Superhearing

I can hear you chew like you’re crushing gravel in my ears. The dog licks herself like she’s clicking and slurping in surround sound for me. The omnipresent beep of scanners at the grocery store vibrates in my teeth.

You might have guessed–today’s post is about hypervigilance and its offspring–misophonia. After a violent attack, or any sort of life-threatening trauma, your body’s alarm system gets a bit broken. It goes off all of the time for no good reason.

And mine goes off when evening approaches. I was attacked at night, so sounds crescendo before the sun even sets. And I’m on edge, like I’m trapped in a closet in a slasher flick, and the killer is just on the other side of the door.

I used to hide in my closet a lot because the world was too loud. And I couldn’t handle normal dinner time sounds with my kids. No one did anything wrong. I just couldn’t coexist with the noise.

Here are a few things that helped: noise cancelling headphones (though I haven’t found a pair that I can’t hear through), ear plugs, learning not to put myself in crowds for long.

Caveats: I communicate clearly about my noise intolerance so that my family know why I am hidden away. And I should warn you that people sometimes think you’re a rude teenager who won’t take their headphones off, if you walk around in public with the headphones on. People also assume you can’t hear them, even if the headphones are only making the roar around you bearable.

I have looked into earplugs designed to only reduce certain frequencies like Calmer. I haven’t tried it yet though, so if you have insight into that product, I’d love to hear about it.

PTSD Soundtrack

I went through some phases with my music after my attack. One of the things that brought me out of panic attacks was singing. I tried relaxation techniques and grounding techniques, but what really stopped my hyperventilating was singing.

I was so sad that someone hated me enough to try to kill me. And I was mourning the loss of everything I was before–cheerful, adventurous caver, avid reader, calmer person. Most music was too cheerful for me. I couldn’t take the love songs or even the normal songs. So, I have two lists for you: the sad songs and the song that brought me out of my dark, sad closet.

The one I think is most important now is “Swim” by Jack’s Mannequin. I listened to it on repeat for days when I found it. I was suicidal and hanging on by a thread, tormented by PTSD symptoms. It was written by a man fighting leukemia, but it speaks to anyone fighting a battle. I still listen to it when I don’t feel like I have the energy to make it through a day. I remember that I have to “swim and swim when it hurts/ The whole world is watching/ You haven’t come this far to fall off the Earth”. This song and kind friends were the push I needed to apply to go back to school, and I did the week I found it.

I think sad songs have their place, as long as you don’t stay in the sadness. I found solace in them because those songs made me believe there were people out there just as shredded as I was. And we were all singing with our tattered souls. Here are the songs that made me believe other people existed who might understand trauma:

1. Demi Lovato “Anyone”

2. Kesha “Praying”

3. Taylor Swift “All Too Well”

4. Taylor Swift “Peace”. I honestly didn’t think I could give anyone peace after my attack.

5. Birdie “Skinny Love”

6. Halsey “Trouble” (Stripped)

7. Halsey “I’m Not Mad”

8. Alessia Cara “River of Tears”

9. Christina Perri “Jar of Hearts”

10. Bishop Briggs’s Church of Scars album

I hope my list sings you through your struggle and maybe brings you out of it.

Rediscovering Yourself after Trauma

I thought I knew who I was after my attack. The same person as before, right? But something so life altering takes up all of your mental space and feels like someone just told you gravity isn’t real, or that the speed of light isn’t constant.

I get bored easily and have bounced from hobby to hobby for most of my adult life, but there were a few that kept pulling me back: caving, writing, reading, gardening, jewelry making, and baking. (In that order.)

But after my attack, I didn’t feel any thrill of anticipation about caving. I’m stubborn as hell though, so I packed my bags and went on trip after trip, searching for that elusive spark. It didn’t happen because caving is an adrenaline-filled sport. Adrenaline used to be fun, but when you constantly have adrenaline surging through your body because of its broken alarm system, extra adrenaline leads to panic attacks. And risky behavior wasn’t as appealing to me after I’d brushed against death and struggled to find my way back.

