How can we really see?

What if we could look at the world and really see it? I mean seeing it through the eyes of imagining. I hope that in reading these posts, the eyes of your mind will open and let you see more, feel more, and think more about the world.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

PTSD: Learning to Survive

I couldn't get out of bed this morning... again. It's been happening less often lately, but for a while there I could barely force myself to shower or eat every day. The whole process of cooking something, and then sitting down and chewing, chewing, chewing... it took too much effort. Same with showering. Taking off each piece of clothing took so much energy. Climbing in the shower and scrubbing took even more energy. It was just too much. I would get exhausted half way through and just stand in the shower with the hot water pouring down on the back of my neck, wanting to cry but feeling completely hollow. This is what depression feels like, for those of you who have never experienced it. Depression isn't just "feeling blue". It's not something you just "push through". You don't just "get over it". At least, I can't. Depression is different for everyone.

For me, the depression is almost crippling. It runs rampant through my family, but we have mostly coped with it by getting lots of sunlight and finding things that uplift us when we get into that "funk". After my sexual assault it got even worse. Much worse. My depression combined with this thing called PTSD, and became overwhelming.

PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, isn't just something that military veterans get. It can develop after any traumatic experience: car crashes, sexual assaults, witnessing a murder, severe physical shock such as breaking your back... and the only way to know for sure that you have it is by seeing a psychiatrist and being diagnosed with it.

A psychiatrist?! I know! I know what that word brings to mind. You think of crazy people flinging poo, or people with cuts on their wrists. It calls to mind people in hospital gowns with vacant eyes, watching the same program on TV for the fifth time that day. But it isn't anything like that, I promise! Let me tell you about my therapist, Mr. B. He's wonderful.

When I first met Mr. B, I was very nervous. I had called to speak to someone at the counseling center about my "issues", and they had set up an appointment with this man I had never met before. That's what I call them, my "issues". They are a part of me, but they aren't me. I am not my depression, or my PTSD, even though they take me over at times. They. Are. Not. ME. Anyone close to me will tell you, I don't really like to talk to people I don't know very well. People scare me. Apparently this is also part of my PTSD, because I used to be an outgoing and talkative kid.

So there I was sitting in the lobby with other silent people, all eyeing one another, wondering what everyone else was here for. Some were couples, holding hands quietly, as if they were sharing their tension and comforting one another just by the touch of their hand in the other person's. Some were women around my age who looked like they needed a cheeseburger. I could tell my their slightly gaunt cheeks that they might have missed a few meals. I felt an overwhelming urge to hug them, immediately. It overtook me to an almost painful degree.

Then I wondered if any of these people had gone through what I had experienced. Suddenly I felt completely obvious.  Naked even. Like if someone so much as looked at me that they would be able to tell. I started to gather my coat and backpack in order to flee. I was going to just grab my things and run like heck down those stairs and out the front door. I knew I couldn't do this! ...That's when I met him. As I started to rise out of my seat, I heard him say my name. I looked up. Standing there in front of me was this grandfatherly fellow with grey hair and soft eyes, smiling warmly at me. I felt an instant surge of calm; a warmth in my heart telling me that I was in the right place. I knew immediately that this man was there for me. He was there to listen to me, and talk to me, and promise me that I would be okay.

He invited me back to his office with this comfy big chair, and sitting next to it on a table were a box of tissues and a squishy rubber ball to play with. I nabbed the ball right away, because I always like to play with things in my hands when i'm nervous (usually a pencil, or something malleable like rubber). That day we talked about why I was there. I told him everything from my last post about my assault. I told him that I wasn't sure what to call it. He referred to it as "sexual assault", and for the first time I had a name for the thing that had happened to me. For some reason, we as humans fear the unnamed or unfamiliar. Once this thing had a name, I no longer feared it. I still hated it, but now it was a known evil, something I could fight.

Mr. B was going to give me those tools to fight it with.

