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 sometimes wish that I could remember all of the abuse from my childhood, just so that there would be no more surprise landmines to step on every time a new memory surfaces. I know that memories come back when a person is ready to deal with them, but some days it’s just really hard not knowing everything. I still can’t seem to remember anything around third grade when I must have been seven or eight years old, I don’t even remember the name of my third grade teacher or what my classroom looked like. I know my brain must’ve shut off in some capacity in order to protect me, but protect me from what I don’t exactly know.
I’ve discovered that my feelings, the same feelings I was blaming myself for or numbing myself from for so many years, are of paramount importance. I’ve only just begun to respect and trust these feelings, and I’ve also learned that feelings are the essence of a memory, far more so than any narrative of a recollection. I’ve come to trust and respect my feelings through ceremonial shamanic use of ayahuasca in Peru, and also through dreams, particularly because the inspiration I’ve had from dreams have been instrumental in helping me to heal from a more recent rape that occurred in 2007. I’ve been allowing myself to feel more lately. I try to remember how it felt to be seven years old again ask the feeling to show me where it goes next. I’m having more information come to me in dreams when I do this. Specifically, I had a dream of my father voyeuristically staring at my naked body, where I am blind and struggling to open my eyes as l try to cover myself and get away from him.
I’ve also been appreciating triggers in a whole new way because they always point the way to something important. I now know the reason they “trigger” any response at all is because of prior experiences. I’ve been observing myself and I find I am often on guard with older men. It’s something about the way some of them covertly sexualize me that makes me suspicious of their motives. If they do or say anything to me that is flirtatious or suggestive, if they try to touch me or my clothing, I immediately dissociate. I get extremely angry, but feel paralyzed to respond in the moment. I then avoid them and carry myself with an attitude of anger in the hopes of repelling them. Unfortunately, this sometimes brings me the attention of men who have a sadistic glint in their eye, and that makes me even angrier. I’ve had other women ask me what the big deal is. “That’s just how men are,” they tell me. All I know is that for me, it is very, very triggering.
If a much older man makes overtly sexualizing comments about my body I feel like I want to crawl out of my skin. I am repulsed and disgusted by it. They don’t even have to say anything but if they are obviously leering at me, it stokes the fires of rage in my heart, and they’re probably left wondering why I’m acting so cold and bitchy towards them. That’s one conflict I keep running into. Older men sexualize me, either with stares or comments, and I feel powerless to respond. I react by dissociating, ignoring, hoping they will just go away. And I end up feeling vulnerable and angry. Even at 30 years old I have a terrifying and irrational fear of saying something to these men.
In the past I’ve had well meaning people try to warn me about my angry attitude, women who say that it might not look that bad at 29, but at 35 or 40 it’s going to look grotesque. I only thought to myself, “good, it’s working.” The whole point is to drive away men who might hurt me. I now fully trust that there’s a reason why I feel compelled to act this way, why I feel safer when I do it. I trust that my triggers reflect to me a deeply ingrained emotional reaction to some original situation where I was hurt or threatened, a situation I cannot recall to memory yet. On the flip side, I trust that reacting to present circumstances through the lens of the past can lead to revictimization. It’s those men with the sadistic glint in their eye, that see me more easily since my anger freely promotes the fact that I feel threatened, which could lead to me being a target. Even knowing this, it’s hard to change, it’s hard to feel vulnerable, but I’m going to overcome this, and in the meantime, I am going to trust that my feelings, dreams, and triggers have meaning.
~“Trust your instinct to the end, though you can render no reason.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson