Relapse

*TW*: sexual assault, self harm

A little over a year ago, I relapsed into a pattern of self-harm. Right after Thanksgiving last year, I spent the whole night on the phone with the crisis help line and watching Queer Eye with my roommate while waiting to hear from my therapist. I took nearly a week off of work.

I had struggled with self harm in the past. During high school, I saw a therapist for it. But I had been clean for over 12 years. I felt devastated and disappointed. I grieved what I saw as my ruined success. I didn’t understand why I had ruined my sobriety and pulled myself back under into a habit that I knew would be difficult to break again. There was a reason, though. There is always a reason we do what we do, even if it’s not evident. Usually, we’re reacting to life around us, especially when it has to do with trauma.

Last year, I survived a sexual assault right around Thanksgiving. Much like my first experience of sexual assault, my perpetrator was someone I knew. I’d had some drinks and still don’t remember much of what happened. It was so similar to my first assault, in fact, that I started to believe that everything was my fault. How could this happen twice? Maybe I was the one to blame.

If you’re thinking the same thing, I have a few things to say. First, survivors are never to blame. I own 0% of the blame for what happened to me. My perpetrator is the only one at fault. Second, people under the influence of alcohol or drugs that cannot remember what happened to them are not able to legally consent to any sexual activity. And, perhaps most importantly, there is never a reason or excuse for rape. I could be passed out drunk and naked in someone’s bed and it still would not give them the right to my body. My body is mine and only mine, and if I am not able to say a coherent “yes”, then I am saying “no.”

Before I was able to fully own this more freeing narrative, though, I packed down my shame. I didn’t talk about my assault. I believed that if I never thought about it, I might be able to forget that it had happened. I sort of mentioned it to my therapist once. I didn’t tell my partner or my best friend. I ignored my flashbacks and wrote off my spiked anxiety. And while I might’ve cognitively been able to forget somewhat, my body would not forget what happened to her. She knew what violation felt like and she was crying out for help. This is where the self harm came from.

While it seems contradictory to those who have never experienced it, self harm is often an attempt at control. Much like an eating disorder, self harm feels like it allows someone to control the pain that’s happening to them when they don’t feel like they can control emotional pain. Sometimes self harm occurs out of anger. Sometimes out of sadness. Sometimes loneliness. It’s safe to say that I felt a combination of all of those things. I felt angry at myself, sad that I felt imprisoned by this experience, and lonely because I was bearing it without any help.

Because I continued to box up and stuff down my memories of the rape, I ended up hospitalized last spring. And during my partial hospitalization, I was finally able to share my story. I grieved for days afterward. I had so many pent up emotions about it that it was overwhelming. But the release was what I needed to move forward.

I still struggle, though. I currently have 35 days clean. At one point in my healing journey, I had two months clean. So, all of this is still fresh, but I am beyond proud of the steps I’ve made. Each clean day is a victory. When I relapse, I have not started from the beginning again. Instead, I learn how to heal in an imperfect way and keep going.

Trauma Therapy III: Leaving the Hole

This is part III of a III part blog. If you haven’t read part I, read it first by clicking here. If you haven’t ready part II, read it by clicking here.

Once I reached the bottom of the hole, it was difficult to pick myself back up and find my way out. Everything was painful, but the pain had become comfortable. I was used to being raw. I didn’t know how to fold up the mess and prepare to get back to my life. My everyday life had become so encased in reviewing my trauma that I wasn’t sure how to go about my daily life anymore. I had done the work, but now I had to actually recover.

When I was hospitalized, I could tell the day I started feeling better because I started straightening up the common room. For nearly a week, I floated around, not particularly caring about myself or my surroundings. But two days before I was released, I threw out old papers that had piled up, organized the crayons and coloring books, and put all of the remotes in a little basket. That was the moment I knew that I was getting back to normal. While sometimes my obsessive organizing can be a negative sign, here it pointed to the fact that I was getting back to normal. The same was true in PHP/IOP but in a different way: I started mentoring other women.

