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 – 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.