Putting Trauma To Bed – 5 Things I’ve Learned in a Year of Healing From Sexual Trauma
This isn’t so much an installment with any sort of game-plan or guide, but – hey! Not everything pertaining to trauma is constructive, sometimes we just kind of have to sit with it for a while, and talk without a “real” destination.
The biggest part of trauma for me is the after. What are we doing after these traumatic experiences? How are we dealing with things? How is it affecting us? It’s the “post” in post-traumatic. Sure, I’ve covered having to unpack your experiences & yourself as a person to learn about yourself again – I’ve talked about having to reclaim my body after sexual trauma and how important it was, even discussed how I eased myself back into anything remotely sexual & how I went about it. But as great and useful as all of that is – I still have to deal with the “after”, I still have to continuously work on these things, even if I’m not actively struggling my state of being is post-traumatic. What’s that day-to-day like?
I just passed a couple important milestones in my own healing process so to speak (the most recently celebrated being a year since “escaping”.) so instead of some sort of guide to navigating the aftermath – I’m just going to be talking about the ups and downs of the healing process for me personally as far as what’s happened in the past year. What I’ve learned, what I’ve felt – both to celebrate the progress I’ve made & hope that maybe someone reading will feel validated in their own progress and not feel “crazy”. My other Putting Trauma To Bed pieces have had sex & sexuality at the forefront – this one is more general, though a few points do relate to sex.
Anyways, hit that “read more” and I’ll dish about five things I’ve learned & have had to deal with in a year of recovering from sexual trauma. Fair warning, this post is upwards of 5k words long. You can click here for the bottom line. (As usual, I’m not a therapist, I’m not a doctor – I’m just an every day person like yourself trying to navigate life after trauma.)
(Content warning goes here! Though it’s not in detail, this post does discuss sexual trauma.)
I was actually going back and forth with a friend the other night about this post – and about how we don’t get a bulleted list of our traumatic experiences, or a guide outlining the behaviors & things they’ve effected – so I did my damnedest to make my own.
If I could pass a note to myself a year ago, I’d consider this list to be what I’d give them a “heads up” about, to be aware of – to work on. (Also, I lied. This is technically six things – but I consider one of them to be more of a side note, so we’ll pretend I can stick to five.)
#1. Avoidance: Definitely Still My BFF & Worst Enemy
My therapist in highschool once called me “The Queen of Avoidance” during a session, because I had a habit where I would completely ignore a question I didn’t want to answer or a topic I didn’t want to talk about by effectively running down the clock, refusing to deal with it, and talking my ass off so she couldn’t possibly interject and ask me to think about anything. As an adult – I still do that. Not in the same way, but I know I can be incredibly avoidant. I’m working on it, leave me alone. (See?)
From dodging questions entirely, to withdrawing socially and refusing to get close with other people. (Even on a platonic level.) For as open as I can be about some subjects and with certain people, I’ve spent years building walls around others. This gets to be the first bullet point, cuz it’s probably still the hardest thing for me even being a year out & well aware that I struggle with it.
Example being: earlier this week I had a neuropsych appointment over the phone. Somehow, we got onto the topic of PTSD. I was asked if I would talk about that, or if I’d even just name one event that could have caused it for me. So, I refused, and I stopped talking. I was on speakerphone, and my mom was sitting in on the appointment with me – she asked if she could name one. I told her no, she “fucking couldn’t”, and refused to answer any more questions regarding trauma because “I don’t really want to fucking get into this right now”. (For the record, love my mom, and I ask her to sit in on appointments with me because it’s incredibly helpful. But, what I’m not about to do is run down a laundry list of traumas when I’m not even being assessed for PTSD in the first place and I’m put on the spot.)
Avoidance isn’t always that obvious. Sometimes the walls we put up around ourselves are as simple as curating a surface level persona, preventing others from getting to know you out of fear and a need to “protect” ourselves. You could even be physically avoiding something, from certain clothes, to scents, to locations because you don’t want to think about a situation that involved them. (Don’t reclaim & address those if you don’t want to. That’s a “good” avoidance in my mind depending on the situation.) Sometimes it’s continuing to engage in toxic & harmful patterns because facing change and admitting something is wrong is too much. Avoidance can keep you pretty comfortable, but when it comes to the point that you can’t avoid it anymore it’s typically far worse than if you had actually addressed something and done the legwork to heal from it in the first place.
