When PTSD Came Calling

Excerpt published in The Establishment "The Many Faces of Trauma”

Twenty years after the trial, you would be hard pressed to find ways that my PTSD still lurks in my life. In my medicine cabinet, you will find meds for treating adult ADHD, something my mental health professionals and I stumbled while treating the PTSD years ago. I work a part-time job, mother six kids, and I am happily married. In fact, I just got back from a trip to Jamaica for my sister’s wedding. In all the pictures, I am smiling and content. No signs of the dark grips of PTSD anywhere.
But, sometimes, late at night, I will have a dream in which I flash back to the trauma. My husband will shake me awake on those nights because I was crying out or flailing my limbs in defense of an invisible specter. Those nights are rare these days, but they still occur once a year or so.
A song will come on the radio, one that played during…and it will freeze me in that moment. The loop of flashback clips, little snippets of the trauma, will start to play like an old film projector, clicking away as each scene moves across my consciousness. “Jo, where did you go?” my husband would ask me.
“Oh, sorry. What were we talking about?” I never answer his question. I know that he does not want to know where I was, just as much as I don’t want to give life to the place with my own voice. I always use a tool I learned in therapy to shove the film back into its box until I am ready to deal with it.
I know what some of you are wanting to ask. About the intimacy. Surprisingly, it’s not a problem. We have developed cues that both of us honor. My episodes do not “ruin the mood” because there is no “mood” unless we both are ready. I have a partner who can spot my distress a mile away, one who is respectful enough to see my unease as something both of us must deal with. So, intimacy has never been an issue for us.
Twenty years after the trial, it is the small ways that my PTSD rears its head. After so many years in therapy, I have derived several different ways to calm the beast. I can’t have it rearing it head like it did the very first time. When I was diagnosed with PTSD, it almost ended in a stay in the mental health hospital.
The first signs were not what I thought PTSD would be like. I didn’t cower at my husband’s touch or scream out in a sudden panic during sex. In fact, we had gotten married and had three small children by the time my first episode happened. Actually, the thing that triggered my PTSD from the bowels of my psyche was normalcy.
My life after the rape investigation and trial was a rural existence. I was a wife and a mother of three little girls. I cooked meals, cleaned up after little bodies, and made love to my husband like I was expected to. I should have been happy. I had survived and created a life that most people could only dream of. However, sometime after baby number three began to toddle, my mind began to crack. The darkness and memories seeped in. Somewhere inside me, the clocks were winding backward and the cuckoo birds were leaping from their perches. Something so vital to making me had been stolen by a rapist years ago, and the effects were finally showing.
Despite my youngest child sleeping through the night, I stopped sleeping completely. Two hours here and there was all I could manage. I remember lying awake as the movie reel in my mind played back highlights of my assault until I couldn’t stomach the show. I would force myself to get up and turn on the television or to get for a book, anything to distract the treacherous show destroying my headspace.
Not sleeping led to tiredness, which made me cranky and irritable. My short fuse lit some sort of anxiety in my small children. The girls acted out in tantrums that seemed to increase in intensity as I grew more tired. No grocery trip, doctor visit, or playdate was safe from a meltdown. My husband was able to soothe them, but something in me intensified their behavior. They were amped around me, as if they could sense my inner discord but were helpless for a way to stop it. Needless to say, when my husband left for work, my days were relentless.
Things began to escalate when I started leaving home with the kids for impulsive shopping sprees. We could not afford them on a single-family income. (Checks bounced, cards were maxed, we would eventually file bankruptcy.) I would go to kids clothing stores to buy dresses that my girls would never get a chance to wear. I bought food for recipes I would never cook. I even bought gadgets to fix problems my family didn’t have. I was on track for not only financial ruin but also to become a hoarder.
It was a Saturday afternoon. Hubby had put the girls down for a nap. He conked out beside them. I tried to lay down but couldn’t. I remember getting the idea to get the grocery shopping done while I had some time alone. I grabbed my purse, coat, and left out the door.
I remember nothing else for the next three hours.
My next memory was of sitting in our old minivan in the driveway. My husband was yelling at me from the front door of the house. The back seats of the van were hidden under paper and plastic bags of miscellaneous food, clothing, shoes, and more. My watch registered the three-hour time lapse. I turned the van off with no memory of first turning it on or acquiring any of the stuff in the back.
Meanwhile, hubby was stuck in a loop of questions I couldn’t answer.
“Where the hell have you been?”
“Why am I getting fraud calls from the bank?”
“Where were you?”
Instead of answering him, I got out of the van. The only way I can explain this is that my surroundings were “drowned out” by the feeling of “wrong” and brokenness I felt. I moved away from the the van, passed the screaming husband to the living room floor where I collapsed, hyperventilating, onto the floor. Over the next hour or so, I tried to answer my husband’s questions, tried to force a memory of the lost three hours to emerge. Nothing. The kids probably clamored for my attention, but I know that I ignored them as well. Something inside me has broken. I had to fix it before I did any more damage to my family.
We ended up digging out and calling the number of a psychiatrist I saw for a short time after the rape trial. Somehow, my husband was able to get the man on the phone. He talked to me, was able to help me to calm down enough to come into the hospital. There, I went to the nearby mental health facility where the doctor was waiting for me.
I had been rushed to the nuthouse.
The doctor evaluated me and we talked for a while. Ultimately, he did not think that I needed to be admitted, but he did want me to start a medicinal regimen immediately to help with the anxiety and depression that fueled my original “off” feeling. We started sessions that lasted for several years and included regular visits with a psychologist who specialized in my type of trauma. I was diagnosed with PTSD officially that day. The depression and anxiety were just along for the ride.
It would take over a decade for me to understand how burying my emotions and trying to deny my fears only made my situation worse after the trial. I needed to get everything out. Instead, I was adamant on trying to be okay and to seem normal. I never wanted anyone to see me as the broken little thing that was harmed by the big bad man. But, I was. I was broken. Still am. And, that’s okay. It’s a scar. Denying the healing process only makes a wound fester until it could no longer contain the infection. I am free of the infection today. I can live with the scars.
Today, it is the small things that might send a sliver of a trigger, but my toolboxes of tips and tricks are well-stocked. The scars are there, but they fit into my marriage like any other well-worn part of our lives.