My Story: PTSD, Survival, and Feminism *trigger warning, truth warning*

I entered into the world of “political blogging” because I feel my experience benefits women.

I’m a feminist. There are some right wing nutjobs that think that exposing the absolute worse moments of my life is discrediting. They want me to cower in self-hate, shame, and remain incapable to tell this story for the rest of my life. But the only reason I really tweet or write is because I know my story, and it isn’t pretty. My story is not the only story out there that needs to be told. I’m not unlike many women. A lot of us have been through a LOT, and I mean a LOT.

  • I’m a feminist because I lived a lot of my life treated like a second-class citizen.
  • I’m a feminist because I grew up with little to no sense of self-worth, and believed this was universal treatment for girls like me.
  • I’m a feminist because I grew up with the belief that my skills and my intelligence were less important than the way I believed others viewed me: somebody who was tainted, or a sex object, or the person who was so worthless, no one would care if I was beat to death and left to die.
  • I’m a feminist because rape shouldn’t be a way of life for women. I’ve met many women who have been raped multiple times.
  • I’m a feminist because women are shamed into silence.
  • I’m a feminist because hitting, kicking, and abusing women because of their sex or sexuality, in most states, is rarely considered a crime.
  • I’m a feminist because if I hadn’t had an abortion, the ectopic pregnancy would have literally ended my life at the age of 17.
  • I’m a feminist because our culture allows men to simultaneously objectify women as sexual objects and harlots if they act on that sexuality or fulfill the men’s fantasy.
  • I’m a feminist because I believe women, and our vast, diverse experiences, are vital to shaping of public policies and laws. No two people have the same experience as women, yet many of us experience gender-based violence, abuse, and discrimination on an everyday basis. This is regardless of age, race, nationality, or religion. Women are treated poorly around the world.

I am writing this to reach my online friends, although I’m sure my “political enemies” will also have a field day with it. You see, these political “foes” think that it’s discrediting to find out every miserable thing in my past, every horror I inflicted on myself, and use it against me to humiliate me online.

So no, I will not be silent. I will tell the truth, even if my voice shakes.  

Caveat: The only ones that really have known my story are those that love me, and know me in real life. Their love is a beautiful, sweet, kind thing that I never truly experienced for most of my childhood, or my adult life. The purity of love, acceptance, and forgiveness cannot be discredited by anything said about me, truth or lie. I love them my friends and family back.

Some people will love you because you’re perfect, or saintly, I suppose. But the people I allow into my life are the ones that have a remarkable level of forgiveness, and empathy. They don’t care who I was 8 years ago. They don’t care what terrible things I did to myself, or how pathetic, lonely, and sinful I was. Their compassion, love, and understanding is so sweet and calming,  that I truly believe there is a deficit of words in the English language to describe. If I had to use words to describe this feeling, I’d say, the best description would be that they love me in the way the Bible describes Jesus’s love: unconditionally, unrelentingly, always pointing me out of the darkness, and towards the light.

So this is my un-pretty, unhappy, uncool, story. 

I’ve told it once before, surrounded by 30 women who came from similar circumstances, as well as a large group of Lutherans whose kindness and donations go to changing the lives of many women in the Washington, DC area.

I was an individual who spent the first 30 years of my life walking around in my own private darkness.

I had been molested by my father as a child. I was raped at age 17 while I was run away from home, trying to escape. I ran away from home because I got tired of the name-calling and the drinking. I spent a good deal of time battling my pain, hiding the self-hatred, and in general, doing everything I could to suppress the terrible secrets I kept bottled deep inside.

I was able to have some success early in life. I had started freelance writing, I’d won a few prizes for poetry. Some people thought nice things about me or even considered me a professional. But it was not enough. No matter how hard I tried to suppress it, I had underlying mental illness, and “looking normal” or “acting okay” never erased that desire to destroy myself, cut myself, or take my own life.

I plowed ahead in fake courage, propped up by sick relationships with others who thought everything I was doing was an acceptable and normal way to live out the rest of my life. It wasn’t their fault, necessarily either — broken people tend to find each other and use each other, as well as drugs and alcohol, to fill the void.

Living with a secret mental illness isn’t easy. Coping on a daily basis is nearly possible. You often end up being friends with people that are pretty much in the same situation that you are: self-hating, self-loathing, angry with the world, ashamed of their problems. Unable or unwilling to pinpoint the trauma they’ve experienced, or in some cases, put themselves through. (People with trauma issues tend to get into relationships that are toxic, turn to prostitution or despair, unknowingly from the underlying belief that trauma a “normal part of life.” If you spend the first 15 or so years of your life being abused, well..It becomes normal.) Drugs and alcohol can often numb the despair, dull the symptoms, and otherwise help you cope with day to day life. Drug and alcohol abuse enabled me to play the role I believed I was supposed to play in that world; party girl, crazy drunk, helpless addict, pathetic girlfriend who didn’t mind if you pushed her around, hit her, or called her names.

