Reclaiming Sex (And the Words that Got Me There)

I cried because at one point he asked if I was happy, and I realized that yes, I was.

I have had so much negative association with sex. David and I have been held off, aside from some fun times fooling around, because I wasn’t ready, and I had a lot to process and figure out. It’s been hard. It’s also been really good. And, for the first time ever for me, sex is really good.

I’ve been reading Come As You Are by Emily Negoski. It’s a game changer about sex for every woman (I think men would benefit from reading it, and I was sending pages to David as I read it), and was especially so for me post-rape. I like science, I find information freeing, and I would rather have the information and make a decision than not know. Every time I learn I have a choice (abuse, rape and assault are not times that you have a choice, and that infects so much of your life), I get to move forward toward healing. This book gives a lot of information about how our bodies and our brains can better enjoy sex, and how people who have survived trauma don’t have to stay stuck.

There was so much I didn’t know. And now I know. And while reading that book, I started to think that maybe I might actually be ready for sex.

One of the things I appreciate so much about David is that he has changed his language to be more supportive of me. He’s listening and he’s willing to learn, and while our verbal communication styles are different, he’s saying very specific things that tell me he cares, he’s prioritizing me feeling safe and he’s making space for my experience to be valid and not crazy (I still often feel pretty crazy). I’ve also worked really hard to be clear and specific about my experience without assigning blame or shutting down. Go us!

He did the most incredible thing today. We had planned to spend the day in our “couple bubble”, and that got progressively interrupted by other people. I’m not interested in throwing fits or demanding things, and life is what it is, so I rolled with it, and when we finally rolled into his bed, he wanted to talk about expectations for when I was ready for sex so that he’d know.

Y’all, that man is a gift.

I had just read about making my sexuality my own, making it what I choose to make it rather than only what serves someone else and just making the goal pleasure and fun and curiosity rather than performing to some kind of insane and conflicting societal standard or the demands of an abusive past. Hearing him reinforce that I get to make the choice about when I’m ready and what will make me feel safe and comfortable? I wasn’t ready, but I was. All that negative shit about sex that has been drilled into me for years? I don’t have to make it my own. That belongs to someone else. I get to choose. And I chose yes.

I chose yes to today, yes to what I was comfortable with and who I was comfortable with and yes to whatever that brought up. I got to give consent and, to my great surprise and delight, sex was fun. It was good, it was pleasurable, I enjoyed him, I enjoyed me, and when I got home I felt no shame and no obligation. Those words? Those words are the words of someone who had earth-shakingly good sex. Not because we scared the neighbors a mile down the road with a deafening climax (haha, yet), but because everything I’ve felt before that was negative was gone. And because we communicated expectations beforehand, he wasn’t surprised when I cried, he just held me. I cried because at one point he asked if I was happy, and I realized that yes, I was. Then tears. Really good tears that needed to happen a long time ago.

It is really easy to make me the center of this, to work around my needs, but his are important too. So when he breathed “I needed that.” after he finished I was glad – not because I had met some kind of performance standard, but because I want to see both of our needs met in this relationship, not just mine because I’m the needy one right now.

Naturally, I had a panic attack when I got home. I was in a safe place, had just showered, and had time to process. I wasn’t very emotionally connected to him during sex, which I wasn’t surprised about since that was a feelings overload. It was enough that I felt safe and comfortable, the rest will happen as it happens. But here’s the really great part, and the part where I did the real work of reclaiming sex: I handled the panic attack without meds and by facing it head-on, not by letting it control me.

My experience has been to be raped and abandoned. That sounds harsh, and it is, because it was harsh. It was cruel. It was meant to manipulate me, and feel horrible about myself so that I could be controlled. There is so much shame in that experience, and so much reason to shut down. Which is why I texted David to let him know that I was feeling a little bit of separation anxiety and may need some reassurance…JUST KIDDING, TOTAL MELTDOWN. The wave of panic hit hard and made everything that had just been so good out to be so bad.

PTSD is a bitch.

