My Journey to Peace with PTSD (excerpts)
by: Lady Spirit Moon Cerelli
The following is a collection of excerpts from the book My Journey to Peace with PTSD by Lady Spirit Moon Cerelli. Visit her website at www.peacewithptsd.org.
When I was seven my father had sat me on his lap and offered me fifty cents to do something for him. I had no idea of what it would be, but I trusted him. He carried me to his and Mom’s bedroom. Drunk and stumbling, he tossed me on the bed and undressed me. He tried to penetrate me. But when I screamed out and he saw the blood between my legs, he forced me to give him oral sex.
“…A few weeks later Daddy startled me out of a deep sleep in the early morning hours. Frightened, I became instantly awake when I smelled the alcohol on his breath as he again carried me out to the kitchen and put me on his lap. This time when he asked me if I wanted to earn fifty cents, I mutely stuck out my hand. Remembering not getting the money the last time, I felt brave at having conquered him when he put two quarters in my palm. I wasn’t going to chance losing any money again and put out the other hand as I stared at him with tight lips.
Blushing, he hesitated only for a moment before putting two more quarters in my other palm. Hatefully, he stated, “I’ll hurt your brother if you cry like a baby.”
Like a good little girl, I did what I was told. I wondered why Daddy didn’t wait for Mom and take her to bed. More often than not, I had the childhood fancy that a monster took over Daddy’s body at those times. I began to notice other things about him and wondered what I had done for him to have changed so drastically. Sometimes I doubted these things happened in other families.
A week or two later we were in his bed for the third time. There were just threats this time, no “I love you” and no money. I tried my best to keep from breathing so I wouldn’t smell his breath. His body smelled bad, too, and he was impatient.
Then Mom walked into the room.
For an eternal moment the thunderbolt silence stopped my heart and Daddy’s breathing while Mom froze in her tracks. In a flash and in one stride, she stepped over to the bed. With a hand of steel she hauled up my hefty body by one arm, and snarled, “Get your ass into your own bed.”
I was shocked. Mom had never treated me roughly like this before. I was shocked further by again not knowing what I had done. Having raced back to my own bed, I lay there and listened to them arguing, using words I had never heard before.
Then silence descended – no noise of any kind.
My chest thumped harder and I held my breath. I didn’t know what to expect as fear, like acid, filled my throat. In the hard silence, I heard a dresser drawer yanked open and slammed shut with such a loud force that my body jerked in bed. My curiosity got the better of me. I quietly slid out of bed, trying not to disturb my sister. At my bedroom doorway, I quietly dropped to my hands and knees, slowly twisted my upper torso, and peered around the partition into my parents’ bedroom. I was certain they could hear my heart because it was beating so loudly.
The light from the alley shining through the dirty window silhouetted Mom pointing a handgun at Daddy as she said in a hard whisper, “Touch her again, I’ll kill you.”
The next day Mom would neither talk to me, nor look at me. My heart ached worse than my arm as I teetered on the verge of tears for most of the day. I didn’t understand what made her angry with me. The morning hours dragged by and it wasn’t until late afternoon that I finally found the courage to speak.
I patted Mom’s arm to get her attention. “Mom, Daddy pees in my mouth when he takes me to bed with him.” I wanted her to be as mad at him as she was with me.
She sat staring straight ahead as her lips tightened into a straight line. She was so quiet, I wondered if she had heard me. I touched her arm again, “Mom…”
Shrugging my hand away and responding in a tight, angry voice, she said “He didn’t pee in your mouth. You just dreamed it.”
Dumbfounded? Yes. Betrayed? Definitely. How could I have dreamed that? What was wrong with her? The look on her face as she stared straight ahead told me she wasn’t going to say anything else. So I crept back to the room I shared with five other sisters and one brother and stayed in bed, alone, until dinner time.
I remained confused for a long time afterwards. Mom and I stopped talking altogether. My world had forever changed yet again on the night Mom walked into their bedroom and found me and Daddy in bed. It wasn’t my doing and there was no one I could turn to…”
Granny was tiny in built but her character was strong. Looking at her, you knew she was a mountain woman. She wore wire-rimmed glasses, a ready smile, and had a whispering laugh. She was everyone’s favorite person. She stayed with us for a couple days twice a year when she came north. Granny was the only one who hugged me during that time of my life; and I followed her around like a love-starved kitten.
