Trauma, PTSD & Me: My Long Road of Recovery, Part #3
[Disclaimer / Trigger Warning] This series discusses violence, sexual violence, and post-traumatic stress disorder. I am not a medical professional, and here I am only sharing my opinions. If you need urgent medical attention, please seek it.
My experience of trauma has changed my world view, a lot. Here are the main things I have learnt:
People will believe you. If someone does not believe you, it’s okay to distance yourself from them.
The vast majority of people I told my story to were incredibly understanding. But in addition to one therapist who told me to “be more careful next time”, a couple dudes came at me with skepticism. For example, I shared the podcast episode I had recorded about my story with one guy, and the first thing he said to be afterwards was,
“Did that really happen to you?”
I had a crush on him at the time, so I tried to ignore it and go out with him anyway. But something about it didn’t sit right with me. His initial response was brief, but what he said had really hurt me, and deep down I was furious at him. I felt exhausted just by the idea of trying to justify what I had been through and explaining it to him. And to be honest, I will never forgive him for that. I told him how much he had hurt me, and quickly stopped messaging him. No regrets with that one.
Trauma has helped me to connect with others who have experienced it as well.
When I tell people a story like mine, they open up and share their darkest experiences. Now that I’ve seen trauma, I can’t unsee it. It's everywhere, and while it’s been tragic for me to learn just how many people have gone through something traumatic, the bright side is that we are not alone. I’ve also talked with men who have experienced some truly horrific things. Overall, I find myself empathizing far more with survivors of any kind of trauma, whether it’s grief or abuse or violence.
For example, I met a girl at a party in New York who had been forced to give a guy a blow job in a park near her house. He told her he had a gun in his bag, and she was able to get swabs of her mouth at the hospital later and catch him. We hugged each other as we talked about it in detail. It left me wondering: Was it better that I got to see the gun, but that I didn’t have to give the guy a blow job? Her bravery inspired me to contact the police in Mexico and leave some pretty damn honest Google reviews for the park. But they were never able to find the guy.
How should you respond when someone opens up to you about their trauma?
Say something kind and understanding like, “That’s awful. I’m so sorry you had to go through that. Are you doing okay?”
Here’s how you should NOT respond when someone opens up to you:
- Don’t joke about it
- Don’t re-enact the trauma in any way
- E.g. A guy I had dinner with, who was apparently a GP doctor for the National Health Service in the UK, put his hand in the shape of a gun and pointed it at me. I was not pleased.
- Don’t make weird sexual compliments e.g. “Oh, you’re so pretty, I can understand where he was coming from."
- Don’t ask judgmental questions.
- E.g. Don’t say, “What were you wearing? Were you drunk?”
The concept of “post-traumatic growth” is toxic.
There is a big emphasis in our culture on bouncing back and rising from the ashes after experiencing something traumatic, to experience some kind of exponential growth. I don’t agree with this. The idea of “post-traumatic growth” puts too much pressure on traumatized people to feel that they have to recover and rebound upwards, transforming their life for the better in a certain time frame. It makes me feel like, because I haven’t done that, somehow I’ve failed in my recovery. It disregards the fact that a lot of trauma is so severe that it makes simply getting through the day a painful struggle. Surviving the trauma is in itself enough.
In the same vein, I don’t like it when people say that “everything happens for a reason.” It makes me feel like I should accept that this event was given to me by some pre-ordained force in the universe, which shirks the injustice of it. It’s an attempt to say that somehow the suffering I experienced will be worth it for my future and will help me accomplish things. But at its most cynical undertone, that makes it sound like I deserved what happened to me.
Saying that “everything happens for a reason” also buries the fact that there is so much needless, senseless suffering in the world that never had to take place in the first place. It is suffering for the sake of suffering, purposeless and pointless. It didn’t need to happen. The reality is that life is fucking unfair. Really, really bad things happen randomly in the world to people who don’t deserve it. It was never their fault, and it never will be. Sometimes, the world is just plain evil and cruel.
