Trigger Warning: The following article discusses abusive relationships and may be upsetting to some readers.
There are days when I can’t tell where I end and my trauma begins. But I do know that my trauma doesn’t define me, and neither does yours.
I once thought that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was an emotional response to a single, visibly distressing event. However, I now realize it’s so much more. In fact, negotiating my life as a domestic violence survivor is like walking through a physical and psychological landmine. Agoraphobia and PTSD have eroded away parts of my life by waging war with the brutalization of my psyche. My abusive ex has caused me to suffer a variety of difficult and crippling psychological and emotional responses.
Although stalking is considered a crime everywhere in the United States, many women like me still suffer its effects. Despite what people may think, stalking can take many forms and include assault, threats, vandalism, trespassing, harassing communication, and unwanted gifts. Furthermore, stalkers come from every socio-economic background, which makes profiling them next to impossible.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an estimated 14 in 1,000 people over the age of 18 are stalked every year. Unfortunately, I was no exception. Even after I fled my abusive relationship, my ex-fiancé continued to stalk and hunt me like a wild animal. I constantly feared for my safety.
Post traumatic stress disorder makes both my waking and sleeping hours a constant nightmare.
When I’m awake, everything that I see, hear, feel, touch, and smell triggers the trauma that lives within me. Once my senses are provoked, I enter “fight, flight or freeze” mode. When I sleep, intrusive thoughts that peppered my day dribble and bleed into the night. As I drift off, I am left defenseless to my demons. The anxiety and stress from flashbacks and nightmares stun me awake, to help separate reality from fictional torment. The nightmares gain traction in my mind to where they manifest into palpable heart pounding fear, so intense, so loud and impossible to ignore, that I can feel it pulsate in my ears and can visualize the throbbing in my veins. No matter how hard I squeeze my eyes shut and try to fall back asleep, I can’t rest.
Because of the years of stalking I experienced, I also grapple with the dichotomy of agoraphobia.
I often barricade myself in my home for days because I simply cannot walk out the door. Fear paralyzes me as I worry that he’s lurking in the bushes, or standing in plain sight, creepily staring me down, making his presence known and felt. At night, I still see him under a street lamp and visualize every detail of his face, even when I can only make out a vague silhouette of a person across the street.
When cabin fever takes over, I make a pact with the Universe: “Please let me get through this without completely decompensating in public.” I arm myself with pepper spray, a bright orange pocket whistle, and a military grade tactical flashlight before I venture outside the house. I obsessively look for parking spaces as close to my destination as possible. With military precision, I calculate the threat level I may face and all possible elements of danger in my path. I scan every facial expression of each passerby with laser sharp focus in anticipatory fear. On many occasions, I’ve left store parking lots because I can’t park within view of the entrance. Being out in the open feels too exposed and vulnerable, and on the verge of being skinned alive.
I rarely enter the grocery store without friends in tow, and I purchase in bulk to minimize trips. At times, my heart pounds and races, and I start to sweat, “Get me out of here!” is all I can mutter under my breath before I land myself in a full-blown panic attack.
I know my fear isn’t always rational, but my brain can’t override my body’s reaction to the trauma I faced. Essentially, my trauma is neurobiologically wired into my body. In other words, my reptilian brain engages in those moments that I enter fight, flight or freeze mode. As much as I try to put this entire sordid affair behind me, I simply can’t escape it.
That’s because the recovery journey is long and painful.
My journey to healing has been hard. Most days, I toggle between freeze and flight; numbing, dissociation and hypervigilance, barely able to get myself out of bed, drenched in tears of frustration, panic and anxiety of the unknown.
Post traumatic stress disorder has woven itself into my life and will forever be part of my story. But instead of allowing it to paralyze me, I’ve chosen to stand my ground, manage it, and not let it ruin my life.
By entering into an agreement with myself not to give up, I have started to take back what rightfully belongs to me, and not my stalker and abuser.
If you are currently leaving an abusive relationship, knowing your rights and learning how to manage your triggers will become the first steps in your recovery. Remember that healing from trauma is not a linear process. Know that you will have good days and bad, just like the ebb and flow of the tides.
Mostly, though, know that your journey will take time, and that’s OK.
Personally, I’ve found that being patient, kind, gentle and forgiving with myself has helped me move forward in my recovery. Also, surrounding myself with those who truly understand my situation has helped me tremendously.
I hope that others will find strength, courage, and comfort in my story and discover helpful ways to combat their PTSD. If you’ve suffered and have been shamed, just as I have, know that you are not alone, and that you will rediscover your power and strength of spirit!
If you, or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, a victim of stalking, help is out there. You can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline, the Suicide Prevention/PTSD Hotline or the Crisis Text Line 24/7.