Trigger Warning: The following article discusses sexual assault and may be upsetting to some readers.
I felt the weight of his body on top of me as I looked outside of the doors I couldn’t reach, frozen in fear. My memory of that night is broken up and at parts, incoherent, but I remember saying no so many times it started to sound like a foreign word. That was eight years ago. I was 15.
I grew up a pretty anxious kid. I remember waking up shaking in the middle of the night before a gymnastics or swim meet. But in the weeks following the assault, my anxiety was visceral. I had never felt so out of control and disconnected from my body. The rush of adrenaline would come on so suddenly and intensely in seemingly any situation–from sitting in study hall to the middle of a swim practice or even a yoga class. I started to become distant from friends and family, scared they would notice that something was off about me and I would have to talk about it. I started skipping school out of fear of having a panic attack and not being able to leave. I quit swimming. The boy that raped me went to my school. I saw him every day. I told no one.
My mom knew I was struggling with anxiety and suggested I go see a psychologist, so I did. He was competent and eager to help, but he was a he, and I still felt an immense amount of shame about what happened. I thought it was my fault for not doing more to stop it, to fight him off of me. So I told him I was having panic attacks and that I didn’t know why. He diagnosed me with panic disorder and taught me breathing exercises. Not surprisingly (and absolutely not the fault of my therapist), not much changed.
A few months later, I got on a plane with my family. As a kid, I liked flying. I used to call it “horrible fun” because of the uneasy feelings I’d get taking off and landing. But I always enjoyed looking out at the clouds and seeing the sunrise 30,000 ft above the ground. This time, though, was different. I remember sitting in my seat and putting cream cheese on bagel when I felt that same rush of adrenaline. I got tunnel vision. I could hear my sister talking beside me, but couldn’t comprehend what she was saying. Everything seemed literally and metaphorically blurry. My breath shortened and my throat tightened. This is how the entire flight went. I’d have a panic attack, it would subside after a few minutes, just to come back in full force a couple minutes later. I could barely focus on any thoughts, but the ones I did have were focused on how trapped I felt not being able to get off the plane. I was stuck. And I had been stuck before. The wires in my brain that had helped me deal with the trauma got crossed. This time, my brain didn’t want me to freeze. Flying was now synonymous with the helplessness and lack of control I felt just a few months earlier.
After high school, the panic attacks slowly subsided. It helped to distance myself from the people and places I’d associated everything with. However, I was still terrified to fly. I did as much as I could to avoid it, and if I did have to fly, I made sure to have Xanax on deck to knock myself out. Even still, I’d spend the week before a trip as a ball of anxiety, unable to cope with the anticipation. When I landed, I was consumed with thoughts of having to fly back.
Eight years after that first flight, I was scheduled to have a job interview in Texas. I hadn’t flown in a couple years and didn’t have time to get medication from a doctor. Beyond that, I didn’t want to. I was older, more reasonable, ready to leave the past in the past. The night before the flight, I didn’t sleep. I was violently shaking, paralyzed in fear. By 4:00am, I had made the decision not to go. Initially, I was relieved. But those feelings were quickly replaced with regret and worthlessness. I felt so limited, so controlled, so frustrated that one person could have so much influence over my life, even years later. I started to feel the same hopeless feelings. I withdrew. I avoided.
Later that week, I called a psychologist and made an appointment. I told her everything. I cried. A lot. Through months of therapy, I realized how hard I’d been on myself. I put pressure on myself to work through all of it without ever allowing myself any compassion for being young and scared and experiencing trauma. Worse things have happened to people, I told myself. Get over it. Stop being weak. These thoughts would follow me when I’d try to fly. I was terrified to fail to the point where I was now limiting the ways I was living.
I learned how to show myself compassion. I learned how to reach out for help. I learned how much I attached my own self-worth to the way other people treat me. I learned how to let that go. I learned that I am strong and capable.
I booked a flight. I didn’t sleep the night before. I had to fight with the thoughts trying to creep in, enticing me with how much simpler it would be to just stay home. I went through security. I walked to the gate. I took a deep breath as I walked on to the plane without any medication. I sat down, took out my knitting needles (knitting, cross-stitching, adult coloring books are all quality options for people with anxiety) and smiled. I was proud of myself for coming as far as I had, and told myself that whatever happens, I could handle it. And I flew. I had some moments of anxiety and fear, but overall, I was in control. And when I finally stepped off that plane, I was free. The weight that had followed me around and dictated what I could do was gone.
I took my life back.
I wanted to share my story because I know I’m not the only one. Keep going, keep fighting. You’re worth it.