As part of my therapy I have been encouraged to write about the impact of living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This post is about one of the biggest impacts - losing the sense of safety. For those who are new readers, years ago my partner and I went to a secluded place to enjoy a picnic and each other. We were assaulted by a group of 5 men, 4 of whom raped me, and then when Daphne tried to help me, she was sadistically attacked and tortured. Ten weeks later, she took her own life. And yes, it is amazing to me that I was able to write that - calmly and being able to control the flashbacks that inevitably come when I think of it. I do believe that the therapy is finally helping me conquer the demon that is PTSD.
I have very little memory of the time immediately after the attack. My memory jumps to walking into my church, seeking some form of safety. Although I had friends who offered me a place to stay, I believed that I was still in danger. I knew those men were still out there, and I lived in a deep and debilitating fear that I would cross their path again. My minister allowed me to stay in a back room at the church and I remember him sitting with me for hours, long into the nights. I am not sure how long I stayed in the back of that church. But I remember I was terrified to be any place else.
I stayed in that town for another eleven months while I cared for my best friend who was dying. During that time I did nothing but go to visit her. Eventually I had to return to work, but could only do so because friends drove me there, and then I locked myself into my office. I could not go to a store, or a movie or anyplace where there would be people I did not know. I was extremely secluded and emotionally dead. Once my friend passed, my first priority was to get away from that place.
By moving, I thought I could start over and the terror would magically disappear. It did not. I could not stop anticipating the next trauma. I again had difficulty going out in public. I did not feel safe in my own home. I could not sleep. Every noise, every shift in the wind, had my heart racing, ready to flee. Every thing around me was dangerous, unpredictable and threatening. I started therapy.
It was no surprise that years later when I was able to begin a new relationship it was with a police officer. She made me feel safe. I could go out if she was with me. When I moved into her house, it was the first time I felt safe in a place. She had her own police car and at night it was parked in the driveway. That helped.
Home and church became my only safe places. At work Martha arranged for me to have a panic button. A small device under my desk that I can push and the police will respond. It helps, but I still flinch if someone comes unannounced into my office and the sense of panic lingers for hours. Everything must be controlled. It is exhausting.
My trauma was both emotional and physical and my body constantly reminded me of pain and humiliation. For a long time I could not let anyone near me let alone touch me. Sexual intimacy led to flashbacks and I would once again feel the pain, relive the terror. Not being to distinguish between the past and the present, Martha would become the attacker. It was pretty scary for a while, having intimacy with someone I loved become a terrifying experience for both of us. Fortunately, therapy was able to help that. And Martha was patient and proactive in learning how to deal with it. Still, even years later, there are some sexual acts that are still too triggering for me and will never be a part of our relationship. I know how blessed I am that she graciously lives and gives within those limitations.
Today I can go out to public places and have a fairly normal life, although I still need to control my environment. I still scan every room for the exits. I will only sit on an aisle. Near a door. I still panic if anything moves quickly in my periphery. I avoid crowds and groups of men. Sudden noises, men shouting, certain smells, the sight of blood, anyone approaching me from behind, all put me in a state of panic. I do not watch TV for fear of some random trigger. This has become my “normal.”
Sleep remains the most unsafe place to me, the one place I can’t control. Night terrors are the worse - to wake in a soaking sweat, thinking I am back in that place. But I know they will recede when the immersion therapy stops.
Perhaps the most lingering safety issue I still deal with is a concern for the women in my life. I need to know everyone is safe. I panic when I don’t hear from someone. My daughters have been well trained in texting me often whenever they are out. Everyone traveling must let me know they arrive safely. I have been told I can be obsessive in this. I think I lost a friendship because of it. But I don’t know how to get it to stop. Security was my biggest factor in allowing my daughters to choose a college and I am willing to pay thousands of dollars more for that service. Currently my oldest daughter is taking a summer night class at our local state university. I know the security sucks and my heart races, my thoughts going to horrible places, for the entire three hours until she walks back into the house. Near panic mode, it sets off every fear I have for women everywhere.
On a similar note, I experience extreme anxiety whenever I see women showing any public displays of affection. So much of me wants to follow them and make sure they get home safely. And I feel very sad that I cannot show any affection to Martha anywhere but in the privacy and safety of our own home. I even feel anxiety when my daughter walks arm in arm with me down a street or in the mall. As much as I want to savor that affection, I become a hyper vigilant mess - sweating, heart pounding, constantly looking over my shoulder.
Safety and security are strange things. Sometimes they are just there and I can't explain it. A connection with a person and suddenly there is a feeling of safety. While with others, no matter how long the relationship has been there, no matter what the relationship is, there is something that prevents that natural feeling of security. Therapy has helped immensely. It has helped me establish a safe place in my imagination, where I can go to escape when I feel too much stimuli, and given me coping strategies for when I can’t.
Overall, I know I’ve come a long way since those early days of cowering in the back of a church. With a lot of training and practice and love and support I have been able to go back out into the world and have a successful career and loving relationships. As my therapist always tells me “don’t let your world get smaller.” Still, it is something I have to work on every day.