New women arrived in the program each day, and I watched them go through the same phases I had experienced. When I saw them fighting the process, I called them out. When I saw them willing to be vulnerable, I celebrated. My recovery was no longer just about me but about the women around me as well. My therapist relied on me and other “old-timers” in the group to help guide new women who needed to let go and trust the process. I began to see that I knew everything the program had to offer, and that, if I stayed too much longer, I would start to go backwards.

This happens pretty often in recovery programs like the women’s trauma program at Ridgeview. We reach the bottom of the dark hole, we claw back out, and then we’re not sure what to do. For me, I was too afraid to enter back into real life, so I started crawling back into the hole again. The hole was painful, but at least I knew my way around in there. It seemed like a kind of strange Stockholm syndrome where my trauma was holding me captive. I started to feel comfortable in the misery and resisted returning to my old rhythms. I was different now and didn’t know how to negotiate daily life with my new tools. I knew how to negotiate trauma therapy, though, so I held tight to it as long as I could.

On my last day of the program, I cried constantly. I have always been a sentimental person, so I knew I would be upset about leaving all the women who had been on this journey with me. But it wasn’t just that. I was terrified. I didn’t know if I could do it. I knew I had tools and I had done recovery work to prepare me for being on my own, but I was afraid I was going to fail. I was scared that without the daily support of Ridgeview, I would end right back up where I started. What I didn’t realize was that, even when I messed up, it was impossible for me to go back to the place I had been in before.

Recovery isn’t linear but it isn’t circular either. Even when you mess up, you’re moving forward. Each time I relapse into self harm or have suicidal thoughts, I’m still learning about how to overcome those urges. Each time I have a panic attack, I make it through and I’m reminded that it will end. There are plenty of bad days, but each one makes me stronger. Everything that has happened in the past brings me to where I am now, so even though I’ve had difficult moments since Ridgeview, I can’t go back to where I was in May. I’m not the same.

The hole is still there, and there will always be more to work through, more to sit in. In fact, I am sitting in it right now. But the goal is to not avoid the hole for so long that it overflows again. I now have the tools to clean out the dark hole as I go. I will still be angry along the way. I will still sit and sob at night. But I’ve also witnessed my own strength and know that I can make it to morning.

Dear Mom,

It’s been 24 years since the day you left me. That seems like an absurd number, but I know that every year the number gets bigger. Each year, it feels like you’re getting farther away. I lose more memories. I live farther from the people who knew you. Most of the people in my life have never met you. Some of them don’t even know that you’re gone. With each deathiversary, I get more accustomed to explaining where you are.

The closer I get to your age, the more scared I am for myself. Joining a grief group has helped me to realize that this is normal. Most of us who have lost older siblings or parents assume we won’t make it past the age they were when they died, and when we do, we don’t know how to handle it. We never envision ourselves reaching 40, knowing our mom never will, but here I am. I still have some years before I reach 36, but the dread grows the closer I get.

A lot of people mark traumatic experiences, especially deaths, with “before” and “after.” This is how trauma survivors tell time. And while this is how I mark other events in my life, with you there was no “before.” The floaty recollections I have of you feel like another life, a dream, a made up story. My whole life has been “after.” For a while, I wasn’t sure what that meant for me, but recently my trauma therapist explained to me that my trauma isn’t in the fact that you died. I don’t remember it. The trauma of losing you happens over and over again, every time something happens that you should be here for and you’re not here.

I have more pictures of you in my room now to help me remember. I’m doing regressive memory work with my therapist to draw out old feelings and, hopefully, old memories. I mainly remember you taking care of me: scraped knees, bee stings, injuries of childhood. I remember you waking me up to lick the spoon from a batch of brownies. I wonder if you knew then that you didn’t have much time left, and that sweet memory would be more important than my 8pm bedtime.

Next to my bed, I have a tryptic of you, signing to me that you love me. I. Love. You. You smile back at me from a 90s hospital room every night as I go to sleep. And I know that you loved me. There are pictures to prove it. You stared at me with a look of deep adoration. But sometimes I get angry at you. I wish you’d left me more things to remember you by. I wish I had letters for each birthday or a recording of your voice reading me a bedtime story or a video telling me all the things you couldn’t tell a five-year-old. I know it’s not fair to ask for those things because I’m sure you did the best you could. I only ask for them because I miss you.

