A hopeful and queer exploration of dual-diagnosis recovery: PTSD, eating disorders, addiction, depression, and anxiety
I’m a queer, thirty-something science journalist living in NYC with the best dog in the world, who rescued me from myself. I’m in recovery from dual diagnoses–anorexia, PTSD, alcohol abuse, depression, and anxiety. I also have a life that is much bigger than recovery-ish things.
I just met with my dietitian (these days, on FaceTime), and I told her I was reluctant to share something with her because I was afraid she’d take it and run with it. Well, I told her anyway, because it’s where I’m at today—where I’ve been at for nearly two weeks, actually.
I’m considering not losing weight.
I know, that doesn’t sound like much. But for me, it’s huge.
I still complained to her about not liking the shape of my face (it looks different now, since the last time I was hospitalized) in the little FaceTime box, and about the size of my [xyz]. But I said that I had this idea that, what if I stopped fighting my body, would I have a better life? Could I?
I told her I was just considering it, that I reserved the right to change my mind later. She said she’d take it and meet me where I’m at today. It’s a major shift she was pleased to hear about.
The strange thing is, this feels like an epiphany of sorts. Sure I’ve heard this idea before, but it never sank in as anything beyond an intellectual suggestion. It sounded nice, but it never felt like an option. Never mind fighting the professionals (which I sometimes did, and sometimes didn’t)—it just wasn’t a concept that I could wrap my brain around. I don’t need to lose weight? Cannot compute. Full stop. I have to lose weight. It was never even a question. It was an impulse, a need, a must.
I’m 35 now. I was last hospitalized for anorexia a year and 11 months ago. It’s been 19 years of this, up and down, relapse, partial recovery, relapse again…and again…and again. I’m tired. What if I could just be done? Accept that I don’t have a flat stomach, that I have boobs, that I have cheeks, that my thighs touch these days?
I still don’t really recognize myself. I’ve spent well over half of the last 14 years at a low weight. I don’t mean to brag or take pride—I just mean, I’m really not used to my reflection. I see myself, but it can’t be me—can it? I don’t live in the body of an extremely thin person anymore. I can’t see bones in the mirror anymore. And I think it’s too big, too fat, all of it. Body dysmorphia sucks. Is this really me?
I’ve been here before. And I’ve always despaired, this may be me now—but it won’t be for long.
But maybe, just maybe I could stay here. Have a better life. Maybe it’s time to let go of my relentless pursuit of extreme thinness. I don’t have to like my body, but perhaps I could learn to accept it.
I had a psych-ward-style breakdown this past December 2nd.
The rape happened on that date in 2012.
That’s given me eight years to get over it.
And I’m not over it at all.
My therapist helpfully pointed out that I was drunk for six of those eight years—implying that, perhaps, the healing will come in my recently-earned sobriety. Still, it’s disheartening to still be breaking down a full eight years later.
I was put on a safety plan. I couldn’t self harm. I had to feed myself. I had to shower and change my clothes each day. I was to call my therapist or 911 or go to my nearest emergency room if at any time I felt unsafe with myself. I was only tasked with doing the minimum to get by, the minimum to keep me out of a hospital. But the minimum felt monumental. Needless to say, I got behind at work.
Three days later, when I returned to therapy, I was on track with my safety plan. I wasn’t quite in a good way, yet, but I was getting there. In the three weeks since then, I’ve been picking up the pieces. I’m not in a hospital. That’s a success, of sorts. I’m not to my full functioning yet, but, by doing the next right thing, and by following the light at my feet—my two mantras—I’m getting there. I’m in a time crunch to get there too: I recently received a promotion at work, which takes effect next month. I’ve got to get it together. The pressure is on. I’m committed. Next month, I will be working two jobs, on top of my weekly 14 hours of intensive outpatient.
There is no statute of limitations for rape in the State of New York. That feels like both a blessing and a curse. I can heal on my own timeline; I can make decisions on my own timeline. But the thought of pressing charges also may never leave me, may never go to rest. It’s weighed heavily on me for some time now. Will it always weigh on me with such acuity?
The first three years I did not press charges because it was out of sight, out of mind—sort of. I didn’t call it rape. I didn’t think about it on a conscious level. But I rapidly declined after that night, diving into the depths of anorexia and alcohol abuse like never before.
It wasn’t until one evening when I was choosing an outfit for a double date with my then-girlfriend, and our friend her fiancé that the reality of what had happened that night came crashing down on me with full force. Among my options was a favorite dress, one that always won me compliments—and as I considered it, I realized that it was the dress I’d worn that December 2nd. The dress that he’d stripped me of, as I struggled to keep it on. Here, now, in my writing process, is where I freeze up. Here is where words escape me.
That was the first time I had a flashback to that night. I didn’t know whether anything objectively wrong had happened, had been done to me, but suddenly I was reliving the terror of that night and re-experiencing that moment of being stripped naked all over again.
I chose a different dress and bought two pints of vodka on my way to the train station.
My legs gave a block from the restaurant where we were supposed to meet for Harry Potter Trivia (which I always lose, by the way). Not because I was too drunk to walk—but because the memories were so overwhelming they rendered me paralyzed. I sat down on a busy sidewalk in Manhattan and sobbed. Passersby stopped and asked if they could help in any way. I told them that my father was ill, which was true.
After some time that way, I composed myself and texted my girlfriend an apology for running so late. I said that I needed a hug.
But when I arrived, trivia was over, dinner was over, and she did not want to give me a hug. Not only had I missed our double-date entirely; I had shown up drunk.
The memories of that night began flooding me from there out. I cried a lot. I drank a lot. I starved a lot. I got the dress dry-cleaned and tried it on, but it was still contaminated. So I shredded it with scissors. It used to be beautiful. Now, it’s in a landfill.
He wrote me an apology of sorts. That’s the gift he gave me: a piece of evidence. Without it, I’d have no case. In a sick way, I am lucky to have this piece of evidence.
Please don’t tell me I’m lucky to have received an apology that many will never get, though. (I’ve been told that before.) He was only saying it because he wanted to see me again. Do that to me all over again.
Besides that, the apology wasn’t for what he had done to me or taken from me; it was for a “misunderstanding.”
Did he misunderstand my cries of no and physical struggle? I digress.
Back to today. Eight years since the rape this month. Two years sober next month. And still crying in therapy like this is something new. Still single and unable to date because the thought of physical intimacy sends me back to that night. I’m sad. I’m lonely. I want to heal. But I haven’t yet. Will I ever?
Ever since I looked up that “apology” email he sent me some years ago, and realized I had some evidence better than my word against his, I have thought that I want this old man to be locked up for the rest of his life, for him to die in jail. I don’t want him to die; but when he does die, I want it to be in jail where he belongs. I want to protect other young women like me from him. I don’t want him on the streets of Manhattan or teaching in a classroom.
Here I am, eight years later. I wish I could forget him. Does he ever think of me? He needn’t. I was unremarkable to him. But me, he changed my life.
I’m triggered badly whenever there is a high-profile #MeToo case in the news. I’m grateful for this movement, grateful that it’s becoming acceptable to speak out about what’s been happening far too long to far too many women. We finally have a dialogue, language.
But I think a trial might kill me.
A year ago at a nice dinner I told a friend that I had decided I would press charges one day. She took my hands in hers and asked me not to. She said I didn’t want to drag my name through the news in that way.
