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
I often use the metaphor that my life used to be like a building that was beautiful on the outside, but dark and decrepit and languishing on the inside. Nothing gets spared when you experience sexual abuse as a child or experience being raped. It makes a complete mess of everything and you don’t even know it until you know it.
I was afraid to live because I thought I was a bad person. I was a bad person because of all the things I’d do to cope with feeling bad. I was even bad for wanting love, because bad girls don’t deserve love. People only want them for sex. And women who are good for sex are whores. And whores are bad too. But I was only good at being bad.
I wasn’t brave. I was busy running away from the problems and pain but one day all my demons caught up to me, and it was going to be them or me. I was so sick and tired of being unhappy in this beautiful but languishing building that I finally wanted to see what was hidden inside, so I lit a match to see the horrors for myself. And there they were hiding in the shadows, all of my demons. Everything in my life finally began to make sense, and I could see I wasn’t bad after all, it was the demons, and the demons had to go.
But how does one kill a demon? I tried to chase them out many times before but it was ayahuasca that taught me the only way to kill a demon is with fire. They must be charred into ash and returned to source, and this is how I accidently burned the whole building to the ground.
I watched piece by piece as my life burned up, every piece of what I thought of as “me,” drenched in flame and reduced to ash, crumbled and disappeared, and I saw that the demons I tried to set fire to were just shadows cast by my own structure. I saw that the only thing to fear was myself, and the fire’s transformative alchemy spared me no dust-covered illusions from my attic. It left me naked and nameless and powerful.
Every relationship I had changed, because I had changed, and there was nothing I could do as I watched the old relationships burn, for they were just reflections of me. I was laid off from a job where I was unhappy, I left my showroom perfect apartment, and I began to operate on an unapologetic level where I could just exist and not have to answer to anyone but myself. When I was all that was left, there was no more fear; there was nothing to lose anymore, and that is what set me free. That is what showed me who I am really am and what I’m really made of.
~ “Expose yourself to your deepest fear; after that, fear has no power, and the fear of freedom shrinks and vanishes. You are free.” – Jim Morrison
There are literally dozens of blogs out there authored by self-proclaimed nail polish addicts, but relatively little in the way of actually discussing the psychology behind this obsession. I first alluded to my addiction to nail polish in a previous posting on drugs and addiction, but is nail polish addiction even a real thing? Could I just be passionate about it instead?
For me, even though I don’t own hundreds or even dozen’s of polishes, the obsession has led me to lose sleep, spend money I don’t have, and time I could have spent better. I know enough to know that it’s not really about owing the polishes, since I often don’t actually buy most of the polishes I want, it’s more about the process of searching, the occupation of my mind with nothing else but polish. There is probably a rush of dopamine going on in my brain right now just from talking about it.
According to Dr. Gabor Maté, author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction, addiction is any relapsing behaviour that satisfies a short-term craving and persists despite its long-term negative consequences. The question is, who is in charge? Me or the polish?
As a teenager, I used to paint my nails almost every single day. I had a couple bottles of cheap Wet ‘n Wild nail polish, and a few more expensive Hard Candy polishes, the ones that come with the little rubber rings. When I got home from school, I’d sit at my desk and do a new manicure. My favourite was always metallic navy blue with silver sparkles as a topcoat.
I used to bite my nails as a child. I’d bite them so bad that on a few occasions I’d actually peel the whole top layer off, which always took a few painful months to grow back. For me, nail biting was a way to relieve stress and anxiety. When I began painting my nails in high school, I found it was a successful way to stop biting them, and I often picked at the polish instead, knowing that I would redo the manicure later that day anyway. It was like a nervous tick, always fussing with my nails. I’ve seen my mother and my aunt do the same thing too, always nervously fiddling with their fingertips.
I think I simply exchanged obsessively biting and peeling my nails for extreme manicures. When I did a manicure, I would cut all traces of my cuticles off. I’d push them back way too far and use a little pair of manicure scissors to cut them right off. I drew blood pretty much everyday, and the skin was always red and inflamed. I did this for years, and I don’t think I stopped cutting my cuticles off until I was in my early 20s.
I know there is something about my current obsession with nail polish that harkens back to those days. Scouring the Internet for new colours, making lists, comparing swatches, searching for the perfect dupe. I haven’t obsessed like this in a very long time, but it all started up again when I was in Montreal this summer, escaping the messy aftermath of telling my mother, sister, and brother, that her husband, our father, had sexually abused me as a child. I was really depressed in Montreal but I’d always cheer up when I was scouring the city for the latest OPI collection, though I didn’t actually buy a single bottle while I was there.
When I am searching for colours I like, it is as though I am in a trance state, not unlike that which I’ve experienced with bulimic binge eating. Same goes for nail polish – nothing else exists while I’m trying to achieve the perfect application or when I’m scouring the Internet for new colours.
