June 28th, 2014

I remember exactly what I was wearing. It was a cotton black v-neck and a black-and-white striped skirt. The skirt fell just short of my knees. It hiked up a few inches whenever I sat down.

I remember what I drank, too. Two Moscow Mules. He made the first and told me how to make the second. I over-poured all the liquor because my hands were unsteady.

I remember what I said.

“No, please stop. This is a bad idea. I’m too drunk.”

I remember feeling trapped and paralyzed. I couldn’t run away. I couldn’t fight back.

I remember telling my friends what happened for the first time. Some supported me. Some supported him. I can barely look at any of them anymore.

I remember my first flashback. I was driving, and it was late. I thought of his face, and in a moment it was over me and I was right back there in his bed. I pulled over and got sick. This happens all the time now. I’m used to it.

I remember trying therapy the first time. The therapist was a post-doc, fresh out of grad school. Our sessions were recorded. The camera glared at me. The therapist asked me why I let this happen to me. I never saw her again.

I remember when I realized it wasn’t my fault but it was still my problem. I live with the consequences while he walks free. It’s unfair. It’s the truth.

I remember reporting to the police two years later. They didn’t care, and I can’t make them care. My case is open. It will never close.

I remember winning the university hearing. It was a somber victory. It meant that this really happened to me–something I never wanted to believe.

I remember when he moved away. I’d like to think the shame of living with what he had done drove him out of town.

I remember everything.

I want to forget it.

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My Sad Superpower

You’ve probably heard of a little quirk called dissociation. It’s a common symptom of PTSD that is essentially a severe form of zoning out. A traumatized brain learns to adapt to pain by figuratively removing itself from the situation. It’s a powerful defense mechanism. I call it my “superpower” because it’s my brain’s clever way of protecting me from harm. That said, it’s not pleasant, and it’s certainly not voluntary. I would give it up if I could.

When I dissociate, I’ve been told that I become very still, my eyes glaze over, and I start breathing shallowly. During a dissociative episode, I feel like I’m on a different radio station than all the other people around me. It’s like I’m floating away from whatever is happening, but I don’t have a destination. My senses, for the most part, shut down. My vision blurs and sounds are muted.

Dissociation, for me, is triggered by a number of things. Sometimes, I dissociate during uncomfortable conversations, regardless of the subject matter. I’ve been known to dissociate when something related to my trauma comes up. I also have dissociated when merely overwhelmed. This happened this weekend at a big lunch I attended. There were lots of people there, it was pretty loud, and suddenly, it was like I couldn’t breathe. Barely aware of my friends around me, I was trapped in a vacuum. It lasted for several minutes, and when it was over, I couldn’t stop crying.

This little gift of mine has buffered me from quite a bit of pain, but it has caused twice as much damage as it has prevented. I’ve heard dissociation referred to as “mental time travel” because a person dissociating often loses all awareness of the passage of time. This absolutely is the case in my experience. Snapping out of dissociation is like waking up suddenly from deep sleep. I lose track of the time, feel emotionally exhausted, and don’t want to move.

I vividly remember the first time I truly dissociated. I was 18 years old, and it was the night my trauma took place. Now, every time I dissociate, I am taken back to that terrible situation with all the sensations that accompanied it. Dissociation blurs into a flashback, and my little superpower backfires.

If my brain is trying to protect me, why does it catapult me into oblivion during otherwise captivating social situations? Why does it thrust me back into the throes of my trauma with little regard for how painful that can be?

I’ve learned a few tricks to prevent dissociative episodes, but they aren’t perfect. It helps me to maintain eye contact with the person I’m speaking to. If I’m locking eyes with you, my brain is more likely to stay engaged. It also has helped to interject occasionally or nod when the other person is speaking for a long time. Even just a simple “Okay” or “Mhm” keeps me in the conversation and stops me from floating away.

