Reading: How I Learned to Live With Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Mind Health

How I Learned to Live With Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

One writer shares her childhood sexual assault, and how she learned to cope with trauma

By Vanessa Mayfield

The following article details a past sexual assault, and may be triggering for some readers. This essay was written with the hope that sharing a highly sensitive story would help other women know that they are not alone. CoveyClub creates a safe space for women to share their experiences. 

Waiting in a crowded checkout line at my local Trader Joe’s, I watched people hurry in, choose fresh cut flowers, pick out organic fruit, and check their lists before they hurried out again. It’s the time of day I call the “yoga hour” — that time between rush hour and dinner, when the store is filled with sunlight and young women fresh from yoga class, dressed in crop tops, spandex, and lycra shorts. They always look so vibrant, fit, and glowing, and today was no exception. I laughed to myself, knowing that it was high time for me to return to the gym, even if I wouldn’t be wearing those same, tiny shorts at my age. 

I did a little people watching and then something, or rather someone, caught my attention. Standing near the exit was a tall, pale, heavy-set man in his mid-50s. He was dressed in a dingy, unwashed tennis outfit with yellowed socks and busted sneakers, and seemed grossly out of place. That tripped my inner radar. I zeroed in on him to get a closer look. 

He had a paunch; his few, greasy strands of silver hair were slicked back with pomade, his lips were thin and flaccid, and he had deep-set, hooded eyes, like those of a lizard or a frog. His presence was an unwelcome ping to my nervous system. He had no groceries and no grocery bag. My jaw clenched, my stomach lurched, and my heart started to race. 

My mind’s eye threw up a single word: Predator.  

He had positioned himself by the sliding glass doors, so that all the young women going in and out would have to pass near him. His lips twitched and twisted into a lewd half-smile as his eyes scanned their young, beautiful bodies. He wasn’t just ogling them. There was a distinct sense of agitation behind that phony smile of his and I shuddered at the thought of what was running through his mind. Old, familiar feelings of rage, panic, and disgust welled up inside me, but I kept my composure while I clocked him from the checkout line. 

I paid for my groceries in a blur, thanked the cashier, then I looked up and he was gone. I hurried outside, scanning the sidewalk to see if he had followed any of the young women from the store, but he was nowhere to be found. I was shaking, I felt angry and scared; I threw my grocery bags in my car and drove home. Once I was safe inside my home, I locked the door, took a shower, and got into bed. 

Coping With Childhood Trauma
The man who assaulted me decades ago was long dead. But the creep in the grocery store so closely resembled him, it was as though he’d been brought back to life and was now free to torment me all over again. I am old enough now (and have had enough therapy) to not let my past trauma consume my every waking moment, but the fear and revulsion at seeing that man’s living, breathing doppelganger lingered for days. 

I have often wanted to write about women who live with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) because I live with it too. I know trauma inside and out; I know the havoc it wreaks in our lives, and I know how much women struggle to find the right help. But I was convinced that I could somehow write an article without revealing any personal details. Call it shame, call it dissociation — whatever the reason, I wanted to help, but I also wanted privacy. 

In remembering what psychiatrist Carl Jung called synchronicity, two events occurred immediately after my experience in the grocery store, and I knew I had a decision to make. 

A female CEO, with over 50K followers on LinkedIn, posted a personal account of her sexual assault, in a justifiably angry response to the “letters of support” written for That ’70s Show actor Danny Masterson, who was just recently convicted and sentenced (30 years) for raping two women. As usual, her post was vivid and direct. She didn’t hold back. 

Another account I found on social media that day belonged to a well-known Hollywood stuntwoman. She recently published a bestselling book about her childhood sexual trauma and was encouraging women on Instagram to share their stories too. She spoke directly to her followers about shame, healing, and courage.

I responded to both of the women who posted their stories on social media and I told them I was writing an article about women and PTSD. The support and feedback I received was instant and overwhelming. So many women messaged me with their private stories, wanted to connect, and confided in me; I knew then that I had to show solidarity with the brave women who were sharing their pain with me. And I couldn’t do that on paper in a credible way, without revealing the fact that I suffer right along with them. 

Just like these women, I have my own story to share. 

During a childhood sleepover at a new friend’s house — while her mom was out of town — I woke up around midnight in her parent’s bedroom. My friend, who was only 9 years old, was in the bed right next to me and her stepfather, who was in his 40s, was on top of her and forcing sex on her.  