I was hurt. Aside from wishing she would read a “How to support a friend who’s been sexually assaulted 101” guide, or “what not to say to victims of sexual assault” tip sheet, she reaffirmed for me what people think. That’s what she thinks, and she’s my friend. And that’s what a lot of people think—maybe even most people. That I shouldn’t do this.
Of course the thought of ruining my name has plagued me. But even more than that, I don’t know that I could face the defense as they assaulted my character. Or describe in graphic detail exactly what was done to me, to a room full of strangers, to a jury who would decide whether they thought I was telling the truth or not.
I am already afraid of running into this man in the city. What would happen? I freeze up in therapy when I try to talk about this. Here, I have frozen up while writing several times. But to see him in a court room? I very well may collapse.
A trial might break me.
And so, I’ve thought, I’ll table this for now—but when I’m healed enough (please, please tell me that’s possible), when I feel stronger, then I’ll press charges. Then I’ll lock him up. But if I ever feel that kind of peace or recovery, would I really want to open this up again and relive that night all over?
These are hard questions I can’t answer now. There won’t be a statute of limitations. The email isn’t going anywhere. But the memories I relive, I wish they’d disappear.
“Mountaineers, however, always find themselves a reserve of power after great exhaustion. It is a kind of second life, available only in emergencies like this; and, having proved its existence, I had no great fear that either of us would fail.” John Muir
I’m telling myself it’s the election. I’m telling myself it’s sleep-depravation. I’m telling myself, please, please, that the trauma won’t all come crashing back. I’m telling myself that the progress I made this summer at The Refuge won’t be undone. I’m telling myself I’m strong. I’m not going to regress. I cannot afford to regress.
This started Friday night. I had memories about my ex sexually abusing me.
That night I had nightmares about my mom beating me.
The next day, it was the professor who raped me, sober, on a date—that will be eight years ago this coming December 5th. I dread December 5th.
That same day, Saturday, was Halloween. I shouldn’t have gone out. I had forgotten that Halloween is probably the hardest day of the year for me. My friend and I went to phenomenal outdoor dining in Midtown Manhattan, sharing mussel shooters, kale and goat cheese and pomegranate salad, and lobster curry with just a touch of heat. Blueberry mint mocktails. Then we left the restaurant and immediately passed, amid girls in stilettos and tiny cocktail dresses (and masks of course), a life-sized decorative fake skeleton. Why the fuck do people find that festive; who ever thought that was a good idea?
I am a child of just eight years. I am standing before a massive, gaping, steel crematorium. My sister, a head taller than me, is at my left hand. Our stepfather: above us, six feet tall. And stretched out on a platform before me and my sister, beneath him, but nearly eye-level to me, is a burnt body—crumbling white and black bones, a woman, her remains not yet ground down. I will never forget her face—but God, I wish I could.
A mortuary is not a good place to raise children.
I can’t let the memories make me sick again.
I can’t let the election make me sick, either.
And I can’t let myself burn out again.
I met with my psychiatrist today for the first time since my brief drinking lapse in mid-September. I needed him today. You see, From September 16th to December 5th are a series of trauma anniversaries for me.
After we met, about half an hour of flashbacks later, I was straight for my prescription anxiety meds that I am careful not to abuse. I’d been squeezing my eyes closed, covering my face with my palms, and repeating aloud to myself, It doesn’t matter doesn’t matter doesn’t matter. It’s in the past in the past in the past. Doesn’t matter doesn’t matter…
I tried to lie down, having stayed up late last night even though I had promised myself not to turn on the news until today. But lying down—that has never been a safe position for me. I feel vulnerable, helpless. I feel it’s happening all over again, right now. My wrists held down, my body thrown around. Degradation. Shame. And pain: above all, pain.
My psychiatrist and I talked about a lot today. I prepared a list in advance.
I just received a promotion at work. I learned of the possibility three weeks ago; and yesterday it became official. I’m excited. I’m looking forward. I’d throw myself a sober party, were we not in the throws of a heartbreaking pandemic. But also, I’m worried. I cannot afford to burn out again.
Like John Muir found, I need to summon a reserve of strength, not only to power through the next week before my big presentation at work, but also to survive the anniversaries coming one right after another. Two down, plus Halloween; and the next, this Saturday. I cannot afford to let the memories break me anymore. I need to smash this presentation; everyone important will be there. But I am not ready.
I’ve found it difficult to focus. I’m not listening to my dietitian. I’m worried about my weight. I’m smoking a lot and drinking Monsters. I know I shouldn’t do these things. But my feelings are overwhelming. My to-do list is mountainous. I’m under a lot of pressure—some of it external, but most of it I’ve put upon myself. And I feel headed straight toward burnout.
My psychiatrist reminded me of this pattern: I get a promotion, I do great, then I burn out and crash. He encouraged me to say “no” at work. Then he reminded me of my running.
I’m a marathon runner, although I’ve not had a race in a few years due to injury after injury. He asked about my pace. I wasn’t sure where he was going.
“9:35 was my best half marathon pace, but,” (now I’m sheepish and embarrassed), “a full I’m more like 11:35. Maybe 12. More like 12.”
He reflected to me that I can’t run a full marathon at a half marathon pace. He encouraged me to pace myself, to slow down. I’m running a marathon here. Life is a marathon, not a half. I must reserve my energy, or my legs will break down.
I had come asking for relief from trauma, and his suggestion was to slow down. Slow down.
It’s hard guidance to follow. But he’s right, like he always is. Just get through the next week, I’m telling myself. In one week my presentation will be over, and then I can breathe, regroup.
Through this next week, I will rely upon that great reserve of power that John Muir found found on that mountain amid a storm. Then, I will slow my pace.
My wonderful A.A. sponsor assigned this letter to me, as my homework for Step 1. Step 2–FINALLY, after two years and two months of A.A., is next! It’s about damn time! I have some feminist qualms with A.A., but I’ll save them for another day. Today, I’m in the practice of taking what helps and leaving the rest.
To Alcohol: My Ex-Lover, My Only Comfort, My Savior, My Demise and Devastation,
When we began our relationship, we were only acquaintances. You were good to me the first six years, in the beginning. And I stood in the right by you. You marked my transition into adulthood. I remember how, with you, for the first time in my life, I had the experience of feeling beautiful.
As a child I did not have friends in school. I was bullied in middle school. Then, in high school, I finally had friends; but I was an awkward and tall teenager who was never asked on dates. My pants were too short—“Still waiting for the flood?” my friends joked. I exuded confidence, though I felt anything but that. Later, a male friend would tell me that he had had a crush on me, but that I was too intimidating and too smart to ask out. Then another told me that. Then even a third. Perhaps I had been likable all along, but nobody had ever displayed any romantic interest in me…until I met you.
I had lost quite a bit of weight. I was an introvert at a prestigious university full of introverts, at a school known for not partying. If you want to party, don’t go to my school, the college guides said.
And so I didn’t party. Or not much, anyway. Usually I shared you with the company of just a few friends, or at a dive bar with a small dance floor. You made me feel social, made me feel warm and relaxed, encouraged me to dance. You quieted my social anxiety. We had a great six years together.
