Trigger warning: Sexual Abuse, PTSD, eating disorder.
I’ve started this blog a couple times now. Started, erased, saved drafts for later. I always know I need to write when it’s the last thing I want to do, and now is no different. I’ve been having a hard time collecting my thoughts and paragraphing them in a way that might be pleasing to the world wide web. I’m one of “those people” that ascribes some meaning to planetary shifts and what they can indicate about the energy within and around us, and right now the planets are all over the goddamn place. There was a partial lunar eclipse last week. A solar eclipse next week. Mercury’s in retrograde. Everything’s going to shit.
I want to write about anxiety. Where it came from in my particular case, and what has contributed to it over the years, creating a snowball effect that at times seems unstoppable. Through many years of talk therapy, as well as introspection and being a student of psychology, I’ve come to view my anxiety as three-headed beast. A tightrope walking Cerberus who must be tended to constantly, or it may topple into a spiral that take an unknowable time to recover from.
The three heads of my anxiety are: PTSD, Hyper-Empathy, & Observation/Intuition. I’ve got a lot to say about each snarling face, so this will be spread out over three separate blog posts.
It’s important for me to disclose that I’m writing this for two reasons: One, I have never talked openly about any of this before, and that needs to change. Fresh Air’s mission is to treat mental illness with creation, and in order to do that I must first be open and honest about the mental illness I face. Two, I’ve encountered more people than I can count that’ve had similar experiences; this is an act of solidarity. There are too many other humans this could potentially resonate with, it is becoming increasingly selfish for me not to share. This is not a cry for help, nor is it a call for attention, but we’ll get to that later.
The first head, the genesis of my anxiety comes from PTSD that I developed very early in life due to on-going sexual, physical, and emotional abuse from my then-step father. I’ve gone back and forth about writing about this incredibly personal piece of my history, but it has affected every part of my life since early childhood, and in the end has shaped who I am as a human. I won’t get too far into the specifics of the abuse itself, but I do want to talk about the abuse of power and how it has affected me. My former step father was a police officer. He worked the graveyard shift “protecting the city from bad guys” by night, and spent days at home tormenting his own family. On the outside, he was very charismatic, handsome, well liked by our neighbors, an avid church-goer, a loving father figure, a hero. Behind closed doors he was manipulative, deceitful, a bully, a tyrant, a predator. Now that I’m in my 30’s, I’ve (very unfortunately) heard this story a million times: We call it grooming. We call it narcissism. We call it a personality disorder. We call it pedophilia. Not a day goes by that I haven’t been affected, even in some seemingly small way, by something he said or did. Sexual and physical abuse are scarring no matter what, but there were ‘smaller’ things that did equal damage. The way he relentlessly made fun of me for hitting wrong notes when I practiced violin, until I finally stopped playing for good because I wasn’t perfect; effectively spawning my Impostor Syndrome. I never picked up another instrument. He’d insist on watching horror movies that were much too mature for my age, putting graphic images in my head (I’ll get more into this in the Empathy segment). While teasing and movie watching are not out-right abuse in the eyes of the law, they played a part in my big-picture PTSD anxiety.
I will never know if he knew what he was doing would still cause me nightmares, panic attacks, trust issues, and a severe lack of respect for law enforcement 21 years later, and I honestly don’t care to find out; the fact remains. I have sought innumerable treatments for PTSD and the severe anorexia I developed in an attempt to gain control over my own body to as a result of it. I am the healthiest I have ever been, but I still wake up from nightmares regularly. I still get triggered, regress and have anxiety attacks when exposed to loud conflicts, violence (even “play violence”), rape “jokes”, being underwater and in tight spaces, and certain foods/smells.
The anxiety that stems from my PTSD is plentiful, in part because it was not an isolated incident. Something about being victimized at a young age, it’s almost like it left a scent for other predators to pick up on. I’ve been sexually assaulted by 5 different men. The one mentioned above served a total of 90 days, while I’ve spent my entire life learning to live with the aftermath. I remember following the Brock Turner case so closely, desperately hoping for a different outcome. In a depression sink-hole, unable to leave my couch for 3 days. It was like I was reliving my trial over again; 90 days because he was a cop and he had a good lawyer, and I was just a 12 year old girl. I am so aware of how not-alone I am in this, but no one talks about it. 1 in 5 females are sexually assaulted in their life. I can almost guarantee you this is not an accurate statistic, nor does is include multiple instances. It is estimated the number is much higher, with many events going unreported (not to mention the unreported cases of male sexual assault victims); it’s never something we bring up, not even to other surviviors.
The abuse of power reaches beyond the act of “abuse”, and extends to the furthest depths of ones psyche, tricking the abused into believing they’re doing something wrong by even speaking about that which has been inflicted upon them. It creates an unending feeling of being unsafe, of distrust, of guilt, self-doubt, and isolation. It banks on the fact that our culture always sides with the ones in power, making sure to keep the abused quiet. We’re mocked for needing safe spaces. For being easily triggered by “jokes”, as if their need to make a joke that’s not funny is more important than our need to not relive the most painful moments of our lives. We’re told we’re “attention seekers” if we bring up our abuse/PTSD. We’re told we have daddy issues if we become promiscuous (or celibate, or a nude model), an act of empowerment, in an attempt to take our bodies back from the people that took from us without our consent. We’re told we deserved it. We’re told we should or could have done things to prevent it. We’re told we secretly wanted it. I’m here to tell you that’s all bullshit. I’m here to tell you there are more people than you know that understand. I’m here to tell you it’s not ok that it happened. We may never feel right with the world, but we are far from alone.
The greatest tools I’ve found to deal with the anxiety that PTSD brings are writing and self portraiture. I have notebooks upon notebooks of poetry, free-writing, journaling, and memory-logs from times when my brain gets stuck in a painful loop or there’s something I need to get out. When I was a teenager I would look at photos from my childhood and speak to them in the third person in an attempt to heal that young girl retroactively.
Now self portraits are a way to gain reflection, to see myself as more than just a culmination of that which has happened to me. It’s a helpful way to view and treat grief from a third party perspective, and gauge where I’m at on a day-to-day basis with my eating disorder. On days that it’s hard to be in my own body, it’s helped me to learn to love myself from the outside.
If you’re in a situation you need to get out of, there are ways to get out. If you need help reporting abuse or dealing with the aftermath, check out RAINN – The nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. Please feel free to share if you know someone that might benefit or relate to this. If the fires I’ve walked through help one person feel less alone, it’s worth it. Don’t hesitate to drop a line.
Stay tuned for parts 2 & 3 of the Anxiety Cerberus trilogy.