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I Survived

*tw*: s*icide, mental illness, depression and anxiety, self harm, eating disorders, trauma

One year ago today, I woke up in the hospital. I never actually went to sleep, but I was in and out of awareness so much that I don’t remember much. So, when I was told I was being loaded into am ambulance and taken to a mental health facility, it felt like coming out of a restless sleep. I’ve never felt so helpless. By the time I was in the ambulance being transported to Ridgeview Institute, I was alone. My roommate who brought me to the ER left to go to bed not long after my partner arrived. Around 5am, my partner left to contact his job and re-situate his week based on the circumstances. No one actually knew where I was being taken or when. I couldn’t contact anyone. I tried to use my cell phone while I waited in an intake room in Ridgeview, but there was little to no reception. My iMessages went through as little green SMS messages as I attempted to give the name of my location to a few important people, including my partner. I had to read the hospital information off of my wrist band in order to relay it.

I felt completely lost.

Sometimes I look back on those first 24 hours after my suicide attempt and sincerely wonder how I made it out. My memories are spotty, but the things are remember are terrible, the feeling of loneliness and confusion being some of the most palatable. At the time, I didn’t have any idea how I had ended up in the hospital, both physically and mentally.

The things I initially pointed to as the causes for my attempt only scratched the surface. After all, it’s never about what you think it’s about.

My trauma was all connected in deeper ways than I realized, and I was only in a headspace to acknowledge pieces of it. I was just trying to survive.

In recovery, people talk a lot about survival. When we’re moving through or away from trauma, we often lean on unhealthy coping mechanisms to make it out. Though unhealthy, they’re coping mechanisms nonetheless. We do what we have to do to survive, even when it’s not pretty. My self-harm, panic attacks, disordered eating, and perfectionism have all been attempts at controlling my surroundings in unpredictable times. While I do my best every day to move away from these old habits, I am also grateful for them. They are all ways my body and my mind tried to protect me in survival mode.

In a triggered or traumatized state, all we can do is try to survive. And I did that.

My therapist reminds me on occasion that, even in the midst of my attempt, I advocated for myself. I got help. I went to the hospital. I did my best to tell my support system where I was. When I was being processed during intake, I asked for food because I hadn’t eaten in over 24 hours. Even in my worst moments, I was making decisions to survive. While, from the outside, attempted suicide, addiction, co-dependency, or stuffing down feelings might appear self-destructive, they are often evidence that a traumatized person is doing their best to survive.

It’s counter-intuitive, yes, that my suicide attempt was also a survival tactic. It doesn’t quite make sense. But my logical brain wasn’t in control, my trauma responses were. My overwhelming panic, sadness, grief, and shame brought me to a place where I could no longer move forward, like a remote control car running into a wall over and over. The best thing my body could tell me to do was to escape. To end the effects of trauma meant to survive them. Trauma Brain could not see any future beyond the trauma, so it told me to stop exhausting myself trying to overcome it.

Now, I’m no longer in survival mode. I can’t pinpoint when exactly I finally emerged or how long I had been there, but I know that now I’m able to do so much more. I’m connecting my sense of justice in the world to my desire for my story to be heard. I’m tracing my episodes of dissociation and panic all the way back to childhood, realizing that I’ve been working through trauma much longer than I knew. I’m working to separate intrusive thoughts, like thoughts self-harm and body dysmorphia, from actions, knowing that just because I think or feel something doesn’t mean I have to act on it.

Most of all, I’m trying to discover who I am, because I don’t think I’ve ever really known. I think I’ve just been searching.

Now is both a terrible and a wonderful time for self-discovery. I’m struggling with identity and value as they relate into my ability to be busy and productive. How am I supposed to discover who I am if I can’t do anything? But who I am is not only qualified by what I produce.

Who I am is deeper, and she can’t wait to meet you, now that she’s survived.

If you’re struggling with suicidal thoughts, self-harm, or other mental health issues, reach out and get help. You don’t have to do this alone. Find a therapist near you here. Reach out to an emergency hotline here. Text with a crisis counselor. Call a friend or family member. Your life matters.

Skinny

TW: body image, eating disorders, fatphobia

The first time I thought I was fat, I was in the third grade. I remember that my stomach stuck out, in the way that all little kids’ do – adorable and not concerned about a six-pack. I remember thinking that either there was something wrong with me or that this was what all my peers looked like and I just didn’t know it. While the truth was probably closer to the second option, I logged somewhere in my eight-year-old brain that I needed to do something about my stomach. “Am I fat?” I asked myself, as though that were the worst thing I could be.

Growing up, my parents taught me persistently about exercise and diet. I don’t fault them for this. As an adult, I’ve realized that not everyone learns about food as a child, so I’m grateful that my parents had me try a little bit of everything. I’m also grateful that they instilled in me a love of running, dance, and weight lifting. However, these teachings were not balanced with lessons about moderation. While I was afforded the privilege of a healthy lifestyle, I inherited a guilt about food and exercise. Certain foods were good while others were bad. Working out was a success and rest days were failures.

