Archive for the ‘trauma’ Category

What 9/11 Means to Me

Posted: September 11, 2011 in anxiety, healing, rape, trauma
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This time of year is always emotional for me. September 11, 2001, impacted me in the same way it did many Americans – it shook my sense of security, made me nervous about my personal safety, and made me wonder if things would ever feel “normal” again. I wrote an article on patriotism for my high school newspaper and fully embraced my pride in my country. A few months after it happened, I watched the first images of the Iraq invasion on the news and knew the world had changed. Not too long after that, my only brother joined the Army National Guard and moved to Georgia for boot camp. I got to see him three more times before he shipped off to Iraq in 2004. He came home safe, but deeply troubled. It took a long time for us to start rebuilding that bridge.

But in the grand scheme of things, that isn’t what 9/11 means to me. It was more personal; a deeply painful and harshly transformative moment. It happened, I survived, and life went on, but nothing was ever the same.

In August of 2001, I met a boy. He was the singer in a band, and I was supposed to play bass on some demo tracks they were working on. Instead, he wrecked a car. Instead of playing the bass I ended up driving him into town to call a tow truck. Instead of starting my senior year excited about going to college, I started it wracked with anxiety about a relationship that everyone (including this boy) said was bad for me. But I was in love with a boy who knew exactly what to say to keep me coming back to him, even when I knew it would hurt.

This boy and I were total opposites. He drank; I didn’t. He did drugs; I refused to try them. He smoked cigarettes; I pretended to. He stole; I felt guilty and looked the other way. He went to jail; I accepted his collect calls and promised to do anything for him.

I bailed this boy out of jail. With $1’s and $5’s collected over the course of months working nights as a waitress. He disappeared. I waited through weeks of unanswered phone calls and rumors floating around school that he was seeing other girls.

Then one night I ran into him on my way home from work. We went back to his house. It was late. We kissed and he swore he loved me. He took my car keys and cell phone and gave them to a friend, and took me down the street to an old abandoned limousine that was a favored location for getting high, and where, I assumed, we’d make out some more before I went home. Which we did, for a while.

Then he pulled up my dress and he raped me.

I begged him to stop.

He didn’t.

He slammed my face into a window so hard it cracked my teeth.

He pinned me down, and raped me again. And again.

When I was too tired to cry anymore, he told me to put my clothes on and took me inside, to his room, reminded me that his friend would have my car until the next day, and went to sleep next to me like nothing had happened.

The next morning, I got up and wandered into the living room where his mom and her boyfriend were watching TV. The first plane had just hit the twin towers, and I stood and stared, numb.

I spent the day in San Francisco, waiting while this boy bought drugs. The streets were empty, like a ghost town. I felt on the inside the way they looked – dirty, and damaged. Late in the afternoon, he led me down inside a crypt in the middle of an old cemetery and I watched water dripping down the walls while he did meth with a friend. I wondered briefly if he planned on leaving me there. When we got back to his house later that night, my car was there – my purse and cell phone on the seat. He told me to go home like nothing had happened and watched me drive away. I remember the glow of his cigarette standing out against the charcoal gray of a foggy California sky.

I went home.

My parents barely looked up from the news when I came in; paid little attention when I spent two hours in the bathroom, washing away the blood caked between my legs with dirty, lukewarm water. A few days later I finally worked up the energy to take myself to the doctor, where I learned I had Chlamydia. The nurse handed me a prescription and a brown paper bag filled with an assortment of condoms in shiny red and orange wrappers and told me to be more careful next time. It didn’t really occur to me then that what had happened wasn’t my fault, so I nodded and left.

That’s what 9/11 means to me. The end of something – innocence; a belief that I deserved to be treated with respect.

When a teacher finally figured out something was wrong and convinced me to go to the police, almost two months had passed. In that two months, even though I had told my parents what had happened, I don’t remember a single word of comfort. I don’t remember being told it was going to be okay. Ever. I holed up in my room and focused on my homework. I cleaned the house. And I cried a lot, alone.

