Moving forward: 5 ways to take care of yourself when you’ve experienced trauma

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Photo credit: RunJanefox on Flickr

A friend reached out to me last weekend after a traumatic experience, looking for advice on moving forward. It really got me thinking about what I wish someone had told me in those times when I was struggling to stay above water. I am not a therapist and I am certainly not qualified to give professional advice on treating trauma or PTSD. But I DO have enough experience with having my world rocked that I know a thing or two about how to take care of yourself in the immediate aftermath of horrible life events. I think this advice is rather universal, and can help folks who are in the throes of breakup/divorce, loss of a loved one, assault (sexual or otherwise), sickness, a friendship breakup, etc.

Here are a few things I recommend to keep in mind as you move forward:

1. Be kind to yourself: This one is crucial. Be. Kind. To. Yourself. Like, radical self-kindness. Even when it seems absolutely impossible, try to have patience for your pain and your anxiety. After I was raped, I used to write little words of affirmation or lyrics on the insides of my wrists, to remind me that I was worth something. You will find your own little ways to remind yourself. Tell yourself “it’s not your fault” as many times as you need to; as many times as it takes for inner, critical you to believe it. Tell yourself it will get better (because it will, eventually), but don’t push yourself to get better before you are ready. Be kind. Treat yourself like you would treat a child coming to you after a traumatic experience. Have empathy for yourself. Do things that make you feel good, and avoid doing things that don’t. You might experience some changes in your life and interests (example: I used to love being in crowds of people. It made me feel less alone. Now, my PTSD makes it difficult to be in crowds — I struggle with fear of the unpredictable nature of large groups of people). That is ok. You are surviving, and surviving is complex. Have patience for yourself and the changes you will go through. It’s part of that self-kindness. TREAT YO-SELF TO KINDNESS.

2. Give yourself time and take it one step at a time: The first few months after a trauma will be among the hardest, and they will move painfully slow at times and absurdly fast at others. Giving yourself time to have your pain, for better or for worse, is crucial. The healing process is long and it’s a lot of work. Rushing it won’t help. I remember when my mother died, just being so exasperated that I would feel sad for such a long time. I was like “no, not again with this sadness!” You will probably find yourself getting antsy to just HEAL ALREADY. But unfortunately, there’s no substitute for time in healing. There’s no short cut I know of YET (but if I do get my hands on some healing hacks, y’all will be the first to know). Continue reading

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On surviving, and taking the long road to “success”

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While responding to a reader email this weekend regarding my latest essay “What are you willing to sacrifice?” I found myself grappling with the idea of finding happiness in success. Without thinking much about my words, I wrote the following:

“As for being happy, I don’t think that success with writing will necessarily make me happy. It would help, in terms of career and life goal fulfillment (like, not looking back on my life, and saying “you know, I should really have tried to make something of my writing. I was pretty good back there!”). But I really want to check that box and say, I tried. I’ve missed out on much of the opportunity for achievement in my life up until this point. I’ve never really lived up to my potential, and a huge part of that has been because so much of my energy has been tied up in healing from a laundry list of traumas: early sexual abuse, being raped in college, an emotionally abusive relationship, devastating injury, and losing my mother at 27. I’ve always felt a bit damaged, and I’ve learned to find happiness outside of the traditional ideas of success. But again… here comes the yearning!” 

This concept — of fulfilling my potential — has been exceedingly salient in my life. For as long as I can remember, I’ve berated myself for not doing more. I’ve always thought myself to be a bit bored and lazy. I set myself lofty goals, and then when I (obviously) can’t fulfill them, I enter into the shame spiral. Whenever I read back on my old journals, I wince at how hard I am on myself. It’s always should, should, should. I’m never doing enough. I am always behind; always failing.  Continue reading

The gut punch of grief; what it’s like to be triggered.

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The old soccer crew. I’m #20 and you can see my mom hiding in the back sporting her shades, probably wearing a tracksuit.

Let me set the scene: I am waiting to get on the field to compete in a soccer tournament. I stand in a solemn circle, surrounded by the girls I grew up playing with. Their faces are all the same, except we’ve all aged some since we last played together. Laugh lines mark our faces, and a few of us, myself included, are showing grey hairs.

I feel a misplaced anxiety, and I am sure everyone is picking up on it. My bad juju is palpable.