You helped me ease into the queer community until I could call it my own and really claim my place in it, and come into my sexuality. I remember my first party, with an old high school friend who was studying at Pepperdine, where being gay was unacceptable. He had found this whole underground network of gay boys, and he threw a big gay party in his apartment. I remember staring all night at how beautiful his roommate, Hailey, was. She had long blond hair and was wearing a top that showed just a little of her midriff and lower back. I didn’t know I liked girls; thought I just wanted to look like her—but now looking back, I remember that first night drunk as being the first time I was aware of my attraction to women. We took Jell-O shots. We drank Malibu rum straight. Lemon drop martinis. At the end of the night, I was checking the breathing of a guy passed out on the bathroom floor—perhaps a warning I did not heed. As far as parties go, I’d say it was a successful first. I was twenty at the time. And I knew that that warm, social, sexy feeling was exactly how I wanted to feel for the rest of my life.
Not long after I met alcohol, I fell in love with a beautiful girl. We were attending intensive outpatient for eating disorders at our university’s research clinic together. We hated the program. (And to be fair, it was awful.) So we dropped out. We’d dress up and go out to bars in Pacific Beach, San Diego, where guys would buy us drinks in hopes for a kiss. She, a year younger than me, would wait outside the grocery store while I bought tequila and rum, then she’d pay her half and we’d take it back to her apartment where we’d take shots of tequila chased by lime and mix margaritas and rum with Diet Coke. We’d dance to top 40 songs. We’d sit on the carpet and talk about everything under the sun. I don’t remember our first kiss, but it came completely naturally to us—when neither of us had ever been with another girl before. We experimented. We fell in love.
Drinking helped me come into my sexuality. Trepidatiously, I accepted that I was attracted to women, although I wasn’t sure what that said about me or my future.
I was purely a social drinker from twenty until I turned twenty-six. I suppose we had a good six-year-run of it. I drank occasionally during college and after, but only every couple of weeks. When I turned twenty-four and began commuting to Los Angeles is when I began partying. I’d grown up in poverty, and suddenly I was surrounded by people who had money, the wealthy even, and what’s more, they accepted me into their circles. We drank all over Beverly Hills, Hollywood, West Hollywood, and Hollywood Hills. I had a sense of abundance. A sense of belonging. A sense of wonder and ease and beauty and hope.
No, that’s not quite true. It is easy to equate the perfect picture in my memory with how I might have felt. What I remember most about those years, in addition to the drinking on hotel rooftops in tiny cocktail dresses with models, taking shots around my friend’s fire pit and sharing intimate stories, sipping on mojitos with sugar cane sticks while clubbing with gay boys and tipping drag queens—what I remember is my deep depression at the height of my anorexia. I was literally dying—I was considered emaciated by medical standards, my resting heart rate a dangerous 36 beats per minute. I was running half marathons and training for my first full. Running late at night in hopes I’d get murdered, because all I could think about was suicide and ways to keep myself from it, because I couldn’t bare to hurt the people I loved in such a profound way. It wasn’t just for the people I was drinking with. It was for friends across the country and even all the way in London who loved me. It was for my nieces and nephews—especially them.
I packed my schedule to the brim until I was totally exhausted between the long work hours at the startup nonprofit I was directing, the time I spent with my boyfriend, my miles and miles of running, my Los Angeles commute, and so much partying. I remember when I stopped being an adorable “lightweight,” all xxx pounds of me, and could match anyone’s drinking—even the boys’. I remember how I began to get impatient for my friends to finish their drinks so we could order another round. Mostly, I remember how much I wanted to die.
I can almost pinpoint the moment I became an alcoholic, the moment I crossed over from partying and social drinking, to an utter dependence upon alcohol. Although now, looking back, the signs were already there—the need to escape the depression and despair, the impatience for my friends to empty their glasses because mine was already finished, the looking forward, counting down the hours, to when the workday was over so I could just unwind with my friends over wine or over vodka—and these days, let’s be honest, it was becoming more often vodka than wine.
My already-shaky world came crashing down in a trifecta: First, my therapist, whom I’d been forced into seeing while I treated her with disdain, threatened to involuntarily hospitalize me if I did not begin eating. Second, my sister was misdiagnosed with stage IV cancer and given less than a year to live. Third, I broke up with my boyfriend, who had been sexually and emotionally abusing me for more than six years. I was wholly heartbroken. So heartbroken I thought I might die from the pain. And so, in the unfurnished apartment my sister had helped me move into, I bought myself a housewarming gift: a bottle of Absolut, and some diet ginger ale. I sat on a pillow in front of the heater and sobbed and sobbed, and drank and drank, until my sobs subsided, my eyes drooped, and then I awoke to a sharp burn from falling asleep against the heater. I’d swig more vodka and then crawl onto the futon my sister had given me, only to wake up at 7am and begin another long day of working, driving, running, and partying.
From then on I poured through the bottles of vodka every night when I got home in the same routine: crying on a pillow in front of the heater, drinking vodka, eating tofu, falling asleep, awaking to a burn, then swigging more vodka and climbing under my blankets. Repeat. Repeat. I began eating a little more to narrowly avoid the hospital, and drank the pounds back on in this way as I trained for my first full marathon.
And that is how I seemed to have traded anorexia, my “good girl problem,” for a “bad” problem overnight: alcoholism.
That was just the start.
I was fully in love with all parts Hollywood—East where I lived, West where my queer friends lived, and the estates in the Hills. It is easy for me to romanticize Hollywood to this day. If I think about the real beginning of alcohol and me, I think about Los Angeles and the warm lights there, the openness and smiles of its people, the farmer’s markets, the beaches and the palm trees and the sunshine. The glamor. In many ways it was glamorous—or at least it began that way.
But it became ugly and dark quickly. The nonprofit where I worked went out of business, and suddenly I found myself unemployed. I attempted suicide, impulsively one night, under the influence of a bottle of white wine and who knows how much vodka. I’m lucky I survived. Those scars I’ll never be able to get rid of.
The next morning I woke up alive, bandaged myself, and picked up right where I left off. I went to a massive party with one of my best friends, got drunk, and made out with a beautiful girl, who was a figure skater and a model. The dance floor cleared around us and spectators commented on how “hot” we were together. My world was crumbling, and I was lucky to be alive—but drinking, could it save me? Alcohol was my only comfort.
My dog came into my life just a week later, a stray in bad shape who showed up in my driveway. She literally saved my life. Though suicidal still I was, I hugged her and promised her to always stay alive to care for her. I promised her that I would never leave her. At times it has been a hard promise to keep, but it’s one I’ve stuck by.
With encouragement from a trusted mentor, I packed up and moved to New York to follow my dream of working in publishing, with no more to survive on than unemployment benefits and a little money from the car I sold—a sporty little manual BMW that I loved, although it was old and not worth much—my only income. I arrived in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and was stranded in a dangerous part of Brooklyn because the subways were still flooded. During the days, I applied for jobs and ran and ran and ran with my dog—but mostly what I did was drink. This was when whiskey entered the picture, which I never much cared for—but I would drink all my vodka and find myself needing more late at night, so I’d steal my roommate’s Wild Turkey Whiskey from the freezer, and replace it the next day. Every single night I’d blackout this way. My weight was dropping again and I found myself bingeing and purging on the cookies he kept in a high kitchen cupboard, and this pattern seemed inescapable as I’d always have to replace the cookies, so they were always there. Running, vodka and whiskey, and bingeing and purging on Keebler’s cookies marked my transition to New York.
