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PTSD: It’s NOT All In Your Head

November 29, 2010

As I’ve discussed a zillion times, I was raped the summer after I graduated from high-school. Not just raped, but stalked, so it was personal, not random. Further, he knew when I was home, broke into my home when I was asleep and went straight to my room, to my bed, to take what he wanted. Which was me. With his gloved-hand over my mouth, I was silenced. With a gun at my head, I was helpless. As someone with no physical power at that moment, I was raped.

This is not a sob story. In the 24 years since that night, I have lived a “fearless” life that has included solo travel in foreign countries, countless nights alone at home and happy as a clam, great sex in a mind-boggling array of ways. In short, I have always been one of the success stories. I went on with my life. I was always clear that by doing what my rapist told me to, I was choosing to live, and I had every intention of living to the fullest, no matter what.

So, with that in mind, let me tell you that the immediate aftermath was grueling. For the 11 minutes of terror inflicted upon me that night, there were at least 11 months of panic, sleeplessness, hypersensitivity, moodiness and generalized fear. I can remember moments when I would be walking down the street, just walking, and something that didn’t even register in my conscious mind would cause the world to spin, my heart to race, my skin to get wet and clammy and I would literally have to sit down wherever I was, put my head in my hands and wait for it to pass so that I could walk again. Something well beyond rational thought or intellectual reasoning was taking over. It’s like being possessed.

But it passed. Life went on. I have, since that time, spoken and written extensively about thriving in life after rape. I have glibly said, “it’s not that big a deal anymore,” and I mean it.

Things have happened since then. My house has been broken into, but it hasn’t fazed me. I have been alone for days at a time, without fear.

Until now. For the last 4 days I have been crying spontaneously. I have not been sleeping. I have no appetite. I can’t think. I feel exactly how I felt in the immediate aftermath of my rape. Why?

Because, in many ways, it happened again. I was not raped. But when I returned home from Thanksgiving dinner, someone had been in my house. In my room. On my bed. Our house had been “broken” into, and whoever did it went straight to my room. No other room in the house was touched. My closet doors were all open, and my computer was stolen. None of the flat screen TVs were stolen. Not the cameras, the stereos, the GPS that was sitting on the entry mantle, not the terabyte harddrive that was sitting right next to my computer. Just my computer, that was sitting on my bed.

Just like my rape, someone was targeting me, waited until the right time, came in, went into my room, my bed, and took what they wanted. And boom, all the trauma was back. I was immediately thrown back into the immediate aftermath of having been raped at gunpoint in my own bed.

I felt like my body had been taken over by aliens. My body. Not my brain. My brain was fine. I KNEW that I was okay. That the locks have been changed, the alarm code changed, that nothing was going to happen to me. But, Saturday afternoon when I was suddenly alone in the house, my body started shaking, my heart was racing, I was sweating. Sunday morning, when I was driving to the gym, I started crying because I felt like whoever it was that was after my computer probably knew that I would be at the gym.

This is relevant to me because it was clear to me that even though I have incredible intellectual powers and  emotional prowess, the trauma was coming from somewhere deep inside my physical being. I couldn’t think my way out of it.

Luckily, I have a dear and trusted friend who specializes in the somatic response to trauma. He’s hesitant to use the term PTSD, though, for all intents and purposes, that’s the term that most people use for what I’m going through. Because the current break-in so closely mimicked my attack, it triggered the traumatic memories that live in my body. And this is not woo-woo-hippie-fairy-magic-speak. If the US military accepts PTSD as a major problem for soldiers returning from war, then there’s more than a little science behind it.

Ultimately, this will be a long process, and many blog posts as I explore the amazing connection between my thoughts, feelings and the mysterious imprints that my past traumas have left deep in my body, waiting to pop up and seeking resolution.

