**GoodTherapy.org Disclaimer: This article contains sensitive material that may trigger strong reactions for some readers, especially those with a history of trauma.**
A personal introduction from a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and survivor of Post Traumatic Stress (PTS).
In the past, I would have been unable to share this story of my loss of innocence. Only recently, I have broken through the silence of shame and feel very comfortable in sharing. My motive is to help others who are also living in shame and are having devastating and paralyzing symptoms of PTS!
When I was in grade school I was a snowbird and went to school in the sunshine state. During 7th thru 10th grades, I would live in the North with my sister and her husband, which parentified both my older sister and my brother in law. They became my “step parents,” turning my older sister and her husband into my step-mother and step-father. Also throughout my childhood, I was browbeaten by my father. My mother would show me her Caesarean scar at age 5 and tell me that her scar and the difficult birth were my fault. I grew up with every toy except what I needed most: unconditional love, guidance, encouragement, safety, and coaching. Instead, I grew up horrified by my father’s outbursts of anger. I could do nothing right and my mother would reinforce the fact that I wasn’t smart enough to make anything of my life. Even at age 40, when I told my mother I was going back to college, her remark was “No! You will never finish just like you have never finished anything else. You don’t have what it takes to go back to school at age 40!” Thank God I didn’t listen to her!
During my 9th grade year, around Easter, I was sexually assaulted by my brother-in-law who would later end up in prison for unrelated charges. I felt helpless and victimized. The worldview of families being safe was destroyed. Things like these were not supposed to happen! My worldview of what a father was supposed to be was already destroyed by the fact that I felt I wasn’t important enough for my parents to be with me. It was more important for them to go to Florida for six months out of the year and leave me behind.
Suddenly, I felt different. I felt damaged and no longer knew what I was supposed to be! I truly believed I was no longer a man. I was confused and felt like a freak. I catapulted into alcohol use and inappropriate sex, mainly pornography of women. I believed with all my heart EVEN though I was heterosexual, no woman would want me as I was raped by a man. I used sex and alcohol to escape the intense feeling of shame. I used prostitution as I believed no woman would want me. I would also believe it was my fault. He used his charm to manipulate my vulnerability and I quote, “I bet you can’t get a hard on!” He took a 15-year-old’s need to prove his manhood and then went to the unthinkable! He became very forceful, then took over and penetrated me. I was thrown against the wall and heard his violent, escalated voice say, “If you tell I will kill you and your sister!” I also witnessed my sister time after time being beaten in their bedroom, explicitly being told that she was just a “whore”! I ran away, hoping to hop a freight train, but saw a group of homeless men in the rail yard around a campfire. I had a moment of clarity and returned home. This was the dead of winter. I wasn’t wearing a coat and did not feel the cold! The next year I would be sent to an upper crust Military Academy, which I loved as I knew what to expect.
Two years later, I was invited to a beer party on my best friend’s farm. An older man who was introduced as an ordained minister brought the beer. Little did I know he had a secret agenda! I was the first to become tipsy. To my horror, the old man was suddenly sexually assaulting me in front of everyone. Feelings of intense shame burned an imprint of horror in my brain. I woke in a fetal position, confirming my fears from the first attack were true! My feelings dragged me down like an anchor into a sea of endless terror and despair. I was a freak! I wished I were dead! I was terrified of telling my own father. I knew he would go into a rage, so for the next 20 years I buried my hurt with alcohol and marijuana. Years later, I would learn my best friend who was at the party and said “This guy is going to attack you” also suffers to this day from PTS! How dare his brother’s friend bring a predator to the party. Tonight as I was talking to my friend or brother by adoption about this article he, in fact, became physically sick! He said he felt like a coward and to this day has never failed to help someone who was being attacked! I actually told him that after our “talk,” I have restored my worldview of a true friend and we are at this moment even closer. He is now the brother and family I always craved!
My recovery began when I became sober in 1986 at age 36. I had a psychiatric admission for depression. At age 40, I heard a fellow patient whisper, “You will never be happy unless you finish your education.“ A substance abuse facility later hired me, and I began my new career helping people who wanted to change their lives and become sober! At the same time, I was accepted by Governors State University to finish my bachelor’s degree. I kept showing up for class and ended up graduating with a master’s degree in counseling/psychology in 1996. My grade-point average was 3.85 and I belonged to Chi Sigma Iota, the counseling honor society. I also graduated with honors.
Later I moved to Florida and worked in a community mental health setting. I became a licensed mental health counselor in 1999 and now provide counseling therapy at the mental health facility and at my own private office.
All this time, I kept telling myself that I wasn’t good enough. I still reacted to events that reminded me of being a sexual assault victim. Again and again I felt the anchor of PTS (as I learned to identify it) dragging me down, helpless. I would overreact to witnessing abuse, feeling rejected, and being put down, which would take me back to my critical mother, especially to criticism from women. I continued to have nightmares and dreams of being finally accepted by my family. My insomnia increased and I was intensely startled by noises at night.
A couple of years ago, thinking I was completely “recovered,” I was providing education in halfway houses about the reactions and effects of men who were sexually assaulted by men.
I attended a pain management psychotherapy conference in the mountains of North Carolina, and was invited for a drive along the back roads by a fellow attendee, a physician who had a cabin in the area. While getting in the car, he remarked, “All you would do is play with yourself anyway in the motel room.” This hit a nerve. We drove through the country roads of beautiful North Carolina, and he was very charming and very funny. I had a gut feeling that something bad was happening. I didn’t really know what. I was becoming somewhat on guard. As soon as he pulled into the driveway of the cabin in the woods, I became overcome with fear that my new friend was going to molest me. I began to panic that my life was in danger.
I went into recovery mode and began to “change the channel” in my mind despite distractions in my head. This time I stopped the anchor of PTS from dragging me down. I went into positive self-talk. I said, “Today is what is real! I was assaulted many years ago! Not going to happen today!” I also began to take deep slow breaths and say, “This is now! My beliefs are part of the anchors of my past. I’m okay!” I kept this conscious self-talk going, got out of the car, and used my five senses to get me into the moment. I felt the leaves under my feet, I looked at the trees, and I felt the cool breeze against my skin. In my mind, I stowed the “anchor” and focused totally on the beauty of the cabin in the woods.
Since that conference, I have done a lot more work on my inner self. I have worked on my unconscious “anchors of horror.” For me, PTS is like a time bomb encased in a cement vault. I have chipped away at it. I have resolved some issues but it continues to be there. However, through teaching myself coping skills such as meditation and self-hypnosis, I have the “anchors” better stowed away. I have become certified in hypnosis. I learned that by practicing 20 minutes of self-hypnosis or meditation on a daily basis, my intrusive thoughts are manageable. I don’t overreact as much to “anchors” of the past. I am not as hypersensitive to noise. I realized I was a normal person who reacted to abnormal events. As long as the anchors are stowed, as long as I can stay in the moment getting my bearings, I can continue to help myself and others who have PTS.
I truly believe my being a survivor, learning ways to let go of the anchors of the past, and changing the channel in my head better helps me to help others.
In my website, I have a PTS blog. Please read it along with the great articles in Goodtherapy.org. I am here to tell you there is hope. Traumatic events happen to normal people. If untreated, the impacts can be debilitating. If you identify with any of my story, or any of the symptoms I have disclosed, you may want to think about getting help. Again PTS is like a time bomb and one never knows what smell in the air, what one may see, what one may feel, what one may hear, what one may taste that may detonate that bomb.
© Copyright 2009 by John Lee. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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