However, I haven’t mastered breaking out of an episode when it does happen. If anyone has experience with this, I’d love to hear about it. I know many grounding exercises to use after an episode ends, but I just can’t master turning this special ability off.

Thanks for reading!

New Year, New Story

I want to change my narrative. I want to take a huge bite out of it, chew on it, spit it out, and rewrite it. This year has driven me to my breaking point, so it’s time to find a new breaking point and try again.

Twenty-seventeen carries with it too many things I want to forget. I want to leave them behind me, but how can I? How can I, in good conscience, tell a significant part of my past to just go away, hide, and never come back? I think it’s important to honor those parts of ourselves we’d rather shun, no matter how painful it is.

And it is painful.

This year introduced me to my mental illness in the most violent way. I became a patient. My diagnoses are part of my identity now, or at least they feel that way. I feel as though I am Depression. I am PTSD. I am Anxiety. I don’t know what else I can be anymore. Twenty-seventeen broke me.

Or did it?

With every blow I sustained this year, I got a little sturdier. I stood a little straighter and held my head a little higher. For every friend I lost, I gained another. Each failure was met with growth.

I attempted suicide this year. Right at the beginning of the year, too. A real bummer.

Do I regret it? A thousand times a day, yes. Did I learn from it? Same answer.

I don’t think I would be who I am today without having traveled to such a dark place. I am the product of my past experiences, good and bad alike. Only, I’m struggling to accept that sometimes the bad truly does outweigh the good. Light doesn’t always prevail.

It certainly didn’t this year.

That doesn’t mean I’m broken, though. Just battered. Yeah, that’s it. I’m battered. I’m worn out. My well is nearly dry, but only nearly. There’s hope.

Next year, I’m fueling that hope. I’m seizing it and flying with it. Like I said, I’m changing my narrative. Twenty-seventeen isn’t allowed to have the satisfaction of ruining me. There’s so much more of me left to give. It’s time to make a change–a thousand changes, even! After all I’ve been through this year, I think I deserve to chase that light at the end of the tunnel.

I don’t want to be my illness anymore. I want to be Julia, the writer who loves to dance. I want to be a student, a teacher, a friend, a sister, a daughter. I want to be me. It will take time for me to figure out exactly what that entails, but I’m dedicating myself to that time.

I’m so much more than Depression, PTSD, and Anxiety, and so are you!

If twenty-seventeen treated you the way it treated me, just know that you’re not traveling this road alone. You’re more than what this year made of you. You’re so full of love and hope, and you can’t even see it yet. You don’t know the half of it.

But you will.

Faith tells me that twenty-eighteen will show us kindness and maybe even a little gratitude for all we sacrificed this year. I certainly hope that’s true.

Until the new year, I’ll endure. I’ll outline my new narrative and prepare myself for what is to come. I know next year won’t be perfect, but I’m going to get better at handling imperfection. I’m going to embrace it.

Bring it on, twenty-eighteen.

 

 

Survivor or Victim?

On the surface, life appears to be a series of dichotomies. We have dark and light, good and evil, happy and sad, and black and white. Things are simple when we see the world this way.

But we can dig deeper than that, and we should.

If we look more closely, we see that those dichotomies aren’t dichotomies at all. Rather, they’re spectrums. They’re shades of gray. They’re moral ambiguity. They’re so much more than black and white.

You’ve probably heard it said that it’s politically correct to refer to those who have suffered trauma as “survivors” rather than “victims,” but, as with life in general, I don’t think it’s that simple. This dichotomy (survivor versus victim) is built on the foundation that being a survivor is a symbol of strength, while being a victim is a symbol of weakness.

For those who don’t know, I was raped on June 28th, 2014. I developed severe PTSD after that, and nothing in my life has remained the same. Recently, somebody asked me when I made the transition from victim to survivor after my trauma. I didn’t have to ask to know that they meant, “When did you transition from weakness to strength?”