All of those are things I’ve struggled with in the past year, along with the very obvious “complete shutdown” flavor of avoidance. (Especially relating to sex or even seeing myself in any type of sexual way.) For a while, I didn’t even know that avoidance was linked to PTSD – I just thought it was my personality. Nope! It sucks, but it’s super normal.
Because of my struggles with avoidance – I have two different “dates” that I count as milestones. One is admitting to a friend openly that a situation was abusive after years of shoving it down and avoiding it, the other was effectively ending it. Now, I have to actively face the aftermath of those & the healing process itself instead of continuing to avoid it or taking a passive role in my own life. I have spiraled into things & shoved shit for stretches of time before I’ve shaken myself out of it, but I know there’s only so long I can keep my eyes slammed shut. Avoidance is inevitable, our brains want to protect us from harm – and not all of it is bad, but if it’s your main coping strategy it’ll only make shit worse.
#2. I’ve gotten into some stupid-ass situations without even realizing it. (So, be careful.)
I think I meant to touch on this in one of my other Putting Trauma To Bed posts, but I didn’t really want to scare anyone away from the healing process by reminding everyone that you can, and you will, absolutely fuck up. In the journey of unlearning toxic behaviors & ways that we think/act/etc that are a result of trauma – there’s no guidebook. There’s no big siren that will go off when you’re about to do something “stupid”, when you’re about to do something that will send you five steps back, when you’re falling into a bad pattern instead of rebuilding. It’s fucking annoying, and my judgement can be so warped by situations & things I’ve endured that I don’t know which way is up sometimes. It’s comforting to know that that’s a fairly normal thing, but it doesn’t make the outcome of certain mistakes any better. Reminder: you’re still learning how to be a person again, damnit.
After being in fight or flight mode for so long most of my actions & reactions didn’t make a whole lot of sense, because I was approaching just about everything in my life that way. There’s no time to think about your actions, words, or the aftermath of them in a lot of abusive or traumatizing situations – it’s a split second and you choose according to what your brain thinks is the “safest” option in that 5 second time frame. That shit….doesn’t work in day to day life. At all. So, we fall into familiar-but-destructive patterns, can become kind of hard to deal with, say stupid shit, continue to feel terrible, do impulsive bullshit, and tend to keep making mistakes. (Some of which might be the same mistake over and over again, I know I kind of refuse to learn sometimes.) In the same way that our brains can block out traumatic memories in an effort to protect us – I compare some of my shit choices to just blacking out. My brain shifts into autopilot, and I may or may not realize it until I’m neck deep in something that I’m suddenly realizing is nearing the top of the “stupidest shit I’ve ever done” list.
Some poor choices I’ve made include: getting into a relationship too quickly because I felt like I “had” to & couldn’t even gauge what the hell was going on with me, my wants, or my needs. Binge drinking because I’m essentially incapable of using the word “no”. Oversharing about things I shouldn’t have – because a stranger had given me even a drop of validation that I was so starved for at the time. (Which for the record, put me in danger. But you know, I wasn’t too hung up on anything having consequences at that point, and wasn’t purposely going “this is dangerous, I should do it.” I literally. Wasn’t. Thinking.) Deactivating and reactivating all of my accounts on every website known to man for minutes, or weeks at a time because I was paranoid (with good reason or not). Getting too involved, too fast in general, whether with people or even interests – the feast or famine mindset is dangerous. Ignoring my own thoughts, feelings, and boundaries out of fear.
Most of those? Split second choices. I don’t spend twenty minutes going “should I let someone disrespect my boundaries?” I let it happen, in the moment, because usually I’m terrified because past experiences make confrontation seem like the most dangerous thing on the planet. I’m sure there’s oodles of shit I’ve said in the past year that’s been kind of jerky, thoughtless, and rash, too – shit happens when every moment feels like the heat of the moment. No bueno. Being on autopilot and suddenly “waking up” in the middle of a shit choice is like magically sobering up from being blackout drunk. Shit is scary.
