I was one year out of a relationship racked with abuse and four months into a safe one. I had met a man who didn’t hit me, didn’t cheat on me, steal from me, threaten me, intimidate me, stalk me, choke me or attempt to kill me. He was kind, gentle and generous, stable and patient, and I was in love with him. I finally had the kind of relationship I never thought would be mine.
So why was I standing in the street, shaking uncontrollably and screaming at the man I loved over a meaningless miscommunication? Why was I still behaving like he was my abuser? More importantly, why couldn’t I stop?
“This sounds like PTSD to me.” My therapist held my gaze, calm and gentle.
We were four sessions in, and — as calm and gentle as she was — I was unprepared to confront the idea that I was suffering the same mental anguish endured by soldiers. Explosions, massive casualties, lost limbs. That was the stuff PTSD was made of. I was abused, sure. But I was successful. I didn’t struggle with addiction. I had a good job and good friends. I was a survivor.
One week later, I found myself in the shower, sobbing. I was remembering what I had done the night before. I was remembering the vitriol exploding as I shouted at my partner. The fear that the neighbors heard me screaming. What would they think of me? What did he think of me? Suddenly, I heard my abuser’s words in my head. They were always there, but they were loud now. I was unlovable. I was crazy. I deserved everything that happened to me.
I got out of the shower and stared at myself in the mirror. I didn’t recognize the person staring back at me. I was always petite, but this woman was frail. I could trace the curve of her ribs between her breasts. A fistful of her red hair clogged the shower drain. She didn’t look like the woman I thought I was — the one with a vibrant career, a quick wit and cache of bad celebrity impressions to pull out at parties. She looked like a trauma survivor. She looked like someone who’d been through war. She looked like someone who might be suffering from PTSD.
Like any good, stubborn member of the 21st century, despite my therapist’s gentle prodding, my emotional reckoning befell me lit by the soft blue glow of my MacBook. Not knowing where to start, I searched the internet for “PTSD.” I got war. Veterans Affairs websites. Addiction. Violence. Men. I tried “PTSD in women.” Veterans Affairs again. Female soldiers. The same symptoms that didn’t apply to me. The Internet was confirming my abuser’s words and my own fear — that it was my fault. I was crazy and unlovable.
Finally, I tried, “PTSD in women + domestic violence.” This time, the search results made my heart race. Extreme fear. Emotional numbness. Jumpiness. Anxiety. Avoidance. Self-sabotage. Eating disorders. Fellow survivors wrote about their experiences trying to conduct themselves in new, safe relationships. They loved their new partners. They wanted to be good partners, too. But their conditioned fear, mistrust and crippling anxiety meant they pushed their partners away, sometimes aggressively, sometimes without knowing why, sometimes without realizing it until it was too late. Just like I did.
To put it simply: I’ve never been to war, but my body doesn’t know that. Kicked into high gear by the length, nature and intensity of my past abuse, my defense mechanisms work overtime to keep me safe, even when there’s nothing (or no one) around to hurt me. My conscious brain knows that the abuse is over, but my subconscious operates under the impression that a fist could come flying my way at any moment. Fists, my body knows, are attached to men who might say they love you. My new boyfriend, as kind and generous as he is, gets caught in the crossfire of my subconscious hyper-vigilance, and intimacy is my trigger.
When I finally accepted my diagnosis, the weight of years of self-loathing, shame and doubt were lifted. I was free to believe that the source of my emotions was not an unsolvable equation of deficiency and craziness, but my body’s determination to survive in the face of very real threats to my life. Today, my PTSD still gets the better of me, and it’s still a struggle to trust my partner the way I’d like. But with therapy and mindfulness, I’m working hard to regain control of my body and to learn how to relax into romance again. I’m still in an amazing relationship that somehow gets better every day. Most importantly, though, I’m alive, and I’m not only loved — I finally have the power to love myself.