On Guns and Gun Ownership
I grew up in England where owning a gun is basically unheard of, but I’ve been living in America for the last 10 years or so, and I’m an American citizen. I’ve always been against prolific ownership of firearms, especially ones that have a lot of rounds of ammunition, before I had one pointed at me with no way to defend myself. But before my experience, I never felt the need to be vocal about my stance.
All I want to say is that I wish we as a society had more empathy for what it might feel like to be held at gunpoint. When it happened to me, basically all my rights as a human being were stripped away from me in that moment. Imagine a gun being pointed at you by another person, and them telling you to do stuff you don’t want to do. All your freedoms evaporate. Your body’s not yours. Your life isn’t yours. Everything is given to the idiot in front of you. You are totally at the mercy of their whims. I believe that that asymmetry of power, of having a gun being pointed at you by another human, the sheer imbalance of it, is all manner of fucked up. From experiencing it myself, I believe that wielding that kind of power over another human being is wrong, and I’d like to see a world where these situations don’t happen ever again.
Let’s not overuse the phrases “PTSD”, “trauma” and “triggers”
During the pandemic, some of my co-workers described that the experience of being stuck at home gave them “PTSD”. I understand that staying in your house all day might not be a fun experience, but it is not the same as PTSD, which has real physiological symptoms. You may not like something, but that doesn’t mean it was “traumatic”. When people use these words, I often find it re-traumatizing.
There is no such thing as a grey area when it comes to sexual assault.
My clarity on sexual assault has been a silver lining of my trauma. Post-PTSD, two things have changed for me. Firstly, I now have a very clear sense of my personal boundaries (what is acceptable and unacceptable to me, verbally or physically), and secondly, I’m able and willing to enforce those boundaries. I speak up, I call them out and I assert them.
This goes against how I was socialized as a woman. I now understand that society has completely let us down in that sense. As a woman, I was trained to always see the best in people. It wasn’t always clear to me where my personal space ended and a man’s access to my personal space began. Many times I remember a man interacting with me or touching me in a way that I didn’t like, and I found a way to excuse it and let it go. Maybe it was the guy chatting me up on the subway, when I wanted to just keep to myself, go home and be alone, but had to keep talking to him for my safety. Maybe it was the guy standing too close to me at the bar, before he offered me a drink. Or the guy who felt up my leg underneath the table. I would brush it off: they were just trying to be friendly. In my “normal” life before PTSD, I let these random men take their liberties.
Escaping from a rapist at gunpoint really changed my perspective on this. Firstly, there’s basically nothing a guy at a party could do that would come close to the level of fear I had for my life in that park. And secondly, how fucking dare he?
Every time I let my boundaries be crossed, and I didn’t say anything, I was contributing to the problem. It’s like these men have only got 6/10 on a spelling test, but we check the 4 they got wrong as correct anyway, so they think they’re great when they’re actually far from it. If a guy does not learn that he has stepped over the line, he is going to do it again, to you or to somebody else. By not saying anything, as women we are numbing ourselves to these micro-aggressions and denying ourselves autonomy over our own bodies. We convince ourselves that we can’t speak up, and that no one would listen to us if we did. We become a hollow shell of our full selves. It’s a negative cycle. We will let the annoying man talk for much longer than we really wanted to listen. We give out our phone number when we never really wanted to. We, in trying to be likable and keep the peace, let these other human beings take their liberties with our bodies, with our space.
Here is why it is very important to assert your own boundaries: it is your body, not their body. Your personal space is yours, not theirs.
I wish that we as the survivors, the people whose bodies do not want to be touched, could have it another way and not have to assert ourselves. But that is not how the world works today. So, what we have to do is nip it in the bud. We have to assert our boundaries. When a guy crosses the line, we have to say loudly, “This is my body, not yours. Please don’t touch it.” We have to break through the bullshit of being likable, to do the right thing, to protect what is not theirs. We have to make it clearer that we do not want this.
Knowing How To Negotiate Is A Crucial Skill. Everyone should know how to do it.