I got called Boss Bitch today, and that’s funny to me now because that’s kind of accurate. I made a decision to be open, to not feel shame, to communicate my experience, to give myself some space to acknowledge the panic and to face it and use the opportunity to reprogram those neuron pathways that wanted me to panic about sex. I settled into a meditation pose, acknowledged my feelings, inquired whether those feelings had any basis, worked though what I knew or had evidence for (basically talking back to the fear that I had just been used and was about to be abandoned, noting to myself that he wanted to stay with me longer, he had no expectations, he was being responsive even though he had other things going on that I had known about ahead of time, that he had made sure I felt safe, that he had checked with me for consent, that he was being intentional about communicating how his work schedule might be challenging for me given what he knows about my communication style), and told myself that I got to make the decisions, not anxiety. I told my brain what it actually needed to think, and that if it still wasn’t sure, we could ask. But I didn’t have to.

David called me my favorite nickname, supported me and stayed responsive until I let him know I was calm and ok. Short texts, big impact. The words that helped me get there as I reclaimed sex.

Whirling Through the Week – Until I Hit a Wall

The last thing you want to be when your brain is wrecking on past trauma is vulnerable.

I had a lot going on this week.

I had some kind of idea that work would slowly pick up over the month and I could adjust. Nope, things blew up this week and I’ve been scrambling to do it all. Plus I had to be “public me” a lot, and spent a lot of time managing conflicts, in conferences and meetings and taking on more work. Not surprisingly, I hit a wall this afternoon and started to slide into a panic attack.

I have been doing a lot to recognize and address past trauma, which I am increasingly aware was in great part due to abusive communication, and when I have already hit my stress limit I have a really hard time not taking everything the wrong way.

Basically, if I start saying I’m tired, there is a meltdown on the way.

I realized today that I have a tendency to recoil in preparation for a verbal beating when I start toward a panic attack. I start making plans to isolate, I use any and every excuse for why I must not bother someone and I make a really big deal out of something that hasn’t even happened. My brain, in the process of wrecking, ties communication to abuse and prepares me for it by telling me to shut down and shut out.

This is without there being any verbal beating or any communication abuse. Or any abuse. Or…anything.

Sometimes dealing with this shit is really weird.

It’s a little terrifying too. I was in the middle of talking to a client, changing a drawing and trying to tell David what was happening so that I could hopefully stop the process of making problems where there weren’t any. He reminded me to breathe, and that helped for a few hours, but now I’m back in a similar place, where I’m making a lot of assumptions and creating problems that aren’t there. I’m glad I’m starting to recognize what’s happening, but dealing with it while I’m also exhausted and have hit my stress limit for the week is challenging.

I did a couple of yoga classes when I finished work to try to continue the process of calming. They were more meditative than active, and I found the word vulnerable coming up repeatedly as I stilled my body and slowed my breathing. As in be vulnerable.

The last thing you want to be when your brain is wrecking on past trauma is vulnerable. I want to put up my defenses and not have to challenge myself and my thinking and repeat to myself that I am experiencing cognitive distortion and that things are not what I am making them out to be. I would way rather tuck in and take a Xanax than sit in pain and stop the negative, destructive thought patterns that I lived with for a few years.

I’m done waiting for a better time to deal with this. There isn’t a time that I will be less busy, will be in a better place, will have less on my plate, will have my shit together or will be more ready for a relationship. I can’t put my life on hold because this shit is hard, and I have so much opening up to me. I think that was the message in yoga. When the choice is before me, and the choice is hard, time to choose vulnerable.

Letters to Linda – PTSD Basics

Here are some things I wish I had known earlier:

Welcome to hell.

That feels like the real welcome. PTSD is hell. It’s worse if you don’t have information about it, support for your experience or can see a way out. It’s standard-issue to feel trapped and unable to escape. Not only can doors seem closed, they can seem to not exist at all. And that’s why it’s hell. It is really hard to have hope when you first come to understand that you have PTSD.