I couldn’t read or watch TV after my attack either because I couldn’t focus. Reading has been such a huge part of my life that I dug my heels in on this hobby. I kept buying books, knowing eventually I’d want them. My focus came back eventually, but for a while I didn’t know who I was with all of the things I used to love no longer bringing me joy. I wish someone had told me, “You’re a new person now after this attack. In some ways it’s like being a child. Go discover what you like now.” I beat my head against so many walls, trying to love things I used to love.

Writing stayed with me, but gardening became a higher priority. And knitting, which had previously occupied a tiny space, became a shelter for my mind when I couldn’t accomplish much but still needed to learn. My caving became hiking and backpacking.

If you’ve been attacked and can’t find the traces of your old self in the aftermath, don’t try to force it. You’re not that person anymore. But you just might be someone better, wiser, kinder. Be gentle with yourself and try things you were only peripherally interested in before. You will find new interests and bury some old ones.

It’s disconcerting relearning who you are as an adult, but it’s also beautiful and something many adults don’t experience. Trauma brings clarity and intention to how you spend your time.

Thank you for sticking with me through Domestic Violence Awareness Month. And I’d love to hear about any of the changes you experienced after a trauma, especially success stories. Let’s show people that trauma is not the end, but a beginning.

Making Lemonade: PTSD Silver Linings

I have spent many posts this month on the insanely negative side effects of PTSD. But I have experienced a few silver linings over the years.

One that I noticed almost immediately is that I am no longer squeamish. Something about seeing my own blood everywhere made me want to fight back, and not only for myself, but for others. I’m choosing to do that by pursuing a career in medicine.

Another upside is that I had to become better at managing anxiety to function. I can’t make it all go away, but I can function in spite of it. I can do calculus and chemistry despite the irrational panic. What benefit is that? Well, I don’t show visible panic about much anymore.

I can publicly speak more eloquently than ever. Nothing is as bad as what I have endured before. So, I don’t get nervous. I just prepare and say a speech like I am talking to a room of friends. I used to rocket through presentations because I was nervous and hate it when I am in the spotlight. But I don’t care anymore and don’t mind when it’s necessary.

I can act under pressure with cool logic. That’s a pretty sweet feature for a rescuer/ wannabe doctor. Adrenaline is just another feeling for me, a frequent one.

And I have a poker face now. I was once an open book. I couldn’t win a card game. I couldn’t be on video with unpleasant people at work, or my face told them I thought they were dumb or rude. I have actually won games that relied on my bluffing skill since my attack and life with PTSD began.

So much of PTSD discussion is how it wrecks a life. I don’t know how to make it go away, but I can tell you that not all change is bad. Being accustomed to adrenaline and anxiety can make you the one leading others when emergencies arise.

Lean into the silver linings.

Dating with PTSD

So, you’re one of the lucky ones. You got out of an abusive relationship, and you haven’t given up on humanity or dating.

I survived, and I couldn’t make it through nights in my house alone. So, whether dating was an excellent idea or not, I did it.

Here are my tips for not finding yourself back in another terrible relationship and for not spiraling while dating:

1. Have boundaries. I had to learn what actually was terrible behavior. I probably erred on the side of no tolerance for rudeness. If someone said anything rude, I blocked them. If they hinted at anything scary, they never saw me again. Maybe not all of them would have been terrible, but being in a relationship when you’re terrified all of the time requires a special partner. Anyone who scared me was not that person.

2. Be honest. If you like someone well enough to go out with them, put your PTSD out there, share your history. If they run, they are not enough for you. My whole perspective shifted because men kept saying I was too much. But it was never that I was too much; they were not enough.

3. Don’t set yourself up for failure. For example, if you know you have sound sensitivity, don’t agree to a heavy metal concert. I didn’t go that far, but a couple of times, I thought I could leave my noise cancelling headphones at home and be normal. I was wrong, and I usually drank more than I meant to, to drown my senses. I wore those headphones on my first date with the man I recently married. He didn’t mind.

4. Be real. If you’re scared, say so. If you want to run, say that. If you want someone to stay with you, but you don’t know if it’s just because you’re scared or because you care deeply or both–just blurt all of that out. Someone who’s intelligent enough for you can sort all of that truth out and decide if you’re worth the risk.