I turned to drugs and alcohol for seven years. For somebody with mental illness, the effects of drugs and alcohol will lower your inhibitions, and crush that inner voice that says, “There’s something better out there.” It also will numb the pain and anxiety. The only time that feeling ever really nagged at me was when waking from an all-night drinking and drug binge, or, worse, putting on my clothing and going home, back to the reality of my fucked-up life.

I carried secrets like a growing tumor in my stomach, allowing them to slowly kill me, one day at a time.

At the time, I believed that I was living a double life… I was working freelance writing jobs when I could get them, staying up all night with various alcoholics and drug addicts. But I couldn’t keep it together. Drugs will take away your soul. They’ll make you hate yourself.  It was a miserable, wretched, sinful and painful life. The double-life was a facade – nobody I knew or was friends with believed I “had it together.” I impressed no one with my poetry, my publications, or my drinking binges that lasted days upon days, and night upon night

I was somewhat aware of this, at times. That was when I cut myself, or went a drinking binge for a series of black-outs.

I deserved better. I did not believe it, or know it at the time. But I deserved better. 

When I look back at it, it all feels like some surreal nightmare to me. My psychiatrist once told me that people with PTSD walk around with a feeling of “unreality”. In cases of military personnel with PTSD diagnosis, this is often referred to by mental health professionals as “soldier mode”. My therapist used to work for Walter Reed Medical Center, holding a bi-weekly group for veterans who are diagnosed with the disorder. One time, when we spoke about anxiety and flashbacks, he told me the story of a soldier who had returned home, often thinking he was “doing fine.” In reality, he would get stressed out while on the Beltway, hear a loud car or truck backfire and get stuck in “flashback mode.” In reality, he was stuck on the Beltway. Mentally, he was stuck in Afghanistan, and would veer his car into the middle of the road. Eventually, this caused him  reckless driving charge, and he was no longer seen as fit to drive. That’s what PTSD does . It plays tricks on your mind.

It’s debilitating when you first get your diagnosis of PTSD. All of your fears that nothing in life will ever feel normal, or safe again are re-affirmed. You realize you’re possibly forever stuck in survival mode. It’s terrifying.

Most people don’t know this, but when I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in 2007, it wasn’t because I simply walked into a psychiatrist’s office, told my story, got some medications, and went home.

When I explain my diagnosis, I leave out the evictions, the addiction and alcohol abuse, and the utter lack of self-worth. I leave out the suicide attempts or my one or two sober friends pleading with me to get help. I leave out my boyfriend throwing me into a wall while drunk, only to confront him in the morning and have him say he was blacked out, and he would never do such a thing. I leave out the 7 to 8 hours a day I felt as if I was going crazy. I leave out the countless blackouts from drinking for more than 8 hours straight. I leave out the feeling of utter despair as US Field Marshals laid everything I owned onto the side of the curb in Northeast DC, and some of my neighbors proceeded to pick over the remains of the possessions, that, in the end,  meant nothing. (I sometimes believed that voice on TV that told me, “If you buy these things, if you own these things, you will be all right.”)

By the time I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I had attempted suicide three times. 

I had gotten in this bizarre habit of slamming my arm into metal fences, over and over again, until my arm was bruised and the nerves were tingling. (This is something people do when they experience the dissociation associated with PTSD. We do it when we’re “out of our “body” or “numb.”) I had made a wreckage of my personal relationships, which weren’t very much to begin with. How I got there is of little importance or relevance, but it’s fair to say I’d been living a life full of danger, self-hate, and surrounded myself with those who did one of two things: 1. Took advantage of that lifestyle, or 2. Were drowning in their own miseries, too alone to even talk to the person sitting by their side.

I went to detox several times. I bounced around in domestic violence shelters. I had given up on my way of life, because I was miserable, awful, and in more pain than I ever realized. I was sure that my on and off boyfriend was going to find me and kill me. I told myself that it would be better this way, if I died drunk in an alley or car wreck, if would be better than handing my life over to him. The turning point in my life was when I hit a bottom, drank a pint of vodka, and laid down on the train tracks near Rhode Island Avenue, NE, waiting to die. A man found me and rescued me. He *just happened to be a member of a 12 Step program. I was immediately taken for evaluation and moved into a detox program, awaiting drug and alcohol treatment.