“…We were in the basement talking quietly while doing the laundry. It had been four years since Daddy had hurt me and the ‘nightmare’ stayed with me. I still dreamed of seeing Mom with the gun and remembered what she had said. When the washer and the two tubs had drained and Granny and I were wiping them out, it occurred to me to ask her the question burning in my mind those four long, troubling years.
“Granny, can I ask you something?” I held my breath.
“Yes, child.” She looked at me with a soft smile curving her mouth. She always smelled of the rich, pleasant mixture of snuff and peppermint.
I related to her what had happened the night Mom had found me with Daddy.
Lowering her eyes, it was a few moments before she raised her head. “Have you talked with your mother about this?”
Silence stilled my heart for half a beat before it resonated off the walls and around the room, surrounding us.
“Yes. But she tells me it was a nightmare.” Then I forced out, “And I know it wasn’t, Granny,” and I started crying. Mom’s rejection was still an open wound in my heart. It also hurt because she hadn’t trusted me with the truth.
The bare light bulb over our heads cast a dingy yellow glow. A shaft of sunlight coming in through the small, square basement window highlighted dancing dust motes in the thick air, full of the damp, earthy odors of the basement. The smell of bleach still clung as the sound of water dripping into the floor drain intensified in the silence. My heart pulsed in my throat, drying it out. I would dissolve in the pool of water in which I stood if Granny, too, told me it was a nightmare. I could not bear it if she, too, had turned on me.
She looked at me, and I saw tears well up in her eyes and fall on her cheeks as she whispered, “Child, I cannot speak to you of this.” She then gave me a hug different from any I had ever received from her before. Turning around, she walked through the other room and up the stairs, her soft footsteps echoing in the thick silence.
Each drop dripping into the drain sounded like a small explosion to my ears. As my heart beat fell into rhythm with each drop, my trust in my family drained away. With each beat of my heart, my trust in love flowed out into the city sewer. In those moments, loud with silence, I realized three things: I wasn’t crazy after all because I now knew I hadn’t dreamed the nightmare; I would never lie to another no matter how much the truth might hurt; and since I wasn’t able to rely on anyone, I would always stand alone…”
All during my growing up years, I knew my insecurities and ineptness had stemmed from my stepfather raping me, and seeing and tasting my own blood. With continued emotional neglect and abuses, behavior disorders set in and my low self-esteem set me up to be a prime target for the military rape when I was 19. I had joined the Navy after high school and finished IBM school. I suspected my pregnancy before transferring to my second base. In 2003 in a flashback I saw the image of my lying on a bed with blood all over me, the bed, and floor. I knew I had been drugged and raped while unconscious and was left to die. I had lost the baby. I suppressed the memory of that rape for forty years. I spent a week in a VA Hospital followed by several months of therapy.
It was during an interview with a psychiatrist I became aware of how the mind can actually kill.
“…The female psychologist was nice and I liked her at first, but her questions dredged up memories like a backhoe digging up garbage, one shovelful at a time. I became agitated, ready to cuss her out.
“What do you mean, ‘How did I feel about the rape?’ I wanted to castrate the bastard.” Stupid bitch!
She turned her chair toward me and asked, “Have you had any miscarriages?”
Surprised by her question, I responded, “Yes, all of them.”
“How many was that?”
She turned back to her computer and started typing. I sat there, dumbfounded, in the quiet room. The silence soon rang with each click of the keyboard. Each tap clicked louder and louder until each click tapped my skin like a tiny electric shock.
What do the deaths of six babies have to do with anything? Why are they important?
The silence stretched on as my chest squeezed my breath, preventing it from leaving my body except in a slow, narrow stream. My thought processes stopped after slogging through a quagmire. Then a dark, forbidden, lone thought crept in like a deadly shadow in front of my mental screen, forcing me to look at it. I tried to push it away, but was held immobile in the chair.
Please, God. Have I not been punished enough?
The psychologist didn’t ask too much about the flashback, but asked about my childhood and my teenage years. I managed to answer her questions, but my throat burned with bile drawn up from my stomach. The nausea wouldn’t pass and stayed with me during the drive home.
