Previously a straight-A student taking honors and AP courses, I suddenly started failing classes because I couldn’t focus. The flashbacks were so disruptive, I’d completely space out in class or would start writing in my journal just to stay grounded. Of course, my teachers noticed.
My relationships suffered too. At first, I withdrew from friends, unsure of how to interact with people when my perception of reality felt so split between flashbacks and actual life. I was also in a new romantic relationship at the time my PTSD was setting in, and I found the flashbacks were even worse when I tried to be intimate with someone. For several years, I would have the experience of suddenly coming to with a partner looking down at me with their brow furrowed, or to a gentle tap on the shoulder, a confused and concerned embrace.
“Hey, where did you go?”
After a few months (and some classroom adjustments) I was able to concentrate better in school. I became incredibly fixated on getting good grades and earning a scholarship so I could get away from my hometown. I never wanted to feel like that girl being asked why her grades were slipping ever again. I felt like I had something to prove—that even with my PTSD, I could be successful instead of curling up in bed and crying like I sometimes wanted to, even though no one knew. I held myself to a really high standard.
On some level, I’d been a high achiever my entire life, but now there was this little blue ball of fire in my gut that never went out. Looking back, I’m relieved I never sought solace in drugs or alcohol, but I can recognize now that I developed an addiction of sorts to work. Work gave me something to focus on. If I was constantly moving, there was no room for intrusive trauma thoughts.
During times when I was feeling insecure and inferior because of my past or was experiencing what I call a PTSD flare-up, I would push myself—often to the point of burnout. Logically, I knew that breaks were important, but after so many years of living in a fight-or-flight state, I found I didn’t know how to relax.
My trauma definitely affected my dating life—directly and indirectly. I was always worried about being “too much” or “not enough.” I also had a tendency to go out with guys who treated me poorly or who were emotionally unavailable. I tried on the personas of the “Cool Girl” and the “Tough Girl” and the “Girl Who’s Not Looking For Anything Serious,” but eventually I realized they were all just ways I was trying to protect myself. I also used my busy work life as a way to build emotional distance and set boundaries I didn’t feel confident enough to set for myself.
Over the years, I occasionally tried to talk about the assaults, but whenever I tested the waters, I would almost always be met with the question, “Were you drunk?”
While that answer was no, what if I had been? Or was it somehow worse than I’d been totally sober and therefore more responsible for not preventing it?
Though it would take me a long time to find the words for it, I harbored a lot of anger towards myself: for not knowing better, for not being able to stop the assaults, and later, for my mind and body for not working properly under stress. I became so frustrated at the way I would just shut down when triggered, or if I didn’t shut down, I’d have a meltdown over something seemingly small and feel unable to express it to anyone else.