hello, blogiverse. today i’m making a joint post with my dear friend Caylee. Caylee is working on setting up their blog, but for now they’re posting as a guest here. because we have different life experiences, we’re each telling our stories separately to contribute to a joint conclusion about how PTSD has lasting and insidious effects on us as survivors.
we also want to make this a rather loud trigger warning regarding rape, physical abuse, and psychological abuse. please do not take this lightly, as we both go into some detail which might not be safe for you if these are problematic issues for you personally. if that’s the case, please take care of yourself, don’t read this, and maybe go look at some image macros of manatees.
Weekend mornings when I was a child were some of the worst times. My mother and I would spend the very early morning talking, joking, watching very old movies on AMC, and generally having mother/daughter time; however, there was always that singular moment when you heard the bed creak in my parents room and knew He wasn’t just rolling over, but was awake. We’d freeze, fall silent, and both mother and daughter had to play the same game: what’s He like this morning?
It was, believe it or not, possible to tell what kind of a day it was going to be just from the sound of him getting up from bed. I don’t know how to put it into words, but there was a difference between when he was going to be his normal, somewhat unpleasant self, and when he was likely to be violent and we had to be on absolute guard. When he was likely to be violent, the only thing we could do is watch every move he made, listen to his breathing and tone of voice, looking for the signs that he might flip into full blown rage. We tiptoed around him, but while attempting to give the appearance of “acting normal”. He’d realize if we were trying to avoid his violence and punish us just out of spite.
When I was at home, which I almost always once since I was never allowed to play outside as a child, I learned to be very very good at noticing everything around me. When my parents were talking in their room, I’d tiptoe up to the door so as to make no noise and also block essentially no light so they’d have no way to know I was there. I’d listen to figure out if they were talking about me so I’d have some idea if something bad was about to happen. I’d listen to see if my father was using his angry hissing voice that usually meant the worst. For years I wasn’t allowed out of my room at night, even when I had to use the bathroom. For awhile I had to piss in a corner of my room, which I’d then secretly clean during the day to make sure there was no evidence left behind, but sometimes when I was feeling bold I’d listen to see if there was any sound of my parents being downstairs so I could sneak out, piss, and the come back up to bed without them knowing. I never got caught. I also never tried until I was really certain I could do it. I would have conversations with my mother but they were hushed and whispered quickly in moments together in the kitchen or a hallway. He would get very angry if we were talking without him present. I don’t remember what he did when he was angry very well, just little snapshots of whippings, of being screamed at, of being fucked.
I still know how to memorize creaky spots in a floor and walk however I need to avoid them. I get moments of panic when I make noise walking in my own home at night. I panic if I need to piss but I’m not sure where a nearby restroom is. When I know people have been talking about me, even people I care about deeply, I flip into this mode where I twist and turn conversations to pick up any details I can about what’s happening and what the various parties involved know about me. And while my memories are fragmented, my body has never forgotten his acts of incest and it’s taken til I was 30 years old to simply enjoy sex.
More than all of those, though, is that feeling of panic that overwhelms me when I’m talking to people who are close enough that they can hurt me. I’ll be fine, but then the slightest bit of worry or anxiety creeps into me and I am back in that place of dealing with my father.
the last time i lived at home, my little sister and i both lived in the basement. this was by choice for my little sister and by necessity for me, as our baby sister had gotten my old room. though we both lived in constant denial of being physically and sexually abused at the time, though admitting to our mother’s emotional abuse, we believed that we needed physical safety and separation from her, cowering as soon as we heard the first *thunk* of feet on the stairs. i kept my car keys in my pocket and made a spare set for my little sister. we rationalized that these weren’t real fears but we were being careful “in case something happened.” we often talked about worst-case scenarios and how we had to be prepared for them. little did we know we were talking about things that actually had happened to us.
i told my therapist about these things. her reply was that “i think your mother might be worse than you let on.” years later, when i started trying to figure out what had happened to me, i contacted her. she volunteered quite a bit of her notes, where she wrote more than once that “(name) is evasive about mthr’s abuse: definite physical, strng likelihood sexual.” i can’t really describe in words the chill that went down my spine when i read that, because my therapist had seen right through it. part of the reasoning said therapist used that the abuse was current related to how i behaved in therapy and that she was afraid i was actively lying to cover for my mother because i wanted her to think i came from a safe and healthy family situation. the trouble is, i believed at the time that i did come from a safe and healthy family situation, and was medicated to the point that it was pretty easy to get me to believe it. i’ve spoken before about being medicated into a haze for many years, and that haze didn’t just make me a problematic, scattered person, it also enabled me to believe things were just fine even when they weren’t.