Regardless, I’m not going to dwell on those mistakes & missteps. I listed some as a reminder that we all fuck up sometimes. Doing that isn’t going to help anything, and can easily send me flying backwards. All we can do is do better. It’s how we learn, more often than not. Just another reminder that it’s not a perfect process, and healing isn’t linear. For every leap & bound you make forward, you might go kind of sideways too. It’s not comfortable. We’re humans, we screw up. We’re fucking idiots sometimes. Once you get the hang of it and you’re actively addressing things, it gets easier. It doesn’t get easy by any means, but my chances of a split second choice putting me in a bad situation today are far less than they were at this point last year.
Bonus point: Still not super sure on whether I inhabit my body or not.
We’ve already covered reclaiming your body, the importance of re-familiarizing ourselves with our bodies from what they look like to what feels good, and all that. And that doesn’t stop. That’s constant. I suck at this. I could be doing well, feeling great, taking care of myself for weeks or even months at a time – and then one bad thought process later and I have no self of self, no clue what I look like, and I’m disassociating in my bathtub. (Luckily, I’ve learned in the past year that I can shake myself out of that mindset & do some grounding. Sucks to have to remind yourself that you inhabit your body, but it happens.)
At this point I’m also lucky to have a super supportive partner that will literally say things like “Your brain’s being a fucking goblin, what you see right now is incredibly skewed, how you feel about it is real – but it doesn’t mean those negative thoughts are true”. Shit kinda slaps, honestly – cuz as much as I try I can’t always derail those thoughts once they get going. A solid support system even if it’s small is so incredibly important when you forget that you’re actually a person.
I know I did a whole post about this, but it’s something I’ve learned & have had to deal with this year, and it’s again – a constant fucking process. If I could wake up tomorrow and have impeccable self esteem & not have really rather dysmorphic ways of viewing myself that would be great, but it’s not going to happen magically, and that’s okay. So, I do my best to keep grinding on simple things like eating, sleeping, and good hygiene and hope that every time I catch myself in the mirror or take a selfie I’ll move a little bit closer to feeling like there’s an actual person looking back – and that that actual person is myself. (You can read more about that here, it’s more of a quick note in this piece.)
#3. Just when you think you know yourself…Yeah no, you don’t. Again. Fun!
You suddenly don’t. In my “getting involved when I shouldn’t” line of bad choices – I got involved with someone and assumed, (because I wasn’t…doing any legwork as far as healing goes.) “Sure, yeah – my sexual preferences haven’t changed or been impacted by trauma at all!”. (That’s a lie, clearly. Well, it’s true that I assumed that – but they were clearly affected.)
Some of this of course, was prior to me fully realizing the importance of dating myself and assessing what I enjoyed, and what freaked me out. (And keeping updated lists, whenever I noticed a change.) For some of it, I was only thinking about ways that I could touch myself, not factoring in another party whatsoever. Past that – some shit you have no way of gauging until it happens. Because of that, I had what could have (should have) been a positive experience end in me kind of blankly staring and having to apologize & let them know that they didn’t technically do anything wrong or “bad” – I was just kind of struggling and maybe shouldn’t have jumped in like that. I didn’t even go in having the information I would have needed if I wanted to warn them about something being a trigger, because I hadn’t given a second thought to the fact that- “HEY! Something about a sexual encounter just might trigger a meltdown because of sexual trauma! Maybe you’re not ready for this yet, bud!”.
Sounds ridiculous written down, but at the time I didn’t consider it at all. (Because I didn’t know any of that, there was also a period of time where I couldn’t stand any sort of contact sober. That’s a red flag if I ever saw one.) I was used to ignoring my needs and my own bodies signals that I forgot that in a healthy experience those things do matter – and that it’s totally fine to warn a partner that certain things might trigger you so they can avoid those mid-sex. (Some triggers we have to face – but when it comes to sex? Nah. I’m not down with “exposure therapy” making me relive trauma.) Once I started thinking about those things a bit harder, it got easier – but I still run the risk of everything being fine and then out of nowhere everything is terrible & I don’t know myself very much anymore. It’s fickle. Something that might bother me today might not bother me tomorrow, and vice versa. That’s alright, we learn as we go.