In our first conversation, he gave me some very interesting tidbits, which I’ll share here, but this is just the beginning of working through these things. And it is largely NOT an intellectual process. Rather, one of letting my body fully and completely acknowledge, address, incorporate and heal the trauma. Not because there’s anything wrong with being traumatized, but because walking around crying and on a hairline trigger, shut down from myself and the world around me is not how I want to live. 4 days of it has been hell.

We started with a basic outline of the human response to threats. Kind of like the stages of grief, these are fairly predictable human response to threats, which mostly exist outside the realm of “reason.” Rather, they are something like instinctual. And many of us don’t make it through all of them. Even getting stuck simultaneously in more than one at the same time. If left unresolved, they’re like a mildew stain that pops back up with the slightest moisture.

  • Arrest Response. Stops you in your tracks. Something is wrong, but what?
  • Startle Response. That first physical reaction to perceived danger – facial expression, alertness, racing heart etc….
  • Orienting. Actually physically doing what’s necessary to figure out where the danger is in relation to yourself.
  • Evaluating. Both consciously and unconsciously determining whether or not “it” is dangerous. If harmless, relax and return to whatever you were doing. If dangerous, protective responses kick in: Fight, Flight and/or Freeze.
  • Completion. Do whatever is necessary to protect yourself and survive.
  • Discharge. The let down of all the energy used to protect yourself, releasing it fully from your body because you don’t need it any more.
  • Relaxation. Once safe, and negative energy is released, return your body and mind – and the connection between them – to a peaceful state, not a defensive posture.
  • Pronking. This is the thrill – often manifested physically – of having succeeded in the whole process. He explained it to me as the endzone dance after a touchdown. Allowing your body to celebrate the victory.

I explained to him that, although I believe the responses I’m having to this invasion are perfectly “normal,” they are excruciating. But I also know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I will be fine eventually. The problem, I told him, is that I feel like I am stuck in the past and the future at the same time, and the present is unbearable as a result. I’m being pulled apart. (No wonder I’m crying all the time.)

He got it, and said that’s pretty much what it is. The reason I got thrown so intensely back into my old trauma is because although I have intellectually and rationally achieved a brilliant and admirable recovery, there is residue that must be dealt with.

And I know that he’s right.

If you have never felt PTSD, this will sound like gobbelty-gook. But it’s real.

Whoever did this, whether knowingly or unknowingly, did far more than steal my computer. They stole my sense of safety, they stole 24 years of recovery from a violent rape, they stole the very personal boundaries that allow me to feel safe in the world. It seems clear that it was someone who knew me, and was after ME, or else something else would have been stolen from the house. And anyone who knows me knows the history of my rape. To recreate everything about it takes a special kind of cruelty.

However, I will recover better than ever, and I know it. Because although the last attacker took my body, this one is forcing the kind of recovery that will ultimately give my body back to me. And, unlike when I was 16, I am not and will not be silenced. And I am far from helpless.

And I believe that they must be filled with all sorts of toxic trauma of their own, and this kind of action will only add to it. They got my computer, and may even get ‘away with it,’ but they are only making themselves worse.

I’m not sure what it says about me, but when I was talking to my “therapist” friend, both yesterday and today, I told him that I wish the person who did this to me could work with him. They need it even more than I do. And I hope they can heal, body mind and soul.

More to come. This will be a fascinating journey. I’ll share it with you, because I know that makes me happy.

And I’m ready to be happy for a while. But I’m not there yet, I just started crying again.

Yup, long process. But beautiful.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 30, 2010 1:01 pm

    I’m sad and angry to read about the break-in, and the emotional trauma that is re-triggering for you.

    I am awed by your response, though, both with respect to the constructive steps you are taking to work through the fear and pain, and your unflinching courage to continue being open and vulnerable in what you share on your blog.