The first time I started intentionally restricting my eating was my sophomore year of high school. After spending hours looking at a fashion magazine, I sat on the floor of my bathroom one night crying and pulling at the skin of my stomach, disgusted by my own body. For months after that, I lied to my parents and my friends about my eating habits. I pretended to pack lunches for school but brought only an empty lunch box. I told my parents I was eating dinner after play rehearsal and told my friends I was eating dinner at home. I was proud of my self-control. I was proud of my jutting ribs.

I can’t put a finger on when I snapped out of this, although I arguably never did. At one point, I met with one of my youth group leaders who told me that I should be happy with my life and my body because of the joy God was supposed to bring to my life. Despite this unhelpful advice, I did eventually start eating again. However, my feelings about my body didn’t change. As a runner and a former dancer, I coveted skinny thighs and a flat stomach. Emerging from puberty, I began to realize that was not how I was shaped. My thighs became thick and my butt became round. I hated it. Every summer when I worked at a camp, wearing shorts and a bathing suit daily, I resorted to eating only salads and blueberries. Even in times when I felt healthy, I always found something to hate when I looked in the mirror.

My eating disorder returned with a vengance over the past few months. As I recovered from self harm, I found solace in this different but familiar addiction. It was then that I realized I had done the same thing in my high school years. The months after I overcame a period of self harm in high school coincided with that tearful evening in the bathroom. I was trading one trauma response for another. Anorexia was easier to hide and much more socially acceptable, so I turned to it for the sense of control I gave up when I left self-harm behind.

As trite as it sounds, I am still trying to learn to love my body. I am often frustrated by the fact that my dietary and exercise habits don’t result in my “dream body”. Weekly, I am seduced by diets and exercise plans and before/after photos posted by friends. I’m still not sure how to love my body, but I want to try. She has carried me through so much. She has survived assault from others and my own attempts to harm her. I am not angry at my eating disorder or my self-harm because they helped me survive. They were coping mechanisms in times of trauma.

As I try to move forward, I don’t know what this healing will look like, but I know it starts inside with with a small, scared, third grader who has the option to love her little tummy instead of despising it.

The Worst Year

TW: assault, abuse, self harm, suicide

This was the worst year of my life. It feels dramatic to say, but I know emphatically that it’s true. My second year of seminary in 2015 is a pretty close runner-up, but the struggles of this year reached a new level. I’ve never been so glad to see a new year come.

It’s also been a pretty rough decade if I’m being realistic. This decade began with an abusive relationship. I spent five years being told what I could wear, who I could hang out with, and what I was supposed to think. For half of this decade, I wasn’t my own person. I wasn’t myself. I had no way of being myself because I wasn’t given the space to learn who I was. I was the person he made me into. He gradually isolated me from family and friends. I had no one to rely on but him.

In 2015, after a year and a half of seminary, I was finally developing some of my own ideas, and those ideas began to reveal what a terrible situation I was in. I wanted out, but I didn’t know how to escape. My way out finally came, but only with more trauma. My first sexual assault ended my abusive relationship because I was blamed for cheating. My abusive partner doubted my story and became more angry than I had ever seen him. I knew then that I couldn’t do it anymore. I dealt with the fall out of my break up and the recovery from my assault at the same time. I still look back on that semester with amazement at how I made it through.

Things eventually began to turn around. I fell in love with a partner who treated me with respect and equality. I graduated from seminary. I found my first job doing something I loved. Just as things began to shift, though, they fell apart again. Last Thanksgiving, I was sexually assaulted for the second time. This compounded my trauma and left me with Complex PTSD. Instead of dealing with my symptoms, I pushed them down. I told myself that if I never thought about the assault, I could pretend that it didn’t happen.

All of this compounded trauma finally came to a head in the spring of 2019. I had started self harming again for the first time in 15 years. I was drinking more than I should’ve. I was lying to myself and everyone around me about how I was doing. I reached a point where I couldn’t do it anymore. I wanted out. My anxiety and depression were overwhelming, and I felt trapped. On May 21, 2019, I attempted suicide. Thankfully, I wasn’t successful. My roommate drove me to the hospital and I spent a week in the hospital followed by six weeks in an intensive trauma program.

I finally began to face the trauma of my assaults, my abuse, and the loss of my mother in early childhood. I realized how lonely I had been for most of my life. I finished the program on wobbly legs but ready with the tools I needed to live. My body was able to leave the state of emergency it had been in for years and finally breathe. It hasn’t been simple. A lot of days are still hard. There are mornings I have to choose to use the tools I learned in order to get out of bed. There are moments when I struggle not to blame myself for my assaults. There are times when all I can do is feel my emotions and cry. But I’m doing it.

I don’t know what this next decade holds, but I know it has to be better. I bought a house with my partner a month ago and we’re looking toward a future together. I’m writing more and becoming more serious about working toward publication. I’m dreaming with a friend about opening a bookstore full of adoptable cats. I know that making this new decade brighter will be work, but for the first time in years I feel equipped for the task.

Happy New Year. Happy new decade. Morning is coming.

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.