My Life After (Emotional) Death: Trauma & Dissociation

*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 kind of a 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 a time or two out at l’Abri…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.

thawingout

I am a Texan-born Bostonian who wants to understand how we get through hard things in life (aka trauma) using spirituality, meaningful work, life-giving hobbies, connection with other trauma survivors, friendships with non-traumatized people, animals, etc. I am a hospice social worker (LCSW) and I have a bunny named Nadia.

9 Replies to “My Life After (Emotional) Death: Trauma & Dissociation

  1. You ARE making it!! (BTW, that entry was made on my birthday) I’m proud of the beautiful progress you are making.

    1. Ah, thank you, Aunt Pam! I’m proud of you, too, for reasons you know. And a very happy birthday to you!!

    2. Whoops, just figured out you were referring to the date of one of my journal entries, not today’s date! Niece fail. That’s kind of cool, though, because the hopeful thought came on your birthday! I’ll take that. =)

  2. Thank you for another great post, Anna. I know for me part of my PTSD is periodic suicidal feelings, especially when my chronic physical symptoms are bad. But I’m starting to think these feelings may be their own kind of flashback, to the wish I must have felt to escape the trauma and/or a fear that I was in fact dying. So your post gave me a lot to think about. Thank you for your continued bravery, my dear fellow warrior.

    1. Hey, Kyle! So nice to read your comment! Thank you for your warm words. And yeah, I can relate on it being difficult to figure out what is a symptom of current depression or anxiety vs. what is a kind of flashback to what you thought or felt during the traumatic event. After I started having these “out of no where” thoughts pop up, it took me a while to make any kind of sense of them. Writing this post gave me an opportunity to explore this experience, but I certainly don’t have all the answers! Anyway, being gentle and kind to ourselves in the midst of painful, self-abusive thoughts is a safe response, regardless of the exact nature of the thoughts, right? Sending you a virtual hug. Keep up the courage!

  3. Anna, you are one of the most courageous people I know.

    My heart is a snowglobe – at any moment the empathetic glass is ready to break from the swelling, swirling pain, grief, love, and joy. What must the heart of God be built of to endure the intense weight of all these feelings simultaneously and repeatedly? I deeply admire the honesty and tenacity with which you are pursuing life and healing, and feel honored to be able to touch some of the puzzle pieces you’re pressing together one by one (but sometimes three by three or more!) Your vocalized persistence into resurrection-love was the tipping point for my joy – even the messy ending of this post reminds me that our stories are just beginning and that it is a hand, creative and death-scarred (but only scarred in its life), that is writing new chapters.

    Your openness and authenticity has taken my naivety by a gentle hand and showed me the steep footpaths toward a community of intercession and mercy. Thank for it, precious girl!

    1. Hey, Becky!

      Thanks so much for the kind words and overall encouragement! This healing thing has been – and continues to be – quite a process for me. It’s nice to be able to share little glimpses into my life with PTSD with others. There is certainly no shame in your “naivety” toward the harsh reality of abuse, as you called it! Thank God you don’t “get” it. I hope it stays that way! =)

      Take care!

  4. Anna I am at a loss for words but just so thankful and grateful that you are strong enough and fighting hard to come back from terror and evil. You are an inspiration and a role model for all of us. Keep up the good fight!! You are so worth a good life. Maybe someday soon you can feel healing and some kind of forgiveness. I keep you in my prayers. Love ya girl

    1. Hi, Dr. Cansler! Thank you for leaving a comment with encouraging words, even though you felt at a loss for words as you read this post! That is much appreciated. Sometimes I am struck more by someone being willing to enter into and stay with me in this mess called trauma and PTSD, than by them knowing the perfect words to say!

      Thank you for praying! I will continue to heal, so help me God. Love back!

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