PTSD: Trauma and the Road to Recovery

PTSD: Trauma and the Road to Recovery

WARNING: This article contains description and discussion of rape. Please proceed with caution.

By: Cassandra Litten

I am almost always in a state of wanting. I want companionship, I want sex, I want understanding, I want affection, I want commitment. I crave the idea of what it means to be in a relationship. I always have. I am hopelessly in love with love. My default settings are: besotted or heartbroken.

Moving to Chicago in 2011 offered me a gorgeous freedom I’d not yet experienced: living on my own. When I arrived, a fresh-faced twenty-one year old, I made a vow to change the path my romantic life was on and it technically worked, although not as ideally as I’d planned. I created an online dating profile and, in the two years I lived there, went on a handful of dates. Most were weird and boring, some were fine. None were good.

Eventually, after moving in with two of my best friends in 2012, I decided to pull the plug on online dating. There were plenty of people for me to fall in love with in real life and it would likely end up with the same results: me, alone.

A couple months shy of my twenty-third birthday, my longtime Chicago-based crush moved to New York City and I was feeling at an all-time low romantically. I didn’t want to deal with emotions and heartache anymore, so I reactivated my dating profile, updated my “looking for” status from “short/long-term relationship” to “casual sex” and started talking to a thirty year old man who lived pretty close to my neighborhood. Before this point, I had been entirely disinterested in hookups, but after being so unsuccessful in getting what I wanted out of dating thus far, I thought it might be time to try something new. In my head, I envisioned this being what I needed to pull myself out of the rut of singledom. We would meet, begin our free-wheeling, hookup-based relationship, and somewhere along the line we would simply fall in love. We liked some of the same TV shows, maybe there was more commonality lurking beneath the surface.

We met at a local bar, where we talked for awhile. At his insistence, I drank the beer he bought for me while he drank hot black coffee. We certainly didn’t click. He talked about his job and how he didn’t like dating women his age. I felt uncomfortable and wanted to leave, but, not wanting to be rude, I stayed. At that age, I was too naive to recognize any red flags.

With two pints of beer and no food in my stomach, we walked to his apartment. On his couch, with one of my favorite TV shows playing in the background, we made out for a few minutes. From there, things escalated quickly, and that’s when I started backing away. He wasn’t a good kisser and I hated his shitty one-bedroom apartment. I did not want to have sex with him and I told him that I had changed my mind. Maybe later, I said, still trying to be considerate of his feelings, but not now. I was kinder than he deserved. He became aggressive, his shift in mood so immediate it was jarring.

He said, “If you didn’t want to, you wouldn’t have come here”.

I froze. My favorite earrings, spherical wooden studs, were ripped from my ears and fell onto the floor as he pulled my shirt off. Overwhelmed with fear and shame, I let it happen because I didn’t know what else to do.

He raped me, then he drove me home. The next day he sent me a text and asked when he could see me again. I blocked and deleted his number and told my friends it was a bad one night stand and I would never be doing it again.

The effect of that night on my mental health was instant - my life became a living hell. I didn’t want to accept the bare fact of what happened, but, in the process of squashing down that truth, my, as yet undiagnosed, depression and anxiety began to spiral out of control. For a short time, I was suicidal. I either couldn’t sleep or slept far too much. I would lash out at friends and feel so guilty about the anger I couldn’t seem to control, I would cry. I always had a hard time in large crowds, but after that night, taking the train during rush hour or hanging out at a busy bar felt impossible. Everywhere I went, I was afraid of seeing him.

More than anything, I was deeply ashamed. I should have known better. I should have fought back. I should have recognized the signs. This should not have happened to me. How could I have allowed this to happen to me?

Abandoning the life I loved in Chicago was harder than I can say, but I knew it had to be done. Something was wrong with me, and the longer I stayed there, the more vicious it grew.

After moving home, the volatile mood swings persisted and the depression remained severe, but I chalked that up to living in my parents’ basement, missing my best friends, not having a job, and feeling like an absolute failure. For a short period of time, I had plausible reasons for why I felt the way I did and I clung to them.

I don’t know what made me want to start talking about it, but I think I eventually grew too tired to keep up the charade. I began seeing a therapist and psychiatrist regularly, which led to an official diagnosis: generalized anxiety disorder (called it), clinical depression (called it), and post-traumatic stress disorder (...oh).

Things in my brain began to click after the PTSD diagnosis. So much of what I was experiencing finally made sense -- intense, often inexplicable mood swings, finding it suddenly impossible to be alone in unfamiliar surroundings, becoming defensive or completely unresponsive when unexpectedly touched, panic attacks triggered by even thinking about anything having to do with that night.

I honestly believed that this untrusting, angry woman was simply the shitty person I was. I hated myself so much and thought that these things I hated were just part of a truth that couldn’t be avoided. I didn’t realize that these things all manifested within me as a direct result of being raped.

My “yes” turned into “no” and it happened anyway and of course that was my fault. I didn’t allow myself the freedom to change my mind.

I found a lot of comfort in having an official diagnosis. The prospect of altering how I react to triggers and how I exist in my day-to-day life was so god damn appealing. I am now twelve months into seeing a therapist regularly, and ten months into taking daily anxiety medication prescribed by my psychiatrist.

Over the course of a year, I told everyone I love about what happened, family first, then friends. It happened slowly because I was scared of how they would react - scared of somehow letting them down, scared of breaking their hearts. Never in my life have I had to tell someone something so horrible. They cried for me and, yes, it did break their hearts, but it was because they love me.

The #MeToo and TIME’S UP movements have provided a sense of safety I never expected to find from anyone or anything. At first, the initial few weeks of whirlwind, sexual assault-laden news stories were so triggering, I had to go out of my way to avoid it. I expected the same old song and dance: accusations in the headlines followed by denial and zero consequences. Instead, something miraculous happened. Survivors of sexual assault stood together, people listened to their stories (believed them) and it sparked a movement that is truly changing the world. The courage of these survivors has helped me find the strength to share my own story and fight against the norms surrounding rape and sexual assault.

Every single day I am fighting to maintain a grip on the sensitive, kind person I used to be. My trauma sits like a weight on my heart that I don’t always have the strength to bear. I don’t know if I will ever fully get over this thing that happened to me. I am still learning that I didn’t do anything wrong, but I am taking steps towards healing.

If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Cassandra Litten