I was pregnant when I transferred to the new base. The blood in my flashback wasn’t all from an internal injury. The clinical psychologist had told me there were men out there with very large penises. Bill had forced my miscarriage.
I knew psychological pregnancies existed. Can there be such a thing as psychological miscarriages? My brain reached out and touched that dark, forbidding shadow, dragging it into the light.
I killed my babies.
When I lost my last baby during the sixth month, I was told it was due to too many male hormones transferring from the adrenal gland to the placenta. Autopsy on the first baby, also six months in the womb, indicated the same thing. The four babies in between were aborted between three and four months into the pregnancy. There’s no way of knowing for sure, but I’m certain every time I became pregnant, my adrenal glands, through my own psyche, secreted excess hormones until a hormone imbalance eventually aborted the baby. I also suspect the subconscious memory of the original rape aborting my baby was what psychologically triggered my adrenal glands. This interview was powerful to me for it was absolute proof the mind can kill.
My nightmares were bad, but, so help me, my waking hours weren’t much better. There were times, if I stood still long enough, I’d hear strange noises: the clinking of filled drinking glasses; soft voices, laughing; deep voices of men in a huddle. The voices didn’t talk directly to me, but I began to wonder if I was schizophrenic. I sat at my computer for long hours playing FreeCell game or Solitaire, or searching the Internet, anything to quiet and divert my thoughts.
Tears, waiting just behind my eyelids for a glance or a word of any kind came too easily, too many, and too spontaneously. Sketchy, fragmented memories affected my short-term memory, because I used so much mental energy trying to piece them together. There were times I couldn’t remember what I had been told five minutes before and, feeling foolish, wouldn’t ask the person to repeat what was said. The memory fragments either took up a large space in my brain, or created a great void. When I said what I thought was in my mind, the information came out in fragments, or not precisely the way I meant it to come out.
Crowds became a real problem. If I walked into a room I’d immediately search for all the exits, should I get trapped for some reason. I tolerated loud noises for a while, but eventually I’d have to leave the room when the noise became a loud buzz or a drone in my head, setting my nerves on edge and sometimes giving me a headache. I had always jumped at sudden noises. Now, tiny, sometimes imagined, noises made me jerk, always edgy.
And sensitive! I was beyond it, sometimes even paranoid. What did they mean by that? What do they want from me? What do they want me to do? What do they want in return? My brothers had teased me about being gullible when, in fact, I had simply trusted everyone. I’d always searched for that someone in whom I could place my confidence. Trust was now a real issue. I even began questioning my trust in Jim. Could I believe everything he told me?
I was afraid to go to bed. Though my antidepressant medication helped me to sleep, it didn’t assuage my fear of dreams. I moved around in the daylight, but was afraid anything I did or said would bring on another flashback. I kept away from people as much as I could.
The sessions with Jan helped me to keep my sanity while trying to establish what I felt was a new life. She was my lifeline through what I felt was a surreal life. The antidepressant medication kept my spirits up, but it didn’t stop my fears: fear of another flashback, new or old; fear of people; and fear of noises. Fears were alien to me; I had not been afraid of anything prior to the original flashback.
Reading the PTSD description, I immediately latched onto the word “helplessness.” This word resonated with each and every trauma I remembered. Helplessness, in my experience, is not an emotion, but a state of mind, a state of “no control.” You have no tools with which to deal with your trauma. No words to express your anger. For a few moments nothing registers. Nothing! The shock is so great usually no thought can penetrate into the psyche when the brain is under such stress. In moments of horrific shock, my psyche imprinted upon my brain, not only the visuals of the scenes, but one or more of my five senses. After this moment of helplessness lasting for a heartbeat, there’s an instinctive reaction to freeze, flee, or flight. My first reaction was to freeze.
I often wondered if, in my youth, I had been given the tools to deal with abuse or traumas, if I would have learned to fight or flee, rather than freeze. I also wondered if low self-esteem caused me to freeze, thinking I didn’t deserve any better and, therefore, zoning out during the abuse. In my adult life, it took only an imprinted sense or a word to send me back to the past to virtually relive the trauma.
I recall reading somewhere when prey, running from its hunter, may run for a while then just stop, drop to the ground, and wait for its fate—an internal sense telling it there is no escape. If time passes, and by some miracle, the prey is still alive, it will stand up, do a heavy shiver dance to shake off the trauma, then walk away, seemingly none the worse for wear.