While I was in detox, the head of the facility allowed me to make an appointment with her. I walked in with talking points in my head. I had intended on telling her that I didn’t “belong there” and this was all somehow, some terrible mistake. I don’t really recall what I said to her, but she began to ask me questions about my life. After almost an hour, I had told a complete stranger all of my hidden secrets, about all of the abuse, about the rape, about my inability to function in everyday life.

She saw something in me. And then, she gave me something. She gave me hope. She called a social worker at a trauma-focused mental health facility. This place specialized in people who had been abused, and it was quite common with women who had alcohol problems. She made a psychiatrist appointment for me, and arranged for the social worker to visit me. Marla was an amazing woman, roughly the same age, yet she as the first person who didn’t turn away from me when I told her that basically, my life was shit, I hated myself and everyone I’d surrounded myself, and I had absolutely no idea what was wrong. Marla was practically a saint. She helped me get my shit together for over a year, and her work is essential to women who are struggling. She didn’t pick me up off the floor or out of the gutter. She told me how to do it. She helped me when it seemed too difficult or terrifying.  She just wrote a step by step plan, and helped me follow through.

That was the beginning of a new life. Not an easy life, but a better life.

After a month of homelessness, I spent the years 2007-2009 in a transitional housing program in the District of Columbia for women with extensive trauma backgrounds. I did not have access to the internet. I actually barely realized it existed. I wasn’t very much interested in things on television, or on the internet. I didn’t even know exactly what a meme was.

While I was away at N Street Village, my things were in storage, and an ebook I’d been selling online had been making some decent money. So, I had money saved up to finally do something. By the time I “graduated” from the program, I had enough money to move to a rented room in a house full of eco-loving, music-making hipsters that didn’t care where I came from. All they cared about was music, the environment, and social rights. That sort of rubbed off on me. I had never had real friends, friends who were doing things and making things. Never, in my entire adult life, had I been around people with goals other than “buying a big house” or “being the coolest guy or gal around.” It was exciting, and inspiring.

I had woken up from a nightmare into a world and a life that I’d only thought “other people” were allowed to have.

I felt empowered, as if I finally had some control over my own future, and my own life.

I had finally found the people who didn’t care where you came from, and supported where I wanted to go. No one was going to get rich or famous, but we all were doing the things we loved. I’d never really had that attitude in my life before. It changed the way that I saw things.

I learned some new coping skills in life. I learned how to bake bread from scratch, grow vegetables, and even play (rudimentary) music. I started going to museums, art galleries, and other places. I started meeting amazing people whose stories were inspiring and sometimes as gut-wrenching as the women at N Street.

I also learned some very practical life skills, like the time I helped take a sledgehammer to the backyard that had been paved over so we could plant grass and flowers. I had no idea that my anger could accomplish something like that.

I felt strong.

PTSD Diagnosis and Medication

When entering the trauma program, I was immediately put on a large cocktail of medications. A lot of people I know “don’t believe” in psychiatric medications. I think this fear is what keeps a lot of people miserable in life. You see, our brain chemistry when we’ve grown up with trauma has been known to re-wire itself. When a person with PTSD experiences panic, we’re put in fight or flight mode. This is a normal reaction that’s caused by trauma. Growing up with sexual or physical abuse causes your brain to prepare this kind of response regularly, even when you have escaped the circumstances that made you (rightfully) afraid for your life. This is why the anxiety attacks occur so often with PTSD; typical things that make a regular person a big nervous or afraid often elicit a “flight or fight” response.

Within a week of starting my meds, my constant state of anxiety ceased, and I wasn’t afraid to walk around outside. Within 6 months, I woke up every morning looking forward to the day. Within a year, my mood was stable, I walked around clear-headed, and I very rarely experienced anxiety that required as-needed medication. I started to really learn about forgiveness, hope, and how to make true, meaningful relationships in life. I learned how to find my self, and embrace it. No matter what I’d done in the past, I had survived.

The program I went to was run by N Street Village, one of the best programs in the country specializing in women with extensive trauma. The program was entirely voluntary. The doors were only locked from the outside. When I arrived, there was a “care basket” on my bed, filled with donations from another group that worked with women. It had bubble bath, shampoo, a hair clip, and some personal items that it was assumed you would arrive without.