….And full disclosure – I still don’t care how much “you’ll get over it by getting under someone else” bullshit rhetoric people can spout, it doesn’t apply to experiences with sexual trauma or abusive relationships. It’s okay to not hop right the fuck back in to sex OR dating, there’s no rule saying you even have to at all. But if you are, do your best to arm yourself with information about your limits, preferences, and triggers & the knowledge that things could unexpectedly change minute by minute.
#4. The only thing I can control is myself, surprise! Always a hard lesson.
This one applies to general trauma & abuse, regardless of if it was sexual or not. You can distance yourself from certain situations & people, you can set boundaries with others, you can respect yourself, you can pursue recovery. Those are all in your control. What’s not in your control? People that will push your boundaries, people choosing to disrespect you, and the situations & people you’ve distanced yourself from trying to inch themselves back into your life & mind. All we can change is our own actions & reactions.
You can ask just about anyone, my blocklist is a mile long. I curate my space the best I can to keep people I don’t want as far from my energy as possible. What I can’t do is block numbers from generated phone & texting apps, keep someone from logging out to see something they were blocked from seeing, or stop people from funneling information back to people that I’ve cut out of my life. It really, really sucks when it happens.
The hardest part for me when someone I’ve cut off tries to contact me is remembering “this is a bad person, they have not changed, they’re highly manipulative, they were cruel to you, they are abusive”. I’ve had a handful of interactions where someone was trying to “apologize”, say they miss me and want to be my friend, and me – being sent back down a traumatic rabbithole, would say okay and lower my guard – and five minutes later I’d have them cussing me out, telling me the million reasons I was a terrible person that deserved that type of treatment, saying obscene sexual shit to me, whatever. I used to be scared to block certain numbers because of how they might react. Now I’m confident that I’m making the right choice in that.
But even though you’re in control of yourself – there’s only so much we can do, don’t blame yourself if someone jumps through hoops to work around the ways you’ve blocked them from your life. You didn’t make them do that! In the situations where I haven’t been able to avoid contact and get cornered – all I can do is try my best to stay calm & rational. (And then block whatever new number, or sock-puppet account they used to contact me.) Folks that harm others (seemingly for fun) love a good reaction. Once I started denying them fuel for that fire, efforts to contact me dipped severely.
#5: Just when you thought you were safe: send in the flying monkeys! (And other types of shithead people.)
For the record, I’d prefer dancing lobsters. I know this bulletpoint sounds insane, but hear me out.
A lot of the time, people that are abusive, predatory, or are narcissistic abusers – can also be very charming, and their manipulation tactics come in handy when it’s time to get plenty of others on their “side”. Which further allows other people to get in on the action, and gaslight the shit out of & humiliate a survivor. (Sometimes, the abuser themselves doesn’t have to lift a finger!) But there aren’t sides, and there’s no real winning – it’s just shithead behavior used to further victimize someone. Whether it’s in the form of a smear campaign or targeted harassment, it sucks. It’s something I’ve been dealing with in different ways for years, and it never gets any less annoying. Even without direction from an abuser, friends and peers sometimes jump at any chance to defend their “friend” and go out of their way to bother those that were hurt by them. (Those that are purposely sent? Let me introduce you to the term “flying monkeys”. It’s narcissistic abuse specific, but a great term.)
When I was in highschool, I was raped by someone with a much “better” social standing than my own. They seemingly fell off the face of the earth shortly after, and luckily I never actively had to see them in real life again. I did however have to deal with their friends harassing me online, the usual “you must have asked for it” response the one time I brought it up in an attempt to warn others, and the fact that yes – they were better at manipulation than I was, and people will happily accept the word of an athletic “golden boy” and defend them over the actual experience of an unpopular underclassman. (I’m not going to get into rape culture here as I know it plays a huge part – I’m just here for the flying monkeys. Believe survivors, you fucking weirdos.) I don’t think the majority of those people were pitted against me purposely, but mob mentality is strong as shit even when it doesn’t have much of a ringleader.
