Trauma, PTSD & Me: My Long Road of Recovery, Part #1
[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.
“We are on the verge of becoming a trauma-conscious society.”
“Trauma constantly confronts us with our fragility and with man’s inhumanity to man but also with our extraordinary resilience.”
In my life, I have learned about trauma the hard way. In March 2021, I experienced a traumatic event, or as a survey from the National Center for PTSD describes it, “a very stressful experience involving actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence”. This has reverberated in my life in the shape of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). In this piece, I want to share with you what happened to me, and how the trauma has affected my life afterwards. On the outside, I look “normal”. But on the inside, my battles with PTSD have loomed large. The previous normalcy of my life has been robbed from me, and I’ve worked hard to reconstruct the parts of it that I’ve found again.
In Part #2, I’ll share 10 tips of what has worked for me on my never-ending road to recovery. My personal experience was so severe, I had no choice but to get help. My trauma was fresh like an open wound, festering through all aspects of my life. While the world continued to expect me to be a functioning adult with a job, I dealt with constant triggers, spent thousands of dollars on therapy, eventually took months off work, and read a bunch of books, until I found coping mechanisms.
The first few months were the hardest. I couldn’t not tell people the truth. When people asked me nonchalantly, “How are you?”, I often broke down crying.
“Trauma breeds further trauma; hurt people hurt other people,” says Bessel van der Kolk in The Body Keeps The Score. During the most severe phases of my PTSD, I was constantly prepared to hit any man who dared to accidentally touch me. I was hyper alert and ready to defend myself with all the violence I could muster. Lucky, enough time passed and I was able to get help before I actually hit anyone.
Going through a traumatic experience is like being handed a giant, dark, disgusting plate. But I’ve found that every time I tell my story, another shard of it is broken off. Sharing the burden of my experience with other people has helped me a lot. Because this pain, at the end of the day, isn’t ours. We were just in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Your trauma is not yours. It belongs to the human condition, and it is not yours to bear fully. Share it. Tell people you can trust what happened to you. Because none of us, not even our worst, imperfect selves on a bad day, deserve to shoulder that burden alone.
Since my incident, I see trauma everywhere. I’ve come to realize that bad, difficult things will happen to many of us in our lives and I worry that not everyone who experiences something traumatic will have the language or the resources to get the help they need. By sharing my coping mechanisms in Part #2, I hope that these articles can help you or someone you’re caring for take a step in the right direction of recovery.
“A person is suddenly and unexpectedly devastated by an atrocious event and is never the same again.”
In March last year, when I was 26 years old, I was working remotely in Oaxaca, Mexico. I had been there for two months and had fallen in love with the peaceful city and the Spanish colonial architecture. I was traveling with friends who were also working remotely, but I often spent my days working from cafes and exploring the city alone. I rotated between my favorite market, juice bar, tlayuda stands and restaurants. For my morning runs, I climbed beautiful hiking trails to Parque Estatal Cerro del Fortin, a forested park above a stadium that had breathtaking views of the city, the valley and the mountains beyond.
My friends returned to the US, but I decided to extend my stay, trying to avoid the last months of enduring New York winter. In my last week, at around 10:30am on Wednesday morning, I left my hotel and went for a run. I headed for my favorite trail loop in Parque Estatal Cerro del Fortin. It was later than I usually went for a run, and I remember how hot and dry it was that day.
I followed the trail up a small mountain that rises above the city. The trail was dusty and framed by cacti, which stood out in a minty, washed green against the bright blue sky. The rumbling of the city faded into the distance, and the park was quiet, apart from light buzzing in the trees. I felt a little dehydrated and wished that I had brought some water. In the times that I’d been to the park before, earlier in the morning around 8:30am, people would walk their dogs and politely say, “Buen dia” as I passed by. Sometimes, trucks full of armed policemen mounted the paved parts of the road and disappeared up over the hill, but these were all over the city, so I thought nothing of it.