I’m not sure what I believe about where you are anymore, but I hope wherever it is, it’s peaceful. I hope you are proud of me, but I hope you don’t miss me. People tell me you’d be proud of me, but it doesn’t mean much. Even so, I try to live each day like you’re watching me. I look for you in crowds.

Love you always,

Brenna

PUBLISHED: In Parentheses

Two of my more recent pieces are published in Vol 5 Is 2 of In Parentheses. You can purchase an online copy or a print copy here.

One edit regarding the poem “teaching her a lesson.” The last line of the poem as written in this issue should be disregarded. It’s carried over from another piece on the previous page. The end of my poem is the second to last line. I have contacted the editor and they are working to make this change.

Trauma Therapy II: Sitting In It

This is part II of a III part blog. If you haven’t read part I, read it first by clicking here.

After about a week of trauma therapy in PHP, the work finally began. I stopped resisting and started being honest with myself about my experiences. I stopped trying to do everything right and started trying to tell the truth. Through this, I realized that the reasons I thought I’d been hospitalized weren’t really the reasons I’d been hospitalized. The things that I thought had tipped me over the edge were only the topsoil in a deep and messy hole. And the only way out was to sit in the hole and get dirty.

Because I had been in survival mode for so long, actually feeling my emotions was exhausting. I don’t like for people to see me upset and I don’t like to be vulnerable, but trauma therapy was requiring me to do both of those things basically all the time. After a day or two of this, I told my therapist that I felt like there was a gaping wound in the middle of my chest and the only way to feel safe was to curl up in a ball. She said, “What are you afraid is going to happen? You’re safe.” I wasn’t sure what I thought was going to happen if I let go and sat in it. In retrospect, I think it was the actual letting go that I was so afraid of. I had built my life around hanging on in order to survive. I thought I would lose myself. I thought the darkness would take me over. I thought my grief and trauma and shame would eat me alive. But, in reality, it had already tried and I had escaped.

I cried for a week. I cried constantly in group even if I wasn’t the one sharing. I bought frozen and prepackaged meals at the grocery store because I could barely manage to eat, much less cook. I laid in my bed and cried myself to sleep every night, overwhelmed by the amount of emotions I was finally allowing myself to feel. Plus, the loneliness of knowing that no one else can help you with your feelings is probably the most destitute I’ve ever felt. Some days, I felt ok during PHP because I knew others around me felt the same way. It was often when I left that I felt the most overwhelmed. When it was time to go home, what was I supposed to do? The answer was: nothing. I just had to sit there and feel terrible. I felt lonely and sad and overwhelmed, and you just feel it. I felt homesick for something I couldn’t identify and entirely umoored. And when I felt like drinking or hurting myself or ending it all just to make the feelings stop, I called someone to sit with you. And kept feeling.

After about a week of feeling all of this, I remember asking my therapist, “How long do I have to sit it in? How do I know when I’m done?” She looked at me and said, “I’m still sitting in it.” There will always be things I need to sit in and feel. It will probably never be as overwhelming as the second week of trauma therapy because I aim to never get to a point again where I have decades worth of built up trauma to process, but there will always be something. No one else could tell me when I was done sitting in it. I just knew. One night, I looked at a picture of my mom and sobbed for hours. After that I knew I had reached the bottom of the cave and it was time to find my way back out.

To be continued in part III…

Trauma Therapy I: Anger and Release

When I was first released from my week in an inpatient hospitalization program, I felt better. I thought I had figured out the reasons I fell so far off the edge and believed I had the all the tools I needed to start again. My problem, I thought, was that I had failed to properly use my support system. I had plenty of people who loved me and cared for me, but my perfectionism had been preventing me from letting them in to help. While this was true, this was far from the root of the problem.

