Survivors Post War
My first real awareness that I suffer from episodes of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of being entrenched in a violent relationship for 6 years, was in a group session at the Emergency Shelter. We were asked by the therapist to recall a memory from our childhood that gave us a warm, secure, happy feeling…a good memory. Within minutes the room transformed into individual respites of giggling girls running on hillsides, baking cookies with grandma, and having sleepovers with other giggling girls. As we sat there sharing our memories, physically displaying the attributes of that particular moment, our therapist quietly ask us to prepare to shift gears. It was time to recall a recently disturbing and/or frightening moment.
What happened next was simultaneously disturbing and alarming. Dark emotions eked their way to the surface smothering the gaiety that had just pervaded the room. I was no longer observing the other women in the room, I was simply trying to survive the moment. Sounds muffled and I stared at the therapist for my que to let go of the images flickering through my consciousness. I was completely unaware of how the reflections of a memory were physically effecting me until I realized that the therapist had focused her attention on me.
“Are you OK?”, the words wreaked of English yet I couldn’t make sense of them so I continued to stare at her. “I want you to put both feet flat on the floor, sit up relaxing your shoulders, and take deep breaths.” The words were not a command so much as a warm summer breeze cutting through icy stillness to wrap around me and guide me from the fridged memory holding me captive. I was aware that I was now breathing, which caused me to realize I was holding it only seconds before. Slowly, I started to release my intellectual grip as if plucking on finger at a time off of thought that I wanted to keep still, neither playing forward nor re-winding.
As I returned to the present my body started to purge the stress of the event. I could feel stinging in my eyes that quickly turned to hot liquid trailing down my cheeks causing my nose to tingle and release its own physical manifestation of tears. An innocuous 3 minute ride in an elevator at the courthouse was now a trigger for an episode of PTSD. The proximity of the men in such close quarters, elicited from my memory, a barrage of dialogue, commands, and ridicule that I used to receive from my abuser and I froze, held my breath, and waited anxiously for the massive doors to open releasing me from captivity. That is the memory that sparked physical response.
“Survivors” become veterans of our personal war. Some of us ended our tours early. Others of us extended our tours choosing to see if we could make a difference. Still, others embrace abuse and violence as a career, staying on as a way of life. Sadly, too many to count, will find their way out only to re-enlist time and time again. Our training was expert, paralleled only by the techniques of the military.
“…these techniques were meant to break down barriers to embrace a new set of norms and way of life (brutalization), condition them to pair killing with something more enjoyable and pleasurable (Classical Conditioning), repeat the stimulus-response reaction to develop a reflex (Operant Conditioning), and finally the use of a role model of a superior to provide action by example…these techniques increase psychological trauma experienced in veterans post-combat (Wikipedia)“*
The greatest gift you can bestow on a survivor is the same you would give any soldier returning from war…the gift of patience. Kindness and understanding as we re-assimilate back into society is deeply appreciated even if we are hesitant to embrace it as a reality. We were torn down and rebuilt by our abusers to believe that such things are mythological. Do not interpret reticence on our part as failure on your part. Time and consistent expressions of love and friendship will help us to leave the war behind us, trust, and believe in humanity again.
* Though I am not a fan of Wikipedia for academic reference, in this case, it was not inaccurate.