Here’s where it got heavy for me recently. When I realized there was a limited edition mint green that I missed out on – OPI’s Damone Roberts 1968 – I could feel the obsession escalate. I could only find two bottles for sale on Ebay for $50 apiece, and neither seller shipped to Canada. I searched high and low for acceptable dupes, with none to be found in my neighbourhood. I actually experienced two nights of insomnia since discovering this polish that I could not possess!
I took it to a whole other level when I decided I would dupe it on my own, DIY-style. I bought three bottles of OPI that I couldn’t afford and got to work mixing. After testing on a palate, I found the winning recipe – half Alpine Snow, half Greenwich Village, with a splash of Jade Is The New Black. That was yesterday afternoon into evening, and I was fine-tuning it even more today since I had access to natural daylight. Although I am very happy with the finished product, the truth is I really didn’t need it and I’m not sure I’ll even wear it more than once. I just spent $30 just to make a mint green nail polish, and I’m supposed to be on a budget right now! But the immense sense of relief that came over me when I perfected my homemade dupe was what made the anxiety go away, not actually possessing the colour. You’d think I’d put in on right away, but so far I’ve just been admiring my handiwork in the bottle.
On top of that, I just ordered another $30 worth of nail polish online, and it’s not lost on me that two of the colours I ordered are a navy blue and a silver sparkle topcoat. So who’s in charge here? Me or the polish? Methinks it might be the polish.
~ “She goes from one addiction to another. All are ways for her to not feel her feelings.” – Ellen Burstyn
After I was raped by an American guy in Shanghai in February 2007, I had a terrible back injury, but no memory of actually injuring myself. I couldn’t even roll over in bed by myself, and you’d think that would be enough to make me clue in that something fishy had happened. Nope! There was literally a dent in my spine and I still did not suspect that the nice American guy I’d met was actually a sicko rapist. Since I had been drinking the night it happened, I figured it was simply from some obscure event that I couldn’t recall, like… maybe I fell on some stairs or something? Denial is serious business! I think the main reason I didn’t put it all together right away was that I was in a foreign country by myself and was already dealing with too much other stress at the time, like trying to figure out how to speak Mandarin Chinese. My subsequent figuring out that I had actually been raped came at a time of relatively low stress, so this is my best guess as to why it surfaced years later. Either way, I understand that it was my unconscious mind – which was completely aware of the events that had transpired – that was protecting me from being overwhelmed.
So after living with a mangled back for four years, how was it that I finally Sherlock Homles’d the case? Three things:
1. I created a safe space. For me this meant time away from my family.
I took a 6-month hiatus away from my parents from September 2010 to March 2011, at the urging of IAM Center co-founder, Joseph Maldonaldo. At the time it was not a question of recovering any memories of rape. That question was not even a consideration since I had repressed, suppressed, blocked out – whatever you want to call it – my knowledge that I’d been raped immediately after it happened. My concern at that time was overcoming other life challenges, and Joseph explained that spending time away from my family would allow me to develop a newfound strength to do so. And you know what else was “weird”? I didn’t miss my parents one bit! It was the beginning of the end of my contact with them.
2. I listened to my dreams, and emotions.
It was in February 2011 (exactly four years after the rape) that I awoke one morning, still watching a dream fade away, only it wasn’t a “dream,” it was a memory of walking out of the rapist’s apartment in a foggy haze thinking it should be 3:00 am and dark outside, but seeing the sun blazing in the sky instead. I was crying as I awoke, and perhaps there was more of this “dream” that I didn’t consciously recall upon awakening, but either way, it had a deep emotional effect on me.
3. I listened to my intuition, and trusted my inspiration.
Now awake and crying, an idea came to me suddenly. My boyfriend was already awake, asking me what the matter is. I asked him to do something for me. I moved to the end of the bed and lay on my back with my knees up. I extended my right arm out. I asked him to hold my arm firmly with both hands and first gently pull on it as if he were going to drag my body, then quickly and firmly push my straightened arm back towards my body. He did and I heard a loud crunching noise! My bones went back into place and my back felt normal again for the first time in four years. The tears came like a flood at that point – the immediate implication was that the injury has been caused a very violent dragging of my body by my arm. It hit me like a lightening bolt – rape. It was rape.
So what did I do about it? I didn’t seek counseling at the time. I was just so grateful that my back felt normal again! I spent that day crying a lot and just doing my best to take care of myself. My boyfriend thought I was mistaken and kept referring to the rape as “that thing you think happened.” It would take eight months for him to get over his own denial. He just couldn’t believe that such a thing could happen and that I would be unaware of it. Ultimately I was happy to not consciously remember the experience, and was just happy I survived it. Life goes on I thought… hoping that was the end of my ordeal. Not even close.