I told them that no such transition existed for me. I’m a survivor and a victim. I’m both. I have moments of weakness and moments of incredible strength. It’s a spectrum, not a dichotomy.

When I reported to the police, I was a survivor. When I won my hearing at the university, I was a survivor. When I started PTSD treatment, I was a survivor.

I was a victim when I attempted suicide. I was a victim when I isolated myself from my friends and family and turned to unhealthy coping skills. I’m a victim almost every day, and yet, I’m a survivor every day too.

Forcing those who have suffered at the hands of trauma to identify as one or the other invalidates all those in-between moments–those precious and painful moments of uncertainty, I live for those moments. I learn from them. I grow. Don’t put me in a box.

“Victim” doesn’t have to mean that a person is uselessly weak, and “survivor” doesn’t have to mean that a person is impenetrably strong. Victims are some of the strongest people I’ve ever met. It’s okay to be a victim. 

I’m a victim. Something terrible happened to me through no fault of my own, and I live with that every day. Does that mean I’m not a survivor too? I don’t think so.

We tend to blindly categorize things we don’t understand in an effort to figure them out. Why do victims get lumped in with whininess and helplessness while survivors get to bunk with heroism and resilience? There are days when I’m all four of those–whiny, helpless, heroic, and resilient. Where would you put me on those days? In “miscellaneous?”

Every single person who has suffered trauma has had a different experience, and I would bet that nobody falls exclusively into one category or the other. If it empowers you to use the term “survivor,” go for it. If you feel protected and safe using the term “victim,” go for it. If you’re like me, and you feel claustrophobic being assigned a label, use whatever the hell you want.

My point is, let’s stop being so critical of people who identify as victims, and let’s start scrutinizing the hell out of people who deserve it–like, I don’t know, rapists.

 

A Reflection

Saturday (12/9) marked the 1-year anniversary of my first appointment with my therapist. I’ve been reflecting on this past year quite a bit lately, and I want to write out some of the thoughts I’ve been having.

I used to be extraordinarily averse to seeking treatment for my depression, anxiety, and PTSD. I saw it as a major weakness. How could a “normal” person need such a thing?

After my trauma, I did see a counselor at Georgia Tech, but my experience with her was less than desirable. She was judgmental of my disabilities and didn’t seem to possess an ounce of empathy for others. I saw a psychiatrist there who gave me my diagnoses and then pumped me full of Prozac until the side effect of increased suicidal thoughts led me to overdose for the first time in 2015.

My second therapist was a man who only nodded and asked, “How do you feel about that?” I’m not even kidding. That was it. He was straight out of the movies. My stint with him lasted about four sessions before I called it quits.

After all that, I gave up. I absolutely tossed self-care out the window. I leaned on my friends too much, threatened suicide almost every night, spent my free time wallowing in my dorm alone, and refused to look for other ways of coping.

It wasn’t until a particularly sour string of nights that a well-connected adult friend of mine texted me, “You have an appointment with a therapist tomorrow. You have to go.” She had called in a favor with one of her psychiatrist friends at a well-to-do therapy/psychiatry group in Buckhead and gotten me an emergency appointment.

At first, I was angry because the appointment (I kid you not) cost $400. Then, I was simply curious. Who would I be seeing? Would I like them? Would they like me?

I walked into that office without the faintest idea of what to expect. The therapist who saw me asked probably a hundred questions about my psychosocial history. It was a very long, arduous appointment. Yet, I left feeling protected in a new way. I had my hearing at Georgia Tech that week, and I felt like I had somebody new in my corner to help me recover from it. The therapist called me the day after my hearing, and that was when I knew I had made a positive connection.

It’s been a year now, and I appreciate my therapist more and more every single day.

Once a week, I make the trek to Buckhead to bleed emotion for an hour. It’s cathartic, joyful, heavy, meaningful, and hopeful all at the same time. Sometimes, it brings me down, and other times, it lifts me up higher than I ever thought possible. It’s incredibly important to me. Therapy is the one commitment I refuse to miss.