Then I was devastated again. While preparing for interviews, I was raped on a date, sober, just a month after I’d moved to New York. I didn’t really process this or realize what had happened, but I continued to drink and drink and starve and binge and purge.
This is how my pattern of drinking and blacking out alone was solidified.
I landed my dream job as a junior editor at one of the largest academic publishing houses. My career was taking off, and my drinking was still worsening.
I didn’t seem to have any serious consequences from my drinking for my first three years in New York, aside from always having “mystery” bruises, which I could rarely recall getting. I went out to bars with editorial assistants and always left the drunkest of everyone, and it was a great time. They adored me and my bubbly personality that came out when we shared fishbowls. I was incredibly likable, and incredibly thin. But my drinking didn’t end at the bar—I’d go home and drink more until I blacked out, only to scramble out of bed late the next morning to start the workday over again, my thoughts slow and never as sharp as they could have been.
There were many instances that should have flagged the end of my drinking once and for all. The night I came close to death stands out as my clearest marker. I was visiting my sister—my best friend, who had turned out to be safe from the misdiagnosed cancer—for a family reunion on my paternal side. We were drinking margaritas that night, as we had both graduated from robust Napa red wines (not strong enough). Suddenly a conversation about gun control turned deadly. As I tried to explain why I could not own a gun because I feared I would turn it on myself (were it even possible for me to obtain a gun in New York), without admitting to my suicidal feelings—we ended up in an argument. She assassinated my character, saying all the things she knew would hurt the worst in the way only someone very close can. She went to bed and I went to bed, but I could not overcome my sobs and fall asleep. After an hour of crying, I’m told, I grew quiet. This was when, without thinking, I grabbed a knife from the kitchen, propped my foot on the counter, and began slashing my inner thigh. I did not plan this; it was merely an action, an impulse, a need as urgent as pulling a hand from a flame. In my memory of this incident, there is lost time. The next thing I knew, I was in a screaming ambulance, struggling and fighting the EMTs to stop touching me in such a private place. I received thirty stitches and two bags of fluids and was placed on a psychiatric hold. I was devastated and terrified by what I had done. The EMTs told my sister that I had missed a major artery by a hair, that I was lucky to be alive. And had our other sister not found me and dialed 911, I would have bled out.
I was shaken, but I chalked this down to a one-off after a terrible fight. I made no resolve for abstinence, let alone moderation.
I needed to drink. And so I drank.
I did this for years, seemingly keeping things together, until a series of sexual assaults devastated my mental health and I began to have trouble at work from the PTSD symptoms. I’d drink and drink and drink to try to control my panic attacks and flashbacks and wipe out the memories, but I wasn’t succeeding. I was jumpy at work and afraid to go out after sunset. This is when I began changing jobs before losing them, and I successfully applied for promotion after promotion for a few years in a row, building up a resume that looked like I was excelling and rapidly climbing the publishing ladder on an annual basis, when really I’d just change positions or companies every time the shit hit the fan with my work performance. I couldn’t get to the office on time because it was impossible to get out of bed, and I was crying and panicking and startling badly at my desk. Although I was drinking to cope with my PTSD and depression, it was only making them worse.
One of my best friends told me she was in love with me somewhere during this time, and we became a couple, although I was very unsure about this. When our leases were up, we moved in together along with a friend. We had always matched each other’s drinking at bars and parties, so it seemed we should be compatible; but when we moved in together it became very clear very quickly that I had a problem and she did not. She could stop drinking, but I could not. She became distant from and cold toward me almost immediately; our relationship never stood a chance with my alcoholism. At the end of our lease, we parted ways, our relationship thoroughly demolished and our friendship beyond repair. I regret this to this day.
During our time together, the consequences of my drinking became more clear than ever, because now I had a witness to them. I was breaking down into puddles of tears often; and, as I always wanted to be alone when I cried, I would buy two pints of vodka and drink them in solace on my way home after dark, then sit down and collapse into still more sobs on the sidewalk. Sometimes I was able to make my way home after composing myself, but oftentimes I could not walk, and I’d be there until someone found me and helped me get home. Twice an ambulance came. Other times men came and kissed me and touched me everywhere and I hated myself for this.
I began drinking during the day several months into my job as a senior editor at another major publisher. I was miserable at work and life in general and could no longer wait until I got home to drink. So at lunch I’d go to a little Irish pub a few blocks away and order two or three Long Islands, until I felt like I was numb enough to be able to continue my day.
I was also living paycheck-to-paycheck, and when I’d run out of money, I had three liquor stores who would give me vodka on credit and wait for me to pay them back on payday. George, a family man, owned the Astoria liquor store on the corner where I lived with my girlfriend. During my weekend long runs, I’d stop by to say hello and make small talk, then in the evening would make my purchases. He was randomly murdered one day by a young man. His blood from the stab wound covered the store in wide pools, which was condemned as a biohazard. Through the window I could see that it was months before they cleaned up the scene. I started dreaming of the blood, and “seeing” it behind my eyes during the day, and crying at his loss, until I began a new medication that calmed the flashbacks and stopped the bleeding.
I was truly helpless to this substance that now completely ruled my life both day and night.
When my new company began putting things in place with Human Resources to fire me, I went on disability leave and began searching for another promotion. During this time I came down with ulcers and was in bed for weeks, but this did not stop my drinking. I had to drink—by this time I was physically dependent on the substance and would go into delirium tremens without it. I remember lying in bed, clutching my stomach in agony, then propping myself up and retrieving a giant bottle of Absolut (which I now kept at my bedside), chugging it, doubling over and wincing in pain, then repeating until I’d had enough to make me drunk, while my stomach felt like it had daggers in it. If lying in bed on disability and drinking straight vodka on ulcers is not powerlessness, I don’t know what is.
Several doctors and endoscopies later, I was on medication for the ulcers, and warned against alcohol, but even that could not stop me.
My stepfather died during this time, and I was devastated. Rather than honoring his memory by taking care of myself, I drank my way through my grief. For months and months and months the grief seemed boundless. I was never able to properly grieve because I stuffed down my tears with alcohol.
Within a month I had landed my absolute dream job as a very senior editor at a small publisher that was female-empowering (compared to other publishing houses, which everyone knew were old boys’ clubs). I found myself managing world-renowned journals. I excelled at first, grief-stricken though I was, and they loved me. But soon enough I began coming in late to work and hungover, and I was being disciplined for my tardiness. It was not long before I began drinking cocktails at lunch in a little Thai restaurant again.
I had enough money to just barely afford my own apartment by now, which was a relief because I couldn’t have roommates with the way I was drinking. My previous roommates had given me a number of ultimatums. My new studio in the Bronx was closer to work and was a place I could call my very own—but those were about the only pluses. I couldn’t walk outside without getting catcalled. Then it soon became apparent that my whole building was absolutely infested with roaches, and there was nothing I could do to get them under control. And now that I was alone, I was drinking even more than I had before, if that was possible. It soon became that the only things I did were work, cry, drink, and sleep. The apartment quickly got out of control and became a disaster: it looked like a place where a suicidal alcoholic who did nothing but drink, cry, and sleep lived, which is exactly what it was. I was not walking my dog regularly, so she was defecating in the apartment and the place reeked. Words cannot convey the filth I was living in.