By the following September I was struggling with depression and major anxiety. Everything in my life was suffering, but I hoped it would simply pass. Then February came again, and I was beginning to see a full blown case of PTSD develop. Even simple activities like leaving the house to buy groceries resulted in an adrenaline rush, and not the fun kind. I finally understood the appeal of burkas. It was like being stuck in a state fight or flight with no escape. Since the rape, February had always be a hard month for me since it’s the anniversary of the incident. It was hard even when I was unaware of the rape.
It was that same month of February in 2012 when the fire alarm rang one morning, which got me out of my apartment and into a coffee shop down the street. I ordered a coffee and tried to read a newspaper, but I ended up having a complete emotional breakdown instead. With tears in my eyes I searched for “Vancouver rape relief” on my iPhone. I had to talk to someone immediately and had an appointment at the Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter later that afternoon. It was a good move talking to the counsellors there. They helped me find courage to dig a little deeper and heal. Funny how it took a fire alarm to get me there.
~ “I just want to sleep. A coma would be nice. Or amnesia. Anything, just to get rid of this, these thoughts, whispers in my mind. Did he rape my head, too?” – Laurie Halse Anderson, Speak
~ “I’d still thought that everything I thought about that night-the shame, the fear-would fade in time. But that hadn’t happened. Instead, the things that I remembered, these little details, seemed to grow stronger, to the point where I could feel their weight in my chest. Nothing, however stuck with me more than the memory of stepping into that dark room and what I found there, and how the light then took that nightmare and made it real.” – Sarah Dessen, Just Listen
Politics is a funny thing. It can shape our opinions based on hype. There’s only 24 hours in a day after all, so most of the “information” people get is filtered through mainstream media and other biased “middle men” as we shortcut our way to an opinion, and the politics of drug addiction is no exception.
The black and white politics of street drugs vs. pharmaceutical drugs is to me a hilarious separation of substances, since many street drugs started out as doctor prescribed remedies, or experimental pharmaceutical remedies at the least. This goes for heroin, cocaine, and MDMA. Certain pharmaceuticals are also commonly sold on the street for recreational use, such as OxyContin, Ritalin, Tylenol 3s, and morphine, just to name a few.
But street drug users are shamed, while pharmaceutical users are not, even though both “categories” carry the risk of abuse and toxicity. But alas, it is more socially acceptable to take anti-anxiety pills than to smoke pot to relieve anxiety, even though the pot might actually help with fewer negative side effects, especially if vaporized rather than smoked. But pot is illegal and therefore gets put in the “bad” category, and if you use it to self-medicate you risk being labeled a “pot head.” However, nobody gets labeled a “pill head” if they take anti-anxiety or SSRI pills every day, even if these drugs cause the user to want to hurt themselves or others. The prescription pills are socially sanctioned as “good” drugs, and people often think nothing of advertisements for such medications appearing in magazines or on television, along with their long list of side effects. It’s all framed as cutting edge medicine, while street drugs are the naughty “no no’s”.
The question of addiction is moot. Bruce K. Alexander has written an interesting paper titled “The Myth of Drug-Induced Addiction,” which notes that the idea that some drugs are inherently addictive has deeper roots in culture than in scientific empiricism.
This idea is augmented by the trauma-induced neurological explanations for addiction in the book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction, by Dr. Gabor Maté, M.D. The brain chemistry behind addictions is pretty interesting, and seems to even explain why I sometimes feel the uncontrollable urge to buy a bunch of nail polish I don’t need.
According to Maté, early environment and parental nurturing determines the levels of receptors for certain brain chemicals. When we have fewer receptors, we are more likely to use an addiction to trigger a larger release of chemicals in the brain. Another way of putting this might be that the addict is simply trying to “get normal.”
Our mainstream understanding of addicts as weak-willed individuals simply does not match up with the evidence that suggests the social and traumatic roots of addiction. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study for example, found that respondents with five or more adverse childhood experiences had a seven to ten times greater risk for substance abuse than those with none. It’s certainly true for me that I have coped with adverse childhood experiences with drugs, eating disorders, and even binge shopping (my ACE score was 7).
In my personal experience, I have found relief from smoking pot when I’m feeling anxious and stressed and have conversely not enjoyed it when I am already feeling really good. The pot took me to a “level” which was great if I was down, but which felt awful if I was already up naturally. Similarly, some people can take or leave alcohol or cocaine, while others can’t seem to stop and will risk jobs and relationships to get it. Addiction is not about the substance; it’s about the person, and that person is not necessarily stuck in a static state either.
Have I digressed too far? In summary, it’s not about the substances! We can get addicted to anything, but it is our childhood experiences are a major indicator of how susceptible we are to becoming addicted. So, it’s silly to judge me or others for choosing to smoke pot to relieve anxiety rather than taking anti-anxiety meds – or worse, if I eat Ben & Jerry’s by the pint while watching reruns of South Park. It’s all more or less the same thing.
~ “There are as many addictions as there are people.” – Dr. Gabor Maté, M.D.