There’s some irony to my story. I had been the host and creator of a podcast where I supposedly got deep and real about difficult things that women faced. But before that morning, I have to admit, I had often proudly claimed, “I’ve never been sexually assaulted, but...”. Also, that morning as I ran up the hill, I was having a millennial existential crisis. I hated my job but had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. So I prayed for guidance under my breath,
“Somebody, please give me a sign from the universe.”
After heading up the hill in the heat of the baking sun, I was relieved to arrive at the top of the hill by the white cross, which sat at the edge of a large, shaded clearing.
I was looking at the view, reflecting, when I heard a faint rustle in the bushes. I turned around to my right.
A man was walking towards me. He was wearing a black t-shirt, a baseball cap, a mask (it was COVID), and dark jeans. Within less than a second, I realized that he was masturbating. He was masturbating as he was walking towards me.
I’ve lived in cities before, so it’s unfortunately not the first time that I’ve seen a dude masturbating on the street. I realized we were alone. I tried to figure out whether he was coherent or drunk or on drugs. But from where I was standing, I realized I would have to walk towards him to get away because he was standing next to the path that led down the hill. I started to walk around him in a wide circle. That’s when I saw that he had a gun in his other hand.
He was coherent, or coherent enough to have his dick hanging out, pleasuring himself with one hand, and the gun in the other. I only glimpsed the gun for a second, but I can still see it clearly in my mind. It was a black, worn handgun. Underneath the chipped paint were patches of exposed metal. It looked like it had been used a lot, as if it had passed through many hands.
My mind went into a completely different place. It all came together for me in that moment. I assessed all my options in the blink of an eye. I didn’t have time to form conscious thoughts. I thought about whether I should dive off the hillside, down the rocky cliff-face into the shrubs, or run down the path away from him or scream. I thought about beating him up because we were about the same height and he was thin. But because of the gun, it added a whole other level of ridiculously crazy violence to the situation.
Without consciously thinking it, my mind spun through everything I knew about negotiations. I had read a book by Chris Voss, a former hostage negotiator for the FBI, called Never Split The Difference. In the book, Chris talked about using his “late-night DJ voice” during high stakes negotiations or speaking in a way that is calm and relaxed. The guy with a gun in front of me was a human, after all. So I decided against screaming because it might have stressed him out or frightened him, and I didn’t know if anyone was there to hear me.
I don’t remember how we came to face each other. I can’t recall if he walked all the way up to me, or if he was standing in the clearing masturbating and I approached him. I just remember that as I stepped away from the trees and out into the clearing, I knew I had to confront him. I had to get ready and use everything in my power to get out of there as unharmed as possible. I remember sighing at the inevitability of what I had to do. It was now or never. I thought to myself: Well, I guess this is fucking happening right now.
Once he was facing me a few feet away, he cocked the gun so it was ready. At this point, I still had no idea what I was going to do. The only thing I did know was: I do not want to be raped. I knew that if this man raped me, it would fuck me up for a really, really long time. In fact, the thought of it was so awful, I didn’t want to have to imagine what my life would be like afterwards. Every fiber in my body said: do not get raped.
He started speaking to me in Spanish. Although I didn’t catch his exact words, I knew he meant to say:
“Get on the ground and pull your pants down.”
I panicked. I tugged at my gym shorts and flashed him. Reflecting on this, I feel ashamed because this man did see my vagina, and he was excited by it, which I find so, so sickening and gross to this day. But as I flashed him, I saw that I had two things in the small inner pocket of my gym shorts. I had the key to my hotel, and I had $500MXN pesos, which is worth about $25USD. I didn’t have my phone.
At that point in the conversation, I still didn’t know what to do. The key was useless. My hotel now felt like a million miles away. The money was the only thing I had. I grabbed the folded $500 peso note and held it in front of him. I said to him in Spanish, in as calm and collected a voice as I could muster,
“Tengo otra idea. Tengo quinientos pesos. Voy a darte este dinero, pero, prometeme que no vas a tocarme.”(I have another idea. I have 500 pesos. I’m going to give you this money, but you promise me that you are not going to touch me).