    You are probably already aware of Brene Brown’s work, but I just encountered it for the first time – via a tweet by @jhagel to her TEDxHouston video about wholeheartedness. In the 20 minute talk, she defines courage as “telling the story of who you are with your whole heart”, champions vulnerability and authenticity, and describes how leaning into the discomfort of one’s work and choosing love, belonging and connection can overcome fear and shame. All of these qualities reminded me of what you’ve shared here on your blog.

    I wish you all the best in your “fascinating journey” of recovery, and thank you for your willingness to continue telling the story of who you are with your whole heart!

  2. Alyssa Royse permalink*
    November 30, 2010 3:02 pm

    Thanks Joe. Really. I will be downloading that talk and watching tomorrow at the gym. 🙂 But I really appreciate that you took the time to comment. I have found that when I am my most open, it’s easier to receive the gifts that others offer by way of support. So it means a lot. Thank you.

  3. R. Mullen permalink
    November 30, 2010 11:35 pm

    Thank you for posting this, and thank you, Joe for sharing it via Twitter.

    Longstory short: took a course several years back on “current” knowledge about the human brain. We looked at addiction, in particular. Then, started reading up on epigenetics and how trauma IS known to be encoded in (by/because of?) the hormonal system…sprinkled with some prior understanding about Eastern theories of energetics. Annnnddd:

    Working through this myself, but I think the science of it is probably fairly simple: trauma creates a more deeply coded series of chemical “memories” and these memories are stored multi-dimensionally.

    It’s not just the memory that gets coded, but the foundational functions: a multiplier effect.

    Fear makes us run faster, right? So, of course we record not only the experience of fear, but the “run faster” bit as well. And, the “”furtive glance.” And, the need to evacuate…all of it is coded, stored and retrieved together. Anxiety comes about at “odd” times because the pathway has many entrances,–it’s nodal, but not linear. When someone suffers uncontrollable anxiety, my guess is that it’s like a bio-chemical tsunami; there’s nothing left to hold onto and the person gets swept away.

    Lightweight yoga (i.e. non-competitive stretching that’s not an endurance contest) might help over-write what’s on your hard-drive. The other thing you might try is re-arranging your bedroom (including the wall colors), so the visual cues shift as well. And, if you didn’t have gentle music in the room, put some of that in there as well! The old saying is “rewrite the script.” I say, don’t just do it through talk, fundamentally shift what you can control with the purpose of helping your brain *choose* stimulus responses that work better for you in your life.

    I’m not a scientist,–I just think about this stuff. But, pulling it all together in a useful way is vital. We have a flood of people coming back from war,–if those of us who are civilians ( also working through deep trauma ) can dig deep and help solve this puzzle, what a gift!

    So, thank you for this blog!

    Thank you for surviving!

    Hug!

  4. December 9, 2010 4:16 pm

    Alyssa,

    I have nothing but respect for your strength courage for walking this path. For someone that has never been through what you’ve been through, it’s difficult to understand what you are going through. I’ve been there and I’ve been there with one child who went through a similiar experience.

    One of the good things about being as strong as you are, is that you are able to find a place to put that trauma and close it off from your life, so you can cope and go on with your life. One of the bad things about being as strong as you are is that in finding that place for your trauma, it’s easy to think that it’s safe and you never have to deal with it.

    So being triggered like you were can be devastating when the door that was supposed to be locked, opens and your trauma comes tumbling out.

    Finding the courage to go back and look at the trauma and the pain and understanding it, then accepting it and finally letting go of it… is one of the most amazing experiences. Like a weight lifting off your shoulders… no… off your soul.

    The problem is that peeling back that first trauma… One often finds another beneath it and the cycle starts over again.

    I appreciate and relate well to your article.

    Good luck,

    James Murray

  5. Shana permalink
    December 10, 2010 9:53 am

    Good to talk with you earlier this morning, Alyssa. Thanks for sharing directions to your site! Your journey through this isn’t straightforward but it will end. Sorting through the mind-body connection after trauma is good work that takes time and tears.

    If POAP can be of any help in the future, please contact us!

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