Poetry: Winter Solstice 2021

Context:

This poem is a wish that the universe would take care of justice for me. I’ve been handed a few glorious moments over the years, moments I felt that the Fates were spinning my villains into the corner they deserved and offering me a window to see. For the record, my husband says that the best revenge is a life well lived. And he’s right. But sometimes I still curse my attacker on my bad days.

My attacker’s court date got pushed back, and it’s been years already. So, I wait. And I recently had what I hope is the final surgery to fix the physical damage from the attack. It was a rough one.

Winter Solstice 2021

Does the frost lick your veins like the post-op splints tickle my nose?

Just a little too cold, a little too painful to sleep.

Does the darkness blend into your shot-in-the-dark soul?

I raise another glass, hoping your nights are long and that you forget the wonder of the galaxy. (It’s you who gobbles nanometers.)

I hope you live in the winter solstice and can’t see the fractals in the frost.

I still stand–a tree in the pitch–awaiting morning’s kiss. But I didn’t forget to watch the night undress the light of a thousand stars.

Friends: Before Trauma and After

So, a terrible thing happened to you. If you’re like me, a man beat you up and terrified your children. If you had the strength to tell the whole world, people were probably shocked and kind. You might have had people reach out to help with specific needs or want to grab dinner.

Here’s the thing–some of the people you most want to hear from won’t call. They don’t know what to say and might have the emotional capacity of a peanut. Some of the people you haven’t seen since high school will want to check on you. But in my experience, this was not a way to tell who cares about me.

People who didn’t call did actually care and did still want to talk and send birthday presents. And they still don’t know what to say.

People who weren’t around for years and wanted to get dinner didn’t become my best friends. They didn’t want to grab dinner again. You don’t really make great impressions during those freshly post-trauma meetings. You are at your worst, but you’re interesting. And you become a golden star for debutantes who are monied do-gooders. You’re good enough to help, but not actually good enough to be friends with.

At first I was confused because I thought some of these people wanted to be my friends, but time passes, and when you’re at your lowest, weakest, most unwilling to live, those people are not the ones who are still around.

Don’t judge people by how well they react to trauma.

I lost people because of the trauma, too. The guy I was dating couldn’t take the PTSD-ridden woman I was, and I didn’t know if I would ever be better. I lost friends when I lost interest in hobbies because it turns out we were only connected by our mutual interest. People drifted away from me, but I have to say that the rate I lost people was equal to the rate I gained new friends and acquaintances.

The one beautiful thing about my attack was clarity. I gained crystalline certainty of who my friends actually are. And not all of them are people who called me after my attack or said nice things on Facebook. Your friend group likely won’t be the same as it was before, but I think it might even be better.

–Jessi

How Do I Feel Safe Again?

This is a big topic at the heart of PTSD. Our bodies keep setting off the alarms over nothing because we’ve been wrong before. So, how do we thoroughly convince every part of ourselves that we are safe now?

I struggled with this topic, and I still do. My attacker is still free thanks to covid-related court delays. And he’s a few minutes’ drive away (unless he’s moved). He was crazy enough to attack me before; what would stop that from happening again?

It’s an unpopular opinion, but I don’t believe restraining orders do anything. What they would have forced me to do is reveal my location again if I moved so that he could “avoid” me. And I know all too well what can happen before the cops arrive. So, getting a restraining order wasn’t at the top of my list.

Things that made me feel safe so far:

Blocking all access my attacker had to my information. This was an onslaught of blockings across sites, changing passwords, and changing my phone number.

Replacing my wooden splinters of a door with a steel door. (I know. It’s a placebo. Anyone can come through a window.)

Giant veteran I married who knows plenty about guns.

Fierce German Shepherd who hates strangers coming near me.

Things I think might help others to achieve that sense of safety:

Taking a shooting course and feeling comfortable with guns. (I am a tree-hugging hippie. This one has been tough for me to get used to.)

Any security features added to a home, like cameras or alarm systems.

Martial arts courses. (I am not ready to do this one yet. I think I would freak out if someone sparred with me.)

Staying in shape. Running and getting stronger seem to be helpful across the board.

I hope this gives you a place to start as you work on convincing yourself you’re safe again. Some of these are easy purchases, and some are habits. And some of them are sheer dumb luck (like finding a man I loved on Tinder whose German Shepherd insisted on keeping me). Keep swimming. It gets better. I promise.

–Jessi

Parenting with PTSD

I fought hard to maintain normalcy for my kids after my attack. My son’s birthday was four days after the attack, and I wrapped presents and took him to the Aquarium as he requested.

But looking back, I wonder, how did I do that? And more importantly, why did I do that? I was still having panic attacks every time I went to my house. We opened birthday presents at Starbucks and stayed out all day. I had bandages on my face and bruises on my neck, but we went to the Aquarium.

Do parents ever have a good enough reason to selfishly take time to recover? Yes. And they should.

I have since learned to communicate my needs better and to put my needs first when I am struggling. If I don’t, I tend to panic, fall victim to my sensory hell, and not sleep anyway. And if I am in that state, you can imagine what it’s like for everyone living with me.

Here are the best suggestions I have for parents living with PTSD:

1. Be honest with your kids. I told my kids about my sensory issues and that is not their fault that I freak out about every sound sometimes. If your kids know about your struggles, they will minimize them (be quieter) and they won’t think you hate everyone when you sit by yourself in a quiet place.

2. Put yourself first. This seems counterintuitive to selfless moms. But it’s like when an airline tells you to secure your mask before assisting others. You can’t help anyone if you’re gasping for breath. If I need time to veg out after a bad day, I tell my kids that. If I need help with dinner, I tell them that. If I feel lost or upset or panicky, I tell them that. I started with going for a run, even when I didn’t really have the time. My family learned to do without me for an hour, and we were all saner.

3. Have concrete ways they can help. My kids wanted to make my life easier. Sometimes that means making dinner. Sometimes it means helping with chores or just doing something quiet instead of blaring the dulcet tones of Minecraft. My kids all watch TV quietly now, conscious of their volume, and we are a family that loves captions. Sometimes help is simply muting the TV. They do best when I give them lists on sticky notes with reasonable requests.

Being open with your kids is tough because you want to shelter them from adult problems. But you both can grow through that real, raw relationship. My trio became more empathetic and aware of things happening around them from people being bullied to kids with eating disorders to kids who wanted to be out and proud. Give your kids a chance to be the awesome humans you are raising them to be. Sometimes they’ll disappoint you, and other times you’ll be bursting with pride.

On this journey, my kids became some of my biggest cheerleaders. They saw the bottom I hit, and my slow rise from “I’d like to die now” to “I’m going to be a doctor. I need to study.” Treat them like they are on your team, and you’ve got a playbook.

I hope this helps you when you’re tired, overwhelmed, despairing, and clueless. Hang in there. Keep swimming.

–Jessi

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