I was 7 years old.

What took place in that room over the next 12 hours is to this day, indescribable. She didn’t scream or tell him to stop, and I remember being scared to death for the both of us. He didn’t force intercourse on me, but he sexually assaulted me in every other possible way and he forced intercourse on her repeatedly, while I was required to watch. I remember being given water and being allowed to use the toilet. I remember a locked room with a loaded gun on the nightstand and I remember feeling like no one was coming to rescue me. And no one did. 

When I walked home alone the next day, sometime after lunch, my mother noticed that I had left my sleeping bag at my friend’s house and sent me back, alone, to that house to retrieve it. A second assault occurred that lasted several hours. I know that my mind left my body during and after both assaults. I can’t tell you how long I was “gone,” and I still have no idea how, at the age of 7, I managed to pretend that I was okay. But to this day, I know that my ability to think fast and pretend is what kept me alive.

Understanding PTSD from Sexual Violence
According to a study at the University of Pennsylvania and published by the American Psychological Association, women are twice as likely to develop PTSD than men. And, according to the APA, sexual assault is the highest risk factor for a woman developing PTSD, especially if the assault happened as a child. The World Health Organization estimates that 1 in 3 women will experience physical or sexual violence in her lifetime. Those numbers are staggering, but it’s not only sexual assault that can cause the disorder. As the APA notes, “The lifetime prevalence for PTSD in American women is 10–12%. It is estimated that for every 100 women in the U.S., 8 of them will develop PTSD at some point in their life.”    

Trauma is complicated. Ask almost any woman and she can say she’s experienced at least one distressing event in her lifetime: a car wreck, a house fire, a miscarriage, being fired from a job, the infidelity of a spouse, or the death of a loved one. All these events, though deeply unsettling, are not the same as being traumatized to the extent of developing PTSD. 

According to The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the traumatic events that lead to PTSD are distinguished by the “immediate threat to life” signal in the brain and body of the victim, during the actual event. 

Like a sexual assault. 

In these grotesquely out of the ordinary circumstances, the limbic system in the brain of the victim perceives death as imminent. It becomes so overloaded with negative stimuli and response hormones, that normal function is halted, and the system goes haywire. The “fight or flight” response is either too intense or lasts too long, and the limbic system becomes altered to such a degree that the damage to the brain is often, though not always, permanent. 

After such a traumatic event, if nothing and no one is in place to help the survivor through a process of recovery, she emerges abandoned and alone as though walking on a high wire with no safety net below. She’s attempting to move forward with a brain and a nervous system that are, quite literally, fried. The damage is real: it is both physical and psychological. 

A month or two after my assault, which became public when a 15-year-old girl escaped him and told her mother, me and two other neighborhood girls, and my 9-year-old friend, were taken to an attorney’s office and questioned separately about our experience. It was surreal. I received no medical exam and no therapy, and my parents never sat me down and said, “We will protect you.” They simply never mentioned it again. At night, I was afraid to go to sleep and I would stare at my bedroom door until my eyes closed from sheer exhaustion. I started locking all the doors and windows in our house, and I began to pray obsessively to a god I couldn’t see, and didn’t really believe in, begging him to keep me safe. At school, however, in the classroom with my books and assignments, I felt more normal. I escaped into the dependable comfort of my intellect and my imagination. That part of my life didn’t change. 

I never saw my friend again. Her own mother sent her away and she wasn’t there for the trial. My abuser was arrested, convicted on two counts of “fondling,” and after serving two years, a judge wiped the conviction from his record. He had raped a child and he had assaulted me, and abused several other little girls in our neighborhood, and he was given a clean slate. 

We moved away when I was 8. Time passed and my most persistent symptoms disappeared for a while, though I do remember being vigilant and panicky, off and on, throughout my childhood. By the time I was in high school, it seemed to be a long-faded memory and I convinced myself that because he didn’t kill me, I was fine. 

Delayed PTSD from Childhood Trauma
Professional therapists refer to extreme trauma as “soul murder” for a reason. When PTSD takes hold of a woman or a female child, her original, confident, intact self has been obliterated, leaving her to put herself, and the pieces of her life, back together in a world that now feels forever altered and unsafe.

I was diagnosed with PTSD at the age of 38, but I had been living with PTSD since I was a child. Because I was a tough little kid who stuffed it all down I became a walking, talking mashup of coping skills and defense mechanisms. And I did this alone, without help or comfort from my parents. Thankfully, there was enough of the original “ME” leftover to survive without their help. 

