Facing PTSD: the body’s strange self-recovery

This post and its successor are going to pull a lot from my own personal experiences with both PTSD and C-PTSD, because I’ve dealt with both. The pure PTSD comes, of course, from my assault, but I had a very difficult childhood with an abusive, alcoholic father, which left its own marks. I’m going to talk about some of the interesting aspects of my recovery from PTSD (still ongoing!) and then a bit about things that happened to me as I faced C-PTSD (which I feel is pretty much cured at this point).

As we consider again the list of misconceptions that I discussed in my first post of this series, you’ll notice that one of them is that “the survivor experiences PTSD right away.” This has proven untrue for me on both counts – I really only began to experience severe PTSD symptoms after leaving the abusive situation, and I didn’t immediately begin to experience PTSD symptoms from my trauma either.

I guess it really depends on your conception of “right away,” but I can tell you that at least for me after my assault, it didn’t really “sink in” for several days. The day afterward, I actually went to school and tried to act as usual. It was only several days that I really began to understand the enormity of what happened to me, and feel the first real components of PTSD: panic, anxiety, flashbacks, dysphoria, and nightmares.

After a while, maybe a month or so, my nightmares were so severe that I was actually put on medication to get rid of them. I was afraid of sleeping because I was constantly having dreams of being trapped, being pursued by an unknown assailant, or of my loved ones turning on me.

What’s interesting is that my nightmares actually started to come to a natural end a little before I began the medication.

I had a dream where I was the passenger in a car (a hatchback) driven by a friend on a lonely road late at night. There were streetlights, but no other cars on the road. In the dream, it was raining a little and it was so dark that I couldn’t really see much; the streetlights just gave everything an orange tinge without adding much light.

Already in the beginning of the dream, I feel uncomfortable and nervous, like something is not quite right. I begin to hear sounds in the back of the car, and slowly, a man emerges from the trunk, pushing aside the trunk cover. Interestingly, the man was white, wearing a white straitjacket-esque coat; this is not at all what my rapist looked like.

When the man emerged, I was no longer afraid: I was enraged. I lunged for him screaming a war cry, and my reaction was so intense that I was actually yelling in my sleep: I woke myself up with my own screaming. My mom heard it from downstairs and came running up to see what was wrong; all I could tell her was that I had had a nightmare.

After that nightmare, the sleeping problems resolved and I haven’t had as intense of nightmares since. The medication helps, but I think I had resolved my fear through that final dream. During my waking life, I was also less afraid and I stopped having panic attacks frequently. I find this extremely interesting, because it seems now as if the nightmares were my mind working through those very unconscious, primal fears.

Something I’ve faced a lot since my assault, and that I know other survivors have struggled with, is a sense of worthlessness and shame. I should note that no one in my life has been the least victim-blaming with me: as I have mentioned before, I have an incredible group of loved ones, and I have felt 100% believed and supported since the very day it happened.

Right after the assault, I kept telling myself (often verbally while driving home) that it wasn’t a big deal, that I would get over it shortly. However, in the weeks and months after, I began to feel very ashamed: ashamed that I had let it happen, that I had given a ride to a stranger. I blamed myself for everything.

Someone who has never been assaulted cannot really understand the total dehumanization of being used in such an intimate way, and the terror that comes with not being in control of one’s body. My rapist genuinely treated me as just a piece of meat, to the point where in the middle of the assault, he just dropped me on the ground and left me there while he caught his breath. I had also been drugged and the feeling of not being able to see clearly, not being able to think clearly, was horrific.

This kind of treatment really gets down into your very sense of being. If someone can just use me like that for sex, what am I really worth? Am I nothing beyond my sexual capacities? For months I really felt that I wasn’t worth anything except for sex: that all my accomplishments, my talents, the vibrant and fulfilling life I’ve made for myself, didn’t mean anything. I usually try my best to be optimistic, to appreciate myself and to give myself the credit I deserve, even if I don’t always succeed. But for those first bitter months afterward, I couldn’t help but just feel like a hunk of flesh, good for nothing but for what had been taken from me by force.

Thankfully, I’m feeling better about this now, and starting to regain my sense of self. However, I still struggle with some dysphoria. Many of you may know of dysphoria from gender dysphoria, but it also means an intense sense of unease, to the point where you feel alienated from your body and life. It’s a pervasive symptom that gets into the very cracks of your soul, throwing a pall over everything you love and enjoy. This is something I’m still muddling my way out of.

At times I feel I just want to run away from everything – disappear without a trace and leave my whole life behind. I had this occasionally when I was younger, but since my assault, little things get to me much more, and when things don’t succeed, I feel as if I should just give up on it all.

Strangely, I’ve found that the best thing for this is learning new skills. I’m an avid knitter, and so since my assault I’ve been working on more and more complicated projects: smaller needles, new cast-ons, lacey projects, socks with unconventional construction. Because I’m already pretty good at knitting and I’m not starting all the way from scratch, I get new concepts easily and feel really accomplished from trying new things in my knitting. I would encourage others struggling with PTSD to really throw themselves into something they love and work on advancing in that field, because it provides so much satisfaction and less frustration than picking up a new hobby might.

Our bodies and minds are marvelous things, and we should trust them as we move forward from traumatic experiences. Focus on things that give you pleasure without pain, and work to redevelop your sense of self by trying new things.

It’s also important to be gentle to yourself and recognize that you’re going to be a bit out of commission for longer than you might expect. It’s been over a year since my assault and I’m just now beginning to feel more in control of myself and able to do the things I used to. Just as we wouldn’t expect someone with a broken leg to go running right after the cast comes off, we need to appreciate that it takes time to heal, and give ourselves the space to do that. If you can, reduce your workload, ask for extra help, and be honest with how much you can do. Portion more time for things that relax and energize you.

Be patient and know that it will get better, with patience and self-care. Respect the signals your body and mind send you. Most of all, know that you are never alone in your experiences, and there are others like you who have come through this too. You’ll be ok. I promise.

In the next part of this (coming … sometime?) I will discuss some of my recovery from C-PTSD and why C-PTSD can cause pervasive, systemic health problems.

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