Meanwhile, when I ran out of money, I had a new liquor store that would give me pints of cheap vodka and bottles of cheap wine on credit. But the man who gave me them would stroke my hands when I paid and blow me kisses and ask me out every time. I thought myself a whore, but enduring his advances and touches seemed something I had to do for my substance.
I had tried to get sober a couple years earlier through an intensive outpatient, and I lasted a full month before I gave in and relapsed. During that brief period of sobriety, I picked up smoking cigarettes. Now I found myself getting wasted in the apartment, then walking downstairs to smoke on a bench by the park across the street from my complex. Here gross men would approach me and kiss me and touch me everywhere, and I was too drunk to stop them. I always hated myself and drank even more because of my self-disgust.
I thought my bottom was losing my dream job where I was managing world-class journals and being groomed for leadership in a female-positive work environment. After just nine months there, they realized that I’d been drinking on the job, and, after a series of mistakes, they fired me on the spot. I was devastated. Without an income or health insurance, without my health or dignity, thoroughly depressed and plagued by trauma memories, I lost any hope I had left. I could not keep my promise to my dog to stay alive.
That’s when a series of miracles began to occur to get me sober. I had begun seeing a new therapist who specialized in addiction at a sliding-scale, and she found me a plush detox to go to on scholarship. They, in turn, found me a celebrity-class rehab to go to on scholarship. They also found me a sober companion on scholarship to fly to and from rehab with me. I could not believe the gifts I was being showered with. I’m told that these scholarships are rare—but others seemed to see value and potential in me that I could not.
Rehab was a wonderful experience, and I was filled with hope and peace for the first time that I could remember. The program was based on the Twelve Steps, which have been a great resource in my sober journey. There, we went to a tropical beach every weekend to build happy sober memories. My new friends and I snorkeled and pointed out all the colorful fish and urchins. But a month after discharge I relapsed, drinking a little one day, and then more and more progressively by the week. I was not prepared for the real world where I was struggling to find a job and my search seemed more hopeless by the day. My mother was supporting me by a string, tight though she was—and I was running out of time before I had to leave New York and, it seemed, give up all my dreams. I began making plans to end my life, despite my promise to my dog. Within a month, jobless and without hope, I was back to blackout drinking. My reasoning was, if I wasn’t going to be alive for much longer, then I may as well be drinking.
I lost my dog one night in a blackout when it was just 12 degrees outside. This was my true bottom. To this day I have no idea how it happened. Fortunately she was not outside where she could have died a freezing death—she was in the hallway of my building. Someone called the police and she was taken to a shelter, where I was able to get her back the next day. This is when I resolved once and for all to quit drinking. Losing my job was one thing, but losing my dog was on a whole new plane, worlds worse. I would choose my dog over my job any day. That was when, two months after leaving rehab, my sobriety really took off. With the lessons I gained in rehab, and the skills I was developing in my new intensive outpatient program, which was entirely evidence-based, I managed—with great difficulty—to stop drinking. I’ve had some slips since then, but have remained mostly sober since January 30, 2019.
There’s so much more I could say, but this is enough, for now.
So, alcohol, this is the end of us. Although you were fun for a time, and you helped me find my queer community, and then helped me cope with painful emotions and trauma memories for some time more, in the end you robbed me of nearly everything. You took many friends from me. You took my health and my career. You fed my depression and fueled my PTSD, which you were supposed to be helping me with—but in the end you only made them worse. I became entirely reliant on you, and I prioritized you above all else—above my friends and family, above my career, and above even, it turned out, my dog. You enabled multiple sexual assaults and rendered me too compromised to fight back or look after my own safety. You compromised my health and devastated my finances, which I am still working on recovering. You made me a bad friend, girlfriend, daughter, sister, and aunt. You took and took and took from me. You left me with grotesque scars I’ll never be able to get rid of. My life revolved around you, and all my plans I formed around the question, how soon can I start drinking? I gave up all my hobbies because all I cared about was drinking—no more running, no more reading, no more painting. I was living under physical conditions that no human should live in. You made me dishonest. You made me gain weight. You made me hate myself.
In my time without you, I have been rebuilding a life that is more beautiful than I could have imagined. I am finding possibilities open up to me in more and more ways. The temporary relief and escape you brought are no longer worth the devastation that comes back one-hundred-fold. I am done with you. This is my final goodbye.
I’ve been a part of an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) at my outpatient treatment center for about a year now. We always open and close with a mindfulness exercise, and this afternoon we revisited one we did quite some time ago. I like it when we repeat ACT groups I’ve already practiced before, because I almost always see growth from the time I last had the same guidance.
Today we focused on self-compassion. I teared up the first time we went through this exercise, and I did again today, just a little. We answered some questions that have been well-researched, and I scored “low” on a “self-compassion” scale—but last time I scored “very low,” so I’ve made some progress—and going through the questions, I see that they stuck with me and I have been working on the items with diligence. I am making strides forward.
Here I’ll walk through and reflect on today’s closing mindfulness exercise.
Allow your eyes to gently close, letting yourself connect with the breath. Noticing the inflow and outflow of breath, like an old friend that’s always there, inviting you to sit with them here and now.
At The Refuge—A Healing Place this summer, I learned that I am a “reverse breather,” meaning that I breathe expanding my chest first and then my stomach, while healthy, grounded breathing happens in the opposite direction. Reverse breathing, I was told by my “breath work” counselor (more on breath work in a future post), is especially common in those with PTSD, and also in those with eating disorders. The why for eating disorders makes more sense to me—I was constantly holding in my stomach, so self-conscious was I. The why for PTSD, as it turns out, is because part of the physiological fear response includes shallow breathing.
Since I learned this, I have been working on expanding first my stomach, and then my lungs on my in-breath, although this does not feel natural or come easily to me at all. Here, as we open the meditation, I focus on breathing correctly. I feel grounded. I feel okay, maybe.
Imagine that you can stretch you awareness back in time, through your life, to the earliest time you can remember experiencing struggles in your life. Maybe from there you find there’s a thread that stretches back further to a more innocent time where you couldn’t see the ways your life would take shape. It is almost as if the you that is here, now, could stand alongside the you there, then. Take a moment to notice the expression on their face, their clothes, and their posture. Notice the pain and challenges and discomforts that this younger you will have to go through to get to where you are today. There is nothing you can do to save that younger you from having to go through that. Stand by that younger you as you would a good friend and say, “I know…”
Here I connect with how very sad this meditation made me feel many months ago, perhaps even a year ago, the first time I did this activity. I see a little girl with messy curls dressed in a too-big tie dye t-shirt and jeans, with poor posture, who smiles only rarely. She is strange, different from the other kids. She has a speech impediment, and the other kids mimic her voice. She has obsessive-compulsive disorder that compels her to perform rituals that frustrate her, yet she must. She is morose, obsessed with death. She is in the third grade. She has selective mutism—that is, she speaks at home, but refuses to in school.
And it is hard for me to like that little child of eight.
She is being exposed to horrors at her family’s mortuary. She is experiencing abuse—emotional, verbal, physical. She is visibly troubled. When she and her big sister are adults, her sister will tell her that she was clearly in need of help, professional help, even then. She won’t receive that help until she turns eighteen and seeks it out herself at her prestigious college.
She is already in pain, she is already fearful, already lonely, already hurt and mute. But there will be so much more.