I cried a lot that first session. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I hate crying, especially in front of other people. But as I cried, I felt something in me loosen. It was like I had this huge, tight, painful knot in the center of my chest that was slowly easing itself looser. Like when you have a knotted rope and you are trying to undo the knot, at that second where you can feel the knot start to let go. I walked out of that room feeling lighter, but still shaky, and kind of scared at the prospect of re-experiencing all of it in my mind as I described it to him. I have a very good memory. I remember tiny details such as smells, touch sensations, and colors. Usually it's great when i'm reading books because a novel can come alive in my brain. The downside is that my memory of very bad events in my life can be recalled in excruciatingly precise detail.

I thought that was it. I wasn't going to have to see this guy ever again, because I was only seeing him in order to be allowed to serve a mission for my church. It was going to be a one-shot deal, and that was it. Then my bishop called to tell me that they wanted me to continue seeing this therapist for the rest of the semester. I was crushed. I'd already poured my heart and soul, my most closely-held secret out to this man, and now I had to do it again?! Well... balls.

Two weeks later there I was again, sitting in the same waiting room with the same people, thinking about running. There he was again, smiling and leading me back to his office to talk. The first week he had me fill out a depression survey. I showed up as mildly depressed, and as we talked about my chronic insomnia, nightmares, appetite problems, and flashbacks he gave me a new name to work with: PTSD. I now had an official diagnosis to explain everything. I said it out loud to myself several times: Post-Traumatic Stess Disorder. PTSD. We spent the rest of my session talking about my family, and my life. We talked about dating. I hadn't dated anyone in nearly a year. I'm no good at dating. The idea of being touched by a man makes me physically nauseous. He seems saddened by this. In my church the ideal is to be married to someone who plans to stand by you for time and all eternity. The idea of someone who might never be able to marry is a very sad thing for us mormons.

He says goodbye to me that day, and I leave feeling completely emotionally drained. I don't feel like we accomplished much, but i'm determined to go home and research PTSD. In fact I remember thinking that the only thing he really did for me that session was give me a piece of paper explaining how to combat insomnia in order to try and get my life back together (not sleeping for a couple of days at a time can really mess with work and productivity). In reality, he gave me the third piece to the puzzle of recovery.

Hold on, what? Third piece? You've probably counted to two, the first being able to name what happened and the second being my diagnosis. Actually, the first piece was given to me years ago. My first piece is a support system of family and friends who are always and will always love me. If it weren't for them, I wouldn't be here telling you all of this. If it weren't for them, I would be dead. Buried. Six feet under. To discuss my recovery, we need to go back six years to the first few months after my assault. The darkest, scariest, and almost the last period of my life.

Here it goes: At the age of fifteen, I almost took my own life. Wow... even after admitting everything else, that's easily the most difficult thing I've ever had to say. How did it happen, you ask? I was broken. Shattered. I felt dirty, used, and completely worthless. My depression was eating me from the inside, and I didn't see any escape from it. Even with my loving friends and family, I felt trapped. I felt like I was drowning in some dark, sticky fluid that was slowly filling my lungs and dragging me downward. One night I was left at home, alone (I can't recall why, my parents have busy lives) and I hit the lowest point ever. I walked into the kitchen, out of my mind with pain and anger and fear. I wanted out.

I picked a knife up off of the counter. A clean one. I don't remember why I wanted it to be a clean one. It doesn't really matter if you are going to kill yourself, whether you keep food particles out of the wound. That's how my mind has always worked, though. Precise, even when it shouldn't matter. Maybe I secretly hoped that I would survive it, and knew that the wounds would heal cleanly if I used a clean knife. I sat down on the floor of our kitchen, the lights all off except for the one over the kitchen sink. I remember not wanting to do it in my room because I didn't want my parents to have to pay to rip out the carpeting.