My therapist and I are a team, and a great one at that. With her help, I have grown to recognize when things are getting rough and then promptly take care of the problem instead of wallowing in it. I’ve learned to see the brighter sides of myself instead of fixating on the negatives. I’ve made huge strides in my concentration, willpower, and ability to maintain relationships. I’m a completely different person than who I was a year ago, and happily so.

I’m a work in progress. Don’t get me wrong. A lot still needs to change. I was hospitalized recently, though I walked right into that one instead of being hauled in by an ambulance, which is progress. I still forget about or discard self-care sometimes when things are getting too hard. I also have some priorities I still need to sort out before I get to grad school.

That said, I am twenty times better off than I was a year ago, and I can, in part, thank my therapist for that. I’m actually looking forward to Christmas break instead of dreading it because I have confidence in my ability to sit with myself and appreciate free time. Things are on the upswing.

Something else that has taken a major turn since I began therapeutic treatment is my career path. I previously wanted to become a filmmaker… or a writer… or a teacher… or whatever idea popped into my head at any given moment. Now, I am so inspired by my therapist’s work that I have decided to become a therapist myself. I’ve applied to grad school already and everything. My course is set, and I couldn’t be more excited.

This year has been quite the journey. I know that I won’t be with this therapist forever, but I’m going to continue to cherish the time we do have while we have it. Therapy has saved my life, and I’m so blessed.

So, to my therapist, though I know you’ll never read this, thank you so much for everything you’ve done for me. You’ve gone above and beyond this past year, and I’m still on this earth because of it. Keep being awesome.

 

 

Joy

It’s that feeling you get when the roller coaster reaches the top of the hill. It’s waking up on a holiday morning. It’s seeing the skyline of a big city for the first time. It’s hugging someone you haven’t seen in years. It’s a smile as bright as the sun.

It’s joy.

Living with depression, I don’t get that feeling much. It’s like everything is framed with a gray haze. I’ve learned over the years that joy isn’t something you can force. It isn’t invited. It must make a surprise entrance.

I don’t know if it’s the snow, the end of finals, or the children I got to spend the day with, but today has been saturated with joy. I really feel like I’ve been living in the moment all day, which isn’t something I can often say.

Because today has been so kind to me, I want to take this opportunity to write about the other things that have brought me pure joy this year. My other blog posts have been about the darker parts of my life, so I want to inject some levity.

So, here is an incomplete list of the joys of 2017:

  1. Dance. Without a doubt, the thing that has brought me the most joy this year has been dance. I get lost in it. My dance school has surrounded me with joy and support, and I absolutely love the people there. The best days of the week are the ones with dance class, and my favorite weekends of the year have been workshops and competitions. I’m so grateful for this creative outlet that I’ve had all my life.
  2. DragonCon. My second favorite weekend of the year! Second only to Oireachtas, of course. This was my ninth DragonCon in a row, and it was the best so far. It’s essentially a four-day reunion with my best nerd friends and lots of tropical drinks. I cherish every night spent chatting about life at Trader Vic’s, waiting in the coolest lines, and wandering the halls of the best hotels in Atlanta.
  3. Friends. I have the greatest friends. No, I don’t want to hear it. My friends are the best. I love each and every one of you SO much! I don’t get to see my friends that much because I live in the middle of nowhere, but I value every moment we spend together and every conversation we have. My friends have gotten me through two hospital stays, a police case, and an administrative hearing this year. I couldn’t have survived any of that without you guys.
  4. Family. My parents, sister, and extended family have supported me through some of the hardest moments of my life this year. I know that those moments put a lot of strain on our family, and we remain united anyway.
  5. Music. Specifically Irish music. It’s gotten me through 3+ hours of driving per day in the heaviest traffic imaginable. I feel so at peace when I listen to music. I have a very vivid memory from my sophomore year of college that I’ll never forget. I was crying at four in the morning because I knew I was about to fail my Genetics final, and I accidentally opened iTunes on my phone. A violin/cello duet began to play. It’s called “Calliope Meets Frank,” and it carried me through the night. That song continues to be a source of inspiration for me as I navigate the trials of college.
  6. Therapy. This is a weird one. I know that therapy dredges up a huge amount of s*** that nobody wants to talk about, but it has saved my life this year without a doubt. My therapist is an incredible human being who has motivated and inspired me in every way. It’s because of my experience with her that I want to become a therapist myself. My therapy sessions aren’t always joyful. In fact, they rarely are. However, the joy they have brought me overall is immeasurable. I’ve learned how to care about myself and maybe even love myself. I’ve learned how to approach life with mindfulness. I’ve learned more from therapy than from my five years as an undergraduate.
  7. Faith. Last but not least, faith. I’m not religious. Most people know this about me. I don’t know how I feel about religion or belief in God. However, I am a person of enormous faith. I have faith in something greater than myself. I have faith in people, friends, family, nations, songs, emotions, animals, and so much more. My faith has guided me through unimaginable pain. I’m grateful to carry this faith with me. I don’t have to understand it to know how important it is to me.

