Letters to Linda – Feeling Like It Was Your Fault

One of the first thoughts after trauma or abuse is, “It was my fault.” That is a lie.

If you don’t have someone with you at the time to tell you that no, it was not your fault, you keep believing that lie, and that lie does a lot of damage, so I will tell you now:

It was not your fault.

It was not my fault when my car wrecked. Yes, I was driving the car. No, I did not have control over the road conditions and hundreds of cars drove over the exact spot that sent me spinning in the 5 minutes before I did. The assessment by emergency services and my insurance company was that I was not at fault. Did I still feel at fault? Yes, until a few years later when I got into therapy. Sometimes accidents happen. Things happen. That does not make them my fault. And if it’s not my fault, I do not need to assign blame or shame to myself.

When my brother was in a work accident and was injured by a machine, he felt that he was at fault until the investigator told him that he wasn’t. He was in control of the machine, right? He could have done something else that would have made sure he didn’t get hurt, right? Wrong. What happened was outside of his control or responsibility, and it was not his fault.

When someone abuses or assaults you, you feel at fault too. You should have walked away, should have said something, should have said no, should have…

No. Abuse and assault perpetrated against you are not your fault. You did not invite it, you did not cause it, and there is no fault for “allowing it”, because you didn’t. When you were in that situation, you had to balance and navigate threats and consequences, and you didn’t ask to navigate that. You probably weren’t prepared to navigate that. When people talk about abuse and assault like you can just walk away or say no, they miss what happened, which is that you were trapped by whoever was perpetrating this against you, and you didn’t see a way out. None of that is your fault.

Outside voices can also make things into something more or less than they are. As a survivor of a terrible car wreck, people told me over and over again that I must have been saved for a higher purpose, that I must be meant for something great. Two years later, on the edge of losing my sanity, I hadn’t achieved anything great, I was barely surviving, and the pressure to make something great out of my experience was almost too much for me. It was so freeing when I could embrace the statement, “It happened.”

No more, no less, it happened, and I could do with that what I chose. Not what others chose for me, but what I chose based on where I was and what I could do.

Blame and shame do not help you heal. Believing it was your fault does not help you heal. What helps you heal is accepting that it was not your fault, you are not to blame, and there is no shame in your experience, because you have done the best you could with what you had. Put the fault where it belongs, on abusers and assailants, not on you.

Letters to Linda

I can open doors and invite her to walk through.

Sometimes you go through hell so that you can help others through it.

If all of the pain that I have lived with for the past few years can be used to help someone else who is in pain. It’s worth it to me. Not because I’m that self-sacrificing or any kind of imagined hero, but because it gives my pain a purpose, and it isn’t wasted. If someone benefits, whether that’s me or another, there’s purpose, and I find peace in that.

Having a platform to speak about my experience with PTSD (traumatic car wreck) in a way that I don’t feel compromises me the same as speaking about my other PTSD-causing experiences (traumatic abuse and sexual assault) gives me the freedom to say things that I find many trauma survivors don’t feel the freedom to say. When your trauma comes with shame, the last thing you want is for people to know. It’s why I don’t talk about being in an abusive relationship. I don’t want to re-live it, I don’t want to explain it and I don’t want to hear what most people have to say about it. Car wreck is different, it’s much more socially acceptable, elicits sympathy and the stupid comments don’t hurt as much (anymore).

Through a series of mistakes and judgmental attitudes (mostly on my part), I ended up at a coffee shop earlier this week sitting across from a woman ten years younger than I, who I will call Linda. After a brief conversation that you can read about in the post link, we got down to purpose. She asked me about my experience with PTSD, because she also has it. She was exposed to violence in a Mexican drug war and later to sexual abuse from a group she thought were her friends. In a story that felt so familiar, she didn’t realize for a long time that the violence was traumatic, or that the abuse was not ok, and that she wasn’t able to exercise choice. It left her empty, detached, obsessive and ashamed.

“Normal” things are triggers. She’s working so hard to hear a bachelor’s degree, but she has a hard time focusing and her grades suffer. Groups are uncomfortable for her at best. Her friends don’t understand and don’t try to. She’s ashamed of her response to “normal” things and hates that people perceive her as cold and disinterested. She’s dating a guy who loves her for who she is and is trying to learn how to support her, and she’s scared she’s going to sabotage the relationship because she doesn’t feel that she deserves to be loved. She doesn’t feel that she has access to mental health care, and she is swirling around in anxiety, not knowing what to do to break free.

That was, and to some extent still is, me. I’m further along in recovery, so I have a bit more clarity, but that is me. I don’t have to say I understand, because the energy I give off in response to what she says communicates how deeply I understand. And accept. And don’t judge. And I know how hard it is to ask for help. I know how hard it is to even understand what’s happening, or why all you want to do is lay in bed and watch tv. Why you torture yourself with negative thoughts and why self-harm is so attractive.

I’m not a mental health professional, I’m a client. And I can’t fix people, I gave that idea up already and my life improved drastically when I did. I can, however, share my experience with her in a way that meets her where she is. I can open doors and invite her to walk through. I can explain why she experiences some things in the way that she does, and I can give her the space and support to recover in her own way and her own time.

