The author of this column has requested to remain anonymous.
“Trauma” has an interesting place in our cultural vernacular. The word alone is pregnant with devastating connotations — that something evil has seeped inside of you and has left you different, forever changed, broken. Trauma is believed to be a camouflaged parasite that holds you to its will until you and the Trauma become one and the same. But Trauma isn’t an infiltrator, it’s a relationship.
I was 16 years old when my relationship with Trauma began. It was Christmastime, and I was at my grandparents’ house. Everyone had gone to sleep, and my cousin Patrick and I decided to get drunk off of my grandma’s vodka. My tolerance for alcohol was low to say the least. I could barely see straight, let alone walk. I laid on my sleeping bag in the walk-in closet I planned to sleep in. The rest is blurry. I remember Patrick pulling up porn, I remember him touching himself, then me. My cousin, the person I was the closest to and trusted the most in my family, raped me not 10 feet away from where the rest of my cousins were sleeping.
For four years, every time our families gathered at my grandparents’ house, my cousin continued to get me drunk and rape me. The booze and my brain’s protective mechanisms blacked out most of the memories, but the teary image of my cousin on top of me in my grandparents’ living room stays with me. I don’t know how many times it happened: sexual abuse multiple times twice a year for four years, I can’t do the math.
I swore to myself that I would go to the grave with this secret, that I would never reveal to my family what my cousin was doing to me. For years I pushed it down and ignored it. If I didn’t acknowledge it, then it couldn’t have been real. The relationship with my Trauma was like a mysterious and concerning lump on my breast that I continued to ignore. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t want to look. And like metastasizing cancer, my Trauma ate away at my insides until nothing was left except a hollowed out shell.
My relationship with Trauma took a different form this past fall when I started seeing a therapist specialized in PTSD. The whole method is to identify the thoughts you’ve been telling yourself, noting their fallacy and challenging them. I believed that my purpose was to provide sex and to please people by all means necessary. I believed that all my family members had alternate intentions with me, that I wasn’t just a cousin, niece or granddaughter but a sex object. I believed that if Patrick didn’t face consequences, then what he did to me wouldn’t matter. I believed that because I have been raped so many times by multiple men that I must be doing something wrong. I believed that I am inherently damned to experience sexual abuse all my life.
The next step is to note the fallacy in these beliefs and challenge them. I had to fill out worksheets that posed challenging questions towards my beliefs. “Is this an all or nothing statement? Are you confusing possible with likely? Is this thought rooted in self-blame? How can you rewrite your belief to make it more accurate and healthy?”
Essentially, it was a complete rewiring of my brain, and I hated it. It felt like endorsed brainwashing. I was frustrated, even angry, with my therapist that he thought he could waltz in here, tell me to throw out my beliefs that were deeply embedded inside me, and replace them with these thoughts that I didn’t even believe. No matter how hard I tried to rewrite my beliefs surrounding my trauma, my self-worth and the people around me, nothing stuck.
One day, as I was walking home after one of my classes, a thought plastered in my brain like one of those huge banner advertisements attached to a flying plane: what if I didn’t want to get better? At the age of 23, I’ve been operating under these thoughts and behaviors for seven years. It was comfortable. Even though the incestual abuse I endured was devastating, to say the least, there was also some peace that this is what I’m familiar with. Rewiring my brain and altering my thought patterns and behaviors was to enter the unknown. It was a leap of faith that I was unwilling — or more accurately, scared — to take.
I was also unsure if I wanted to get better because I didn’t know what that would mean for me. Trauma has a way of seeping into your brain, coursing through your bloodstream, until what your true self is and what your Trauma is has become indistinguishable. My sole identity became based on my hardships. I wouldn’t be myself if I were to be healed mentally and emotionally. I liked being that person who has been through some serious shit and lives to tell the tale. Without my Trauma, who am I? Would I even matter?
My relationship with my Trauma was now full-blown Stockholm Syndrome. I latched onto my Trauma like it was a lifeline. It reminded me of an excerpt from “On Writing” by Stephen King where he believes without him being high on cocaine, he would not be able to write. Without his dependency, he wouldn’t be Stephen King.
I came to a fork in the road: continue on the destructive path I’ve been heading down, or change course entirely. There was really no moment where a lightbulb went off or I had some great epiphany. I’d be lying if I said something happened or something my therapist said was the turning point for me to realign my whole mental landscape. But soon enough, those bullshit statements my therapist had me write became easier to swallow. I began to believe them. And when an intrusive thought came into my brain, I was able to challenge it and dismiss it.
When I started writing this column, I planned on unpacking all of the devastating effects that years of incestual rape had on me. I was going to talk about how it completely altered my beliefs about sex, how I believed my purpose was to please people and to provide sex. I wanted to emphasize how none of my family members nor friends could understand why I was acting so self-destructively. I was going to illuminate my unpredictable panic attacks in public, where all of a sudden I felt like I was in imminent danger when I was objectively safe. I wanted to admit to my compulsive self-harming and my nasty drug addiction that made me, as a 5’9 young woman, go from 135 pounds to 105 pounds in two months. I planned on testifying that a failed suicide attempt in my grandparents’ basement was the catalyst for my parents finding out about the abuse.
Yes, that is all still my story. But that’s not the story I want to tell today.
Letting go of your shackles and of your Trauma can feel like learning to walk again. It’s terrifying, taxing and really f*cking hard all compacted into a too-big-to-swallow pill. When you’re learning to take your first steps again, it’s so easy and tempting to succumb to and remain in a wheelchair. But once you take your first couple steps, the reward is euphoric. Suddenly you can’t imagine a life without walking and can’t imagine why you would ever consider staying in the wheelchair.
I can’t say that I lived happily ever after, because that is simply not reality. I can’t merely obliterate my Trauma. The psychological scars my cousin left on me will always be with me, there’s no getting around that. But how I cope with this Trauma is all the difference.
Now my relationship with Trauma is like working with an annoying coworker. I acknowledge their presence, I sometimes interact with them, but I don’t let their annoyance get to me because, ultimately, we have to work together.
Every morning when I wake up, and every time I am feeling paralyzed by anxiety and/or depression, I read the post-it on my mirror: “I will not suffer forever. I can soothe myself and use the skills I have learned to cope with these painful feelings. I may need help in dealing with my reactions, but that is normal.” Somehow, reading those words is enough.