I reached out and tried to shake his hand that he had been masturbating with, trying to make sure he would promise and seal the agreement. But it seemed he wasn’t that smart, because he had his dick in one hand, and his gun in the other, so no free hands to push me to the ground, and no free hands to shake on it.
“Tienes quinientos pesos?” he said (You have 500 pesos?).
“Sí, voy a darte 500 pesos,” I said.
At that point he was pointing the gun at the ground, so it wasn’t like he was holding it up to my head. But I knew that at any moment, if he said that this was really going to happen, I would have to do it. So I just kept talking and talking and talking, trying to make him relax,
“Podemos ser amigos. Puedo darte mi número de teléfono. Salimos del parque.” (We can be friends. I can give you my phone number. Let’s leave the park.)
“Tu teléfono,” he said, wanting to steal my phone.
“No tengo mi teléfono,” I said, “Pero, podemos salir del parque y ser amigos." (I don’t have my phone, but we can leave the park and be friends).
He looked over my shoulder to see if anyone was coming. I was praying that there would be someone there. But no one was coming. He motioned for the money, and I gave it to him. He was getting impatient, and protested to the effect of,
“Come on, quickly.”
I tried to stay calm, but I was freaking out. He now had my money, and I had nothing left to bargain with.
“Me prometiste no,” I said matter-of-factly, trying to sound collected, “500 pesos. Darte 500 pesos. Quinientos pesos,” (You promise me not. I gave you 500 pesos. 500 pesos), as if $25USD was an amount of money that I cared about.
Eventually, though I don’t remember exactly how, he put his dick back in his pants. Then he turned around and walked away. As I left, I kept looking over my shoulder, fearing he would just shoot me in the back of the head, because he really didn’t owe me anything at that point.
I walked quickly down the hill, but I didn’t run. I wanted to get out of the park as soon as possible, but I knew that the moment of danger had already happened. Running seemed futile.
Immediate aftermath: The first week
“The trauma may be over, but it keeps being replayed in continually recycling memories and in a reorganized nervous system.”
“People with PTSD have their floodgates wide open. Lacking a filter, they are on constant sensory overload.”
Immediately after the incident, the pain was eating me from the inside out. I was scheduled to fly out that Saturday to spend a week in LA with my grandma, aunt and friends before I headed back to New York. I had four days or so left in Mexico. But back at my hotel, I began to realize that something was seriously wrong. I tried to read a work email, but I couldn’t even process the first sentence. I had a Slack message from my boss about the project we were working on. I had nothing to say.
Even in the peace of my hotel room, with the door locked and the fountain trickling in the courtyard outside, I didn’t feel safe. The danger, the fear in my body and the tranquility of the place just bled into one. I felt like I had lost a protective barrier around me that I had not known was there before. My whole body was tense. I noticed every single angle of the room, jumped at every single creak in the window or the door. And yet I had a sales meeting I was supposed to prepare for.
“I’m really sick and can’t make the meeting today,” I managed to Slack my boss and the Head of Sales we had planned to present to. I hoped that by next week, I would feel better. But the truth was I had no idea how long this was going to last.
I called my friends and left voice messages, telling them what happened. Some of them called me back, crying. It was comforting to have someone on the phone to distract me from the fact that all my energy was being pulled into scanning the room. I messaged my siblings but didn’t tell my parents. Based on some of my friends’ reactions, I worried my mother would respond really emotionally, and I was in no position to handle that. From my friends’ distraught voices on the phone, I was already seeing how the news of my experience was hurting the people I loved most in the world.
Mentally, I felt like I was bleeding out. As I walked between the bedroom and the bathroom, it felt like there was a giant elephant in every room I entered that left me struggling to breathe. I finally understood what people meant when they said that mental wounds are just as bad as physical wounds. On the surface, I looked normal. But inside, everything was screaming.
