Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Impostor (or the not-so-funny story of PTSD)

SPOILER ALERT: This story is not funny. For those of you who read my blog for humor, you should probably just go back a post and read about cacti shaped like penises or about whacked out taxi rides. This is a little different. This will affect the way you see me. If you don't want to alter that, don't read it. Some things you just cannot unsee.

Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat? Or been out walking the dog and felt that creepy need-to-get-home feeling? Or perhaps you might have even just got a plain old "bad feeling" about something or someone? Most of us have. It's normal. Our mind's eye sees things before we do. Once our brain sees something, it lets our bodies know it. Often before we even know what's happening.

But sometimes, something bad actually happens. And, when something bad happens, we can react two different ways. We can move on and learn the lesson. Or, we can move on, but our brain is still stuck in the moment trying to figure it out. It becomes a layer of awareness that is constantly buzzing in our brain as it waits for that something to happen again. Our brains don't like to be fooled. Our brains don't want to miss anything that it can protect us from. And, if something bad happens over and over again, our brain ceases to know how to handle the problem. It shuts down reason and turns on constant vigilance. At length, we cannot cope with constant vigilance. It takes so much energy that everything else becomes crippled. Normal human functioning ceases.

This is what happens to some people who survive trauma. It can happen on the battlefield. It can happen as a result of abuse or being the child of an alcoholic. It can happen after car wrecks. It can even happen when we see something traumatic on television. For me, it began when I was only 16.

I suffer from PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder. And, believe me, PTSD is no fucking joke. This is the first time I've ever tried to write about this issue in a personal way so I'm not completely sure where this is going. I hope that, if you read this, you will realize that and be forgiving.

I talk about PTSD a lot in relation to the general population and trying to raise some awareness of the issue, but I tend not to make it too personal. Most people have no idea why I discuss it. They probably just think I talk about it as a dutiful military spouse. I do have a few people who are familiar with my story, but I've always carried the weight of it around privately because I didn't want people to feel sorry for me or judge me for my history. (In fact, I always say that I don't want people to pray for me. Over the years, I've learned that this is also a form of denial or self-protection. If someone else recognizes how bad it was, then I might be forced to see it as that bad as well. I don't have the strength for that...yet. Perhaps, I still feel like I don't deserve it either.)

Having said that I wouldn't say I keep it a secret exactly, but it takes a whole-lotta-while for me to cop to it. And, I tend to cop to it in a way that prevents anyone from really seeing how deeply it has hurt me. The "oh, yeah. It sucks, but I'm ok" face is very exhausting and it gets in the way of living. Actually living and enjoying.

But I have decided I'm done with that. I'm done feeling responsible for this and I really think it might be a learning experience for others out there. Because, in reality, I know I'm not the only one. This happens every day, but this is my story of my day.

At 16, I was an artist, a dancer, and a passionate thespian. I was kind, sensitive, creative, and pretty outgoing. The child of two teacher/priests and sister to two brothers. I was whole. But by the time I was sixteen and a half, I was desperately clinging to the idea of me whole, but, in reality, I had become an impostor in my own life. Completely shattered, but trying not to let anyone see it. I became an expert in becoming what everyone else wanted to see. That kept me safely hidden.

When I was 16, over the period of about 3 months, I was raped multiple times by a boy I had been dating. He had a gun and used it. I live this experience every day of my life. Every day. Without exception. Some days, it is more in passing. Some days, it grabs me by the throat and threatens to kill me. Recently, I was reminded of a song that the rapist used to sing repeatedly. Before I even had chance to realize that I was even thinking of the song, I was gripped by a panic attack. Panic first. Then reason. That's how my brain functions. My brain was not going to let him get away with it again. Ever.

It wasn't until I was 35 and in serious crisis, that my path finally crossed with someone who could help me. You see, back in 1989, when I was raped, PTSD was pretty much an unknown quantity. There was no treatment. I could have talked about being raped until the cows came home, but no one really knew how to make it better. We had a generation of Vietnam veterans who were suffering, but we didn't know how to help them. We were in the first Gulf War, but were not seeing lasting effects of trauma....yet. However, over the next 20 years, we have become all to familiar with the effects of trauma. (In particular, related to battle, but other trauma as well.) We are seeing patterns in soldiers, families with alcoholics, families with abuse, and crime me.

But, in 2009, it was a different story. I was living overseas when I went into crisis. (Some of you might remember this, but did not know until now why.) I was working hard as a volunteer base leader and my life went kaboom. I remember standing on the balcony of my 7th floor apartment and wondering to myself what it would be like to just go over the edge. It was scary as shit because I knew I wasn't thinking right. I attribute some of it to living in a place where we practiced "war mentality" such as practicing evacuation procedures and witnessing pretend gun-fights happening around us. Guns had been involved in my trauma and I had never felt safe around them.