I’m not in highschool anymore, but the fact that those that are abusive to others can easily “win” people over to dismiss the harm they’ve caused others still rings true in most situations. I’ve actually received emails since starting this blog, from people claiming to know “specific situations” I’ve vaguely mentioned in this series trying to make a case for whatever person they assumed was involved, trying to tell me that I’m somehow misunderstanding my own experiences, & asking me to “prove it”. I’ve had CuriousCat messages harassing me to tell me I “deserved it” or prying saying I was making things up, Facebook messages from people I’ve never interacted with telling me I was insane and that people had told them I “would lie about these things” – all claiming to be experts on my life, and in turn twisting the knife a bit in regards to recovery.
I even had some of my own friends try to tell me that I was wrong in cutting certain people out of my life, that someone was a “good person” despite the harm & trauma they’d caused me personally. And that’s only talking about one situation. (Also, if your real-life friends pull this shit, call them out on it. I know confronting people sucks, but some people might not get what a huge blow that can be unless you tell them. If they don’t realize they fucked up after that – you now know that don’t need them as a friend.)
But it’s another situation where again, I don’t think the majority of those people were “sent” by those that were abusive to me – it’s just a mob with no direction, though there are some situations where it’s been proven that certain people do keep tabs on me in an effort to be good little flying monkeys. (Luckily, the novelty of bothering me wears off with time – so very few are still wasting energy by actively attacking me at this point.)
I can’t control that. I just have to deal with it. It fucking sucks, it’s a tired ass tactic that just serves to prolong trauma for survivors, and I’m tired of it. I honestly didn’t expect it to play out or even be a factor in my recovery, but it has been. Depending on the interaction, it can typically set me back a little bit, trigger a meltdown, or immediately pummel my mood & mindset into the ground. I’ve had to continue to remind myself that there are no points, not sides, no winning. There’s no point in trying to defend myself to these people, there’s no point in getting worked up by their tactics – no matter who’s behind them.
Again – the only thing we can control is ourselves.
Yes, this post reads more like a journal entry than a guide – and yes, it’s repetitive. Healing can be fucking repetitive. I wake up having to remind myself of the same shit, constantly. But, at least this far out – I know what I struggle with, and what I have to focus on. A year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to make that sort of list – or even gauge what I was dealing with. Recovering from trauma is like a fog being lifted. The more time passes, the more work we do, the clearer it gets. I consider recovery in all forms (whether it’s from trauma, substance abuse, disordered eating, etc.) to be a day-by-day, constant state of being. And that’s okay. Knowing that I’m learning and progressing day by day has taken the pressure off – I no longer am stuck wanting an “end date” and to “just be over with this shit”.
Bottom line? If you’re healing from trauma, cut yourself some slack. Of course, be aware and call yourself on your shit – but you know what I mean. Don’t be too hard on yourself with it. We fall into bad coping mechanisms to protect ourselves, like avoidance. We all fuck up along the way. Being aware of your own body and existence is both a blessing, and a curse. Sometimes you’ll be doing great, then two seconds later you’re not. Having a heads-up about the traps others place to set you back – like contact with an abuser, or flying monkeys can be incredibly helpful. (Before I knew that was a common struggle? I was paranoid constantly. Knowing that it was “a thing” and not just something only I was dealing with helped me protect myself better, and get some peace.)
As long as you do your best to be aware of your own behavior & remember that you’re in control of yourself now – it’ll get better. Healing still isn’t linear, but doing our best to be aware of what the hell is going on makes it less daunting. (At least, for me it does.)
If you made it all the way through this ramble – I hope there’s at least a sentence or two that helps you, even if it’s only to validate your own feelings. Feel free to leave a comment (if you’re comfortable!) and let me know what your takeaway is, tidbits you’ve learned to look out for in your own healing process. Is there anything else you’d like to see in this series? I’d love to know!