Maggie Kuhn would have been proud of me today. And I must say, I am proud of me today. I shared my story. Yes, my voice was shaking – I was shaking – but I got it out. J
During a private meeting this morning, I revealed to a faculty member in my graduate program, my academic advisor, the truth about what I have been dealing with. Not just that I have been experiencing depression and anxiety.
In a meeting with my thesis advisor a few months ago, I disclosed in an emotional whirlwind that I was confronting a past trauma. Today, I actually revealed the past trauma. Holy smoke, go me!
Many resources geared towards healing from sexual assault and other forms of trauma emphasize that verbalizing one’s story is an important part of being able to move on from it. For this reason, I have set my sights on talking about my past. Before each therapy session, I think to myself, "I am sick of this crap. I am ready to move on. I'm just going to make myself talk about it. No matter what." Like I’ve discussed in previous posts, the scared part of me always has different plans.
I have learned that talking about past trauma can be equally as traumatic as the trauma itself. In an attempt to overcome the difficulty of verbalizing my pain, I have tried planning out exactly what I want to say, sometimes even going as far as typing out my thoughts and feelings beforehand. Still, the words just haven't been there for me when I wanted them. Plenty of tears. But very few words.
These failed attempts have often left me feeling defeated, weak, out of control, and crazy. Not to mention the sense of failure that always follows and the painful realization that the proverbial "light at the end of the tunnel" is further away than I expected.
I have been searching and searching for a way to break the seal on talking about my past. For whatever reason, I had decided that disclosing that I was sexually assaulted to a faculty member would allow me to overcome the greater challenge of exploring the emotional consequences of my assault in therapy. I have been feeling like I could start opening up in therapy if I could just verbalize it to one person without feeling judged.
I also wanted to let someone – a “higher-up” – in my program know more about what’s been going on in my life because I felt like they deserved to know more. The faculty and administration in my graduate program have been so patient and willing to help me in any way possible. They have no idea how much their support means to me, and I’m not really sure how to demonstrate it yet (ideas welcomed!).
I don't want to mislead you by "tooting my own horn" too much - I didn't come right out and say it, and it definitely wasn't some eloquent, free-flowing story that came out. Not at all.
For some strange reason, when I first attempted to talk about it, I started grinning (laughing and smiling when talking about serious matters is something that my therapist has pointed out to me on numerous occasions - I guess it's some sort of coping strategy I've picked up along the way). I immediately felt disconnected from the whole situation. Grinning and using all sorts of filler words - um, well, let me see how to put this – I could not get out anything with meaning. Slightly defeated, I told my supervisor, "never mind, perhaps another day."
Instead of looking at me like I was being ridiculous or pushing me to talk, my supervisor began to tell a few stories from her personal life. They were serious stories, but she told them with a humorous twist. This short break from the pressure I was putting on myself to talk was all I needed to reconnect with my environment and myself. I wanted - needed - to try again.
I have been trying to hold on for as long as I can to the positive momentum that naturally comes with the start of a new year and new semester. I had set this goal to get some words out, and I knew that not achieving it would deplete this reserve of positivity. Leaving that meeting without achieving my goal today was not option.
When my advisor had finished talking, I wrote down the letters "PTSD" (I wanted to write down “RTS” but couldn’t) and she verbally filled in, "is what you have been diagnosed with." I nodded. Phew! First bullet point mentally checked off my list of what I wanted to share.
I tried to elaborate. No words. Just "ums" and smiling (weird, much?!).
My advisor then asked, "Is this from something that happened in your past or recently?"
I answered, "college." I started to feel the emotional rumble bellowing up, but I did not run from it. There were a few more things I needed to get out.
I wrote the word "triggers" below where I had written "PTSD." If the words weren't going to come out of my mouth, I decided to write down the ones that got me stuck so that I could say the rest.
I'm not sure at point I started crying, but I realized how badly I was shaking when my supervisor had to remind me to breathe. Unlike on past occasions when I have struggled to contain my emotions, I was able to calm down a bit and then proceed.
It definitely helped that my supervisor was an amazing judge of when I needed a break. As we worked through my story, every time my emotions began to approach the threshold of "overwhelmed," my supervisor would interject with a humorous personal story. Her stories were not insensitive attempts to divert the topic and mood to something else; she was clearly concerned but wanted to allow me the time I needed to recollect myself. I am so grateful for what she did today.
Through this team effort and multimodality approach of writing, gesturing, and talking, I was able to get out the gist of my story. How receiving an email from “the biggest one of these possible” (pointing at the word “trigger”) and having a patient with the same name as the “the biggest one of these possible” (again, pointing at the word “trigger”), coupled with being a student again, has made “this” (pointing at the “T” in the written acronym “PTSD”) resurface.
I succeeded in letting her know that I am doing better – my depression and anxiety are much more manageable now – but I expect the occasional drawbacks due to unexpected triggers (e.g., the slide with the words “sexual assault” from my class lecture on preparing for the work place). I was able to let her know that I expect to get caught up on schoolwork, but that it’s taking longer than usual because I’m simultaneously dealing with this stuff in therapy.
I have been on somewhat an emotional rollercoaster since this conversation, which took place early this morning. I left the meeting feeling like a load had been lifted; however, shortly afterwards, I felt exhausted, disconnected, and later somewhat depressed.
Despite the slight turn toward negativity, I have noticed a very positive change in how I cope with negative feelings (e.g., self-blame and guilt). Instead of taking the emotions at face value (e.g., “If I blame myself, then I must be at fault”), I am working hard to acknowledge the emotion, and then accept it (e.g., “I might be blaming myself and feeling very vulnerable right now, but these feelings will pass”).
I think I’m ready for therapy. I think I’ve broken the seal, and I’m ready to talk.