Reflecting on how I got out of the situation in the park, I realized that I had managed to keep it together because I’d read a very useful book about negotiating called Never Split The Difference by Chris Voss. While I recommend reading the whole book, only two details from the book actually helped me in the moment.
First, I remembered from Chris’s book was that he used a “late-night DJ voice” when he conducted high stakes FBI negotiations with terrorists and hostage takers. While the negotiation I was in was terrorizing and tense, the guy masturbating with the gun in front of me was a human after all. So, I had to be chill, treat him with respect and acknowledge him, and then use my late-night DJ voice to help him feel safe and comfortable enough to reason with me and let me assess my options.
Secondly, and most importantly, was the book’s title: never split the fucking difference. In my case, I knew that the stakes were very high for me, and the one thing I would not compromise on was my body. I did not want to be raped. So, I did whatever it took in that moment to not split the difference and make sure the outcome of my negotiation in the park was one I was willing to accept.
Recovery never ends, and I’m yet to return to “normal”. But this is okay.
“A central task for recovery from trauma is to learn to live with memories of the past without being overwhelmed by them in the present.”
While the intensity of my PTSD has faded over time, I have not gotten over what happened to me, and it’s possible that I never will. Over a year since the incident, I still experience triggers regularly. Just today, I stood in line at the grocery store, with two large men standing close to me. My palms began to sweat.
The process of writing this series has been hard but therapeutic for me. Reconstructing my memory and describing my physical sensations of trauma has helped to unearth some of the things that I am still feeling, and rather than suppressing those and convincing myself that I’m over it, I’ve taken pause to unravel them further and hold them up to the light.
What Suleika Jaouad said on The Tim Ferris Show podcast really resonates with me:
“The word recovery implies a return to something. And I think that in that first year, I was really trying to return to the person I’d been pre-diagnosis and very quickly realized that person no longer existed. And that though the word maybe implied otherwise, recovering wasn’t about a return to the old, it was a brute, terrifying act of discovery.”
Working with Barbara, my therapist, on this has given me courage to take small steps to discover who I am and what kind of life I wasn’t to live post-trauma.
I’ve been reluctant to “finish” writing this piece because the more research I did for it, the more I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that my trauma is still affecting me. I still scare easily when there are any noises over my right shoulder. I still fear that close male friends are threats. I still find myself shrinking and wincing when a man sits too close to me.
Despite being frustrated that I’m not over it yet, a few statistics have put this in perspective. Firstly, about 12 million adults in the United States have PTSD in any given year, which is just to say that I am not alone. We are not alone. And secondly, about 50% of people with significant trauma take two years to recover. As I’m only one year and a bit out, I’m optimistic that by this time next year, I’ll be peering over my shoulder less nervously. In the meantime, I’m grateful to have been able to share my story with you, and to recommit myself to my own recovery and reconnecting with my body to help me feel safe.
In our lives, really shitty things can happen to us that are not our fault, that can affect us profoundly. About 8% of women and 4% of men develop PTSD at some point during their life. I hope as a society we can pause and hold space for people, as we truly have no idea what they are going through. And for those of us who develop PTSD, we have to remember that it is not our sole burden to piece ourselves back together. Take one small part of yourself at a time and gather everyone who loves you to help you piece yourself back together. I hope, in that sense, that my tips here can be a resource to help you build that resilience, and revisit it whenever you need.
That day on my way up the trail in the park, I asked the universe for guidance. I got answers that were really hard to swallow and that I wasn’t prepared for. But they altered the course of my life forever, and definitely put my millennial existential crisis in perspective. I got what I needed to know, and to be honest, I’ve been far too scared to ask for anything else since.
Read Part #1: My Incident & The Aftermath
Read Part #2: My 10 Tips To Help in Recovering from Trauma
This series is dedicated to Chris Voss, author of Never Split The Difference, the book I recalled during my traumatic incident that helped save my life.
 Van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The Body Keeps The Score: brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York, New York: Penguin Books. Link here.