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.

How I Handle Difficult Anniversaries

It’s Domestic Violence Awareness month. And I am all too aware of the cruel irony of having been attacked on this day, two years ago, during domestic violence awareness month. Here’s what I know about making it through hours, days, months, and years so far.

I panicked through every day at first. How do you live, knowing your attacker made bail? How do you sleep? I can tell you that I took every bit of medical leave I could, and it was not enough.

Then, every month, the fourth slapped me in the face. I tried to be kind to myself on those days. I lowered my expectations, and I let myself have things I looked forward to. I couldn’t immediately read books because I was too panicked to focus. But I’d buy myself books I knew I would’ve wanted, and I put them away as a visual sign of my faith, when everyone else lost faith in me.

But I knew I couldn’t handle the one-year anniversary. And I am lucky. There was no expectation that I would. When I told my boyfriend that I wanted to leave town, to not be in the house I was attacked in, on the anniversary, he made it happen. We hiked for days, soaking up the mountains and waterfalls, distracting me and honoring my wish.

Not everyone wants to take off on a difficult day, but I like to give myself something to look forward to. It’s a way to balance out what should be sad. I choose to live vibrantly that day, the day I could have died instead.

Whatever you choose, be kind to yourself. Balance out the sorrow and pain with things you are looking forward to. Give yourself reasons to be happy you’re breathing–especially on the hard days.

I’m writing this ahead of time. I suspect I won’t be out of town, fleeing my memories. It’s a class day. (Being a doctor and an author is a priority.) But it’s a hard day for me. So far, it looks like a night out with friends who don’t want me to pretend everything is normal–throwing axes and having a couple of drinks. I hope to get out of town on Fall Break.

Books That Helped After My Attack

So, October is domestic violence awareness month. And I’m a survivor. I want to spend the month telling you what worked for me. Today it’s all about the books.

I had a difficult time focusing after my attack while living with PTSD. Don’t get me wrong–it took a long time for me to get well enough to read anything. But here are the books that made an impact–both fiction and nonfiction.

The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk. This was the first book I read after my attack. And I loved it. It described perfectly what was happening with my body. And the author has decades of experience treating trauma and discussed the nuances of which treatments offered what benefits. It made me feel like I was responding normally to what happened to me, when most of the people I was close to were treating me like I was crazy. It prompted me to seek trauma therapy that really helped me move forward.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. I am lucky. I am not only an author. I have friends pushing me to succeed in every area of my life, and I have started back on the journey to med school. (Move over, Michael Crichton and Andy Weir.) Gladwell taught me that success is not only effort. It’s opportunity. Not succeeding immediately is normal. Tenacity and shining moments of dumb luck are what creates success. It’s a book that might help you reframe your journey and pick yourself up.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed. This one was a beautifully written memoir from a broken woman who dealt with her trauma as I wanted to. She hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and was candid about the moments that get one thinking, “I’d like to walk thousands of miles in the wilderness now. Solo.” I like people who are broken, beautiful, and remade.

The Alpha and Omega series by Patricia Briggs. It might be a trigger for some. The main character, Anna, is a survivor. And Briggs did an amazing job of capturing how trauma stays with us, while also showing Anna growing. I needed this urban fantasy tale of recovery. It gave me hope that someone could love the broken. And I met a man who loves me as I am, who didn’t bat an eyelash at my noise cancelling headphones on our first date. But I had to believe it was possible first.

Karen Marie Moning’s Kingdom of Shadow and Light. This is the end of the Fever series. And I adore Moning’s treatment of traumatized characters and her let’s-be-real author notes. I cried when I read the afterword. Honestly, it did more for me than the book, and I loved the book. Moning had major health issues that she thought might have impacted her ability to write at all. And she fought despair and stubbornly continued until she was able to finish the book. I worried I’d never write again after my attack. So, I know her despair. I’ve published two books in these two years, and I have two novels in the works now and a new poetry book awaiting my editing. I cried with her, and she didn’t know it. If you write (or wrote) and think someone might have beaten your art out of you, I think you should hang on and not let go of what you love without a fight.

I hope the books help you or your friends. As Moning would say, stay to the light.

What Domestic Violence Is

You think you know what domestic violence is. It’s a man beating his wife, right? You’ve seen it in Lifetime movies and mysteries and Nancy Grace yelling about which man has slaughtered a woman so normal that she’s practically a piece of salt in the ocean.

And you think you’ll know the warning signs. You’ll never let it happen to you. If a man hits you, you’re gone. If anyone hits you, they’ll never find you to do it again.

But what counts? When is the moment you leave? Is it when your partner loses his temper and throws a glass? Is it when he punches a wall? After all, none of that is punching you. Is it when you’re scared? (But you’re always scared.) Is it when he threatens you, but doesn’t really mean it? Is it when he shows up uninvited, when he’s keeping tabs on where you are? Is it when you start wondering how to leave without setting him off? How do you make him think it’s his idea to break up? How do you get out alive?

What if all of this happens without you ever actually being hit?

Domestic violence is violence directed at anyone by anyone they’ve dated in the last year. They don’t have to live with you. They don’t have to be currently dating you. You certainly don’t have to be married for it to count.

All of those things I listed above were things I recognized as blazing red flags after a lot of trauma therapy. I didn’t know I was experiencing daily abuse because I wasn’t beaten until the end. I was just terrified.

And I was so heart-breakingly selfless, small, and kind. And I didn’t want to bother anyone with my problems. Surely the police have better things to do, I told myself. And I wasn’t even sure when my door was in splinters and my blood was everywhere–is this the moment one calls the police? And I gathered my nerve as I wondered, “If not now, when is the moment one calls the police?”

I will be sharing my experience and things that helped me get through the aftermath of my attack for all of October. It’s Domestic Violence Awareness month. I want you to know it happens to people who look like pretty young, affluent, intelligent women–the best moms, the best first responders. It happens to damned good writers. It can happen to anyone.

Blogging for a Cause

Hello, everyone. In a couple of days, the usual poetry, writing, book preview, and life update posts will come to a screeching halt for a month to discuss a topic I know more about than I’d like to–domestic violence.

October is domestic violence awareness month, and I will be blogging on topics related to the aftermath I experienced in the hope that I can help other domestic violence survivors.

Thanks for hanging in here with me. I am putting the latest touches on my new poetry volume, Sunbathing in Cemeteries, and I’m looking forward to sharing the cover and previews after the October Domestic Violence Awareness series of posts. Please share these posts with anyone they might help.

In the meantime, keep swimming, keep running, keep breathing. And enjoy some of that obnoxiously glorious sunshine.

–Jessi

Update and Poetry: The Club

October has been an interminable month. It used to be my favorite as I chased down the fall colors, carved pumpkins, and reveled in cardigan and boot weather. I had been dreading the anniversary of my attack and scheduled my book releases and tours to be done before that day hit me.

I tried to block it out with hiking. Mount Rainier, the Smoky Mountains, and other wilderness areas filled my days. I got muddy in caves with my kids. But I’m still me, and the adrenaline still floods me at nightfall, bringing panic attacks and insomnia.

Then, I switched to updating parts of my house. I have steamed wallpaper, patched walls, and left my house in piles of chaotic clutter. It reminds me of being a third of the way through writing a novel. I can see the end in my head, but I’m surrounded by loose threads. And there’s a lot of work to go. Only I can see how it will all work out; I think the rest of the household are humoring me.

I don’t know if you knew, but October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. And I laughed at the bitter irony that I was made indelibly aware of domestic violence in an October. My poems have been darker, like I’ve embraced the month’s black cats, cobwebs, and fishnet stockings and left out the cardigans and pumpkins.

The Club

There’s no glitter here.
And the lighting doesn’t flatter.
But all of the alcohol you can pour is included with a lifetime membership.

We all get our own photo shoots.
We’re models you see—
of blossoming bruises and chokers stuck to our skin.
We skip the lines—
at the ER.
We take off our clothes—
to don backless gowns.
We do interviews—
with men who forgot their microphones.

Our breaths come in ragged gasps.
We have nights we can’t forget
and friends who won’t remember us.

I won’t welcome you to our club,
but I’ll tell those waiting outside to go to hell
when they say you deserved your membership.