She attempts suicide around the age of nine, a juvenile impulse. Had she gone through with that, she would have saved herself so very much future pain, years and decades of it. But, she would have missed beauty, too.
She will see her family torn apart. Her mother will cut up the only portrait of all seven siblings in pieces when she is a sophomore in high school. She will lose her grandmother, her teacher, her stepfather. And she will grieve each of these losses deeply. She will become anorexic; she will become alcoholic; she will survive two more suicide attempts that successively become more severe. She will be asked to model runway shortly after one of these attempts, but her scars will be too severe to accept the offer—her body too flawed, and she will feel ruined. She will be sexually abused for nearly seven years by a sadist of a boyfriend; she will be raped on a date; she will be trapped by a man in a London hostel basement. She will fall in love, only to have her heart broken. She will go to rehab one, two, three times. She will be locked in a psych ward. She will be force-fed. She will continue to know the depression she has always known. Her anxiety will skyrocket. She will despair that perhaps life never will be worth it.
She will become an excellent student. She will practice falconry and study photography. She will win California state science competitions. She will travel the world. She will volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, in an aquarium classroom, and at wild bird rehabs. She will move to New York City. She will have a successful career as an editor in publishing, and then launch a second career, this time in science journalism. She will be a manager. She will be a favorite auntie. She will see her family forgive, come back together, and love again. She will become an endurance athlete, running two triathlons, twelve half marathons, and five full marathons. She will have a loyal dog as a companion. She will have deep compassion and empathy and hurt when the world hurts, and celebrate when the world celebrates.
In this moment, I stand by her, and I say, I know.
And connect with the fact that this younger you has within them the same thoughts, emotions, urges, that you are working on today. Perhaps seeing that younger self, almost as if you were a camera watching from the outside.
Allow yourself to hear the voice of that younger you saying the thoughts you may have told yourself so many times before. Knowing that younger you is doing the best they could. Seeing if you lean in close to that younger self and whisper into their ear, I know what that is to have that. And almost as if your consciousness was like water that you could pour into your younger self, and experience what it is to hear the acknowledgement that someone knows what you experience, how hard that can be.
That child of eight, that curly-haired girl, felt so, so alone. None of her peers knew death the way she did. If they were abused, they did not talk about it. They were better communicators than she was. They had more friends than just the one she had.
But she always did her best. She was always kind and tender-hearted; perhaps too sensitive, but deeply caring. Her best enabled her to survive. Even her self-destructive coping mechanisms did, too.
I know what she felt like. I take her hand, and I say, I know.
And, allow that image to dissolve. Imagine you can stretch your awareness forward in time to see an older, wiser you. A you that is living the life you deeply want to be living. Notice the expression on the face of this older self, their posture. And looking into the eyes of this older self, maybe you let yourself tell them your fears and worries about moving forward. And, in return, hearing that older, wiser you look back with kindness and say, I know what it is to have that.
My wiser self is older than I am now, although what age, I cannot say. She’s had some promotions by now and is no longer a junior journalist. She has a relationship and maybe even a little girl, whom she protects fiercely and helps her grow with all the support she needs. My future, wiser self doesn’t care what her family thinks about her sexuality. She is financially secure. She travels and immerses herself in other cultures. She is still learning and will never stop learning. She loves her friends, and she loves her family. She keeps a garden. She is content, maybe even happy.
I want to tell her that I am still afraid. That my past has not been worth living, but I want my future to be one worth living, one with more joy than pain, one free from self-destructive behaviors. I want to know freedom. I want recovery from mental illness. I’m not sure if that is possible, but I want that, I so want that.
And she tells me, I know.
Let that image dissolve and return your awareness to the breath. That old friend that is always there inviting you to sit with them. The same breath your younger self felt, and the same breath your older, wiser self will feel. Noticing your position amongst the other people here. Perhaps taking a moment to see we are all on this journey. Perhaps offering a kindness to each other in this moment, knowing each of us has looked at the fear that comes with change and the pain of difficult histories. Perhaps offering out a sense of, I know what it is to have that. And, allowing your eyes to gently open, settling back into the room.
Here, now, I almost feel that maybe things are going to turn out okay.
Friday post inspired by Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection—TGIF: what I’m Trusting, what I’m Grateful for, what Inspires me, and how I’m practicing my Faith.
What I’m trusting
I’m trusting my heart. I’m trusting that, despite so much uncertainty in the world, empathy and compassion will prevail. I’m trusting my support—friends, family, mentors, and helping professionals.
What I’m grateful for
I’m so grateful to have received an excellent performance review this week. I have been worried about my performance since day one more than a year ago, as I simply have not been at my best, no where near what I know I can do. Still, less-than-perfect seems to be pretty good in my manager’s eyes! I am grateful, too, to have a manager I can learn so much from—not just professionally, but also in terms of emotional and spiritual intelligence.
What inspires me
My dog inspires me, the way she lives in the moment, and is working on her resurging separation anxiety and learning to trust again and be secure in herself. She is learning to climb steep stairs all by herself, even though at first she was too afraid to climb them and cried for help. I want to be able to climb steep stairs too, even when I don’t think I’ll be able to make it.
How I’m practicing my faith
I’m working on listening to my intuition. I’m making a life-altering decision, and I’m trusting that I can listen to my reservations without being strictly pragmatic. I’m trusting that there is something bigger than me at work that means my intuition is worth something, that I can even trust it. I’m going to move forward with my difficult decision because it feels right, even though it doesn’t make perfect sense. Perhaps I’ll tell you about this decision later.
Here’s a post just for funsies. I felt so loved this summer to have dear friends sending me weekly emails of support. Here is the latest from Melissa R., who has been one of my best friends for FIFTEEN years now—back when we were technical writers. You can bet that if ever I marry, she will be a bridesmaid. She not only drove us both to work where she led up our team, but also to my dietitian appointments. But more than that, she has stood by me as an incredible friend even during the hardest times when I have sometimes not deserved it. She reached out to help me when I was in my sickest with my anorexia, but I batted her away—and still she stood by me, despite the pain and destruction I was causing all around me. She knows me in and out, and has been there. Other letters she wrote included musings on dinosaurs, sustainable architecture, and the progressive-for-her-time Lucille Ball.
Hello dear KC!
Once again I’m behind in writing to you this week. I started school this last week so my life hasn’t had much excitement, but I have found so many advantages to masks, beyond protecting people from COVID. This week we got hit by an early snow storm. It was 99 degrees on Saturday and then Monday night it dropped down to freezing rain, and then snow late Tuesday night into Wednesday. Crazy, right? That brings me to my first mask advantage:
1. It keeps your face nice and warm while running, shoveling snow, walking the dog, basically any outdoor activity. Stephen, and I’m sure many other men, is not growing a beard this winter because it hinders mask-wearing. But with a mask, he doesn’t need the beard!
2. No longer do you have to worry about odiferous situations in public. I’ve found the greatest advantage being around cigarette smokers, (seriously, with vaping, why are stinky cigarettes still a thing?) garbage trucks and by extension cans left out on trash day, diesel fumes and burning oil and gasoline.
3. Picking up after the dog is slightly less unpleasant. Joey starts doing the poopy dance and I pull up my mask. I still catch a whiff now and then if the wind is right, but it’s worse without a face covering.