I was one of only two caucasians in the N Street Village program, and at first, I felt very alone and afraid. I was scared I wouldn’t have anything in common, with anyone, or maybe I would be bullied or shunned because on the surface, I’d lived a privileged life. I’d never gone without a meal as a child. I’d been sexually abused, I’d had abusive boyfriends, but nobody had ever sent me to the hospital needing stitches or left me with a swollen eye.

I stuck with it because I felt I had no choices – this was the moment in my life where I learned “Do, or Die.” I didn’t want to return to the life I’d living, no matter what. I finally fit in. It didn’t take long to find that trauma, pain and self-medication are things I had in common with women from every walk of life.  And I had the opportunity to re-claim my life.

A group of 16-20 women spent about 8 hours in therapy each day, attended 12 Step Meetings at 7 in the morning, and learned a lot about all of our flawed behavior in life. We did daily chores like cleaning the bathroom or cooking meals for large groups. Up until that point, I’d never cooked for more than two or three people in my whole life. I learned to cook from scratch with the help of the other women. To me, this was a very new thing: I’d grown up as a latchkey-kid. My meals from ages 8 to 21 or so had consisted of food from boxes, ramen noodles, and microwave meals. I’d never taken a moment to learn to cook real food as an adult. After all, I’d been slowly committing suicide most of my adult life.

N Street Village saved my life, but I was not alone.

I was not unique. Most of the women who came through the doors had problems with self-harm, suicidal ideations, anxiety attacks, and sometimes other maladies that made it nearly impossible for them to regain control of their lives. Some women were schizophrenic and in a fit of delusion would throw all their medications in the trash. Some of them were violent, and couldn’t control their anger, forced from the program because they were making the other residents feel unsafe.

I got to see some women blossom, return to careers they never thought possible, return to their children to make a new way of life. I saw a lot of women’s lives transformed. On the flip side of that, I saw many women too tormented with their pasts, or too sick (hepatitis, HIV, and other disorders from alcohol and drug abuse were very common) to make the decision to get clean and get help. Some of them went back to the streets, back to the tired, ugly life of addiction. Others? They left N Street Village, picked up a bag of heroin, put it in their arms, and died. Even as I write this, I tear up, just thinking about it.

I am very fortunate. That could have been me at many points in my life. Although my drug of choice was alcohol, and my lifestyle was  very dangerous and very cringe-wrothy. I often wake up in the morning, simply grateful to be alive.

In 2008, a small group of residents from N Street walked to the Metropolitan Church on 16th Street as a small group, and placed our vote for President Obama. That was the most political thing I’d done in my whole life. It was actually one of the happiest moments I’d had in a very long time. In August 2009, I later spoke to a group of traveling Lutherans at Martin Luther Church on 14th Street, who wanted to learn more about helping the homeless recover their lives. I told my story from start to finish, voice quivering and tears coming to my eyes. And they respected that.

Towards the end of my stay at N Street Village, I got a job at the Shakespeare Theatre Company that I went to at night, and eventually was allowed to take classes in fundraising during the day. Eventually, I was able to return to freelance writing. Because I suffer from PTSD, my writing career is part-time, and I’m fine with that. Sometimes I take a part-time job or temp work, when the going gets tough. But again, I’m fortunate, and I tend to get by on the residual royalties that I make from online publishing.

I’m not brilliant, rich, or famous. I’m good at social media, and I am sometimes a really good writer.

My life is most exciting when I go to some live music, or when I’m able to walk around in my own neighborhood and enjoy the scenery, or when I’m helping with some cause I believe in, like women’s rights and birth control coverage. My favorite thing in the world to do? Curl up on the bed, with my significant other, and my two cats, and watch Netflix or Hulu at night.

My life is pretty calm, and I never thought I’d have that. I love it.

The only reason I have ever written on politics was to have a voice.

I will never run for office, I will never own a huge corporation or show up on MSNBC spouting my political opinion. I’ll never be credited with drafting laws or bills. I’ll never receive any prizes, host any galas, be interviewed for my expert opinion on a radio show. And that’s just fine.

Nobody has ever paid me to blog or Tweet anything political. I only write under my own name, because I want to own my words, because I find it empowering-especially now that the ex that I had a restraining order against is now in jail, and probably going away for a significant amount of time.

It’s fascinating that people think there’s something discrediting in that.

And on that note, it’s time for me to take a step back. Thanks for reading.Image

*just happened is one way to put this, but when I speak to people I know and love, I will also say that God sent me an angel that night

5 thoughts on “My Story: PTSD, Survival, and Feminism *trigger warning, truth warning*

  1. wow, great post

    I don’t like the paragraph that begins with “I’ll never”, because I imagine you likely *will* do some of those things.

    never say never 🙂

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