It doesn’t always show itself at first. It took me two years to get diagnosed, and until then I had no idea what was wrong with me, I just knew I either needed to get help or I was going to move to Canada. That’s not a joke, I was checking into travel when someone opened a door for me. And that is the beautiful thing about this experience, and something worth holding onto: people will open the doors that you couldn’t even see.

I hope these letters give you comfort and encouragement. I hope that my experience helps you reclaim yourself because you have more information, and you have someone who understands. So here are some things I wish I had known earlier:

  • You are not crazy. It feels like you are, yes, but what you have is a diagnosable condition from trauma. Your brain has an injury that needs to heal, and that does not make you crazy, it makes you absolutely deserving of love, support and healing.
  • Not all PTSD looks the same. If comparison is the root of envy, it is also the root of you being really unsure if you even have PTSD. Humans are unique and our neurologic response to trauma is unique. Just because you don’t have the symptoms on a list on the internet or because you don’t think your experience with trauma was “as bad as someone else” doesn’t mean that you are any more or less, it means that there is good reason for addressing your experience and needs, not someone else’s.
  • You can heal. In a lot of ways this can feel like a life sentence, and it is. There is so much damage from negative thoughts and behaviors that come from PTSD, especially if your trauma experience is not addressed for years after it happens. But there is always hope! It takes work, and it’s hard, but you can heal. It starts with believing that you can, and I certainly believe you can, because I’ve been there.
  • Give yourself some space to heal. If you had a broken arm, you would have gone to the doctor, had your arm repaired, be in a cast, possibly had surgery and have a timeline of several weeks to heal. Then you would get your cast off and still have time to rebuild strength in your arm and get it back to full use. If you didn’t get medical help very soon after your arm broke, your arm might heal in a way that made it hard to use, or very painful. Our brains aren’t very different! The big difference is that we often can’t see when our brains break, so they are much harder to get help for, and, unlike a broken arm, brain trauma can have a lot of shame with it, so it can be really hard to talk about and get help for. And that’s ok, because you didn’t know. Don’t beat yourself up, rather acknowledge that you didn’t know, and now that you do you can start the healing process.
  • There is not a timeline. This is not school or work. There are no deadlines or requirements, this is all at your pace. You get to decide what you’re comfortable with and what kind of progress you want to make. For me, it has take two years to get stable, to understand my trauma and my experience to the point that when I have severe anxiety or flashbacks or triggers I can deal with them in a healthy, healing way rather than a negative, harmful way. I still have a lot of work to do, and as I heal, I am finding more trauma I wasn’t aware of. Not fun! But I have accepted this is a process that does not have a timeline or expectations, it’s a journey at my own pace. The more effort I put into healing, the faster I heal, and the more I put off taking care of myself, the less progress I make. That also means I get to take breaks when I get tired of this whole thing or if I get busy with other things in life. When I have the motivation and space, I can really dig into re-wiring my brain.
  • Start with acknowledgement. PTSD can have so many lies. Anxiety is a lie, depression is a lie – there are so many things your brain will tell you that aren’t true. However, that experience is very real, and very valid. All it takes to start on the path to healing is to recognize what’s going on. If you are experiencing anxiety, acknowledge it. If you have a trigger experience, acknowledge it. If you are drained and exhausted, acknowledge it. If you can’t deal with groups today, acknowledge it. If you are in fight mode, acknowledge it. If you feel like you are stuck, acknowledge it. For me this was the hardest and easiest step to take. “I acknowledge that I have a lot of anxiety right now.” may seem silly or pointless, but recognizing what you feel and pausing to acknowledge it is actually a very powerful step forward. When you recognize negative experiences, you can address them. Start there.

I Got My Ass Kicked Again

It opened the door to the kind of thing that moves the earth on its axis a bit.

And once again, I deserved it.

Twice in the last year I have said something that I did not intend to be harmful, and have gotten called out on it by women whom I respect. They let me know how they perceived my words, I apologized and explained my position, and through civil and forgiving dialogue the relationship was restored.

This time I had said a few negative observations about someone at church and her boyfriend (she’s dating the roommate of this guy), and I had said them to people who did not take them for what they were and move on. My comments turned to gossip, word got around to her through three people, and she asked me to meet her for coffee.

