Aftermath (or The Joys of PTSD)

Within 24 hours of receiving my first wake-up call (Good morning, Kristi. I’m calling to inform you that you’ve been physically, psychologically and spiritually desecrated for the past five years. Have a nice day!), I freaked out.

Imagine what it would be like if someone told you that everything you believed about the past several years of your life was totally false. Not just a little bit off—more like a 180-degree reversal. And what if that person suggested that the man you’d given complete access to your body, mind, and spirit, the man you’d believed was teaching you about unconditional love (insert garbled choking sound here), was actually…um…evil?

You think you might go into shock?

Well, I did.

And then I did the only thing I knew to do: I started telling. And while telling made me feel oh so much better, it also made me feel really, really scared. Because I started to realize just how much power Dr. T had over me.

I became completely terrified of him.

For one thing, I was sure that Dr. T would somehow intuitively know that I had told. He’d claimed to be a little bit psychic (yes, really), and now I was convinced that he would telepathically know that I was going around exposing him, telling people what had been going on for the past five years. From my perspective, I was betraying him. I was doing the one thing I’d vowed I would never do. Imagining what would happen when he found out made me a nervous wreck.

Despite my overwhelming fear, I had the presence of mind to immediately gather every single piece of evidence I could find, take them to my bank, which happened to be in his neighborhood, and place them in a safe deposit box. I did this not because I was considering filing a lawsuit, but because I was convinced I was in danger. In case anything happened to me or my home, I needed the evidence of our involvement to be somewhere safe, where he couldn’t get to it. (I guess all those detective shows I grew up watching had some benefit after all!)

My paranoia escalated a couple months later, when I decided to file a civil lawsuit and my attorney mailed what he called the “love letter” to Dr. T, serving notice of my intention to bring civil action against him. When Dr. T got that letter, he would have undeniable proof of my betrayal. Oh man, was I in trouble! I felt like a little kid who’d betrayed her parent and was now anxiously waiting for the parent to show up and exact punishment. I was sure he’d want retribution for my betrayal. Every day I wondered when the shit would hit the fan.

I changed the locks on my doors and did everything I could think of to feel safe. I gave my neighbors a description of Dr. T (and his cars) and told them to be on the alert. I racked my brains, trying to think if I knew anyone with “connections,” but that sort of thing was outside the scope of my social circle. I even considered going to a local shooting range to do target practice. Mostly, I was just really, really careful.

Venturing into “Dr. T territory”—which was virtually any place I’d seen him or that held any kind of association with him—took all the courage I could muster. I scheduled errands for times that seemed “safe”— like when I was reasonably sure he’d be at his office or at home and not wherever I was. When I went to the grocery stores we both frequented, I always checked the parking lot for his car before going inside.

As cautious as I was, it didn’t stop me from having anxiety attacks. I’d be in the middle of the grocery store and suddenly start to panic and have to leave. Or I might be walking down the street of a shopping district where I’d once seen him, and feel so exposed and vulnerable that I’d have to dash back to the safety of my car and leave my errands for another day.

My fear that he would come after me wasn’t rational. (As one person said, “He wasn’t thinking about you before—he’s not likely to start now.” It was strangely comforting to realize she was right.) Yet my belief that he had the power to virtually wipe out my existence was, in some respects, quite legitimate. That’s essentially what he’d done to me for five years—destroy my sense of self and utterly devalue me as a person. My only value was as an extension of him. If I wasn’t satisfying any of his needs, I had no worth; I did not exist. Now, even though I was out of his clutches, I still believed that he had enormous psychological power over me. This scared the crap out of me.

Dr. T never did come after me. And, despite our living within a couple miles of each other, I did not run into him. (Thank you, God!!) I did, however, encounter his car on a few occasions, and that was enough to trigger a HUGE trauma response.