The police detective in charge of my case eventually called my mom and insisted that she come down to the police station after work one day. She did, but she wasn’t happy about it. At home that night, my dad insisted that going to court was a bad idea – it would be my word against a boy’s, and no one was going to believe me. That was the closest thing to comfort I ever got.

A few days later, I learned from a mutual acquaintance that just before he’d raped me, this boy had had sex with another girl, who had since tested positive for full blown AIDS. I vowed then that if I survived, I’d get the hell out of California. I signed up for the SAT’s a week before the final deadline, worked feverishly on college applications, and waited for the results of my blood work to come back.

In April, I turned 18. I learned I didn’t have HIV. I accepted an offer for an out of state school, enrolled in early admission with no idea how I was going to pay for it, packed up my car even though I was absolutely terrified to leave, and watched California disappear in my rear view mirror.

It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years.

Months of therapy finally helped me see that what happened then doesn’t have to define me now. I’ve survived, and I’ve grown.

In some ways, it still feels like yesterday.

Like a few months ago, when, during a particularly intense fight with my brother, he insisted I’d never been through anything “that difficult” in my life. I reminded him that at 17, I was raped. One of the ultimate violations.

“Yeah,” he responded after a second of consideration. “But you deserved that. You put yourself in that position.”

I cried all the way home.

A few months later, my brother finally started seeing a therapist. I doubt he’ll ever say he’s sorry.

Ten years.

I’m a few months away from earning a PhD. I owe $100,000 in student loans, but I have a life that’s worlds away from what I knew in California. No matter how things turn out, I don’t ever have to go back to that place where nothing feels safe. I’m still learning how to be happy with me, but at least I’m learning.

The boy who raped me still lives in California. I don’t wonder what he’s doing now very often. I don’t need to, because that doesn’t define me anymore. It helped me grow. It made me stronger. It pushed me to get out. But it isn’t who I am.

I mean more than that.

Today I got yet another reminder of how importance persistence and tenacity are, as well as another chance to work on not letting my trauma brain take over. It’s amazing how the littlest things can trigger trauma brain to kick in and start raising my anxiety levels. It’s a little surreal to find myself in the position of middle manager between my healthy, intellectual brain and my trauma brain. Now that I’m capable of recognizing when trauma brain is trying to take over, I can generally calm myself down without having an anxiety attack. Reaching this stage in my healing process makes me feel confident that I’m prepared to ease off my medication soon, which is a goal I’ve had for a long time. I’ve been taking Effexor for about 2 years now, and for the past six months or so I’ve been on an extremely low dose (37.5 mg per day). For the first few weeks that I took the lower dose, I did notice some moodiness and heightened anxiety, but that gradually balanced out. I’m expecting that when I go off the medication, I’ll experience something similar, but knowing that it’s going to get better gives me a lot of confidence that everything is going to be okay.

Back to today.  I got a text message this afternoon from the girlfriend of the bass player in the band I joined asking if I could meet up with her for drinks. She characterized this as “girl talk,” but insisted that it was nothing bad. Still, somewhere in the back of my head, even though I knew that the most likely situation really didn’t involve anything bad happening, I was nervous. Really nervous. My stomach tightened up and I could feel the anxiety coming on. My mind instantly went to the worst case scenario – that this was going to be an uncomfortable talk that somehow involved something going wrong with the band. I recognized that my trauma brain was taking over and told myself to breathe and work through it. Trauma brain insisted that practice last night wasn’t that great…we learned a lot, but it was a difficult night for me vocally. I jumped right to worst case scenarios…my voice just wasn’t strong enough to allow them to keep me in the band; they just really weren’t feeling it; I needed way too much work…