I’ll call her Linda because that works well for an idea I have that I’ll write about in a later post.

I don’t know Linda very well, but she has come across as cold, detached and not willing to invest in the group. That has not sat well with a few people, and some group dynamics have not been very receptive to her perceived attitude. I certainly have not been receptive to it. For her to ask me to coffee was weird. Not thanks, I don’t like you.

But this is church, and I didn’t want to be starting something by declining, so I figured I’d better hear her out, even if she was also going to lay into me for who I choose to date (or anti-date, as the case may be).

She blew me away.

She said she had heard that I had said some unkind things about her, and wanted to know first if that was true, and if so, had she done something to upset me? I was sitting across from a woman ten years younger, being schooled on maturity and kindness. I didn’t think I’d said what she had heard, so I told her that I had made some negative observations, that without knowing who said exactly what it was hard for me to know if the gossip was true but that didn’t matter, because I was sorry I had hurt her and I had no business talking about her, especially since I didn’t know her well. She graciously accepted my apology, then the magic of authenticity happened.

She asked if she had heard correctly that I have PTSD. Yes, I’m open about the car wreck aspect of my diagnosis, and have found that sharing that connects me to people who do not feel as comfortable talking about what their experience is. There can be so much shame with PTSD. I have a platform for talking about it that doesn’t have to get into the years of abuse, and I use that. She doesn’t have that cover, which I quickly understood as we spoke. She’s were I was, experiencing the after-effects of trauma without knowing what to do. As we shared our experiences and I told her that it’s more than a car wreck for me, she bravely told me her story, one that I related to, and one I understood.

When you have PTSD and you meet someone who understands and lets you know that they will give you only acceptance and not judgement, it is freeing. It’s a big step toward getting out of the prison. I have had people open the door to freedom for me, and I had the chance to open the door for her. It was wonderful, and I am kind of glad I got called out for gossip, because it opened the door to the kind of thing that moves the earth on its axis a bit.

That kind of experience also drains me, and I had a panic attack later that evening because I was too tired to manage anxiety. I ended up stonewalling (new term for me, I’m learning so much this week!) David, and shutting down, then texting him an hour later to try to explain what had happened. I had been triggered by something that connected to past abuse, and it took me a while to track it in my brain. I keep stumbling into these triggers and it’s exhausting.

This whole week has been exhausting. I have put so much energy and work into relationships and into myself. I’m back to work so I’m having to balance some tense dynamics there, and heading into the weekend I’ll be working with my grandma on her end of life directives. I may just stay home on Sunday and hide!

The work is worth it, and I’m so grateful for what I’m seeing happen from acting with kindness, honesty and acceptance.

 

Restoring Through Releasing Other’s Hatefulness

As I work through all of the dark, negative neuron pathways in my brain, I’m finding a lot of neurons have been wired to be resentful about the haters.

I have had some haters.

I don’t really mess with people. I don’t antagonize or badger, I’m not a pot-stirrer. I call it like I see it, but I usually keep those calls to myself because I don’t think the other person will hear what I’m saying and I don’t really see a point in starting conflict. I like to just do my thing, and I’m not really that interested or concerned with what others are doing. I’m not at all nosy, and I rarely pry into someone else’s business. Most of the time I just don’t care that much because I have PTSD to deal with, and that takes up a lot of my energy, but even before that I had dialed pretty far back on interfering where it wasn’t my business.

I’m a high performer. Curve killer, teacher’s pet…I’ve been called all of it. In my mind I just work really hard to do a good job, because if I do have an ego, it’s tied directly to my evaluation of my own performance. Here again though…this is about ME. I spent years not understanding why people got so hateful toward me for what I was doing for myself.

I was skipping along, doing me, and coworkers, teammates and whoever got bent out of shape about it and frequently unleashed some pretty hateful behavior toward me. Mostly passive aggressive shit because cowards don’t confront things head on. I let most of it go because, again, I didn’t care what they were doing (unless they hampered my performance), I was focused on what I was doing.

