Post traumatic stress disorder is a tricky mental health disorder. You can be going about your day-to-day life fine, then BAM, something triggers you into a dissociative state. It is difficult to heal from PTSD when you feel like the threat is still present. How can individuals with a history of sexual assault heal when day-to-day sexual harassment still occurs? Can a child heal from the trauma of physical abuse when still living with the abuser? How can a veteran recover from deployment when the neighbors are outside target practicing for deer season? Despite research, counseling, and being a practicing clinician, I do not know the answer to this.
One of my favorite authors, Roxane Gay, compiled an extremely powerful book titled, “Not That Bad.” This collection features story after story of sexual assault. Each story has one thing in common; someone in the victim’s life tells her/him about how the assault could have been worse. Time after time, victims of assault are told, “You’re so lucky you weren’t killed,” forcing us to shift our perspective of what happened. Yes, we are lucky to be alive. And yes, it could have been worse. And yep, something worse has happened to someone else. Really, what happened to us was “not that bad” when compared to others. But I think it’s also ok to focus on the horrific, gruesome aspects of what happened. I feel that if we only focus on what we should be grateful for, we aren’t giving ourselves credit for surviving the trauma. If we don’t acknowledge the bad parts, we won’t be able to heal.
I am 32-years-old and can easily identify the three most traumatic things that have happened to me: a sexual assault and two separate home invasions. Three in 32 years really doesn’t seem “that bad.” I am lucky to be alive. I have a really, really good life and I am incredibly happy. However, I recognize that the “not that bad” narrative can be dangerous for me and others who have a PTSD diagnosis. There is significant value in healing at a comfortable pace and healing includes acknowledgment of the trauma.
One of the home invasions I mentioned took place in the home I live in now. My neighbor broke into my home while I was home alone and this individual continues to be my neighbor. I see him as an ongoing threat and struggle daily with this. I don’t sleep well and when I do sleep, I frequently have nightmares and grind my teeth. My orthodontist recently installed a special bite plate in my retainers to make it impossible for me to grind my teeth while I’m sleeping. I usually carry a sharp, small knife with me wherever I go. I lock my door and carry my knife when I check my mail. There is an insatiable desire in me to always be moving as a result of the anxiety my PTSD causes. There are so many aspects of my life that I alter as a result of my PTSD and this I find truly infuriating.
Trauma presents in many different forms and it is impossible to avoid the daily reminders and triggers. I was 17 when my first sexual assault occurred. Yet at age 32, mild sexual harassment, even in jest, sends little pings of fear through me. About a year ago I was spending time with someone who I thought was a friend. After an afternoon hike, he asked me to have sex with him. In a deranged twist of emotional manipulation, he then asked if I had ever been suicidal. I felt compelled to stay and talk to him to make sure he wasn’t going to harm himself after I opted out of a sexual relationship with him. This interaction derailed me for a while. Obviously I still think about it, even a full year after it happened. Healing from PTSD often comes in stages. I was doing really, really well – but that one afternoon set me back significantly.
Strength in Running
Running helps my PTSD. It frees my mind and makes me feel strong – stronger than my neighbor and stronger than my assaulters. My PTSD causes this hypervigilance that seems to only calm down when I participate in vigorous, physical movement. I’ll probably never fully recover from my trauma history, and it’s likely I will experience more trauma in my lifetime. However, I will always grateful for my daily run and I am extremely grateful for the support of the Still I Run Community.