I still have post-traumatic stress disorder – PTSD – from being drugged and raped in 2007. I used to just think that the PTSD symptoms were just negative personality traits of mine. I thought I was just irritable, easily provoked, and agitated by nature. I thought I used marijuana habitually because I was too “weak” to give it up, and yet I was aware that I felt more “normal” with it than without it in terms of sleeping, eating, and mood. I’ve never sought an official diagnosis, but since February 2011, when I became consciously aware of the rape, it was suddenly painfully obvious to me that I’d been suffering from PTSD for years.
I’ve always felt shame when expressing my “negative personality traits,” and simply attributing them to PTSD has made no difference in this respect. Perhaps the shame is there because I haven’t taken the time to appreciate the adaptive purpose PTSD can serve? I feel I’ve begun to gain a deeper understanding by reading Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror by Judith Herman, particularly of how PTSD initially affected my life immediately following the rape, even though I was completely unaware that it had happened.
You might be wondering how I could not be aware of being raped – I wondered that too! I can only assume that because I was drugged unconscious, and perhaps also because I was badly injured during the rape, my conscious mind automatically denied the possibility of rape to me, this being an adaptive response so I could remain functional. It wasn’t conscious denial, it’s just the prospect of rape didn’t even cross my mind. As Herman notes, “This voluntary suppression of thoughts related to the traumatic event is characteristic of traumatized people.” I told myself it was just that I had a mystery back injury from drinking. “Did I fall?” I wondered to myself. The point is, after the rape, I was unaware that rape had occurred, and yet my life began to disintegrate before my eyes. At the time it was a mystery to me why I felt compelled to make so many bad choices, but compelled I was and there was no stopping it. This post is an attempt to understand this “bad behaviour” as adaptations for survival instead of simply shameful behaviour.
After the rape, I was suddenly afraid to live alone, so I moved in with Sam, someone I’d just started seeing and barely knew. I couldn’t roll over by myself to get out of bed due to the rape injury, so I told myself that I simply needed Sam to help care for me. My job performance immediately crumbled into shit, and as I watched myself fail I felt powerless to fix it, but also felt uncharacteristically neutral about it. I was more confrontational with bosses, and more antagonistic with peers. I started drinking heavily and blacking out regularly. I just trusted that Sam would take care of me and babysit me when I was drunk, which he usually did. I wasn’t attracted to him, and I was in no emotional state to be dating anybody, but I knew he’d do anything for me, so… in that respect he was perfect! Sam eventually pushed for sex, and I was so numb I let him and honestly didn’t care if he was using me. I broke things off with the attractive Italian architect I’d been seeing because I didn’t want him to know what a mess I was. I now know all of this was a reaction to the rape, but at the time I hated myself for letting everything go to shit and could make no sense of any of it. The only explanation was that I was a terrible person, and that’s what I believed about myself.
In Trauma and Recovery, Herman discusses the three cardinal symptoms of PTSD: (1) Hyperarousal; (2) Intrusion; and (3) Constriction. Having read examples in the book about how these symptoms manifested in others, I was shocked to see how my “bad behaviours” were actually attempts at mastering my own feelings of helplessness and reestablishing a sense of control of my environment.
Hyperarousal is the first cardinal symptom of PTSD. It means constantly being on guard for something bad to happen. For me, this first manifested as insomnia, explosive anger, and aggression, but years later has turned into generalized anxiety and a fear of alcohol, night clubs, and even fear of walking past strange men on the street. I have a strong startle response to loud noises as well, and was recently reminded of this when Hallowe’en fire crackers started going off two weeks ago. The question is, how is any of this helping me?
The adaptive purpose of this chronic arousal of my nervous system is that I “feel ready” should I be faced with any further traumatic events. It’s actually an elaborate illusion of smoke and mirrors though, since there’s really no way to prepare oneself for an unknown future trauma. Rather than offering me any real control, hyperarousal serves to allow me to feel a sense of mastery and control over my environment when in fact no one is capable of that level of control. Complete vulnerability is the fundamental state of humanity, and that’s hard to accept for anyone. Even those who have not been traumatized feel a false sense of control over their environment when in truth, if someone really wanted to hurt them they could find a way to do it. But there’s comfort in this illusion, and therefore it is adaptive.