Flash forward to a few hours later. I arrived at the bar for drinks, composed, but still nervous. The conversation started off in a direction that made me nervous, but as it progressed it finally sank in for me that I was making myself a wreck on the inside for nothing. While we were talking about personalities in the band and how the group dynamic developed, I wavered between waiting for the hammer to fall and telling myself that I was reading too much into things. Then she insisted that she had been meaning to have this conversation with me for a couple of weeks and I relaxed…it had nothing to do with last night’s practice, or any other practice. She was trying to give me friendly advice and insight because she wants this band to work, and so do all the other guys in it. They wanted to make sure I was comfortable. Not only was nothing wrong with the band, but she was trying to reassure me that all of the guys in the band (who are guys, and therefore will probably never tell me this on their own) are really and truly excited about having me join. They’re nervous about being too critical or pushing me too hard – which is reassuring in a strange way. I’ve been so worried about making a mistake that would screw up everything I love about this band, I haven’t taken as much notice as I should have of the things that are working well…and there are a lot of them. This goes back to my trauma brain, which tells me not to get too excited over anything, because my past experience tells me that any time something good happens to me, something bad will follow. I’m in a healthy place now and making healthy decisions based on thoughtful consideration, so I have every reason to believe this won’t be the case. Yes, there will still be disappointments and challenges, but those are part of life. It doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the good things too as they happen.

I left drinks feeling much better, and also more bonded with my band mates, even though none of them were actually present. Learning that they were getting disillusioned about the prospects of finding the right lead singer at the same time I was getting disillusioned about finding the right band mates was a strange sort of reminder that timing does happen at certain times for certain reasons. I truly do believe that we end up in the places we need to be at the times we need to be there for a reason, and this is a case where finally the timing and all the other factors fell into place. All the other bands I auditioned for that weren’t the right fit were trial runs for this one – and it looks like it’s going be a great experience. I love that my band mates have a lot of experience and a lot of technical knowledge that I can learn from, and after the conversation I had this evening I feel even more confident asking for their guidance and input because it’s clear to me now that they are excited about having me grow right along with them as part of the band. They are willing to invest the time and effort that it takes to make this all come together, and that’s the best kind of support system I could possibly have. Finally finding the right group of people to work with who can give me constructive criticism and feedback and help me improve is a really good feeling. I’m grateful for all the experiences that have gotten me to this point – steps forward and setbacks alike.

Someone told me once that attitude is the only thing 100% in my control. For a lot of the past 10 years since he told me that, I’ve been too anxious and too traumatized to really put it into practice in my life…it’s hard to have a good attitude when you’re miserable and depressed and hurt and angry and don’t understand why. I still struggle with this, but it’s good to finally see myself coming out at a healthy place where I can have control of my attitude…maybe not 100% of the time, but I’m working on it.

Long Week

Posted: April 8, 2011 in anxiety, trauma

I’ve been meaning to post for a few days…it’s just been one of those crazy weeks where every time I remember I want to do something, I get distracted by something else. It’s been very overwhelming. I’m in the process of getting paperwork filed and letters sent to change my program adviser, and while getting that out of the way is going to feel awesome, it’s also a pretty scary thing. I’m not sure how my former adviser is going to react, and uncertainty is always a little nerve wracking. At this point, I’m guessing that the best I can hope for is the silent treatment. That will be pretty much what I’ve been getting for the past year, so the only real change will be that Professor X will be on campus more to give me the face to face silent treatment. Awesome.

In more positive news, things are going well with my band. We’re on track to have almost 20 songs down by this weekend, and our practices have had an overwhelmingly positive vibe that I feel really good about. Tonight’s practice was the first really challenging one, and I didn’t feel like my voice was at its strongest. Intellectually I’ve known there would be days like this when I started doing the band thing again – in a way, I’m glad to have had a sort of off night and have it out of the way. They are inevitably going to happen, and the best thing I can do for myself is to learn how to handle them with a positive attitude and work on moving forward. So far, I’m right on track for doing that, so it’s just a matter of staying focused on the important things. In the big picture, one bad practice isn’t the end of the world. One of the truly awesome things about my band mates is that they don’t expect perfection without hard work, and they’re willing to invest the time necessary for real fundamental improvement. It’s a really positive learning experience for me to work with people who can help me learn how to be the best me/lead singer possible.