I held the knife against my wrist. It was cold. The steel felt strange against my skin, as my heartbeat pounded under the blade. I could feel the blood thumping in my head, and it's all I could hear. Just as I prepared to start, I felt something new. Some little piece of light trickled into all that blackness. Just a tiny, tiny bit. But... it was enough. As tears started to trickle down my cheeks, I saw images of my parents' faces slide through my mind. It was like a macabre slideshow of them sobbing inconsolably over my dead body, mixed in with pictures of them smiling at me proudly. A mixture of what could be, and memories from the past.

I saw my parents. Then my brothers. My sister. My friends... They cried, they smiled. I watched, transfixed. I knew I couldn't do it. I had something to live for. If not for me, then I would do it for them. I put the knife in the sink, and walked into my room and cried until my parents came home.

Two years ago, I hit another low point after breaking things off with the last in a long string of guys who treated me terribly and tried to push physical boundaries that set off my PTSD/flashbacks. I nearly killed myself, again. I was driving on a very rainy night, under a stone railroad overpass. I planned to swerve my car into it, making it look like an accident. At the very last second, in all of that despair... I saw a trickle of light again. This time it was the faces of my nephews. Their faces, crying and calling out for me, were burned into my mind's eye. I pulled over to the side of the road and sobbed. I prayed. I thanked God for keeping me from doing the unthinkable. I called a friend to talk through what had just happened, and to get her help calming me down. Then I drove home.

How does that help, sharing this with you? I want you to see just how sick I was. I want you to know exactly what that darkness feels like. Why? Because the contrast is amazing!

I continued to see Mr. B every other week for the rest of that semester. Then when I decided to return for the next semester, it was requested that I continue to see him. I was actually almost excited to do so. Over the past few semesters out at college I began making male friends, even hanging out with them in groups. Moving from my first apartment to a new place (without the cinderblock walls that reminded me forcefully of my high school) meant fewer flashbacks and nightmares. I was making some serious progress! This reached a turning point when I met a group of guys who liked My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

Stay with me here! This isn't about extolling the virtues of watching a little girls' show. This is about the friends I made in doing so. They showed me the most gentle, loving side of masculine nature that I had ever seen. I'd only seen this side before in my own father, and in glimpses from other men I knew in my life. But here, in these college guys, was that same light. The light of Christ, in its purest form.

I know, I know, seriously? Yes. Seriously. With all my heart. These guys really saved me.

They have no idea, but they saved me.

They gave me the courage to fight my depression, every week. They gave me an outlet to work out my fears, anxiety, and struggles. They were my safety net. This isn't meant to discount the contribution of anyone else in my life! Everyone else in my life, family, friends... they've contributed to saving me. They all have a very special place in my heart, and I love them so much. But this group of guys sewed it up for me. They were the final bit of icing on top of the apple fritter of my life.

The best part about it is: they feel kind of the same about me. They've made me feel like a dear friend whom they really care about. As a group, they're accepting, loving, and supportive. What they've given me is the greatest gift I've been given besides my life and the Atonement. They've showed me that someday, somehow, I will be able to move on with my life. I might even be able to marry, someday.

So that's my story. One of brokenness, pain, and anguish. But also a story of healing, recovery, and love. You don't have to believe in God in order to crawl back out of the pits of despair. It helps, but it's possible even if you don't. The reason it helps is the reminder that God knows every single thing you've experienced. He knows your pains and sorrows. He loves you no matter what. Throughout every single one of my trials, I've had God's strength and support. I've had the family and friends he's given me, supporting me.

In closing, I've finally found myself. I'm still the fiery little kid who ran everywhere and wanted to try every new thing. I'm still the shy, sweet girl who lovingly cares for everyone who comes within her reach. And most importantly, i'm now a strong woman who is willing to stand and comfort those who have experienced similarly horrible circumstances. I want you to know that I love you. I feel for you. God loves you. Your family and friends love you. There is hope. Don't give up.

My next post will contain my opinions and ideas about how we can fight against the mindset that leads to sexual assault, and how we can better prepare ourselves and our loved ones to recognize and avoid sexual predators.

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