Memorial Day

For Memorial Day I had a cookout with some good friends. Family friends. Sister warriors and our families. I couldn’t ask for a better time than that: a safer and more relaxed time, a day where I was free to be just me, no social anxiety, total acceptance, and unspoken understanding. And …

In honor of Memorial Day, and all it stood for, we had a moment of silence and a table setting for the missing “soldier” to represent all our sister and brother warriors who never returned from wars (MIA-missing in action, KIA-killed in action). I included in that, those who died slowly of diseases caused by agent orange and other chemical exposures or issues caused by military service–including PTSD, MST/PTSD, and POW (Prisoner of War) victims who were consequently murdered, or who died by suicide (whole separate kinds of wars in and of themselves) . We honored all the fallen, which felt right and honorable.

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Triggered

I’ve worked through everything in this CPT (Cognitive Processing Therapy) group which, by the way, I am just about to graduate from. I thought I was getting better. A couple of weeks ago I was triggered by something another vet was describing about her experience. Memories from my own experience started flashing through my mind, and feelings, and sounds. My body physically shook. I couldn’t control it. … I had a hard time grounding myself so I could keep listening to her. In fact, I don’t remember really hearing anything she said after that. I was too busy trying to get myself back under control. It took awhile, but I managed. It turned out okay.

Tonight though. Damn. Tonight I was in a conference call  with other organization members addressing the needs of a woman vet who’s MST (Military Sexual Trauma) experience was similarly brutal to mine. There were questions about her behaviors, which I knew were consistent with someone who has been through this experience so I shared that I had been through this also (without going into details) and that I also had PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and that it was common and legitimate that she might exhibit some of the behaviors she was exhibiting, etc.

We made the decision that I would be the one to primarily deal with her via conference call (along with only one other member on the call, so she wouldn’t feel overwhelmed or “ganged up on”). I’m fine with that. But then someone started going on about her story, questioning details, almost blithely describing details that for me had been gruesome and brutal and painful. … I had to yell “I’m sorry I have to get off here.” And I punched the hang-up button on my phone. My whole body was shaking. Again with the memories flashing in my head.

I’m still shaking. I can’t get this shit out of my head. It’s been four and a half hours and still my body is in knots. I thought if I wrote it down it might help, nothing else seems to be working right now. Got the headphones on, cranking up the tunes.

One and a half hours LATER:  How many times can you smash your head against a brick wall before the wall moves? None. That’s not the wall moving, that’s your head caving in.

I’m feeling a little better. But I still can’t shake off the memories. And now I feel depressed. Or maybe that’s sad. Who knows? It’s been so long since I felt anything much besides numb, it’s really hard to tell. Someone please tell me I’m not alone in that.

One hour LATER:  It’s 0404 hours. I think I can go to bed now. Except I’m starving. Dogs are so loyal! My buddy’s laying on her bed in my office, snoring so loud I can hear her through my headphones, when I know she’d rather be upstairs sleeping in the big bed. How can you not love that?

Stress Reaction

Do you ever feel so stressed when people are pressing you for answers that you’ll agree to or say almost anything just to get them to back off? This happens to me all the time.

Even in therapy, where you’d think I’d feel safe enough, comfortable enough, or whatever the word is, to say “hey, slow down, quit dogging me, let me process this, I can’t give you an answer right now, I don’t know what I feel right now–I’m too stressed to figure it out, I don’t have words for this right now …” But no. I just accept whatever label, feeling, etc. they want to throw at me, anything to get off the hot seat.

I used to be able to handle amazing amounts of stress exceptionally well when I was younger. Maybe it’s the Post Traumatic Stress. Maybe it’s from having too much stress for too long, but now I can’t seem to handle much stress well at all.

The thing is, when I’m in the situation I’m barely aware of what’s going on with me. I’m in survivor mode. I’m just reacting. It’s not until later, when the stress is gone and I’m processing what happened and why it feels wrong to me, that I get that I once again gave someone what they wanted (or agreed to something, or with someone) just to get them to back off stressing me. And it’s usually that someone has used manipulation to get me to do something I really don’t want to do, or I’ve agreed to do something that I’ve felt pressured to do because of friendship, or I’ve given in to pressure from very aggressive and persistent sales people, or situations like the above scenario.

I’m getting better at catching this. But too many times it still catches me unawares. To make it worse I have a serious memory problem. (I’ve been told it’s because of my PTS.) Particularly with words. I often find myself using the wrong word to describe something, but I can’t think of the right word. Sometimes they may start with the same letter but have completely different meanings. When I’m stressed my memory issues are worse, especially around words and their meanings. A helluva problem for a writer to have, yeah?

Somehow I’ve got to find a way to become aware of what’s happening when I first feel the stress, and develop a method for handling not only the stress, but the stressor. Meaning the person (or jerk) pressuring me.

Anyone else deal with this? Thoughts on this, oh wise blogosphere? All helpful suggestions appreciated.