4. Public restrooms. I’ve never been a fan, and now with COVID I don’t go out very often and can’t say this is one in which I have personal experience, but there’s always that public restroom air. I would wear a mask just to use the bathroom at museums, zoos, or even stores if it was necessary.
5. You’re going to think me crass, but we’ve all been there. Think of all those times you’ve needed to pass some gas but you were worried someone in the vicinity might smell it. So you try to saunter your way off to some quiet, well-ventilated corner. Well no longer! With everyone in masks, it’s much harder to smell!
I should publish this for all those stupid nay-sayers out there who follow the orange man’s example. If they don’t believe the virus will kill them, or at least have long-lasting and devastating effects on their health, and they don’t feel the need to respect the health of others, they can at least do it for one of the reasons above. Number 5 may be the only one that convinces smoker, non-dog owners who live in moderate climates and don’t mind public restrooms.
Be safe my love. I’m thinking of you constantly, even if it takes a while to get your emails written, you’re on my mind. Love,Melissa
Something significant came over me not long into my stay at The Refuge—A Healing Place this summer, where I sought residential treatment for my PTSD. I began listening to upbeat music again. Music that used to make me feel good, but that I came to find far too stimulating as I fell into a deep depression and my PTSD diagnosis went from severe to acute during the weeks and months leading up to entering more intensive treatment—after COVID-19 had reached the United States. I live alone save for my amazing dog and a gentle pair of doves, but the isolation of quarantine was too much for me. I plummeted. And those favorite songs turned into noise to me. So my playlist turned into prayerful songs that gave me hope for hope (which is different from actual hope) but also made me tear up. The music was slow. Some of it was sad. Particularly, Les Mis was sad.
At The Refuge, a friend reminded me that I loved Taylor Swift. I began to listen to her, and even sing along quietly when I was alone. And then I started thinking about the music that had made me happy in high school—some of it ridiculous yet fun (class of ’03 here), and some of it classic—songs that my big sister and I used to blast in her old manual car as we drove to and from school and all about town. She loved Tom Petty. She loved Cat Stevens. She taught me to love them, too.
When I revisited Cat Stevens, I was startled. In a memoir-writing class I had taken with Gotham Writers in Manhattan, the professor told us that music was a great way to bring us back deeply into memories, in detail and emotion. As someone who wrote my one published essay to an album of Lana del Rey, this made good sense to me.
And did Cat Stevens ever bring back memories! I was only looking for a boost; not for a journey back through my high school years. But the songs transported me. Stalling on the hill on the way home; taking the freeway to avoid that same hill; driving to the lake, which was our rural “beach;” and the old gold rush trails in the mountains—all with my sister, who was my best friend. We’d turn up the music and sing and sing. We played it loud even after we blew the speakers. In those moments, I felt free.
Free. I had been exposed to trauma from the time of my earliest memories, straight up to the present, chronic and severe—and I would experience, too, sexual trauma when I turned twenty. But before my twenties, I was already traumatized, although I hadn’t language for it at the time. Also during those years, I felt pangs of young love—unrequited, that is. I felt pressures to succeed in school, to go into the college of my parents’ choice. I was ashamed of my eating disorder and kicked off my anorexia at the tender age of sixteen. Then there was 9/11. Then my peers were off to Iraq. One of them died—my first kiss’s best friend. Another, the class clown, would show up at our high school reunion ten years later, incoherent in his incessant, disorganized speech; dirty, smelling of body odor; and begging everyone for wine. We shook our heads—he had been transformed, devastated by the war. What had happened to the young man of our adolescent years?
Ever on a quest to be stoic, tragedy all around me, I criticized my emotions and dismissed them as “teen angst,” even then.
Yet how could our adult sadness for our war-torn friend and our lost friend be less valid than our adolescent terror for all our friends going off to war not long after, one by one, they turned eighteen? How could the first love I ever experienced mean less than a date so fun and with such chemistry that I’m filled with hope for something meaningful today? And how could my trauma today mean more than it did when it began?
Listening to Cat Stevens’s Greatest Hits and Tea for the Tillerman there at The Refuge, and again now as I write this (just as the memoir instructor had suggested using music to take us back), from song to song I feel a different emotion, a strong emotion—emotions of the past, all present again. They feel real today, so mustn’t they have been valid then, too?
Wild World makes me think of singing with my sister in that old Ford. Can’t Keep It In reminds me of old hopes and my endless love of learning. Morning Has Broken brings back my love of nature and my birdwatching quests, nurtured from a very young age.
And then I stop, really stop, at Father and Son. I feel I might tear up. In this song, Stevens masterfully plays both parts of a father and a son, in alternating voices—one old, and one young.
Father: It’s not time to make a change. Just relax; take it easy. You’re still young; that’s your fault. There’s so much you have to know. Find a girl, settle down; if you want, you could marry. Look at me: I am old, but I’m happy. I was once like you are now, and I know that it’s not easy to be calm when you’ve found something going on. But take your time; think a lot; think of everything you’ve got—for you will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not.
All the parental pressures of my teen years come crashing back to me. During my senior year, my mother and I argued daily, screaming over my decision to attend a university other than Brigham Young. My father dismayed that I wouldn’t find a good husband; my mother lamented that my decision was a poor reflection on her. These were my life decisions; and my mother and father did not accept them. I stood at a crossroads with zero support.
Son, in an octave higher: How can I try to explain? When I do he turns away again. It’s always been the same, same old story. From the moment I could talk, I was ordered to listen, now, there’s a way, and I know that I have to go away. I know, I have to go.
I’m younger now. There is a family crisis. My mother is raging. My siblings are disowned. My father wants me to live with him. Over and over I make the decision to live with him, to escape the chaos…yet over and over I am persuaded to stay. I remain surrounded by death.
The interlude makes me smile. Here’s where my big sister and I play the air guitar.
Then the father repeats himself, and I again hear the stern voice of my father, and my mother’s screaming—both so disappointed in who I am becoming.
Son: All the times that I’ve cried, keeping all the things I knew inside. It’s hard, but it’s harder to ignore it. If they were right, I’d agree, but it’s them they know not me, now, there’s a way, and I know, I have to go away. I know I have to go.
Now I could be eleven, when my father first asks me to be his latchkey child; I could be fourteen, during the time my siblings are ostracized; I could be seventeen, preparing to leave for college. What I remember now is years and years of needing an escape, but never finding one.
Anorexia was an escape, somewhat. Later, alcohol. But nothing could erase my pain. Nothing could erase my traumas.
The emotional memories these songs fill me with—how could my present emotions mean more today than they did back then, simply because of my age?
My depression, anxiety, and disturbing nightmares were as real then as they are now. The PTSD I experience today because of experiences from years past means that those events were as traumatic then as they feel today.
Growing up is hard work. Learning who you are is hard work. Early romance is hard. Families are hard. And trauma is always hard.
Listening to his greatest hits today, Cat Stevens evokes so much in me. Maybe we shouldn’t dismiss what teens feel. Maybe they are already “living in the real world.” And we should listen to them.
I would rather be a survivor who was victimized. But I’m just not there yet. I’m not sure if I ever will be.
Really, I’d prefer to throw the whole survivor/victim dichotomy aside.
The common narrative goes something like this:
Stop playing the victim. Nobody likes a victim. Be strong. Be a survivor.
In other words, it is imperative that you identify as a survivor, not a victim. That I identify that way. Only survivors are welcome here, or anywhere.
