Survivor, not Victim

TRIGGER WARNING: Discussion of domestic violence

unspokenAlthough I didn’t realise at the time, for years I had PTSD. When I was 19 I was in a domestic abuse relationship with a physically violent guy who tried his hardest to ruin (and end) my life. Prior to being in this relationship I had mistakenly believed that women in domestic abuse relationships must be somehow to blame as much as the man. After my experience, my view on this changed utterly. It’s funny how life changing events can often be the most unpleasant things that happen to a person. I’m a stronger person now because of coming through this relationship and out the other side, but it haunted me for a long time.

Here’s what Wikipedia says about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder:

Post Traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may develop after a person is exposed to one or more traumatic events, such as major stress, sexual assault, terrorism, or other threats on a person’s life.The diagnosis may be given when a group of symptoms, such as disturbing recurring flashbacks, avoidance or numbing of memories of the event, and hyperarousal, continue for more than a month after the occurrence of a traumatic event.

Most people having experienced a traumatizing event will not develop PTSD. People who experience assault-based trauma are more likely to develop PTSD, as opposed to people who experience non-assault based trauma such as witnessing trauma, accidents, and fire events.

In the typical case, the individual with PTSD persistently avoids all thoughts and emotions, and discussion of the stressor event and may experience amnesia for it. However, the event is commonly relived by the individual through intrusive, recurrent recollections, flashbacks, and nightmares.

As Wiki explains, PTSD can be experienced as disturbing recurring flashbacks, avoidance or numbing of memories of the event and hyperarousal. My “traumatising event” was most definitely assault-based, lasting over six months and culminating in one horrific night of violence, the like of which is echoed in This Is England (although in this film, the violence is racially motivated).

I don’t think a description of the violence is particularly useful, or readable. What I want to talk about is my recovery from PTSD. As I mentioned already, I didn’t realise that the anxiety and panic attacks I’d been having for years were symptoms of heavily repressed flashbacks from the violent relationship. My anxiety had become so debilitating that by 2014 I was taking more and more time off work and retreating further and further away from a social life, as I was unable to leave the house with panic attacks brought on by almost-unidentifiable triggers. My breathing was a daily issue for me, brought on by stress and anxiety, and nothing seemed to help. Eventually, at the suggestion of my mum (who’s a GP), I went privately to see a CBT practitioner (after waiting nearly a year for a referral through the NHS that never came through).

At first the CBT practitioner focused on helping me to manage my panic attacks. We made some progress, but not loads. Then I went to Glasgow for a gig. Glasgow was where I met this guy, a place that I had avoided returning to for 10 years because I was terrified of the memory of him, of seeing him or of him seeing me. I thought I would be ok, but the second I stepped off at Glasgow Buchanan Bus Station it all came flooding back. I was physically there in 2014, but my mind was reliving everything from 10 years ago. I went into full panic mode. My ex-partner, who was with me, didn’t help by also freaking out. We got to the hotel we were staying in and I spent nearly two hours trying to meditate my way out of my panic. It worked, mostly, and we made it to dinner and the gig in the end.

My next appointment with the CBT practitioner was the most helpful session I’d ever had with any counsellor, and I’ve been to quite a few over the years! I hadn’t intended on telling him about Glasgow, but then he asked me if there was anything I wanted to talk about and it all just came out. He told me that I had classic PTSD symptoms, but that it was quite unusual for the symptoms to last for 10 years after the event, especially as I had been to a counsellor for 2 years after the relationship ended.

That evening he taught me some great techniques to separate myself from the flashbacks and memories of the event. He got me to focus on the amount of time that had lapsed since the event, to remind myself that it was 10 years ago, in 2005. He got me to focus on how much of a different a person I am now, that the person who went through that experience is no longer my reality. He got me to write his initial down on a piece of paper, scrunch it up into a messy ball, slowly push it off a desk, stamp on it, squish it into the ground, hold it there until the end of the session and then flush it down the toilet! It all sounds so naff, writing it down now, but it was the most therapeutic experience of my life!

Since then I’ve focused on maintaining that separation of thoughts and feelings, preventing them from taking over the here and now. The lessons I learned from CBT have been helpful in overcoming my depression as well as almost eliminating my anxiety. For the first time in my life, and certainly for the first time in 10 years, I feel like anything is possible. My fear, anxiety and panic attacks are no longer holding me back. Asking for help is the hardest thing to do, but ultimately the best decision I ever made.

At the the time immediately after the event, I felt like a victim. After an unwelcome phone call from the perpetrator, during which he told me that he had ruined my life forever, I decided to stop being a victim and to become a survivor. I’m a fighter and each obstacle that I overcome makes me stronger.

Onwards and upwards!

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