Upon my release, I agreed to attend a Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP). Literally the day after being discharged from the hospital, I had to show up at the same hospital again and keep talking about my feelings. I didn’t think I needed to be there. My first day, I thought, “I’m way more well adjusted than everyone else. I’m fine. I’ll be out of here in a snap.” (Spoiler alert: nope.) That’s the thing about trauma, though, is that it tricks us into believing we’re fine. Rather, our maladaptive coping strategies trick us into believing we’re fine because it’s the only way we know how to survive. I entered into the Women’s Trauma PHP assuming I didn’t have any work left to do. But I was about to do the hardest work of my life.

The first three days of PHP, I played my perfected role of “good student.” I didn’t disrupt, I listened, I responded when asked but only when asked, I took notes, I was friendly to the other participants. I knew all the answers. However, I had no intention of digging in, asking hard questions, or being vulnerable. I thought if I said all the right things and filled out my daily behavior log consisting of no urges to harm myself or others, I could get out of there and get back to my life. I stressed constantly about when I would be able to go back to work. The more “good” I was, the sooner I could leave. Trauma therapists, though, see right through that shit. So, around day 4, my therapist starting pushing my buttons. Our therapists often discussed how the trauma program would trigger us so we could learn how to deal with our triggers in a healthy environment, but they also emphasized that this triggering was not intentional. It just happened as a part of being vulnerable and interacting with others. However, my shell was so tightly encased, that I have a feeling my therapist had no choice but to grab a stick and poke the bear.

I’m funny when I get angry. Most people yell, become aggressive, or get physically aggitated. I sulk. I think a lot of my issues with anger come from both the fact that I’ve experienced the pain that misdirected anger can cause and also from my relentless Good Girl Syndrome. Because I’ve experienced emotional abuse, I don’t want my anger to ever feel that way to anyone else. In addition, angry outbursts seem like a form of losing control, and if I keep my anger dialed down, I’ll still be able to be perfect. It turns out, though, I’m SUPER angry. If you know anything about the Enneagram, this really shouldn’t be surprising. I’m a 1, and we’re notoriously the most angry number. But we keep our anger boxed up inside to seem measured and controlled.

This is what I did in PHP. For several days, I sat in the corner of each lecture and therapy session refusing to make eye contact and refusing to participate. The program was making me angry. The people were making me angry. My therapist was making me angry. And I was in such a delicate state that it was getting harder and harder to keep all my anger controlled. My second Friday in PHP, I told my friend in the program, “I’m never coming back here.” Later we laughed about it, but at the time I was serious. Anger is the gateway to so many other emotions, like grief and shame, so it’s where many of us start our trauma work. The minute we started to feel angry, the minute our therapist knew she was finally getting somewhere.

I finally moved past my anger the day I shared in group therapy. I had shared in group before, but never anything actually vulnerable. The longer I sat in the program, though, the more I realized that, in order to begin my true healing process, I would have to share some things that I hadn’t shared with anyone. I was terrified. Every day as I sat in group, it pressed harder and harder on me that I wasn’t going to get through this program if I didn’t start being vulnerable. I would rehearse what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it when I was falling asleep at night. I didn’t even know how to make the words because I had spent so long trying to pretend that this particular thing hadn’t happened to me that I had started to forget about it. The fact that I had kept it shoved down for so long, though, was a huge source of my trauma.

One morning, I finally decided to share. I think, probably, I was so exhausted from being angry that I figured I had no choice but to let go and actually work the program. As I shared, I stared at the table in front of me, tears dripping off of my face, my breathing shallow, my hands clamped together in my lap. I felt no better, in fact I probably felt worse, but I had done it. Next came the worst part. The sitting in it. Our program therapist was very fond of telling us to “sit in it.” Because of my maladaptive coping strategies that I used to survive years of trauma, I had forgotten how to feel negative feelings and just feel them. Most trauma survivors, upon feeling negative feelings, use behaviors like substance abuse, self harm, avoidance, partying, or over working when we start to feel this way. We spend most of our time just trying to stay alive. In PHP, our therapist challenged us to feel without relying on these behaviors. She told us we were in a safe place to feel all of these emotions: we had mental health professionals around us all the time and we had a built in support system if we were unable to handle the feelings. The only way out was through.

(to be continued in a part II – there’s a lot to cover here, y’all. stay tuned.)