The timing and synchronisity of Remembrance Day/Veteran’s Day with what I’ve read in Judith Herman’s book, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror is perfectly suited for a day when we remember the fallen soldiers of war. I am not a proponent of war, but I am sympathetic to the cause of helping fellow humans overcome traumatic experiences and achieve reintegration with the community. Herman discusses the important role of the community in helping survivors of war reintegrate and overcome their traumatic experiences. The community’s recognition of and appreciation of their sacrifices as well as that of their fallen comrades, is of upmost importance to the mental health of those traumatized by war. I’d like to share some excerpts from Herman’s book with you.
“Sharing the traumatic experience with others is a precondition for the restitution of a sense of a meaningful world. In this process, the survivor seeks assistance not only from those closest to her but also from the wider community. The response of the community has a powerful influence on the ultimate resolution of the trauma. Restoration of the breach between the traumatized person and the community depends, first, upon public acknowledgment of the traumatic event and, second, upon some form of community action. Once it is publicly recognized that a person has been harmed, the community must take action to assign responsibility for the harm and to repair the injury. These two responses—recognition and restitution—are necessary to rebuild the survivor’s sense of order and justice.”
She goes on to address war veterans specifically:
“When veterans’ groups organize, their first efforts are to ensure that their ordeals will not disappear from public memory. Hence the insistence on medals, monuments, parades, holidays, and public ceremonies of memorial, as well as individual compensation for injuries.”
The very meaning of November 11th is to remember. This day every year is demarcated for that purpose, and war veterans are assured of it. I must admit this is the first year that I’ve had any awareness around the importance of Remembrance Day/Veteran’s Day ceremonies for the healing and reintegration of soldiers’ mental health. Many of them suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and some recognition from all of us can go a long way is helping to relieve that for them. They’re worth it, not because they are soldiers, but because they are human. Please take a moment to remember and recognize these men and women today.
~ “Probably the most significant public contribution to the healing of these veterans was the construction of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. This monument,which records simply by name and date the number of the dead, becomes by means of this acknowledgment a site of common mourning. The “impacted grief” of soldiers is easier to resolve when the community acknowledges the sorrow of its loss.” -Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery
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
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
I’ve been wanting to start this blog for months, ever since returning from a two-week Ayahuasca retreat in Peru in March of this year, but it’s fair to say I’ve spent the last six months recovering from the inner demons I faced there and the aftermath involved. The healing I experienced was so fast and beyond the scope of my expectations that my whole world burned to the ground upon my return home. My life was the same and yet I was a different person. Upon returning home, in the same week I both confronted my father about sexually abusing me as a child, and then was laid off from a job I was struggling to find peace with. Then one by one, I told the three other members of my immediate family about the sexual abuse memories I recovered in Peru. Some believed me, some didn’t. They were still living in a world that no longer existed for me, and the siren song of denial has been trying to call me back to it, back to the cozy lie where I belong to a family that unconditionally loves me. That is a hard thing to let go of, and is the reason I have kept these abuse memories shelved in the darkest recesses of my mind – until now.
What also caused me to hold back from writing about my experience was the worry of what others would think of my unconventional approach to healing symptoms of so-called post-traumatic stress disorder (brought on by a more recent rape experience) by visiting a shaman in the Amazon to drink a potent visionary substance seven times. I’ve had different responses to this, some telling me it’s irresponsible to not see a therapist, some expressing envy of my deep healing experience, some even expressing concern that I was taking “drugs” to overcome a problem, the irony of which I hope is not lost on you. All I can say is that NOTHING I have ever done in my life to try to overcome a problem (and I’ve had several, from addictions, to eating disorders, to depression, anxiety, and more) had the strong impact and gentle support that ayahuasca gave me. I’ve tried individual therapy, group therapy, self-help books and seminars, SSRIs, self-medicating with pot, cleanses, supplements, juice fasting, and a raw vegan diet. All of these things helped me in some way (except the SSRIs which just made me want to hurt myself, and which I stopped taking immediately after finding out that this is a common experience in young people who take SSRIs) but NONE can even compare to ayahuasca.
This blog is named in honour of my deepest lesson learned while confronting my demons with ayahuasca: The body’s intelligence is perfect and divine. I learned how it has been speaking to me in code in order to help me confront my past, my fears, myself, and overcome that which ails me. It’s always been speaking to me but I have not known how to listen. I cried when I learned that my sudden “allergy” to whiskey was my body trying to tell me I had been drugged and raped the last time I drank it. The reaction of red, bleeding knuckles (literally from not being able to fight back) ceased to happen after I finally listened to what my body was trying to say. Strange? I would have thought so before.
~ “Nature does nothing without purpose.” – Aristotle