Trigger Warning – my brand of PTSD came from situations involving sexual assault, and this post may contain loose details about that situation or other sexual topics regarding my recovery. Nothing super graphic though, don’t be gross.
Post traumatic stress disorder seemed to come into my life like a flood. One minute life seemed totally normal, and the next it began to deteriorate rapidly.
It was sort of like, if you could imagine, every time you bought a smoothy someone would walk up and take that smoothy away from you after a couple sips. After a while, you sort of just know to either avoid buying smoothies or, if you do buy one, only expect two sips. This is just the way things are, and because you haven’t known much else there are no real expectations otherwise.
Now imagine someone sits down with you and tells you that we live in a world where you could have (and you deserve) that entire effing smoothy. I mean, more than two sips. And that these people who have been taking this delicious fruity beverage away from you are a-holes who have done something profoundly inappropriate.
Well there’s shock. And anger. And definitely some horror associated with the fact that people can be so awful to one another, and that you’ve let this smoothy-snatching business go on for so long. There is guilt for not knowing things could have been different, and fear that this cycle is something that will never end.
But, maybe you feel a little empowered too. Like maybe now that you know this business about the smoothies you can buy one and enjoy the entire thing. You can break the cycle! So you go out, you buy a smoothy, and after two sips someone walks up, takes it, and walks away.
This time it feels different though, doesn’t it? This time you know you’ve been violated, that the other person is in the wrong, but maybe you just froze and didn’t know what else you could do to stop it. The anger is much bigger, much more difficult to contain. The fear becomes profound, because now you know that people seem cavalier about hurting you and that it can happen anywhere at any time. The shock leaves you frozen, bringing guilt because, somehow, you knew this would happen, didn’t you? Maybe the horror is so overwhelming you decide to pretend the whole thing never happened, just to put it all out of your mind, and ultimately blame yourself. After all, you really just can’t be trusted with a smoothy.
For me there was a series of moments like these that were like seeds being planted. I pushed the memories and my reactions down into the dirt as far as they would go, and once they were there I didn’t feel a need to address them because I thought I won. I thought I put them somewhere that was somehow equivalent to them not-existing, and if they didn’t exist I couldn’t be upset, right?
I admit, it is easy for me to look over this whole process when it is about a deliciously fruity blended beverage or something as seemingly harmless as seeds and connect the dots, but even now, years later, thinking about this process in terms of sexual assault there is a whole host of emotions that come up making it difficult for me to see through the fog that they create.
For several years I did a great job of putting the whole thing out of my mind and ignoring it. Then, after enough time had passed, those seeds that had been planted began to grow.
They broke through the soil and I suddenly began having panic attacks in crowded places. I became physically ill when someone, anyone, would touch me. I couldn’t leave the house without getting into arguments with people, so I didn’t leave the house. I felt powerless and depressed, but also angry and very afraid. Every time I closed my eyes I could sense someone standing next to me waiting for me to be vulnerable, like any moment I was happily unaware or in the shower or asleep.
The most infuriating part of this process for me was not being able to see how one person could get from the situation I was in to something better. My PTSD symptoms (mostly the anxiety and panic) were just as treatment resistant as my bipolar symptoms so I couldn’t rely on any anti-anxiety medications to help with the panic attacks and fear I was having. My doctors suggested deep breathing and reading boring case studies about PTSD, and while the deep breathing only really helped keep me from constantly screaming the reading seemed to trigger my symptoms over and over again.
Having said that, (spoiler alert) I am sitting here today really feeling like I have finally made a big dent in untangling myself from those awful PTSD plants and I found myself wondering just what I did to make it here. I thought that perhaps sharing what helped create a makeshift ladder for me might be useful to others in a similar situation, and while I am not suggesting you go out and do any of the things I am about to share I can honestly say they helped me, and all of these things were done with the consent of my healthcare team (including my therapist and psychiatrist).
For Anxiety and Panic Attacks
Basically I needed to desensitize myself to being around people and sort of re-learn that people (in general) aren’t trying to hurt me. The real trouble was that any time I was in a more crowded place (the bus, downtown, the grocery store) it would just trigger the panic attacks over and over again. Even at house parties of people I knew and loved I felt overwhelmed and would panic, so I entered into the realm of medical marijuana.
I realize this might not be a popular idea, but totally legal here in Washington State. Also, like many of the medications I have tried, it turned out there are some forms of cannabis that actually made my anxiety and panic symptoms worse, so the process of narrowing things down was a little frustrating. Thankfully, as someone with treatment resistant symptoms I have a lot of experience trying treatments that either aren’t effective or have some rough side effects so I already had a system for taking detailed notes on the effects I was experiencing.
I wont lie, I felt pretty weird about this idea at first. Growing up in a time where I was led to believe that the slightest proximity to any and every “drug” out there (D.A.R.E!!) would immediately make me an addict or banish me to hell or make me lose everything I loved made me initially totally recoil from the idea. The legalization of medical cannabis only dampened this mindset slightly, but after speaking with three different psychiatrists and four separate therapists, all of whom who told me [given the nature of my treatment-resistant symptoms] I should proceed with anything I found that was helping, I felt a little more comfortable. Even so, it took some time for me to feel ok when other people were being judgmental about it but the fact that my doctors had my back (and heck, even my grandmother agreed) made me feel less squeamish about the whole thing.
Once I was able to pinpoint a couple strains that helped alleviate the anxiety and panic I was feeling (without sabotaging something else, like my mood for example) it was a matter of using it strategically (not all the time) to introduce me into settings where I might normally totally freak out, but because the cannabis removed the elements of anxiety and panic I was able to experience triggering situations in what felt like a non-threatening way.
Basically, cannabis allowed me to remember what it was like to be around people and feel safe, or at-ease, and after long enough it became the default setting for my brain again.
For Regaining a Sex Life
This has been very tricky, and while the cannabis was helpful enough to get me to the point of being able to be touched in general (like a back rub or foot massage) I had a big blinking red stop light in my brain around sex for a long time. Not super helpful, considering my PTSD symptoms didn’t actively show up until several years into a committed and safe relationship! Even though it had been years since I was in a place where I was in danger, once those seeds sprouted it didn’t matter.
I am sure it will sound a little funny, but the most helpful thing to removing fear and panic around sex for me was when I had surgery and my doctor told us we weren’t allowed to have sex. That’s right! Having even the possibility of having sex taken off the table made me feel more comfortable because then it wasn’t this awkward thing (or an obligation) I felt compelled to dodge constantly because I felt uncomfortable. Effectively we had to almost start our physical relationship over at square one (I recognize I am really lucky my boyfriend is the most patient person I’ve ever met) and in doing so we re-built the trust that I knew was there, but couldn’t feel because of my anxiety and panic.
For Fear and Paranoia
First I would say going to therapy and spending a lot of time talking about being assertive about boundaries helped me feel a bit more confident, but I was still really afraid that if something happened again I would freeze up and be unable to assert myself.
Something that really helped solidify a confidence in my ability to protect myself was taking a self-defense class with a friend at Fighting Chance Seattle. The staff was really knowledgeable and our male instructor made me feel very much at ease and did not require us to practice defensive moves with him, instead with anyone we felt comfortable with. Being able to connect a physical action to a feeling or desire to protect myself made me believe that if there was ever another situation I knew what to do and would be less likely to freeze in the moment. The class was only one day, but it really helped me feel like I was moving forward.
Another milestone was getting a tattoo that would act as a reminder that the fear I was feeling was coming from me, not from threats around me.
Over the last few years I have tried to keep my apartment feeling like a safe space for me. At first that meant coming home and looking behind every curtain and in every closet to be certain it was safe, but now that I have made some progress with my fear and paranoia I try to talk myself through the fear and visualize every detail of the apartment when it is dark to remind myself it is empty and safe. It is funny to me sometimes to think that my brain wants to imagine all kinds of horrors waiting for me when I close my eyes, but I spend a lot of time actively un-imagining them!
While I can’t sit here and say, “and that’s how I kicked PTSD in the face! It is gone forever!” Things have gotten significantly better.
I still get triggered from time to time, but I’ve got enough tools to keep myself from replanting that same seed over and over again. After taking that self-defense class I felt quite empowered when I was faced with a situation on a city bus, a creepy dude next to me put his hand on my leg.
Initially I started to freeze. I could feel myself starting to shut down as I had in the past, but somehow I managed to turn things around and do the total opposite of the cowering I felt like doing.
“Excuse me?!?” I yelled in his face and then stood abruptly, pushing past him to sit in another seat. He looked over at me and I scowled, shaking my finger at him. Even though my hands were shaking and my heart was racing I turned away to look out the window and my scowl turned into a faint smile.
I was free.