I do notice a lot of self-doubt creeping in. Most of the time I can compartmentalize it as OCD brain or trauma brain, recognize the thoughts, and move on with my day. I think a major hurdle with getting through this challenge will be just getting some more time invested in it. I need some time to get used to the idea that practices aren’t always going to be perfect. There are going to be off days, and bad days, and there will also be a lot of good ones. One bad practice isn’t going to be the end of things. One bad practice won’t be the end of the band. This is one of those things where, since I’ve worked really hard for it, I’m doubly afraid of something destroying it, since that has been my experience in the past – I fall in love with something, and then the next thing I know, something has happened to screw it up. My therapist says it’s my trauma brain kicking in and preparing for the worst. The real challenge for me then, as I see it, is understanding that bad things happen, but having faith in the fact that I’m going to be able to take what comes.

I’ve been meaning to write this down for a while. Back in September, I got a chance to meet a bunch of crew members from several different boats on The Deadliest Catch. It was a neat moment for me, not so much because I’m a fan of the show (I am, but that isn’t the point…) but because Alaska is ingrained into my getting healthy on many different levels.  I started watching The Deadliest Catch a few months before I moved to Alaska in 2007 to work for the Alaska State Parks system. I had zero interest in the first few seasons; it wasn’t until I signed the paperwork for my contract with the state parks and bought my plane ticket for Kodiak that boyfriend insisted I watch the show so I’d know which boats to look for and take pictures of once I got there. I relented and watched a few episodes.

Moving to Alaska was a huge turning point in my quest to get healthy. In a lot of ways, it was the moment after which I started making real changes toward getting better. It was the point where instead of giving up and missing out on an amazing opportunity because I was afraid of the panic, I took charge and sought help because I was tired of missing out on opportunities because of anxiety and panic attacks.  Instead of forcing myself to go to Alaska and spending several months being miserable the whole time, I made the decision that I wanted to go to Alaska and be capable of embracing the experience. Prior to moving to Kodiak, the last time I’d forced myself to suck up the panic and travel was to spend two weeks in Europe in the summer of 2004. I spent the entire time shaking – literally, physically shaking – and absolutely desperate to go home. I thought if I could just get through that one experience it would make all other travel experiences easier. It didn’t…it just made me fear the panic more. I did get a doctor’s prescription for an anti-anxiety medication before I went to Europe, but in the Catch-22 that is anxiety, I was too afraid to take it, so it sat unopened in my suitcase the whole time. In fact, it’s probably still in my medicine cabinet.

When I went to see the doctor a few months before leaving for Alaska, something had changed. Instead of just saying “I don’t want to have panic attacks while I’m in Alaska,” I made the transition to saying “I’m tired of having panic attacks period. I want to learn how to overcome them. I just want to feel like a normal person for a change.” The doctor prescribed a different anti-anxiety medication (Cymbalta), but refused to send it through to the pharmacy until I made an appointment with a therapist. I kicked and screamed right up until the first appointment, because by that point I had very little faith in what simply talking to someone could do for me. I left for Alaska with medication in hand and a sense of trepidation. What if I really couldn’t be fixed? Then what??

I arrived in Kodiak terrified and homesick, but determined. A big reason why I credit Alaska as a major turning point is the length of time I stayed there – over the course of four months, I had to learn to face the anxiety because there was no imminent departure to look forward to. It was like a lengthy exposure therapy. It didn’t solve all my issues in one swoop (which I initially found disappointing) but it was a major turning point that opened me up to the idea that I could take steps to get better. I could survive four months in Alaska. On an island. Maybe I really could do anything.