Wild Things

You ever have that one memory that sticks with you like a stuck record playing over and over in your head? It’s like a pivotal moment that changes your whole life.

When I was in Middle School we went on a field trip to the animal pound. A small group of us were led into a room where a woman put down a black cat. He was a healthy adult cat, but the facility was overcrowded and no one had claimed him.

That cat seemed to know what was in store for him. He looked frightened, and as he looked each of us in the eyes hopefully, he seemed to be begging us in turn to rescue him. All of us, I later learned, wanted desperately to do so. Even the boys. When we didn’t, the feral plea in his eyes turned to hurt, then anger, then resignation, and then we watched the spark of life go out in his eyes. (BTW, there was an uproar over this later.)

Years later, I was brutally raped while physically being held down in an excruciatingly painful and physically damaging manner. I very much believed my life was in danger that night. One of the men standing around told the guy holding me down to let me up. He did and I looked at the speaker with some hope that he might help me and find a way to get me out of there alive. He looked me in the eyes and laughed and said. “She’s not going anywhere.” Then he took a swig of beer and turned away.

To excuse all kinds of inhuman behavior, humans relegate other humans to the status of animals: to allow themselves to fight enemies in war, to allow themselves to profit from the suffering of others, to allow themselves to enslave others or to subjugate others, or to feed their egos by demeaning or hurting others …

Of all the things that happened to me that night, that moment is one that keeps playing over in my head and won’t leave me as I try to process that trauma.

In CPT this week one of my fearless leaders asked me if I thought it stuck with me because I felt the reason he didn’t rescue me was because I believe or feel I am not worthy of being rescued. We worked it through the “Challenging Beliefs Worksheet,” but the more I process it the more I realize it’s not about worthiness. If I didn’t feel worthy I would never have felt outraged at what they did to me.

If you have never been in a situation where you felt certain you would in all likelihood die, and then someone threw you a slim lifeline and you grabbed onto it desperately with both hands only to have it cruelly yanked away, then you cannot possibly understand what I went through in that moment. You cannot possibly know what it is to experience that desperate igniting of hope followed quickly by its extinguishing. 

In moments like that you find out who you are at your most primitive level. My captors were feral animals, but I became a wild thing also. There are times I wonder if that man saw in my eyes what I saw in that black cat’s eyes, or if he even bothered to see.

Processing … Processing …

The week of Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) that I first had to write the details of my rape, and then read it daily, hurt like hell. And I started to feel vulnerable. But slowly reading it became, kinda, more mechanical. I started feeling more, blissfully, numb.

Last week I felt numb.

This week it has been full on rage every time I so much as start to read it. One sentence and I feel my blood pressure rising, pounding in my neck and temple. Nightmares are back. I feel tense all the time. I’m on that edge.

In CPT group today our fearless leaders (there are two) asked me what was under the anger that I’m avoiding feeling …. Well damn. Are we really going to go there?

Yep.

Not that I don’t have a right to feel anger toward my rapists. Not that the anger isn’t justified, because it IS. But what ELSE is there hidden under the anger? And I know what it is. I know because I’ve been stuck in this pattern for awhile now. I feel anger, and when I exhaust myself I feel depression. I know how to handle both of those feelings though I don’t particularly like either one. What’s under them is fear. But what am I afraid of?

What I can’t handle, what I avoid, is that big black sucking hole of hurt in the middle of my chest. Maybe I don’t know what to do with it. Maybe I’m afraid if I let it have it’s way it will overtake me. Maybe I’m afraid if I let myself feel all that pain I’ll never be able to feel anything else because I have so much in my life to feel that kind of pain for.

There’s also the vulnerability. Allowing myself to feel the hurt means allowing myself to feel vulnerable. Much as I don’t like feeling anger or depression, I REALLY don’t like feeling vulnerable. In fact, I would probably do almost anything not to be or feel vulnerable.

But I’ve been here before, processing other things. I know the only way out is through. I’m committed to the process, and to my own growth, even when I groan (real or implied).

So damn. Here I go again.

Suicide

I haven’t thought about killing myself in a long time. I spend time on Facebook talking with other veterans who sound like they are or may be suicidal. I try to get them to choose life. So you can imagine how surprised I was to find myself seriously thinking about getting my gun and eating it.

I wasn’t aware of feeling surprised until much later. I only felt a deep black hole of despair growing inside my chest, and the certainty that I would never be okay, I would never be unbroken, and the people in my life were better off without me.

It can sneak up on you like that. Even years later. Even after therapy. Even during therapy.

To be frank, I’m going through Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) group and individual therapy for issues related to military rape (MST) and post traumatic stress (PTS). I was writing the details of that rape for the first time when I spiraled down that dark hole of despair.

I was able to pull myself out. I have reasons to live, those who depend on me. It was enough to get me through. Others have not been so lucky.

