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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What I wish someone had told me about grieving

Beyond_grief

Photo credit: Annemariebusschers

When my mother died unexpectedly of a stroke, there was no shortage of platitudes offered:

“It will get easier with time.”

“One day this will all make sense.”

“She’s in a better place now.”

As I’ve written before, I found these types of sentiments, at the time, to be rather empty and unhelpful. Nonetheless, I learned to appreciate the fact that the people who said them were just looking for something, anything to say to ease my pain. And I can’t fault anyone for trying to comfort me as I faced the unimaginable. Dealing with death is not easy. There’s no playbook. You simply offer your condolences and try to be there for the bereaved as much as you can.

But there are so many things I’ve learned through grieving; things the platitudes never mentioned and that no one ever warned me about. Things I wish somebody had told me before I started the process. Things I want to share with all of you so that you might be able to better understand a friend who is grieving, or your own feelings if you’re going through the process yourself, like:

The world won’t wait for you. 

You will stand still, very very still for a long time. I cannot say how long. Everyone’s journey is different. You may try to fight against this stillness by filling up your calendar, or going about life as normal, or ignoring your pain. The world will continue to move at a breakneck speed, but try as you might to keep up with it, inside the stillness will remain. You will not be ready to move on; to pretend as if it’s all ok. Not for a long while. I call this the zombie phase. As I wrote in the Long, Lonely, Road of Grief, it went a little something like this (for me): “I looked on at those walking amongst the living, exasperated, wondering if I would ever join them again; wondering if promotions, moves, petit social slights, new workouts, or politics would ever matter to me again. I wondered if I would ever again feel anything but longing and despair.

Your friends may stop asking you how you are doing after a few months, assuming your loss is old news and that you must have compartmentalized it by now. They may talk to you like they always have, assuming if you wanted to talk about “it,” you would do so — they don’t want to upset you by bringing it up. You will learn to forgive them; for both assuming that you aren’t conscious of your loss every moment of every day, and for failing to address the elephant in the room, when you just don’t have the strength.

You will be angry at the world for spinning, and frustrated because all you want is to get back to moving with it. Eventually, you will get there. But this time, this space of stillness is sacred. It means you really lost something; that you’re learning to live with a massive hole in your life. It is normal, and it is ok.

Grief knows no timeline.

One day, you will start to walk amongst the living again and you will be thrilled at your re-acquired excitement for life. It is the surest sign that you are healing; that you will move on, even if you’re never quite the same again. You will start to feel excitement, rather than dread, at the big happenings coming up on your calendar. Your good days will outnumber your bad. You will breathe a sigh of relief — I am getting there, you’ll think, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Until, after many months of feeling great, the tunnel closes in on you and you are thrown back into despair. Just as you’ve gotten the hang of your new life; your new normal, you’re thrown for a loop. You might need advice on your taxes, or a new career path, but you find that nobody can guide you like your mother could. You feel the loss all over again as if it happened just yesterday, even though it’s been years. You are depressed. Nothing feels right. Your skin crawls with an unshakable wave of grief. I thought I was past this, you will chastise yourself, dammit, things were really looking up!

They’ll look up again, but give yourself time. The “active” grief comes and goes. Things get easier until they aren’t anymore. This is because grief knows no timeline. There are no definable stages to be found. Grief is fluid and, at times, unpredictable. You can only take your time, roll with the tide and accept that sometimes the waters will be calm, sometimes you’ll get smacked in the face with an unexpected wave, and sometimes you’ll be thrown violently by a tsunami of pain.

The ripples will affect every area of your life. 

Nothing in your life, or in your psyche is an island. Your loss will have a “ripple effect” and touch every aspect of your life. You might get easily knocked down by small setbacks (like an injury or your car breaking down), and start to feel like the world just isn’t fair. You could find yourself suffocating those you love; terrified to lose them — or pushing them away to avoid the inevitable pain that their loss would bring. You may become anxious at holidays, unable to explain why.

You might adopt a puppy and struggle to bond with him, because you are so afraid to love him, knowing that you will most likely outlive him. Yet, the hole inside you that your mother’s death left begs, screams to be filled and you let it, partly, by a sweet dog with a red beard and boundless joy. 10 months later, that puppy might get very sick and now that you love him unimaginably, the concept of losing him is already too horrible to bear. The anxiety grips you as you make your way through the snow to the emergency veterinary hospital at 2 AM on the first night of spring, tears streaming down your face, as you relive your middle-of-the-night drive to the hospital the night of your mother’s emergency surgery.

Some of the ripples you will see and understand, and others will elude you. You will learn to accept these ripples, even though they make your life more complicated. They are part of you now.

You will be changed, forever.

This one is hard to swallow. Nobody wants to be defined by their trauma, and we go to great lengths to remain “ourselves” in the face of earth-shaking sadness. But the truth is, it is nearly impossible to avoid these changes. Losing a close loved one will most likely irrevocably change who you are, for better or for worse. There is a growing body of evidence that trauma can actually change our neurobiology. You may find that your priorities suddenly shift, or that grudges you’ve long held against loved ones simply aren’t worth it anymore. You may decide to sell all of your stuff to move to an island somewhere, because the grind seems totally worthless to you.

You might grow up nearly overnight, finding yourself making decisions about end-of-life care and funeral prayer cards when just 6 months ago, you were seriously considering moving to Buenos Aires on a whim. You might lose your wanderlust, or your deep love of watching sports, and not understand why. You could suddenly hate crowds, when you used to thrive in them. You might move to the Jersey Shore (an idea that would previously have seemed absurd to you) to get away from a city that was once the only place you felt at home. You may find yourself holding onto ridiculous things, like a shirt your mother bought you that you always hated, for the simple fact that she’ll never buy you a shirt that you hate ever again.

The good news is, these changes aren’t all bad. You will likely grow in ways you never imagined, and find yourself more easily prioritizing what’s important to you. You can even come out better than before: more empathetic with your ear and far more careful with your time and limited resources.

Everyone grieves differently.

This one is very important. In your pain, you may have a hard time understanding the pain of others, especially those in your family dealing with the same loss you are. Remember, everyone handles grief differently. Others’ actions may be truly confounding to you. One person may experience PTSD or battle depression (or both). Another may try to go on as though everything is normal, but be haunted by nightmares and anxiety. Still another may compartmentalize their pain. None of these reactions is “right” or “wrong,” though, in your pain, you may be pulled to assume differently.

You may find yourself angry with your family as they ignore the empty chair at the holiday table, rather than bringing her memory into focus. It might be difficult to talk to them about your pain, because they process things differently than you do. You might judge them, and assume they’re doing it all wrong. You might find yourself at Hamilton: The Musical, a full two years after your mother has died, unabashedly weeping, realizing your resentment towards your family is wrongheaded, as the cast sings:

There are moments that the words don’t reach,
There’s a grace too powerful to name,
We push away what we can never understand,
We push away the unimaginable.

They are standing in the garden,
Alexander by Eliza’s side,
She takes his hand-
Forgiveness… can you imagine?

There is no wrong way to grieve. Some grievers may not be able to relate to a word of this, and that’s ok.  We are all different. It’s important to remember to give a grieving person the space to do it their own way, on their own timeline, even if it makes no sense to those of us on the outside.

With that said, I hope these words can be of some help or comfort to those struggling with grief, whether you’re just starting the journey or feeling stuck.

I can’t tell you that it will be ok, and I will not feed you a beautiful platitude. But I will offer you this: You are not alone. Please know that.

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 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.