Our longtime coach calls me out: “Chelsea, what’s going on over there? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“I’m hungry, and I have to go to the bathroom,” I announce. A few of my teammates avert their eyes. “What?! Do you all want me to go into hypoglycemic shock?!” I say dramatically, knowing that that’s not really a thing. My starting position has clearly gone to my head.

“Fine. You have 15 minutes,” Coach says, obviously annoyed with my antics.

I wander hurriedly and find myself walking into Grand Central Station. I enter the main concourse and marvel at how much is happening around me. I start to panic — I am really feeling the time crunch of getting back to my team. How many minutes has it been? Surely at least 12! I run towards Grand Central Market and when I enter its doors, I strangely find myself in a high school gymnasium. There across the basketball court is none other than my mother, coaching a game of teenaged boys.

She’s standing there like a beacon in her typical hunter green Coventry High School tracksuit and athletic t-shirt, calling out plays. She sees me across the gym and waves distractedly in her familiar I’m-busy-but-glad-you’re-here way. I am so incredibly relieved to see her. My anxiety falls away completely. I need her. I need her right now, I think. I break out into a full gallop towards her and she hurries towards me, too, looking confused.

As I reach her, I fling my arms around her, enveloping her much shorter frame. I am desperately sobbing and convulsing with gratitude that she’s here; that I’m feeling her body in my arms.

“Are you ok, hun?!” she asks, obviously concerned.

Hearing her voice sends a shockwave through my system and my conscious comes crashing in, reminding me; it’s not real, it’s a dream. She is dead.

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I wake up and come back to reality. There is no one to comfort me here.

I am not ok.

I am shaking and very real tears are streaming down my cheeks and onto my pillow. This is no way to start my day, much less a day I had high hopes for. My puppy looks curiously at me through his crate. He is ready for his morning walk, but in this moment, I am paralyzed with devastation.

I exhaustedly run through a list of today’s “musts” in my head: I must walk the dog, fix a healthy breakfast, hit my deadlines. Everything else is negotiable.

I bargain with myself: Chelsea, if you get out of bed and make it through this list of things, you don’t have to do anything else today. You can be off the hook. Emails can go unanswered; to-do lists and blog posts put on hold. 

So it is, to be triggered.

The smallest thing — a memory, a dream, a smell, a song — can derail me and send me spiraling. Just last week, I went into a tailspin over the 11th anniversary of my rape. I thought I would be fine (some years, I am) but this year, my body decided otherwise. I spent the week emotionally eating (immediately followed by self-loathing for emotionally eating) and putting off anything I could possibly push back. I’m totally regressing, I vented grumpily, I thought I was over this. I thought I had more self-control.  

It doesn’t help that the one thing in the world that could instantly make me feel better is a hug from my mom and her steady assurance that I’ll be ok — even when I really, truly believe otherwise. She had a way of grounding me and easing my anxieties (like the time I was having a panic attack over my law school student loans, and she said, “relax, people take out loans this size all the time. Only they’re called mortgages. You invested in yourself instead!” and I instantly had a sense of perspective and calmed the hell down). She was my safety blanket. The world can feel like a cold, unforgiving place without her.

This is my life with depression/PTSD in a nutshell. Yesterday, I thought I was doing ok. But that was then and this is now. Today, my reality is different. Today, I must navigate this ever-lingering darkness whether I want to or not. I cannot cast this pain out of my life, though at times I’d like to. My mother’s ghost haunts me, touching everything I do.

Sometimes I feel like myself again for a spell, and I’m convinced I can take on the world. But it doesn’t take long before I’m swept back into my grieving state; hopeless and frantic — torn between waiting for the storm to pass and wanting to cease the day regardless of the state of my anxious mind. I have no idea how long this will go on for; maybe forever. I take great comfort in knowing that the “good spells” are becoming more prominent, and the bad are fewer and further in between.

I have no idea how to feel better. Right now, I’m just riding the wave and trying not to push myself too hard. Truth be told, if I was kinder to myself and paid more attention to my self-care needs, I probably wouldn’t be so easy to knock out in the first place. Besides, I spent the last year trying to control everything around me with an iron grip, and I was miserable. I cannot control my grief and it doesn’t have to control me. I must remind myself that the bad feelings will come and they will pass. I can only recognize them, let myself feel them, and move on from them when I’m ready to. Today will be tough. Tomorrow will hopefully be better. My to-do list will likely suffer yet another week in limbo. It will be ok, so long as I keep moving forward and checking off my “musts.”