Daily, an average of 22 of my sister and brother veterans successfully commit suicide. This has to stop. If you are a veteran and there’s any chance you may feel depressed or suicidal, please take the Spartan Pledge with me, or with your battle buddy:

spartan pledge

Next, if you can’t reach your Battle Buddy, or if you don’t have one, call this number (1-800-273-8255, press 1) and talk to someone, or go online to chat with someone at (https://www.veteranscrisisline.net).

Reach out. Please. Even if you don’t feel like it right now: you are valuable, you are lovable, you are worthy, you are wanted, you are needed, YOU MATTER … just exactly as you are right now.

Wars

It’s amazing what you can live with, and no one knows unless you tell them.

When you are maybe three years old your mother has a psychotic break and tries to pin your hands to the kitchen table with a knife in a game of chicken. Then she ties you to the foot of the pipe bed in her dark bedroom all day to keep you safe from her voices. You can hear her arguing with them, but you can’t hear THEM. Every time her footsteps approach the door it terrifies you and you fight to get your hands free but you can’t. You feel like a prisoner of her war. Your father finds you there one night when he comes home from work and you are scared because you peed your pants, but it’s okay because he isn’t angry. You don’t see your mother for a long time after that. When she returns she seems like someone else, like a robot. For the rest of your childhood she will mostly be this over-medicated zombie of neglect.
When you are four years old your father starts molesting you. You don’t like it. You don’t want it. But he talks about it as if it is something you do together, share together, want together. He tells you that if you ever tell anyone they will lock you up in a place like your mother went to, and they will never let you out. Over the years he tells you this a lot. He tells you you are crazy like your mother, that you imagine things. The older you get, the more you try to fight him off, the more he says this. He reads Detective magazines. The kind with graphic descriptions of women and young girls being raped and sexually tortured to death. He underlines the worst passages and makes you read them while he grins at you. Your body and your mind are his killing field.

Your father never keeps a job so you are always poor. He moves you around the country a lot. A different school every year. Sometimes more than one a year. You never learn how to build and develop stable relationships over time. The neighborhoods you live in are rough. Every time you move into a new one you have to let the biggest, baddest girl beat you up, because you are small and don’t know how to fight. It’s okay because as long as you have the guts to show up she ends up being your pal and protector, and you end up helping her with her homework. You feel like you are fighting in a war, but for what? You don’t know.

When you are sixteen, because you have found a way to make him leave you alone, your father tells you they are moving without you and you need to find some other place to live. Your mother is crying but she is helpless to do anything. You find a place. You survive. You beat the odds. You finish High School. You feel like you have won a war. You can go home. But you have no home to go to.

You join the military. Because you are smart and responsible they build you into a leader. They mentor you. They parent you. They sibling you. You develop confidence, self-respect, and belonging. You believe in them. You believe in yourself. They become your family. The one you never really had. You would do almost anything for them, for your country. You would die for them, for the whole country of them.

And then they rape you. Your body is someone’s war zone again. Suddenly you are a slut, a whore. You asked for it. It’s your fault. Be quiet. Shut up. Get over it. Shut up. Just get over it! But you can’t. Because everything has changed now. Everything.

Once again you are alone. But now you know it’s possible to NOT be alone. It’s possible to belong somewhere, to be part of something greater than yourself. Now the loss really hurts. You feel lonelier than you have ever felt.

And now you are broken.

You don’t know it’s called Military Sexual Trauma (MST) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They haven’t even named it yet. All you know is you can’t sleep. Certain things drop you into a cold shaking sweat. Memories hit you like a baseball bat across the face. You can’t stand crowds, or crowded streets. You have to sit with your back to a wall. You constantly scan for danger. You do perimeter checks before you can lie down at night. And god help the person that sneaks up behind you or touches you without warning you first, if you don’t see them or know they’re there. Sometimes a smell, or sound, or sight throws you right back there and it’s like it’s really happening all over again. You are fighting a war inside yourself, and your spirit has become the killing field.
It’s an invisible war because no one can see a missing limb. And no one wants to hear about it. No one wants to know. They just want you to get over it. It’s invisible because it’s fought against women, and believe it or not against men, in the shadows. Very few perpetrators ever see any prison time or even bad conduct discharges. Often, instead, they are promoted and moved, while their victims are processed out of the service with less than honorable discharges–making them ineligible for veteran’s benefits, including mental health services. It’s invisible because it’s swept under the proverbial carpet.

So you are also fighting a war with the patriarchy that wants to keep things as they are. The way that lets predators rape women and men and get away with it, while their victims are at best ignored and at worst criminalized in the military justice system.

There is also war in the moments where fear, duty, shame, courage, and friendship vie with each other: fire fights that scare the hell out of you and you want to run for cover but you know if you do someone depending on you will probably die, and in the split seconds you have to decide who you can save and who you have to let die, and …

The thing is, there are all kinds of wars and they all end up being fought on the inside of people, don’t they?