5. PTSD might not go away. People put off so much until they are healed or ready; I hear people say that they’ll date when they’ve gotten better sometimes, but PTSD can be a lifelong disability. It was a bitter pill to accept, but once I knew I might always be like this, I knew there was no reason to wait until I am better. Better might not exist and this moment does.

I hope you get amazingly lucky and meet someone who lets you heal and tells you that you’re safe until you don’t panic as often. Don’t give up.

Exercise/Running

I would have tried anything to alleviate my panic attacks after a violent attack left me living as the PTSD poster child, and I was already a runner in a I-want-carbs-and-I’m-over-30 way, not competitively.

My panic attacks get worse with nightfall because that’s when I was attacked. My therapist decided that maybe I should run through dusk, that maybe that would burn through some of my adrenaline. And it was worth a shot.

But I ran, and I couldn’t tell if the tightness in my chest was running or panic or both. And all of the sounds were amplified into a cricket-frog cacophony. I ran, and it felt like I was running because someone was chasing me, that I was still in danger and that I needed to run for my life.

I don’t run at night anymore. I think exercise does help burn the excess adrenaline, but I do so at times when I am not already panicked. I try to wear my body out before it gets the chance to freak out.

At the very least, I feel stronger, and exercise is good for me. I would recommend that anyone trying to live with a constant adrenaline flood find a way to exercise, find something that forces you to move that you like.

Beating on a punching bag and swimming are also on my list to try. Yoga was a bust because I can’t breathe well out of my nose after it was broken during the attack. Deep breaths just make me want to punch someone now.

If you have any other ideas for getting stronger and beating PTSD, I’d love to hear about them.

When You’re Attacked In Your House

I was attacked in my home. And it’s instant desecration. Your spaces aren’t yours anymore. They belong to terrible memories. That’s the room he attacked me in. That’s the room he went to next. The moments of terror overtake years of good memories.

Immediately after my attack, I had to deal with the splinters of my door, held together with duct tape. A friend came and put plywood over it. I thought, “How many times will my door be plywood in October?” And I went full Walking Dead with it. I got out black spray paint out and wrote, “Don’t open. Dead inside.”

Don’t open. Dead inside. Like me. It was a bitter joke because I knew it was a warning about me, too, the traumatized zombie woman.

I panic moved next. I rented a house and moved everything as quickly as I could. I had the house repaired and put on the market, and I waited. Despite the seller’s market, it did not sell. (And to be honest, I had an awful realtor.) And I realized I should never have moved in the first place and that I would rather live in the site of my trauma than have a careless realtor make a dime off of me.

Since then, I have begun the process of making the space new with my husband. We began small. My kids’ rooms were painted a blah-sell-my-house creamy beige by an inexperienced crew. We set about adding a nebula mural to my daughter’s wall, giving my rainbow girl the stars.

And we updated a bathroom, then my office, the living room, the boys’ bedrooms, my bedroom, and now the laundry room. We’re about halfway there. Every wall we sand, every room we change, erases a bit of the violation. I have reclaimed rooms inch by inch, until there’s no surface left that my attacker could have touched, at any point in our relationship.

Remodeling the house has rebuilt me, too, bit by bit. And it’s made my space feel like mine again. If you’re not married to a DIY god or goddess, then there are small changes you can make, too. Rearrange the furniture. Change up bedding, art, and pillows.

I don’t think much of anything I own is the same. Even the clothes I owned needed to go because they belonged to a woman who died during my attack. Someone else, the new me, came out on the other side. And she didn’t wear pink or flowers. She didn’t give a damn about shoes or purses. And that extends to everything in the house.

Be kind to yourself after an attack, but don’t be afraid to change things when your memories are on a loop. Maybe you can’t fix your memories, but you don’t have to live in the same space, no matter where your mind is. You might find that your surroundings impact your thoughts and that your thoughts drift to trauma less when you’ve changed up your setting.

Insomnia

One of the things no one tells you about PTSD is that it can wreck your sleep forever. Someone can attack you and convince your body for years that you might be attacked at any moment. That doesn’t do wonders for sleep.

After my attack, I didn’t sleep at all in the hours before I was attacked. I could only fall asleep after attack time, and it didn’t matter if I left my house, or even left the state. And you might be thinking, well, she did fall asleep eventually.

And, yes, I did. But I didn’t stay that way. I never slept more than five hours. And I was up, panicked, and alone while the world slept.

I’ve lived without sleep with newborn babies and in graduate school, trading caffeine for lost hours. But the truth is–nothing is better for your next day than rest.

I was more on edge and irritable without sleep I needed, and I was already both of those things from panic. Caffeine doesn’t really help anxiety levels either. I started taking over the counter sleeping pills, and they made my life more bearable within a few days. I was able to focus again.

In the long term, I would like to get a sleep study and see what’s actually going on with my body and what the best fix is. I’m not loving the OTC band-aid. But it’s getting me and my family through the day and to our goals, which was something we struggled with when I didn’t sleep.

If you can’t sleep after an attack, don’t take that as a new fact of life. It’s probably affecting your quality of life more than you realize. And it can be tough to figure out which symptoms are anxiety and which are lack of sleep until you start getting rest again.

Let the Stigma Die

October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. And if you’re just joining me, I’m blogging all month about the issue. Our regularly scheduled poetry, writing, and book posts will resume soon. But this month, I will be frank about my trauma and how I’m healing.

My family didn’t cry growing up. They didn’t say sorry for anything. It was an odd, prideful, save-face-at-all-costs culture. They sure as hell didn’t go to therapy.

And trauma can be generational. You can grow up in a home where you don’t see people set rational boundaries, so you don’t know what normal is either. Trauma can also be cyclic. Sometimes you have to wonder why terrible things keep happening to you. Why was I somehow picking more than one man who scared me, who hurt me? What are the odds?

The odds are high if you’re accepting behaviors you shouldn’t because you don’t know what normal is. Understanding when I should tell people to go away and never come back has been powerful. But I never would have learned that without therapy.

Why therapy? Because you deserve someone who is qualified to listen to your problems, who’s not actually in your life, and who can actually suggest helpful solutions. And trauma therapy is a bit different than normal therapy. My treatment, EMDR, involved reliving my worst experience over and over again with grounding techniques so that I didn’t feel like I was still in it all of the time.

Did it help? Definitely. Am I cured? No. PTSD rears its ugly head still. But the work I did in therapy was critical for moving on with my life and for rebuilding my confidence in my own decisions. (You might have guessed that narcissists love people without boundaries.)

If you need to process a trauma, I highly recommend therapy. And just so we’re clear, it’s not for crazy people. It’s for smart people who want to regain control of their lives, who want to reach their goals despite obstacles.

What Saved My Life

After you get attacked, you want to pack everything you care about into a van, move across the country, and never talk to anyone again.

My attacker had spent a long time telling me everything was my fault. So, there was a small voice in my head saying, “Maybe this is my fault. Maybe everyone thinks I deserve this.” And I didn’t want to face anyone with my broken nose in plaster and stitched.

I wasn’t going to tell anyone who didn’t hold me in the ER. And I ran on fumes, unable to return to my house for a couple of days. It was as broken as I was. Desecrated. My son’s birthday was four days later, and I wrapped all of his gifts in rainbows I didn’t feel, curled ribbons mocking my bruised face. And we opened them at Starbucks and spent all day out, living an unspoken pact to pretend the day was beautiful, and we were normal.

I tried posting my pictures of the day to Facebook, absent selfies with my boy. But I was angry. All of these people couldn’t see I fought like hell to make it through that day.

Then, I had an epiphany. No one can help you if you don’t tell them you have a problem.

I was so scared of people hurting me again that I was assuming my whole community would attack me. So, I posted the birthday pictures. And then I posted the truth in all of its ugliness for all four hundred or so of my Facebook friends to see.

And a remarkable thing happened–no one attacked me; in fact, my community gathered around me and didn’t leave me alone with my fear, panic, and whirlwind of decisions.

If I could only tell a person who’s just begun the long road to recovering from domestic violence one thing, it would be: Tell everyone you know what happened to you. Some of them might not care. Some of them might help you for the wrong reasons. And some of them might bring you back from the brink.