You look traumatized, my therapist said to me as we walked into his office this afternoon. What happened?
There was this guy on the phone behind me in the waiting room, and his voice–the timbre, the vibrato, the words he used–reminded me of someone I’d much rather forget. And I had a flashback and now I’m panicky, which isn’t anything new recently because I’ve been panicked for three weeks straight practically, I answered not at all calmly.
I finally opened up about being sexually harassed every day for three months this summer. Oh, yeah, you won’t find that in Kerry’s notes, I interjected as he flipped through the notes he inherited from my former therapist who’s on maternity leave. I never told her, and I only told her about being raped because it was in the notes she inherited from the psychiatrist who saw me when I went to the ER.
He responded: I’ve noticed that you’re more willing to open up in our sessions, and in Kerry’s notes she continually mentions that you’re “holding something back.” And you keep mentioning that the people who feel safest with, the people you share the most with, are, for the most part, male. Why don’t you open up as much to females?
Because, I replied, they’re the ones who bullied me growing up. And even though I was traumatized by guys, the emotional pain of being bullied, for some reason is too much for me to open up to girls as easily. The trauma of what guys have done is physical, emotional, and mental, but physical pain is easier to deal with than emotional pain, which is why I started self-harming.
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Can we talk about the sexual harassment? Because everything you’re telling me right now, explains a lot.
I sat in silence for a while, as tears started streaming down my face, and the panic started to return.
I was terrified all the time, every time I walked into that warehouse, I started to feel nauseous, knowing that they were out there, behind piles of exhibits, driving around forklifts, watching me. They would watch me walk up the stairs to the print shop, leer at me with their eyes. They would smirk at me every time we passed them each other in the all-too-narrow hall. They’d sneak up behind me, which they knew I didn’t like, touch me on my shoulder, smell my hair (I cut six inches off my hair in August for precisely this reason). They would look me up and down, starting at the top, working their way down, slowly taking in every part of me, and then they’d say, “Nice,” as they licked their lips. And they made crude comments, and told me the same joke every day: “What did the bosses say when the intern told them she was raped by the warehouse guys? Nothing, they didn’t believe her.”
And they made very specific threats about being raped and about nobody knowing or caring. Then, one of my last weeks there, I spent most of the week at their other warehouse in the city, and the workers there didn’t know I spoke Spanish, so they were more brazen, more bold, more specific, and I remember everything they said, every threat, every joke. And then I remember one day being alone in the office with one of the warehouse guys, and as I came out of the bathroom, as I was still out of view of the one security camera trained on the office area, he exposed himself to me, smirking as he said, “I’ve never disappointed a slut.”
And I can’t tell you how many days I had panic attacks at work, where one of the would sneak up on me, and then I would go to the bathroom where I would hear guys’ voices in the hall outside, and I would have flashbacks to that school bathroom in eighth grade when those five guys raped me, and literally, right there, in that bathroom during the middle of the workday, I’d want to kill myself: my suicidal urges soared out of control.
This is where I stopped because I saw the look on his face: I’ve seen it many times–sadness and pain.
And he said, Kaleigh, you have PTSD.
It’s not new information, not really. I mean, I thought maybe I did. Some of my friends thought I did. It was hinted around by the Psychiatrist in the ER, but to have someone actually say it was like a slap in the face.
You’re traumatized. I see it in your face during group every time one of the maintenance guys drops something. I see the panic in your eyes anytime someone walks behind you, and when there are people sitting behind you in group–especially guys, you keep looking directly at the door, as if you want to bolt out of there. And now it all makes sense: why this past week at group you were more comfortable and open–1. There were no guys there, and 2. no one was behind you. It makes sense why your suicidal urges rise when your anxiety is high.
He’s right you know, which I suppose is why I’m going to therapy in the first place: I’m traumatized. And I’ve accepted what’s happened in my life, but now I’m trying to deal with it, heal from it, move past it.
Because here’s the thing: I don’t want to be this way. I don’t want to kill myself everytime a guy looks at me wrong in the store. I don’t want to panic when I go to the gym by myself. I don’t want to keep being triggered by certain brands of cologne, certain voices, certain personalities, and I certainly don’t want to be triggered by the President of the United States and the news.
But, right now, I am. And my anxiety is high, but more than that, my panic is high, and with the panic and the triggers comes suicidal urges that I’m trying so hard to keep in check, to maintain control of.
Because I want to be in control: I want to be able to say “Yes, this guy touched my hand when he took the pick-up-your-child ticket from me, but it’s ok. You don’t have to panic, and the terror you feel is not going to kill you.”
Because right now, I’m struggling to be in control, and sometimes the terror I feel is so great that I’m actually afraid it’s going to kill me. I couldn’t even sit in the waiting room before therapy today without freaking out because some guy I didn’t know was talking on the phone.
But, here I am, and I’m trying to do my best, trying to carpe the diem: panic and all because, yes, I’m hurting and overall, I’m not doing well at all, but I’m not going to let any of that stop me from living my life.
As I left his office today, my therapist told me: I admire the way you keep facing your fears, running headlong into life because so many people would retreat if they were in your shoes.
I used to, I replied. I used to. I used to hide within myself, keeping my pain to myself because someone else always had it worse, but then one day, after I texted someone that I had a panic attack at work, he came and sat next to me on the bench at the gym that evening, and he softly said, “Kaleigh, are you ok?”
And I found the strength to say no, I found the strength to be honest. And I haven’t stopped since.