I think in this instance giving is the gift, and it’s one I want to share on my blog, so I’ll be posting the letters in the hope that they multiply the encouragement and acceptance for whoever will benefit from it. ❤

Dating With PTSD – Communication

Telling how I feel and what I need is another trigger, because doing that previously got me another round of abuse. 

I am dating an incredible human who is accepting of my traumatic experiences and who is willing to listen (patiently) while I try to work out the things that trigger me. One of my challenges is that I don’t know what will trigger me or when, or how badly. I can’t predict my anxiety levels or what will make me want to push him away, what will violently drag up fear or what will be a small raising of my eyebrow.

Part of the trauma that broke my brain was an abusive relationship that I was in for four years. The first two years he was abusive and manipulative, the last two he was unbelievably cruel. I was in a horrible car wreck at the end of year two, after I had moved away but we were still talking. I had no idea I had PTSD, I had no idea why I couldn’t let go of him, and he took every bit of shame over what he had done to me and my near-death to emotionally beat the shit out of me, again and again and again.

He was a broken person not looking to heal. He nearly broke me. I still have a lot of scars, and it feels like I am now having to pull them back open to heal correctly.

He used communication as a weapon. He would not respond, not give me straight answers, not let me know what was going on or what to expect, because as long as I couldn’t get my feet under me in the relationship I had no way to access control. Post-car wreck I spent two years unknowingly creating negative neuron response pathways in my brain. It is taking a long time to repair those, and because I don’t even know what they all are, I keep stumbling upon them.

For example, David and I were texting, and I didn’t get a response back at one point. It wasn’t critical, and rational brain wouldn’t have thought much of it. I knew he was busy and I had my own things to do, and if I did have a rational brain I would have just checked in with him later. However, that drop in the conversation hit a neuron pathway that remembered that this is a negative thing, that when this happens I am going to get hurt, that when he doesn’t respond it’s a reason to panic and fear the worst. It snuck up on me before I could figure out what was happening, and a few hours later when we did start texting again it took very little (he was telling me what he’d been up to, a positive experience for me in normal conditions) to set me off on a severe trigger.

I don’t want to lash out or start a fight or make accusations when this happens. It isn’t David’s fault, it has very little to do with him and he doesn’t know. I don’t even know until it happens, then I am scrambling to understand why the hell I just had this deeply negative response to a circumstance that feels like it should be no big deal. Then I have to – in the middle of a fear-riddled experience for me – be completely vulnerable and ask for space and understanding while I sort out what’s happening. Telling how I feel and what I need is another trigger, because doing that previously got me another round of abuse.

I am so, so thankful that David was accepting, accommodating and that he listened once I got to a place that I understood what had happened. I needed to have a safe space to work through what had happened, and once I did, once I did a bit of reprogramming, I realized that for the first time I made it through a major trigger event without Xanax. Pretty amazing.

For those of us who live in the hell of PTSD, we need that safe space to process, to try to understand what is going on and to have you listen openly and without trying to tell us what our experience is. Our experience is hard enough for us to understand and deal with. When you add a partner to the mix, it’s a challenge to open up and let you know what’s going on. A challenge I’m slowly discovering is worth it.

My First Foray Into Meditation

I want to be able to accept my lack of control as a circumstance that does not require me to react with anxiety.

A couple of years ago a dear friend recommended meditation as a way to cope with anxiety. He was doing guided meditations and was appreciating the results. At the time I had no idea what meditation was, and I was quite adverse to anything resembling sitting still or thinking, and especially both, so I didn’t pick up that practice.

Fast forward to my current place of stability, brain on high process speed, the realization that my statement in EMDR was not the best statement for me (THANKS FORMER THERAPIST THAT I HAD TO FIRE – but that’s another story), adjusting that statement, practicing yoga with some consistency and being more comfortable with thoughts: I am ready for this meditation thing.

Change happens when you’re ready for it. If you aren’t, I don’t know that you actually change. Unless you are forced to, but even then it might be a temporary adaptation? Another topic for later. The point is, I was not previously ready to meditate. But having found myself in a place where my lack of control over, well, anything causes me considerable anxiety on a daily basis, my goal for the next few weeks is to adjust how I think about my lack of control and come to a place of acceptance over what I can’t, namely the behavior and choices of other people (also hurricanes, seriously).

I have found that after I practice yoga for about half an hour I am really ready to think about things. More than that, I get to a place that I have pretty much blocked out the noise and have space in my brain to work on myself, or just be peaceful. Today I sat with affirmations that I can accept not being in control, that I can be at peace with circumstances that are not what I want, that God provides for this, etc. etc. It was nice, and it was a start. Because my statement had been “I am in control.”

FALSE.

I am hardly ever in control (someone brought me lunch today and something in it caused my digestive system to hit the eject button, so I wasn’t even in control of my lunch today) and most of what I do is dependent on other people, the weather, availability of gasoline…so I want to be able to accept my lack of control as a circumstance that does not require me to react with anxiety. This will surely take some practice. First step made.