That isn’t to say that Alaska wasn’t a struggle. It was – a huge, but very rewarding one. One of the things I did to calm myself down when I was having a rough day was to drive out to the Kodiak harbor and watch the boats come in and out. It was a strangely relaxing thing to watch them. I grew up near the ocean, but I was never a particularly huge fan of it. There was something cruel about it really, being dirt poor and living in a miserable home in an otherwise absolutely beautiful location. In Kodiak, however, I learned to really love the ocean for the first time. I found solace in the idea that the men who worked on these boats went out for months at a time, and for that time, the boat was home – that kind of strength can only be inspiring. In addition to that, it made me think of my mom, who worked on a processing boat in the 1970s during the Alaskan King Crab boom. Before she married my dad, she was a little bit fearless. She lost that by the time I was born, so in a strange way going to Alaska helped me reconnect with the woman my mother used to be. It’s hard to describe, but it’s a powerful thing.

Back to last September when I met Jake Anderson… For anyone who isn’t a fan of The Deadliest Catch and missed this story, Jake’s dad went missing over a year ago in the woods of western Washington and hasn’t been found yet. (You can read the full story here and here ) When I had a chance to meet Jake Anderson, along with Jake and Josh Harris and several other crew members from Deadliest Catch boats last September, they were collecting donations to try to find him.

I donated, of course, but something else was nagging at the back of my mind. As I left the craziness that was the autographs table, I gave Jake Anderson a hug and told him I hope he finds his dad. I told him I lost mine too, once, and he’ll find him. Then I rushed off and let 14 crazed screaming teenage girls behind me sweep in, cursing that I hadn’t taken an extra five seconds to clarify – my dad never went missing. But my Great Uncle, Jim did.

My Great Uncle Jim disappeared when I was nine. He had Alzheimer’s disease, and one day he just wandered away from my grandmother’s house, where he was staying, and never came back. There were a lot of days out on horseback searching through fields and ravines, and I remember being deeply impressed with certain aspects of the next few weeks – the rain and the rush of posting fliers and the crushing presence of search and rescue people. I remember most of all the uncertainty – the wanting answers. Did Uncle Jim just wander away? Was he kidnapped? Was he murdered? Was he still alive? A volunteer search and rescue worker found his body several weeks later at the bottom of a drainage ditch, under two feet of water. It was an El Nino year, and it had been raining for days. They only found his body because one of the members of the search team slipped and fell, and landed on him.

Most of all, I remember cleaning out Uncle Jim’s wallet. It had been under water for days, and everything in it was wet and covered in mud. It smelled like silt and decay…and death. I’m still not sure what my parents were thinking when they allowed me to be exposed to so much trauma without any consideration for what it might do to a little kid. (This is a big theme of my therapy lately…) When we cleaned out Jim’s house, a lot of his things ended up coming back to our hoarded home. For years, the comforter on my bed was from his house. It was impossible for me as a nine year told to separate these physical things from the idea of death, which I had trouble comprehending. (Again…this is a big theme of my therapy…)

Years later, I still think about my Uncle Jim and how traumatic it was to lose him that way. I wasn’t particularly close to him (then again, I’m not particularly close to anyone in my family) but it was a sudden and dramatic loss that was never mitigated for me. It was followed by more losses (Jim’s brother and sister) that were also never dealt with in a healthy way. Though my dad always claims that family comes first for him, he’s never followed through on what I’d consider a basic responsibility – getting tombstones for their graves. My Great Uncle Jim bought his own tombstone after his wife died. (My earliest distinct memory, coincidentally, is of her funeral, when I was three). Family legend is that he carried it around in the back of his truck and proudly to everyone before it was placed over her grave. My dad never had his date of death engraved on it.

So, Jake Anderson…I sincerely hope you find your father. I think the way your support your family is amazing, and I wish I’d had a big brother like you when I was growing up. You deserve to know what happened, and the comfort of finding out the truth. Wherever he is, I hope your father finds safe passage home.

My Great Uncle Jim's headstone, still missing his date of death.