The Dream (Coping with Terror and Anxiety)

This morning I woke up from an intense dream that I’m sure was about the abuse.

I’d been with friends, family and a lover, sightseeing on an out-of-town day trip. I’d gone off on my own for a bit and returned to find they had all left, each probably assuming I was in someone else’s car. This didn’t really bother me, though I wondered how I was going to get back home. It was a long drive.

While I was hanging around the site, wondering what to do, someone mentioned that they’d heard on the news that there was rioting going on along the roads. Drivers were in danger. People were being threatened, pulled from their cars, attacked. I began to fear that it was my loved ones in trouble, not me.

Suddenly I found myself watching the “movie” of these so-called “riots.” What was happening was this: For some unknown reason, a bunch of people (mostly men) were going from car to car, house to house, terrorizing people—threatening them at gun- and knife-point, raping women, and making people do things, like sexual acts, under threat of being killed if they didn’t comply.

In one horrific scene, a group of these “terrorists” had about four or five people lined up against the outside wall of a house. The people were being forced (at gun- and knife-point) to engage in sexual acts while the men watched. The people were terrified. And you could see on their faces not simply fear, but a blankness; part of them had “left” in order to be able to cope with what was happening to them.

Then I was in it myself. I was coming out of a house where some friends were hiding when one of the “terrorists” approached me, waving a knife, or a gun, maybe both. He and his buddies were going door to door looking for women (to rape). He shouted at me, “Are there any women in the house?” I knew my female friend was in there. I couldn’t say yes but I was sure I’d be shot for lying. I told him no, but my voice quavered. I was terrified he wouldn’t believe me. The man was going to go in there, find her, probably rape her, and then come out and find me and kill me. I couldn’t think what to do. There really was no way to escape. I felt paralyzed.

The dream ended shortly thereafter. Nice, eh?

So what I was left with when I awoke was a feeling of horror and the memory of what it’s like to have to deal with an ongoing state of terror and anxiety. When you are in constant fear for your life and your sense of self, you can’t stay present for that. No one can function at that level of anxiety for long without needing to disconnect and dissociate from their body, their emotions and their rational mind. It’s the only way to cope. That’s how it was with Dr. T.

I never knew what was going to happen when I went to my sessions or we got together somewhere else. What kind of mood would he be in? How would he act? What would he do? What would he want me to do? What would I have to say yes to, in order to appease him? I feared saying no and risking punishment (abandonment, rejection, scorn, disapproval…), but complying could mean having to do something I didn’t want to do, something humiliating. I lived in a constant state of anxiety and threat to my well-being and my sense of self. I had no choice but to “leave.”

When your life is filled with that level of anxiety, fear and potential humiliation (either because you’re submitting to unwanted sexual acts or being punished for refusing them), disconnecting from your experience and making up an alternate version of reality may be the only way to get through it. In order to tolerate an intolerable situation, your best choice may be to leave your physical body along with that aspect of your consciousness that would otherwise be responding emotionally to what’s happening.

In this type of abusive situation, you can’t afford to have an emotional reaction. Like the people in my dream who were being threatened with death if they didn’t do as they were told, simply having an emotional reaction could get you metaphorically killed. You can’t even afford to think about what’s happening, because the humiliation and degradation you would feel about your own actions would be devastating. You have to just do as you’re told and not think about it.

And that’s what I did for about five years of my life. I did what Dr. T wanted and tried not to think about it, feel it, or react to it. I abandoned myself in order to save myself. It wasn’t the first time I’d done this—I’d reacted similarly in other relationships and situations, leaving myself in order to tolerate what I believed was necessary for love, care, approval—but never to this degree. At some point in my early life I seemed to have been conditioned to submit, comply, and not ask questions. Then I dealt with the unpleasantness of my experience by checking out.

You check out because you can’t deal with reality. But having checked out, “reality” no longer seems quite so bad. You become numb to your experience. And being numb means that you don’t know that you’re being violated on a regular basis. It’s easier to go along with things because you don’t feel them. To live with abuse is to live in a state of captivity. But if you check out, you don’t even know you need to escape. So the impulse to leave an abusive situation has to come from things getting enough worse that you feel it again, that you wake up and think, What the heck is going on?

Is it any wonder that now I’m obsessed with freedom? I am terrified of being trapped, held captive by someone more powerful, or having to sacrifice my sense of self for a sense of security. For me, freedom is my safety. And that has been wreaking havoc in my life ever since Dr. T.

Holding onto freedom and maintaining a sense of safety and control have become top priorities, to the exclusion of social engagements, new relationships, even work opportunities. While I desperately need to find stable employment and secure an adequate income, I rebel in the face of authority and I’m terrified of being trapped in a job I don’t like. So I cling to my incredibly insufficient, non-supporting self-employment status because at least it gives me a sense of freedom and control. I need to feel like I’m in control, not under someone else’s control. Still, whenever too many people need too many things at once, I panic, fall into a state of massive overwhelm and find myself unable to cope. Whenever any of my clients pull a power play on me, I react with an anger so extreme, so violent, that I become afraid of myself.

This is the legacy that an ongoing state of terror and “captivity” can leave on an abuse victim.

Dealing with the emotional and psychological issues of abuse is hard enough. Recovering from an extended state of disconnection and dissociation makes it a bit more complicated. I left in order to cope, but in order to heal, I have to get back in. And getting back in means feeling the fear and the terror and the humiliation of all that I went through. It means bringing sensation back to parts of my body that have been a bit numbed out.

It’s not a simple or easy process, and I’m still trying to figure out what works for me. And honestly, like many of you, I hate that I have to go through this. It really pisses me off.

So yes, dreams come and they’re not always pretty. I try to take those dreams as a sign that my unconscious is engaged in its own healing work. I believe that, over time, things are going to get better and hopefully my unconscious life will become a bit more peaceful. Hopefully.

For now, I think I’ve exorcised this demon of a dream. The morning fog has burned off, the overcast has lifted, and the sun is shining. I’m off to find my freedom for the day. I’m outta here.




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  1. “You can’t afford to have an emotional reaction.” That’s not just well put, Kristi. It’s perfectly put and, for me, even after all these years, so very welcome. Thank you for your strength and your ability to articulate these terrible truths. And thank you so very, very much for sharing them with all of us. God bless.

  2. Wow this is exactly how I feel. Your articles keep me from going insane with lonliness. I have so much rage that I went to this man for mental health and am now having to recover from so much more. Thank you so much. You write what I can’t put in words. It is brilliant.

    • Hi Jessica,

      Thanks so much for your comment! It’s interesting because, when I saw it, I couldn’t quite remember this post, so I went back and read it. And found again just how often I do this kind of thing in my life — check out — even without abuse.

      You check out because you can’t deal with reality. But having checked out, “reality” no longer seems quite so bad. You become numb to your experience…. It’s easier to go along with things because you don’t feel them…. But if you check out, you don’t even know you need to escape. So the impulse to leave … has to come from things getting enough worse that you feel it again, that you wake up and think, What the heck is going on?

      Whenever I don’t like my life, I check out. And then things don’t feel so bad and I get used to it — and then it’s hard to initiate change. This is what I went through a lot last year. I made an intolerable situation tolerable by checking out. And then I just stayed kind of numbed out. I need to check back in, find my way back to my body, my heart, my spirit, so that I can be truly alive again.

      I needed that reminder.
      Thank you!

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