My only resource was the military family social worker at the clinic. I met with him a few times, but wasn't getting very far very fast. I was thinking that everything I was feeling was new. Homesickness. That kind of thing. I never really made the connection to something that had happened 19 years earlier. I always mentioned it to therapists in passing and down played it as usual. "Well, yeah. When I was 16, I was raped by a boyfriend. But I'm ok now." That was my story. Because they didn't respond as though it was serious, I discounted the intensity of my feelings about it. I blamed myself for over-reacting.

But this time when I mentioned it, the person hearing my story had heard it all before and he wasn't messing around. As a military member, he'd seen PTSD and understood how to treat it. And that's when my life began to change.

The treatments for PTSD are quite effective now. Very painful, but effective. I basically had to force myself to describe (in first person) what happened to me for each and every rape. In intense detail. I told it. Recorded it. Listened to it. Over and over and over and over and over again. And then some more. As I retold the story, my social worker helped me see it for the first time as it was. A serious, premeditated crime. It wasn't until then, that I learned to understand that I didn't cause it to happen. And I finally began to feel some relief. The more I told the story, the less power it had over me. This man saved my life. I will never ever forget him for that.

The legacy of the trauma, however, infuses every corner of my life. Family life. Work life. Social life. Everything. There are still immense ramifications. It took so long to figure out what the problem was that the Impostor was the Helen that everyone knew. The real Helen actually seemed like a fraud. It has been an incredibly painful journey, but it is getting better.

Now on to the lessons.....

There are so many lessons in this whole experience and, as I reflect upon my experience as a parent wanting to protect my own children from danger, there is one fact that strikes me as most important.

This was someone I knew. This was not a stranger. All the tricks and skills I had learned to protect myself in life would never have helped me. Because I knew this person, he had time to work. It was not a sudden experience. He learned to master me over six months. Once he mastered me, he went in for the kill. This was cold, calculated, criminal.

I was a kind and patient kid. I was also the kid who tried not to rock the boat. I always tried to keep it together. If something bad happened (and it did), I would have been the least likely person to say anything to anyone about it. I didn't want to cause a fuss. He knew this, too.

He had a hard life and I thought he really needed a friend. After 6 months of painful emotional drama, things began to take a turn for the worse. For six months, he tested my loyalty and my boundaries. Once he mastered me, the games began in earnest. The insulting began. The dehumanizing began. The overwhelming control began. He would tell me what to wear. Who to talk to. Why I was no good. He would make fun of every damn thing I did, said, or was interested in. He told me that no one else would bother with me and that he was doing me a favor. That I was a "Plain Jane". And then, once he knew he had broken me, he told me he needed me.

I mention this because it is a critical step in a relationship like this. "Why did she stay in the relationship?" People often ask this question when victims don't leave their abusers. Or, worse, "I would have left." This is why. They hold their victims' minds prisoner. The victim no longer believes that the way they think about something is real. They are constantly questioning their own judgement. It happens slowly. It is insidious. (And remember, I was only 16.)

I said nothing.

It took me three years to "confess" even a tiny bit of what happened to me. The "I was raped but it wasn't a big deal" years followed and lasted until I was 35. In the mean time, the Impostor took over my life. Helen disappeared completely.

So, this is a very unpleasant tale to tell and I am already second guessing my judgement to post about it. But I've decided to tell it now in the hopes that I can free myself just a little bit more from it. In doing so, I'm also hoping that someone who might be suffering themselves can start to see that there is a way out. And, perhaps, for you parents in the midst, you might be more aware of some of the dynamics that may affect your children in the hopes that a few of them might be saved a journey like mine. Because my journey with PTSD is not yet over. And that is just how it will be, I guess.


  1. Yes. Rape is real and not your fault. The PTSD fall-out happened to me, too. I was raped, repeatedly by an older adopted brother. Telling about it was my first step toward freedom. Thank you for your honesty and courage.

  2. Helen, You have always been one of my favorite people. I also was raped (date rape)by someone I knew. And I had also suffered the verbal and mental abuse you describe from your boyfriend. But in my case the abuse was from my family who said I was worthless. A lifetime of that left me thinking that I deserved abuse and somehow the rape was my fault. I married young and to the wrong person because I thought nobody else would want me. Now that I'm in my seventies these things are discussed but it never was for me and this happened more than 50 years ago. Love to you dear sweet lady.