Intrusion is the second cardinal symptom of PTSD. It is a replaying of the trauma, either in dreams, in actions, or in words. Herman explains that people often feel compelled to “recreate the moment of terror, either in literal or disguised form,” and that “in their attempts to undo the traumatic moment, survivors may even put themselves at risk of further harm.” Since I had no conscious memory of the rape, for me the intrusion manifested more like it would for a child who’s play scenes reenact an early trauma of which the child has no conscious memory. For me, it seems this played out as drinking heavily and blacking out, and also letting Sam “rape” me. Herman further explains that even when voluntarily chosen, there is something about these reenactments which feels involuntary. These behaviours appear maladaptive on the surface, but there is something more subtlety adaptive at work here.
Freud called this reenactment the “death instinct” since he could not understand why a person would voluntarily place themselves in great danger again and again. I certainly could not understand why I was doing these things, only that I was compelled to do them. I can see now that I was unconsciously trying to recreate the scenario so that I might gain mastery over it. I had more control when I made myself lose consciousness then when I was forced unconscious by another. I had more control when I agreed to be “raped” than when I had no choice in the matter. Dreams that replay the trauma are also part of the intrusive symptoms, but I would not experience an intrusive dream until four years later, which was an exact replaying of my memory of leaving the rapist’s apartment, and not really a “dream” at all, a quality shared by the traumatic dreams of other PTSD sufferers. After I had that dream, I indeed found a way to master the situation by reverse engineering and fixing my rape injury.
Constriction is the third cardinal symptom of PTSD. This means going numb, giving up, being the proverbial “deer in the headlights” calmly surrendering to death or danger over which you have no control. This is the response seen in animals caught by a predator, knowing they face certain death. I felt this most in my inability to respond to the fact that my life was disintegrating before my eyes. I also experienced constriction when I cared nothing about letting Sam use my body for sex. It’s like it wasn’t even me, like my body was no longer a part of me. It was a simple trade-off for the protection I needed and was in no way an expression of sexuality on my part. Sex was the furthest thing from my mind. Taking drugs or alcohol in hopes of intensifying the level of dissociation is also part constrictive symptoms, and I was drinking every single day to achieve maximum numbness. Years later I was, until recently, using marijuana on a daily basis to deal with the constant anxiety I felt. One of the unexpected side effects of ceremonial shamanic use of ayahuasca was no longer feeling the urge to numb myself with substances every day, and I truly feel that this was where healing began for me.
Although constriction is a merciful reprieve in the moments before death, or expected death, its continuance is ultimately maladaptive to healing if one survives the attack. Healing only happens when we feel, and numbing my feelings day after day was a huge obstacle to healing. I feel my substance abuse was one of the most shameful aspects of my PTSD because I attributed it to shortcomings in my personality, not understanding its purpose. It was only after I no longer smoked every day that I understood and forgave my reasons for it, so harsh was my judgement of it.
Now that I have a better understanding of how PTSD has affected my life, I hope it will be easier to accept that I’m human and not superhuman, and that I was simply reacting to a trauma in ways that were normal and ultimately adaptive for me following the rape. The shame I feel about these behaviours has been felt for a number of years at this point so it’s now a case of deconstructing false negative beliefs I’ve created about myself, and honestly, I feel better already after simply writing this post. This post focused more on how PTSD initially affected me, and less on how it has morphed as the years when on, but that is definitely something I’ll be writing more about in a future post.
If you have any stories about how PTSD has affected your life, I’d love to hear about it in the comments. Although PTSD looks messy on the outside, it’s all just an instinct for healing and mastery. However, I also feel that in my experience and on the grand scale, PTSD symptoms have been adaptive behaviours to simply feeling powerless. What has made all the difference for me is knowing that I have the power to manifest healing in my life, and that I do not have to be a passive reactor to my environment, using these behaviours as crutches to limp through life. I don’t always remember that I have this power, but I do my best to remind myself of it often. I have the power to heal myself, I have the power to choose change, and I have the power to be happy.