I messaged Patrick, a close friend I had met in Oaxaca, who was staying in a hostel nearby. I told him what had happened.
“I’ve got meetings this morning, but I’ll be done around 2,” he said.
I had no idea what to do with myself. I stumbled to my favorite coffee shop a couple minutes’ walk away with my work backpack, hoping to get something done. When I got there, I recognized a waitress I’d befriended behind the counter.
“Como estás?” she asked me, noticing that I looked troubled. I broke down crying. She came over and gave me a hug. I cried onto her shoulder as I told her what happened to me. I was a complete mess.
I knew I had to get therapy, ASAP. I remembered one of my co-workers had suggested a text-talk therapy app, so I signed up, hoping to speak with someone immediately, but it took them a long time to respond.
Patrick came to pick me up. We went back to his hostel and I didn’t leave his side for the rest of the day. It was comforting to be around a lot of other tourists in the hostel. I somehow found the words to tell them what happened to me. Over the next few days, Patrick also opened up to me about the traumas he had dealt with as a child.
Later that day, I was supposed to have a Spanish lesson. I had to tell my teacher, Chris, that I couldn’t make it to our lesson because I couldn’t concentrate. It was difficult, and I almost cried, but I told him what had happened to me in the park.
“Siento mucho que hayas experimentado eso,” I remember Chris saying. (I am so sorry you experienced that.)
That night, Patrick and I went out to dinner. We sat on the second floor of the restaurant. The restaurant was lively, but I couldn’t take my eyes away from the door that headed downstairs. I kept looking over my shoulder in case anyone might decide to scale the front of the building. My pulse was racing. My breaths were staggered. My whole body was convinced that someone might try to attack me at any moment. The constant fear was exhausting. I was alert, and yet I also felt so vulnerable and weak, like somehow there was no barrier between my body and other people. Patrick promised to stay with me for the rest of the week. He did, and I will always be so grateful to him that he was there.
Adjusting to the new normal: The First Month
I managed to briefly tell my manager what had happened to me a couple days later. He very kindly gave me the next week off work. Meanwhile, I was still mentally bleeding out and frantically setting up initial sessions with therapists. I needed one yesterday.
I flew from Oaxaca to LA and stayed with my friend Emilia. Luckily she had recently gone through a breakup and had plenty of boy drama to distract me with. We hung out together in her apartment, smoked weed and watched Bob Ross. And we listened to angsty music from our teenage years, like Avril Lavigne. It was awesome.
As I took the initial sessions with therapists, I quickly noticed that none of them had ever dealt with someone with severe, recent trauma. I needed to find someone who was super experienced, where I wouldn’t be the most fucked up patient she had dealt with. And I say “she” because unfortunately having a male therapist was not going to work for me at all. I remember typing “sexual violence ptsd therapist new york” into Google and being bombarded with faceless names, half-working SquareSpace pages and incomplete doctor rating websites.
During one initial session I had, I told the therapist my story. Then she said to me, “Well, maybe you’ll think twice and be more careful in the future.” When I thought about it later, her response made me really angry. She was the first person I told who made me feel like the incident had been my fault. And she still billed my insurance company $200 and I had to pay a $10 copay for her services. I remember that painfully clearly.
Luckily, after a couple days of flailing, I remembered that one of my family friends was a top forensic psychiatrist. She was practicing in California, but had done her training in New York, so I hoped she knew some people there. I messaged her somewhat desperately, and she sent me two contacts, neither of whom were taking new patients. But her second contact put me in touch with someone very experienced who was taking new patients, and so that’s how I found Barbara:
Obviously I was thrilled to have found her but having to wait for two weeks was complete agony. I don’t know how I made it through those days before we met. Barbara was super expensive, and the bills practically killed me. Yet I knew that I had to do everything in my power to get better, otherwise my PTSD could be drawn out forever.
Read Part #2: Top 10 Tips To Help in Recovering from Trauma
Read Part #3: How My World View Changed After 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.