. Not all physicians have the knowledge needed to help you find the best treatment for your PTSD; the first doctor I spoke to about my symptoms wanted me to take Zoloft. I refused; I wasn’t depressed. I was traumatized. I opted instead to begin with talk-therapy, which I found helpful.
I am not yet 100% PTSD free, but it is possible to be. There are some great resources out there for knowing how to help yourself, but one of the most encouraging ones I’ve found is Heal My PTSD, a website founded and managed by Michele Rosenthal. While she is not a survivor of sexual assault, Michele’s struggles with PTSD and her subsequent healing can provide a wealth of inspiration and information for anyone with PTSD. So – help is available, and there is hope. This knowledge is what I hold onto when the darkness rises – and it does, more often than I care to admit - like last night, for example.
I can’t move. It’s the first thing I notice – my body is heavy and I feel as if some invisible force has immobilized me. Behind the heavy curtains I can hear furtive movements – the scratching of rats inside a wall. But it isn’t rats…rats can’t speak – rats can’t whisper threats, can’t urge each other to do unspeakable things. I am frozen in place and the harsh words echo inside my brain: Let’s get her. The curtains swirl and then I see hands, pale in the gloom, hands reaching and grabbing and tearing at me…
Though I know that this moment ended almost twenty-six years ago, I am THERE, I am pinned and used and broken; though I try, I cannot escape. Almost thirty years later, I am still trying, but that’s what surviving is about – you never give up.
Rape Abuse Incest National Network (RAINN). 2009. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Retrieved April 15, 2011 from http://www.rainn.org/get-information/effects-of-sexual-assault/post-traumatic-stress-disorder
US Department of Veterans Affairs. 2007. National Center for PTSD: Sexual Assault against Females. Retrieved April 15, 2011 from http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/pages/sexual-assault-females.asp