Such is life, and perhaps this will always be my “normal,” finding balance between giving in to the darkness and pulling myself back towards the light.

Perhaps I will always teeter at the edge of the void, and it’s by sheer will and tenacity that I don’t fall in.

Perhaps I’m not doing nearly as badly as I think.

Perhaps my mother always WAS right, after all: I. Will. Be. Ok.

The shame of freezing during my rape

Author’s Note: This essay was originally published on Hamilton and Griffin on Rights, a site run by Professor Marci Hamilton and Professor Leslie Griffin, which is dedicated to the healthy separation of church and state and the rights of women and children (specifically surrounding childhood sexual abuse). I encourage you to check out the site and the amazing work these women are doing. It is currently the only legal blog that has the majority of content authored by women, and you can find my writing there on the last Tuesday of each month. This post has been republished with permission. 

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I have a recurring nightmare where I am being hunted. It looks like a chase scene from an action movie, except that whenever I try to fight back, my body becomes paralyzed. If I attempt to scream, my throat only releases breathy gasps. Running away? Forget about it. I am weighed down with inaction, and left completely vulnerable to my attackers.

It’s no mystery to me why this nightmare haunts me: On September 11th, 2004, I was raped. I said “no,” but he didn’t listen. I always thought I’d be prepared for such a situation, and imagined myself as somebody who would fight back, or at very least get myself out of there. I was, after all, an outspoken woman and a force to be reckoned with — a star basketball and rugby player of considerable size and spirit. But when the time came to rescue myself, I completely froze. My dissociative state was almost like an out-of-body experience: I could see myself lying there taking it, but I was powerless to intervene. The worst part is that there was another person besides my attacker in the room, drunkenly passed out. If only I’d screamed, I probably could have escaped. Instead, I played dead.

The shame followed me around like a shadow. I remember sitting across from my mother in a booth in my hometown’s tavern on a mild, late December day. It had been over three months since my assault and I was finally home for winter break to recover and decompress from a painful semester. We’d just finished up lunch, and as she was paying the bill, she slid two crisp twenty dollar bills across the table towards me.

“What’s this for?” I asked, confused.

“To get your nails done — one of those acrylic manicures you like. So the next time a man tries to take advantage of you, you can scratch his eyes out,” she said matter-of-factly.

I thanked her, and put the money in my pocket. I could recognize objectively that she was trying to support me and to do something nice for me, but all I could feel was the burning shame that I hadn’t done enough to prevent my rape. I felt that, even in the eyes of my own mother, I’d been an imperfect victim.

Why didn’t I fight back?

It’s a question I ask myself constantly, and one I’ve been asked by a surprising number of well-intentioned friends and family members. I know that they don’t mean anything by it. They’re genuinely trying to understand my state of mind all those years ago; what made me tick during that unimaginable moment when I realized that my body was no longer my own and my worst nightmare was coming to life.

For years, I beat myself up over not fighting back: Why would I just lie there? Why didn’t I fight? Why didn’t I scream? Why didn’t I do something? In my mind, it was as though I had acquiesced to my own sexual assault; “go ahead, I’ll just be quiet and lie here.”

But is that really what happened? Of course not. The true reason I froze is likely the same reason that so many people freeze in traumatic situations: Survival.

The freezing response to trauma is called “tonic immobility,” and it’s extremely common among survivors of sexual assault. According to The Neurobiology of Sexual Assault:

Tonic immobility is often referred to as “rape-induced paralysis.”

It is an autonomic response, meaning that it’s uncontrollable. This is not something a victim decides to do. It is a mammalian response. It is evolutionarily wired into us to protect the survival of the organism. Because sometimes the safest thing to do to protect the safety is to fight back. Sometimes the safest thing to do is to flee. Sometimes the stupidest thing to do is to flee because it will incite chase. Therefore, our bodies have been wired for a freeze response too — to play dead, to look dead, because that may be the safest thing for the survival of the organism. So it is a mammalian response that is in all of us — we can’t control it. And it happens in extremely fearful situations.

Behaviorally, it is marked by increased breathing, eye closure, but the most marked characteristic of tonic immobility is muscular paralysis. A victim in a state of tonic immobility cannot move. She cannot move her hands. She cannot move her arms. She cannot move her legs. She cannot move her torso. She cannot move her head. She is paralyzed in that state of incredible fear.