That list is obviously not exhaustive, but those have been the most important things to me over the course of the past year. I’ve been graced with joy more times this year than I realized, and I’m so, so grateful. Happy snow day everyone!

 

 

PTSD? More Like PTSDon’t.

I don’t like wallowing in self-pity and asking questions like “why me?” that often, but I’m going to gently take a dip into self-pity tonight because I freakin’ deserve it. 

If you haven’t been living on Mars for the last three-and-a-half years, you know I suffered a traumatic event in the summer of 2014. Just kidding–you may not actually know that, but now you do. Congrats!

Anyway, my trauma left me with a little gift called PTSD. Despite popular belief, this is not the average brain’s response to trauma. The average brain will process trauma, grieve for some period of time, and then move on.

But not my brain, apparently!

Some brains, like my brain, are stubborn and cling to trauma like a child to a blanket. Instead of the brain processing trauma, trauma reprocesses the brain. This is what we call PTSD.

So, brain, why me? Why is it that my brain just had to be one of the few prone to PTSD?

I’m never going to know the answer to that question, and that bothers me. PTSD is a disability, and it can last a lifetime if not treated properly. I’ve attempted one of the treatments of PTSD called Prolonged Exposure Therapy three different times and have failed to complete treatment each time. The process feels endless, and it seems like I’ll never win.

Lately, my PTSD symptoms have been dramatically reducing my quality of life. Here are some of the symptoms I’ve been saddled with:

-Restlessness. All the time. I can’t sit still, and when I try, I get an eye twitch.

-Sleeplessness. Slightly different than restlessness, in my opinion. I wake up consistently around 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. and can’t get back to sleep.

-Nightmares. Severe ones. Nightmares you could record and put on a movie theatre screen.

-Jumpiness. Flinching at any noise or movement nearby.

-Flashbacks. Becoming completely removed from the present moment and reliving my trauma as if it were actually happening again.

-Dissociation. This is also known as a more severe form of “zoning out.”

Needless to say–and pardon my French–this shit sucks. I wish people better understood PTSD because it explains a great deal of my “weird” behavior that is otherwise made fun of or shied away from. PTSD is, unfortunately, a disability that is regularly joked about, despite being a serious and widespread mental illness that can cripple a person for life.

All I want is for people to understand and for my illness to give me a break

That’s all I have for my little foray into self-pity. I’m sure I’ll revisit this soon. PTSD has made me stronger in many ways and left me damaged in others, and right now, the damage is overwhelming.

I think the end of the semester will see a decrease in my symptoms, but who knows? Trauma doesn’t care about deadlines. If it did, my life would be much easier to control.