~ “Enjoy where you are or you will never get where you’re going. Enjoy where you are and you will BE where you are going.” – Bashar, channelled by Darryl Anka
Every now and then I have a dream that provokes terror or hysterical sadness. It’s more accurate to refer to these dreams as nightmares, or night terrors, but I’ll stick to the term “dreams” for simplicity. There was the dream that was the exact replay of leaving a rapist’s apartment where I was drugged, then there were others in which my father is vying for my naked body and I’m trying to hide myself. There have been others that allude to sexual abuse in more abstract terms, like a baby’s vagina covered in blood and semen, and an old white man with a whip for a penis coming after me and forcing me to carry him on my back. Every one of these had me reeling afterwards, but this is expected given that dreams are a medium through which we can process and address repressed emotions.
Even though it’s obvious to me what the general meaning of these dreams are at face value – rape and incest – it’s interesting to look at some of the research that has delineated some larger overall patterns of how sexual trauma influences the dreamscape. I’ve referred to the book Trauma and Dreams edited by Deirdre Barrett, to see what is commonly observed in the dream experiences of sexually traumatized women. We’ll see that it is usually the emotional reality of the trauma that is replayed to the victim, rather than the actual traumatic event itself. This was certainly clear when I dreamt about leaving a rapist’s apartment, exactly as I had done in real life, but the emotional impact of that dream was devastating.
First, let’s start with the themes usually found in the dreams of women with a history of sexual abuse. Sexual themes are common, not surprisingly, as is an association of sex with negative qualities, such as distrust, shame, anger, guilt, jealously, or anger. For victims of sexual trauma, the sex in their dreams is usually combined with aggression and/or violence, although even in this group, only 15 percent report nightmares where sexual abuse is literally portrayed.
Explicit violence is another common theme in the dreams of sexually abused women, but in contrast to the more general violent themes that are common for many women, sexually traumatized women usually had more details of the violence, like blood or dismemberment present in the dream. There is also more verbal aggression reported in the dreams of this group.
Sexually abused women were also more likely to have a male stranger play a main role in the dream. Often he is faceless, shadowy, or otherwise representative of evil. Many sexually abused women reported dreaming of an evil presence that threatens or succeeds in entering her room or her body. Snakes and worms are also slightly more common in the dreams of sexually abused women, as well as references to body parts or anatomy being more prevalent, especially sexual anatomy. They were also more likely to give more details descriptions of the physical appearance of characters from their dreams.
It’s been interesting to review these themes with the dreams I’ve recorded in the past, dreams that I might otherwise have forgotten because they didn’t seem to have any traumatic significance at face value. It was only after reviewing these themes that the less literal and more symbolic representations of sexual abuse in my dreams became clear, like the dream of the old white man with a whip handle for a penis that was threatening to hurt me. The dreams that most literally pointed to sexual trauma were unforgettable and also tended to be the most emotionally disturbing. No cryptic interpretation was necessary in those cases, and perhaps my propensity to not trust myself has led to a need for more literal representations of the abuse.
Learning to trust myself has been a process I’ve only just begun this year, at thirty years old, and learning to trust my dreams has been a big part of that. It’s interesting that the themes of sexual violence seem to pop up at times when I begin to question my feelings and wonder if maybe I’m crazy for feeling like my dad is a creep. At least this shows me that there’s an aspect of myself, perhaps my unconscious mind, that has my back in all of this and won’t let me deceive myself, because slipping back into the warm comfort of denial tempts me all the time, even though it made my life completely dysfunctional. When you think about how much our unconscious mind holds for us that we don’t “know” about, it’s absolutely amazing that just the right things leak out into consciousness at the just the right time.
~ ” The dream is a little hidden door in the innermost and most secret recesses of the soul.” – Carl Gustav Jung