Research suggests that between 12 and 50 percent of rape victims experience tonic immobility during a sexual assault, and most data suggests that the rate is actually closer to the 50 percent than the 12 percent.

There’s also some emerging data that suggests that tonic immobility is slightly more common if a victim has a prior history of sexual assault. So if he or she had been sexually assaulted as a child and then was subsequently assaulted in adolescence or adulthood, the likelihood of experiencing tonic immobility at those later assaults tends to increase.

Learning about tonic immobility and the neuroscience behind it made me feel infinitely better about freezing in such a perilous moment of my life. It was incredibly healing to learn that my freezing response was both normal and natural. Of course, people will say that I should have done this or that to prevent my assault, and at one point, I might have agreed with them. However, the reality is that trauma changes the way your brain functions — you are not able to think rationally in that moment. You are all instincts and survival, and as much as you think you will be able to choose between fight, flight, and freeze, you don’t have much of a choice at all. Your brain chooses for you, based on complex information you don’t even realize you’ve processed.

Learning to Understand Myself

This past weekend, I was reminded of just how easy it is for me to freeze and lose all sense of power or control over my body. My partner and I went for our monthly massage. We walked into our usual parlour, set ourselves up in our usual room, and waited for our usual masseuses to enter. Everything was going off without a hitch, except, about fifteen minutes into our rubdowns, something bizarre happened: my female masseuse called over a male colleague and asked him to finish my massage. Nobody asked me if this was ok. In fact, nothing was communicated to me at all, and the switch took place so swiftly and quietly that I didn’t have time to process what was happening, much less protest.

My cheeks went hot with rage and fear. I had previously told the staff that I only wanted female masseuses, but I hadn’t bothered to specify anything that day, because I figured why bother saying something when they’ve assigned me a woman anyway? I stared at the man’s feet through the face hole in the massage table, wanting desperately to scream for him to stop — to tell him that he was being too rough and hurting me; to ask for the woman back. My muscles tightened and I internally begged and berated myself to just say something; anything. Instead, I seethed in silence, unable to act.

My partner lay just four feet away from me, completely oblivious to my suffering — unaware that any change had been made, or that I was so deeply affected by it.

As we walked to the car, I felt myself falling apart. I sobbed, and told him what happened.

“Why didn’t you just say something?” he asked, obviously hurt that the entire traumatic experience had happened right under his nose without his stepping in.

“I couldn’t. You don’t understand,” I said through my tears, trying to find a way to understand myself; knowing that there will be many more instances like this, where I long to stand up for myself but simply can’t; feeling so incredibly pathetic and small.

I explained to him why “just saying something” is so terrifyingly impossible to me and why I play dead rather than assert my needs. In the process, I found myself easing up on the self-judgment for a moment and really understanding my own actions from an outsider’s perspective, rather than colored by my fear and shame. At the moment, that really feels like a huge step.

I know my healing will never end. It comes in tides and there will always be something around the corner to challenge my ability to forgive myself. In times like these, I must remind myself of the same mantra I’ve been repeating daily for decades: you did nothing wrong; it’s not your fault.

On Healing: It Gets Better

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“I always feel like I should be doing more but I am still struggling so hard. Every week feels like a different battle. Sometimes I’m up and sometimes I’m way, way down. I don’t know how to balance it all. I’ve been turning it over in my head and trying to process it, but I still feel so far from real progress. I know I have to give myself time and that it’s all fresh. I know perspective is on the way. I know there are lessons. I know all of this, but I want to fast forward. I don’t want to go through years of pain. Happiness doesn’t seem like a choice right now. It feels like hard work that I don’t have the energy for. It could be years before I am totally myself again. Besides, ‘myself’ won’t be the same person. I will be newly formed — rebuilt, and pieced back together. The girl who sat on top of the world last April is no more. She is gone.”

–Excerpt from my journal, January 22, 2014 

These are the words I wrote to myself 6 months after my mother’s tragic death. I was feeling extremely fatigued with my grief and isolated from my relationships. Nobody knew what to say and I didn’t know how to ask for what I needed.