I found therapy that worked for me much later in life, but my symptoms first went into remission when I left my parents’ house and moved to New York City alone, at age 22. I began to thrive, and the distractions provided by the city helped me bloom into the woman I was meant to become: Curious, ambitious, fun-loving, and creative. I still had panic attacks every so often and I encountered plenty of incompetent therapists who said they treated trauma patients but really did nothing to help. 

Years later, I experienced the most terrifying and paralyzing bout with PTSD when my oldest daughter turned 7, the same age I was when I was assaulted. It’s a common occurrence and a “textbook” psychological trigger in women who have children. It’s important for women who have PTSD to understand this devastating event before it happens. I was unaware and unprepared, and I suffered for years, obsessed with fear for both of my daughters’ safety. 

What hadn’t been properly addressed and treated when I was younger, announced itself in horrifying ways later in my life. Not only did I suffer, I had to hide it from my daughters and everyone else, because I didn’t want to burden anyone or scare my children. 

That’s when I knew I needed serious intervention. I left my unhappy marriage, found a great therapist, and together we found a plan that worked for me. Even though I sometimes feel that my nervous system has reached its “sell-by date,” knowing that anything can happen TO me is also knowing that anything can happen FOR me, and so far, I’ve led an extraordinary life. 

I’ve worked as an actress on TV and was in an off-Broadway play in New York. I’ve traveled around the world — alone. I  raised my children as a single parent. I attended the University of Pennsylvania later in life, not caring that I was almost twice the age of everyone else in the class. There, I was invited to study 18th-Century French History in a small class, with a world-renowned professor. I was the oldest student, and the only woman, in the group. His letter of recommendation granted me entrance to the city archives in Paris (which is essentially like a personal invitation to the White House). Today, I am a writer and a published author. 

Learning to Live With PTSD
PTSD is a constant companion. There is no way around that fact. But it doesn’t have to be a dark shadow either. It can be a part of who I am, but it doesn’t define me. My assailant died in 2005. With time and therapy, I have personal boundaries in place to make me feel safe and I no longer live in fear and dread; but I don’t think any woman with permanent PTSD can ever be totally reconciled with the actions of their abuser. Today, I tend to react with anger rather than fear when confronted with a creep, and I also know the importance of staying busy and productive. It’s important to find people with whom you can share your experience in confidence and with whom you share a commonality.  

Relatively speaking, most of my days are great. The best days are when I’ve just finished a poem or a perfect chapter, an article or an essay, and I’ve hit the “send” button. I haven’t thought about the past at all. I’m happy, my children are safe, and my eyes are fixed on the future. I get in the car, roll down the windows, and and sing a song off The Police’s Synchronicity album. You know the one… the one everyone thinks is about a toxic lover. Really, Sting is singing about someone who goes from being controlled, to taking control. 

I sometimes sing it when sorrow is nowhere to be found and I am me — just me — for the whole day. In these moments, nothing and no one controls me. I am in control. I can only wish this feeling for myself, and for all my fellow survivors, for every single day to come.

If you know you have PTSD or you or a family member are experiencing symptoms of PTSD and would like professional help, or would like to find a community of women with whom you can share your story, please understand that it is never too late and you are not alone. Below are some links to help get you started: 

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk wrote the book The Body Keeps the Score, essentially considered to be the modern reader’s bible on how trauma manifests in the body. It comes with a workbook for people who suffer with trauma and PTSD. His website is also a wealth of information about healing. 

Recently, I have found more inspiration, community, and support on Instagram and podcasts, of all places. The Hollywood stuntwoman I mentioned earlier is Kimberly Shannon Murphy. You can contact Kimberly on Instagram and find her book Glimmer on Amazon. Cameron Diaz wrote the foreword, and the book is heartbreaking, but incredible. 

If you prefer podcasts: How We Can Heal, The Overcoming PTSD Podcast, The Anxiety Coaches Podcast.

Here are more Instagram accounts that are very good resources for community, healing, and personal stories: Coping with PTSD, cptsdfoundation, Healing & C-PTSD, I Am Perry Power

Vanessa Mayfield is currently working on the edits to her novel, due in 2024. You can find her debut book of poetry, GYPSY, on Amazon. Connect with Vanessa on LinkedIn or on Instagram.

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