one time, a date i can fix in my head because my mother raped me during a rather massive power outage that affected the area i lived in, i went to therapy three days later and talked about absolutely nothing…the notes are absolutely chilling because i started off talking about how i wasn’t exactly over being raped but that was well in the past and devolved into talking about Gilmore Girls. i think maybe i was having a moment of idolizing how Lorelai and Rory got along, you know, all the love, none of the abuse…and no having to hide in the shadows and creep to the bathroom upstairs praying that you’ll make it this time. i think maybe i was telling myself a pretty good lie because the insides of my thighs didn’t get bruised on their own. i didn’t learn to move silently and stop in the shadows as a defense mechanism in middle school, where i was assigned the ever-so-flattering nickname of “Spider Girl” because of how i behaved…no, i learned those skills at home.
i’m not sure when my mother started physically and sexually abusing my little sister and i, because now that we’ve figured out the realities of our mother’s abuse, it goes back as far as we can remember. my mother’s abuse did become much worse after i transitioned, and the bargaining chip of “but i let you transition” robbed me of my humanity slowly, pound by pound. one reason i have such a short temper with people who believe that transitioning earlier in life fixes everything: i had my humanity beaten out of me because of “because i let you transition.” when you tokenize or fetishize that experience and speak over me, you’re silencing the quite literal torture i lived through. i’ve covered that things were not as rosy as people imagine, and been accused of lying for it; by the way, this feeds the PTSD reaction, just so you know. i guess because i was lying to myself and believing someone’s story they’re right that i was lying…it’s not that things weren’t so rosy, but in fact my teenage years were abject fucking hell.
i’m trying to get a grip on my humanity now. you know why i compare myself to an animal and an inhuman thing all too often? because that’s what this reduced me to, and because now i don’t know how to exist in a way that balances being insistent and visible enough to meet my needs, needs i feel selfish for having, but staying invisible enough that i’m not going to be hurt by anyone who gets close enough to me that they can. because whenever anything goes wrong, i want to disappear because maybe it will save me. and when that fails or is illogical, because i hope that maybe if i apologize enough, i won’t end up tied to the bed and fucked bloody.
and now together:
The point behind all of this is that if you just take all of those traits and rip the humanity from them — hyperawareness of surroundings, listening for danger, good at hiding and moving undetected, deep seated responses to danger and viewing everything as a potential danger — what do they sound like? Prey. It’s the behavior of prey. We were taught to act like prey, and our respective abusive parents were the predators. We engaged in almost the same responses to protect ourselves and managed to individually and separately discuss these experiences.
We know we’re not alone, as our response is common in all those who have been abused with great violence: beaten, raped, drugged, and told constantly how awful and worthless we are. We’re taught to be prey and that our abusers are the apex predators, the top of the food chain that we can’t hope to challenge. We’re taught to be scared of everyone as a potential predator. We learn how to hide among the sea of predators around us, camouflaging ourselves with the trappings of someone who isn’t afraid, but there’s always the panic that comes with feeling vulnerable, feeling like someone actually has a chance to see what you really are and how you can be hurt. This panic can seem offputting to some people since it’s almost impossible to explain, but it is obvious what we’re doing once you know what to look for and how we behave exactly like prey, i.e. how we flinch, disappear, cower, and run.
The letters “PTSD” don’t capture the deep matrix of fear responses and escape mechanisms, and the summary dismissal of the reality of PTSD in society allows our realities to be dismissed. PTSD is rarely taken seriously in people who haven’t been to war, and even amongst those who have, it’s often ignored because “you can just get over it.” PTSD isn’t something you can magically get over. It’s like a tapeworm in the intestines: it get inside everything you do and every action you take…unlike a tapeworm, it’s something you have to learn to live with because the reactions and behaviors that you get from traumatic events become part of you. We are discounted as being participants in an “Oppression Olympics” or sounding “snowflakey” so our concerns and realities can be ignored, but then we meet someone new and react viscerally and we are seen as “other” for the prey mentality that has suffused us. We are discounted for speaking our truth, the very same mechanism that kept us silent in the first place.
We are not prey, though, and we never have been. We are working hard to become stronger and to get to a place where we don’t feel the same vulnerability and judgment. We were vulnerable not because of some deep flaw in our being, but because it started when we were children and that conditioning was burned into us. We need people who didn’t live through it to understand that we’re not looking for attention, but in fact looking to avoid attention, to try to live our lives as whole, choate people.