I honestly didn’t know what I needed, besides time. I was beyond frustrated because I’d just started to feel like a whole human being again after a series of traumas in college — being raped in September 2004, and then finding myself in a three-year disaster of a relationship, where I was catfished and emotionally abused. After my mother’s death, I was bitter that I had to give so much more of my life — a time when I should have been in my prime — to my shattered heart. The idea of falling back into the black hole of depression, anxiety and PTSD; of having to claw my way back out again felt incredibly cumbersome — insurmountable, even.

I felt like I was just spinning my wheels; that unending pain was just the cycle of my life: First would come trauma, and then my prolonged healing cocoon. After several years, I would emerge as new, stronger person and finally start to get my life together and fulfill my untapped potential. Just as my unfettered optimism was taking flight, tragedy would come back around knocking . . .

It’s no wonder I was so desperate and fatigued. The truth is, I’ve never caught much of a break. For much of my life, I’ve been in the active process of healing. I don’t consider myself an expert, but I would say I have a decent amount of experience.

Here’s what I know:

I’ve learned over the years that healing is a tricky thing and it takes time. As many times as I’ve found myself broken, I’ve never discovered a trick or a shortcut back to happiness or wholeness. There’s no life hack that’s going to make you heal overnight. Trust me, I’ve tried them all: disassociation, straight up pretending everything is fine, focusing on other things, faking a smile until it feels real (note: it doesn’t. It just gets exhausting holding your face like that, plus it makes people feel awkward) and about a billion other “how to be happy” tricks. As the brilliant Taylor Swift says, “bandaids don’t fix bullet holes.” Bandaids also don’t fix galaxy-sized gaping wounds in your heart. Unfortunately, there’s no way around it — sometimes you have to buckle in for a bit to get back to the good place.

What’s worked for me, personally: 1), lots of time and giving in to my emotions — letting them surge and swell as needed, and wallowing whenever I needed to give in to the tide 2), canceling plans to focus on self-care, even if to outsiders, that self-care looks strikingly like plain old laziness, 3) writing in my journal and allowing myself to indulge in my bleakest thoughts.

Healing also takes patience and self-kindness, both of which I’m still mastering. This morning, as I was leafing through my journals from the year after my mother’s death, I was struck by how absurdly hard on myself I was. Even in the weeks just after my mother’s death, I was constantly berating myself for not doing more, whether it be working out daily, tending to my neglected relationships or pursuing my writing. Truthfully, I just wasn’t in a place for any of that, but I couldn’t see it at the time, even as I self-awarely promised to give myself a break.

A dear friend of mine, Jordan, still routinely reminds me not to be too hard on myself; that I may always use up about half of my energy healing from the misfortunes that have befallen me; that I can’t compare myself to others who seem to be accomplishing more with their time. PTSD may keep me in a headlock for a while, and even long after I’ve surpassed the peak of “Pain Mountain,” traces of my trauma will live inside me and shape my experiences forever.

A lot of times, it’s difficult not to get ahead of myself, to stay on my path, and to be steadfast in my commitment to healing when so much else calls me — career, writing, relationships, being a good friend, travel, my puppy, never-ending house work and about a million other hobbies and interests that I’d love to focus my energies on. I constantly have remind myself,you can only be where you are. Don’t rush it and take the little victories as they come. You’ll need them to stay strong.”

Ultimately, I press on, because I know there is so much life and so much good waiting for me on the other side. And there is beauty in both the breakdown and the in-between, too, if I look hard enough for it. I’m already starting to experience it. The other day, I looked at all of the plans on my calendar and I felt excited and giddy for the first time in over two years. It’s finally happening — little by little, it’s getting better. I actually thought, “I CAN’T WAIT FOR IT TO ALL HAPPEN!” rather than “ok, I just have to get through these next two weeks of calendar events, and then I’ll be able to retreat. Phew!”

I’m not getting through my life anymore, I’m living it. It still takes me by surprise now and again how far I’ve come. What a gift it is, to be excited to live! If you are excited to live your life, count yourself among the lucky. So many people are silently living in pain, hoping for each day to end so they can comfort themselves with the knowledge that they got through another one. Take it from someone who’s been there many times before.

Of course, none of this is to say that it’s all sunshine and rainbows in Chelsealand. I still have bad days and I’m still struggling with the anxiety that trauma always seems to bring. But at the very least, I don’t feel continuously bogged down by sadness.

And right now, that’s good enough for me.