I happen to live on a dead-end street right off of a popular shopping district. During the first six months or so, Dr. T would actually park on my street to do his local business. I’d be walking up my street to do an errand or get some exercise, see his car, and stop dead in my tracks. I literally could not walk past his car. I’d immediately start scanning for danger (that is, him), then furtively make my way back home, call my lawyer (saying, “He’s on my street!”), have a nervous breakdown, and not be able to leave the house until his car was gone. (Once, I actually phoned a neighbor to go and check the street for his car.) I couldn’t deal with it. I’d sit in my house feeling trapped and further violated, shaking and sobbing. It often took hours for me to recover.

After my lawyer talked to his lawyer (I think the term “harassment” was mentioned), Dr. T eventually stopped parking on my street. But the damage had been done. I truly didn’t feel safe, not even in my own neighborhood.

* * *

Thus began my experience with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Complex PTSD can occur in people who have experienced prolonged periods of abuse and exploitation. This was how I felt on a regular basis: anxious, agitated, depressed, jumpy, panicky, irritable, angry, spacy, and constantly overwhelmed. I felt wired all the time and lived in a state of hypervigilance. I had intrusive memories, flashbacks, nightmares, and rarely slept through the night. I felt tense, had trouble breathing, and couldn’t seem to stay grounded. I was completely incapable of controlling my reactions.

I spent a lot of time in a hyper-reactive state. For the first couple of years, I got triggered constantly, especially by authority figures, know-it-all health care practitioners and, of course, anything related to Dr. T. Maybe a comment from someone I knew would set me off, just that little bit of pressure against one of my boundaries. Or something I saw on TV or read in a book could trigger a reaction—something about abuse or sex or manipulative control. (Though I have to admit, I did enjoy watching Dateline: To Catch a Predator every week.) Even just looking at a yoga magazine could do it. I’d freak out and start to panic—get really, really pissed off—or completely space out.

My trauma responses usually followed one of two patterns. If I went into panic mode, I would feel myself readying to fight or flee: blood pumping into my limbs, all unnecessary systems shutting down, my senses on alert, hyperaware, my eyes scanning for danger or an escape route. I’d start to sweat, my breathing shallow, then at some point I’d start to shake, go cold, pant…

Or I’d go into a more dissociative response: The pressure in my head would increase, my brain would fog over, and I would experience the tunneling effect of my peripheral vision shutting down, my scope of vision narrowing to a point directly in front of me. I’d start to leave my body and relocate somewhere in the upper half of my head. I’d be unable to focus clearly on anything mentally, visually, or aurally for several minutes.

Once I got triggered, it took a while for me to recover. Brain fog might clear in ten minutes or so, but if my sympathetic system got activated, it could take hours for me to calm down. Sometimes, I’d be upset about something for a couple of days or more, unable to release it from my system. I felt completely at the mercy of the trauma and my physiology.

It took a good couple of years for the symptoms to start easing up. Although I am much better now, nearly four years later, I continue to experience some PTSD symptoms. I still get triggered—particularly by power struggles or anyone who tries to tell me how I should be feeling or what I should be experiencing. Anything that smacks of a boundary violation makes me want to kick someone’s ass. (So far I have managed to avoid fisticuffs, but there’s still time…) I have to steer clear of much new age and spiritual philosophy (see my post “The Search for Healing”), though I can finally look at a yoga magazine without getting pissed off. (It took about three years to get to that point.)

On the up side, my trauma responses are nowhere near as severe as they were and it no longer takes days for them to move through my system. I feel much more resilient, thanks, I believe, to EMDR and careful attention to my health. While I am still quite sensitive and subject to overwhelm, my life is becoming more manageable.

Best of all, I no longer feel that Dr. T holds my life in his hands. His power over me has been broken. I still worry about our paths crossing, and I have yet to enter a store when his car is parked outside, but sightings of him and his car are easier to manage—agitating, but not devastating. Fortunately, I’ve avoided coming face to face with him (though there is something to be said for desensitization). I don’t know what would happen if I did. For now, I am content to remain ignorant.

* * *

For more information on PTSD and EMDR, please check out the links on my Trauma and Healing page. For information on Trauma and Complex PTSD, I highly recommend the book Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman, M.D.

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