As I work through all of the dark, negative neuron pathways in my brain, I’m finding a lot of neurons have been wired to be resentful about the haters. I’m holding grudges I didn’t realize I was holding, the hair on the back of my neck still stands up when thoughts of people who have been hateful to me cross my mind. I was in abusive work environments for years, and most of the resentment is from the way I was treated by abusive coworkers. But those days are gone, and it does me no good to hold onto it.

Whatever pain they were acting on, it wasn’t really about me. As the target of a lot of lashing out, I work really hard to not lash out. I’ve blown up twice this year in trigger rants where I let a lot out, but I blew up at a situation, not at a person. I won’t do it, it’s too harmful. And now that I understand that I was the whipping boy for someone else’s pain, it helps to not take it so personally, to release it. I’ll set the intention for a meditation practice, and release the hatefulness so that I can continue to heal my brain.

Anti-Dating

I want more. Dating isn’t more, it’s why I stopped trying that.

My latest PTSD episode was a negative experience for both David and I. You can tell someone what it’s like, you can tell them what to expect, but they don’t understand until they experience it with you. Even then, they only see the outside. It’s worse when they think they’re at fault. This really is just about me and what goes on in my brain. I hate that it can hurt someone I care about… and that there wasn’t much I could do to prepare him. I got blindsided and was scrambling to understand what had triggered me. Not a very helpful place to be when you’re trying to communicate what’s going on. Add Xanax to the mix and I don’t even remember most of what I told him. It was probably better for both of us that we had a Christmas pause. I wanted to make a play on words and say Christmas break, but to his credit we didn’t actually break.

We hiked several miles yesterday in the cold to talk about it, without spending too much time talking about it. I knew it had affected him, I just didn’t know how much. I hate that something I can’t control just brought a really wonderful month to a sharp halt. I hate that I killed the fun. I hate that someone hurt me so badly that I have a negative neurologic response that is so severe it put a relationship I value at risk.

I hate dating. I’m terrible at it. So I asked if we could not date. Anti-date, actually.

Dating doesn’t work for me. I like to do what I like to do while living out what I believe. I like creative energy and being productive and dragging people into my schemes and solving problems and drinking good coffee and walking and talking and eating bagels on Saturdays. Once in a while I like to get hella dressed up and blow money on an amazing dinner. Most of the time I like to cook. I like heavy blankets and BBC Masterpiece and pretending I’m athletic. I like people who see the world differently than I and I like ridiculous high heels. I really like burgers that ooze cheese when you bite into them.

I like all of those things by myself. I think I’d like them even more with another person. I think I’d like them more with this person. I like to share things I enjoy with people I enjoy. “Dating” doesn’t seem to really fit that – or me. I want to live my life and invite someone to join me, not spend my time barely scratching the surface and deciding if we have enough chemistry to try to ignore the problems.

When you’ve been hurt deeply, when you’ve broken deeply and when you’re healing deeply, the surface barely registers. It’s not enough to make me look up from my knitting. I want more. Dating isn’t more, it’s why I stopped trying that.

Then average-height, dark and handsome shows up across the table from me and I think I have to date him because that’s what you do.

Until a scratch on the surface digs up something much deeper, and you have to tell someone they’re free to go for fear of what you might pull them into. I had to be painfully vulnerable to hold my hand open and accept we might not be the best thing for each other. Living with PTSD requires courage, and courage is painful.

I drove home in my three most-feared driving conditions – wet, dark and fast. I was so relaxed I was in shower thinking mode.

THAT DOESN’T HAPPEN. 

It indicated how far I’ve come in processing and putting to rest my car wreck. It’s taken two years, but I was on autopilot and concerned with more pressing issues. I’ve beaten it… So I can beat the next one… the one that’s still blindsiding me with trauma. That’s when I said to hell with it all, I’m doing this the way I want. The only way I know how to not run this relationship into the ground before we have a chance to see if we want this to work.

“Let’s anti-date.”

He said ok.

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.