*Trigger Warning: This post includes a fairly raw description of what it’s like to be abused and then develop PTSD. Feel free to skip if your stomach flips.*
The first time I died was twenty-three years ago when I was 4 years old. (Yep, go ahead, do the math. I’m gettin’ old.) Death has haunted me ever since. I realized this the other day, as a fully alive adult.
Then for a very long time, I forgot I’d died. Sort of. Mostly.
Enter in PTSD. Perhaps it began two or three years ago (clinically known as “delayed onset” PTSD). Perhaps it had been undiagnosed for many years. Regardless, the feelings of dying came back. Full force! Once again, I didn’t know whether I’d make it out alive. It’s a level of horror that’s impossible to express fully with words. And with PTSD, the feelings go on and on…and on. You feel like the trauma is happening again over and over…and once again. Until tomorrow when it will be back. So yes, I didn’t know if I would live through PTSD, either. (Spoiler alert: I did.)
So how did I survive death as a toddler? It was the death of being abused, which is technically not lethal, but just feels like it. I survived it by going away in my mind, my body, maybe even my spirit. The clinical term is dissociation. For example, many of my memories of the abuse are in picture form; still-shots of a terrifying scene, a body part, a partial view of myself or my perpetrator. They aren’t connected to a clear narrative or labeled as “X kind of abuse.” Even as I write these words – after countless hours, days, weeks, and now numerous years of treatment – I feel sick. I can’t fully feel my arms and my stomach hurts. The muscles in my back and shoulders are contracted tightly. If you looked into my eyes right now, you would notice a certain sadness, distance, pain. (I know, because I just looked in the mirror and that’s what looked back at me.)
Another example: one of my memories is stored as if a video tape is playing in my head. It’s visual, like the snap-shot memories, but it’s moving. One (bigger) body is moving. The other (smaller) one is not. The video camera is placed in a curious position: up near the ceiling fan in the room where it was happening. So I get an unasked-for point of view: from high up, looking down on the abuse as it happened to me. My body is tight again as I write these words. My chest and stomach area feel dead. My brain is slowing, having difficulty recalling and writing words. My eyes are blinking, but slowly. Slowly. And my stomach still hurts. I could scream, but I don’t.
So I guess I survived it by escaping the situation mentally. It’s a common symptom of PTSD — a fact to which my fellow abuse survivors can attest. Did I literally think to myself at age four, “I’m going to die,” as the abuse happened? I don’t think so. It was a feeling in my body and my brain, or the lack of any feeling at all. Or a difficult-to-explain combination of both. It’s a terrible knowing that the body remembers, even if the brain is unable to process or store the memories in the way we usually remember significant life events.
The hard thing about abuse is that even after your soul and spirit are murdered, you come back to life. After it’s over, you are still there. Your physical body is still alive. A part of your spiritual core was roughly taken away, but that doesn’t necessarily show on the outside. The next day you may still run around in your cute sundress, smiling even. But the damage has been done and it won’t be ignored forever.
I remember a conversation I had over a year ago with a wise relative who suffered her own childhood abuse. As I tried to compare abuse with murder, she said it plainly:
“It’s worse than getting killed because when you are abused, you keep living and have to deal with what happened. When you are killed, you die and that’s the end of that.”
A hard truth to take in, for sure, but it resonated deeply with my experience. After your body floats back down to the level of a four-year-old in that room, you have to keep going. It’s a kind of life-after-death experience.
But two decades after the abuse, when my clearly-identifiable PTSD arrived on the scene, literal thoughts about surviving my abuse did come — suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere. Here are pieces of my 2015 journal entries:
“I remember thinking to myself…that no one will kill me if I believe the abuse happened. It seems a strange thing to need to clarify for myself, but there it was.” (March 30)
“I think I’m going to make it.” (Sep.13)
“I didn’t sleep very well last night, and woke up this morning, thinking words like ‘help‘ and ‘get away from me‘ over and over. I just tried to rest this afternoon, and felt like I was going crazy…Once, I said, ‘get off of me,’ and I think I would have said that back then if I could have.” (Oct. 1)
I’ve now learned that these kinds of fragmented thoughts are common for trauma survivors. It’s not just me, after all! Here’s one description of these thoughts:
Dissociation may affect a person subjectively in the form of “made” thoughts, feelings, and actions. These are thoughts or emotions seemingly coming out of nowhere, or finding oneself carrying out an action as if it were controlled by a force other than oneself (Dell, 2001). Typically, a person feels “taken over” by an emotion that does not seem to makes sense at the time. Feeling suddenly, unbearably sad, without an apparent reason, and then having the sadness leave in much the same manner as it came, is an example. (From the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation).
So…now I’m supposed to bring all the ideas in this post together into a nice ending that makes sense. But this time I’m at a loss for words and I don’t feel like trying to explain any confusing or unfinished thoughts. It’s like when my mind gets fuzzy after an exhausting PTSD episode. So I’m calling this a wrap-up, awkwardness included.
Also, if you made it this far, go get yourself some ice-cream! At least that’s my plan.