Before my PTSD diagnosis, I had never considered myself a victim of anything—domestic violence, child abuse, relationship violence, sexual assault, battery, rape. Before, I didn’t have language for these difficult experiences I had lived through. The first time I heard the word “victim” was at the police station as I poured over hundreds of mugshots. I overheard one detective tell another that “the woman here was a victim of sexual assault.”
The words sank in. Was it really assault? Was I really victimized?
The experience of reporting in itself was retraumatizing; but I’m addressing the original trauma, the assault, here.
As I decompensated that week, that month, and over the coming years, it became clear why I’d been suffering from panic attacks since the age of 20, and nightmares for as long as I could remember. The panic began to be accompanied by flashbacks, so realistic that I swore I was reliving incident after incident, as if they were happening all over again. None of these were things I’d forgotten; but things I’d been stuffing down with anorexia and alcohol. Memories I hadn’t given much thought to suddenly hit me with their full weight and devastation. Suddenly I became acutely aware of my triggers. And there were so many triggers. There were the more obvious triggers, and then the benign ones like certain colors or words.
My psychiatrist used the words post-traumatic stress disorder to describe what I was experiencing.
I found myself frantically reading articles and books about consent. What did “consent” mean, and, more importantly, what was it not? It took me a long time to be able to use the word “rape” to describe what had happened to me. Sometimes that word still feels unthinkable. It’s a bad word, to me. It’s often hard to say it.
Most days over most of the years that I’ve struggled with PTSD, I haven’t felt like a survivor. I felt like I was being victimized over and over again. There is a phrase, “PTSD isn’t that the person won’t let go of the past; it’s that the past won’t let go of the person.” This sums up my experiences so well; and all the trauma research shows what the people who want me to “just get over it” and “leave it in the past” and “let it go” don’t understand: that trauma changes our neurobiology, and the alarm systems in the brain become quick to set off, even when it’s safe. The memories are intrusive and unwanted—not something I choose to recall. And so, when I can’t control my brain or my fear response, or keep the memories from intruding, when my PTSD symptoms are debilitating, as they often have been—during these times, I don’t feel like much of a survivor. I don’t feel healed enough or resilient enough to call myself one.
I don’t understand why “victim” is a word we have to take away from people. Perhaps many are just so uncomfortable with the concept that there are people in this world who are victimized by criminals and predators.
I was a victim at the hands of multiple men. That is an accurate description.
And I have survived multiple traumas.
I understand the sentiment of calling oneself a “survivor.” I understand that it can be an empowering word for many to claim. But too often I feel that I am still reliving the painful experiences of my past. Too often I feel that my brain has been so hijacked that I’m a victim all over again, in this moment—and this is something outside of my control, not of my choosing. My biology won’t let me forget or move on.
I have been thinking about writing my thoughts about the language we use around sexual assault for a long time. Just now Googling “survivor vs victim” for the first time, the results come up with not only conservative explanations of “victim culture,” condemning the use of the term, with a strong smell of victim-blaming and rape apologists. But it also reveals that others are far ahead of my question, wanting to reclaim the word “victim” as nothing bad or wrong, but simply a reflection of reality. “Survivor” implies a perfect healing; even making something good out of a bad situation. Um, there was nothing good about what happened to me.
In her essay “I’m Not a Sexual Assault ‘Survivor’—I’m a Victim,” Danielle Campoamor expresses my feelings eloquently and thoroughly. “‘Survivor’ paints a misleading picture of victimhood and healing,” she writes, “promoting a super-human response that encourages victims to ‘get over’ an unspeakable violation.” She also discusses how the word “victim” has been warped into a derogatory term, while “survivor” does not allow for the too-often ongoing suffering and grappling and haunting that someone victimized can experience.
I would answer, nothing. The person who is wrong is the rapist, not the person who has been raped. Let’s place blame where blame is due.
A friend of mine confided in me that she was “a recovering rape victim.” Somehow that phrase resonated with me, and I asked her about her choice in using the words “recovering victim” instead of “survivor.” I asked others on a sexual abuse forum as well. The responses were varied and thoughtful, with people having their own reasons for the words they chose, sometimes even choosing both. Both, either/or, or neither should all be valid ways for an individual to identify. Let’s not force language on an individual’s experiences, on my experiences.
For now, I choose to call myself a recovering victim. I don’t think anyone has the right to tell me otherwise. I don’t think anyone has the right to choose the language I use for having lived through horrific events and violations, often at the hands of other people. I’m not claiming a special status. I’m not relishing in anything. I am just accurately describing my pain. I’m not holding onto the past; the past is holding onto me; and recovery, for me, has been painfully slow.
The word “survivor” leaves a bad taste in my mouth, when imposed by others. It feels dismissive. It doesn’t acknowledge my reality that I am reliving bad things over and over, and that this is outside of my control. It implies that there is a mandate on, parameters around, the healing process. It implies that I am a better person than I feel like I am.
What if I don’t feel resilient? What if I don’t feel like I’m a good person? Can there be room for me? Can I struggle with my feelings and symptoms without having a time frame in which I should step up and “get over it”?
I’m much closer to the idea that I might consider myself a survivor today, after two months of PTSD inpatient and residential treatment. I’ve made so much progress. I feel renewed. I feel hopeful. Before I left home in June, I did not feel any hope. I still need more healing, but I’m finally getting there, or at least moving forward.
I am a lot of things day-to-day. Some days I feel broken, contaminated, dirty, ruined. Other days I feel strong, hopeful, competent, creative. Most days I am some combination of both. But one thing is certain: I am forever changed. And no one can change my reality.
I’d like to start a Friday post inspired by Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection—TGIF: what I’m Trusting, what I’m Grateful for, what Inspires me, and how I’m practicing my Faith.
I’m TRUSTING that I’m on the right path in my healing journey. I’m trusting my treatment team, my friends, and my family. I’m trying to cultivate an attitude of trusting that I am exactly where I need to be right now—and trusting that I’ll continue to grow and heal.
I’m GRATEFUL for the time I spent at The Refuge: A Healing Place this summer. The Refuge is a trauma-specific residential treatment center in Florida, where I spent a month (following a not-so-great month at another facility) working hard on healing from my PTSD. During quarantine, my mental health really plummeted. I was crying nearly every day, and panicking and having flashbacks absolutely every day, and spiraled to the point where I wasn’t functioning well. The Refuge turned out to be an amazingly helpful program, although it was tough work. I am also thankful to be spending this week with a dear friend of 15 years in Fort Lauderdale. I mentioned something to her a few days ago that she said she’d never heard me say before—something traumatic from my past—and I stopped and realized I could hardly believe I’d said it out loud, let alone wasn’t panicking. Then, today on my way to coffee I walked by a funeral home. I stopped and paused and regarded it and didn’t panic or get even a little upset, when normally this would have triggered me badly. Wow, I thought—the trauma has really lost some of its sting.
I am INSPIRED by the medium of watercolor. I have a lot to learn, but I’m finding it very soothing, and I have some great beginner’s books that are helping me with techniques and layering the colors. I am excited to have discovered this—I was only curious, and now I’m getting really into it!
I’m practicing my FAITH by reading, reading, reading. A friend at The Refuge gifted me the NISV version of the Bible; I am learning tarot; and I’m currently reading The Places That Scare You by the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron.