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.

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.

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