Even though we are animal based, humans cannot always shake off life-threatening traumas. I’ve learned with and through my clients and by my own experiences, the only way we can prevent it from living deep within us is to share it. With no one to share the trauma, and no internal understanding or coping tools gained from a similar experience, I had devised ways of internalizing the trauma as best I could. Unfortunately, “the best I could” wasn’t enough and further deepened the pain.
Once I had experienced the state of total helplessness, the elements of fear and ineptness silently programmed themselves into my psyche. At the same time, I subconsciously created and put into place the first ember or spark of anger. Psychologically, I used the mortar of tears and spent emotions to cement into place the first invisible stone wall I thought would protect me, and I spent my life building on it. Each instance of a minor or major trauma would resonate with this wall when I remembered or re-experienced a small part of the visual trauma, or if one of my senses was again used to bring on a memory or create a new memory.
With each fear or incident of ineptness experienced after the first trauma, I added a coal of anger to those already smoldering. Had the first trauma (ember) been put out by my somehow dealing with it right after the event, or within a short time, the ember would have died. As it was, it smoldered long enough to spark a fire. This fire of anger intensified with the addition of other embers. This fire eventually turned into rage. This rage became so viable it took on its own entity; it was the silent entity I felt behind me all the time. This was the it standing, waiting expectantly, like a stalking, salivating, wild beast. My psyche was aware of it but couldn’t comprehend what it was or why the invisible thing felt so real.
Fearing it taught me to stay in front of it, to keep it behind me. This fear, stemming from the raging fire of anger within me, was the basis for my road rage, spiking anger, and sudden shifts of emotions so dramatic others wondered if I had a split personality when I suddenly turned on them. Anger, for the most part, was the only emotion I felt and it pushed down all others, numbing me. Anger drove me, though it didn’t present itself like anger. It made me super efficient so it took more than one person to replace me whenever I left a job
My mind never shut down, never stopped. It often looked for different ways to do a thing because the old way was no longer interesting. I quickly became bored with jobs and felt the need to get another one, as different and as challenging as possible.
My anger was a fire so alive that its excitement wasn’t comparable to anything else. I constantly searched for external excitement to equal the exciting fiery anger within me. As all things in the universe, there must be a balance, my psyche sought external means of equalizing the internal self. The term is “self-medicating,” and these actions created behavior disorders, sometimes compulsive, like drug/alcohol abuses; surrounding myself with “stuff” because I didn’t feel loved; excess food intake; spending money; sex for the euphoric sensation during climax; racing anything on wheels; any perilous act that put me at risk for that ultimate thrill, my need to defy – my need to satisfy.
I recalled what an adult advocate said one time about an abused woman. The woman was asked why she left a relationship with a man who loved her, gave her a good home, and supported her and her children. She responded, “It was too boring.” The key word being boring. She was unaware of the fire within her because the fire burns very quietly, its intensity very cold. That fire is always in need of being fed or sated.
I now understand the woman was only aware of the external need to be excited. Hence, she provoked a fight which brought on abuse followed by the honeymoon period; the stage where the abuser asks for forgiveness and acts the lover. The excitement of the abuse, sex after the abuse, sometimes followed by alcohol or something to smoke as a sense of celebration, is what the woman sought. For a while, she was satisfied…but only for a while. The fire needs the continual external fuel.
When the same adult advocate asked an abuser what it was about a woman that told him he could abuse her, he replied that he could watch a woman walk across the street and know if he could abuse her. He named four traits:
- Rounded or sloped shoulders—the fire is a great burden. This trait is the most prevalent of all the body languages for those with low self-esteem.
- They will walk with small steps, will not step out.
- There is very little eye contact—the lack of courage to “face” another. This one was different for me. I held eye contact. But others don’t want someone to think they are being confronted and they don’t want to invite a confrontation.
- They continually apologize by starting their sentences with “I’m sorry….” This can also be seen in body language.
I’ve discovered through my own body language and some of my clients, behavior patterns stemming from a state of helplessness, in both men and women. From the first experience of having no control, control became an obsession—a lot of times overpowering anything else. My body language and the psychological reasons involved with my anger mirrored others I have witnessed in my various careers, and in those I have counseled.
- Rapid and/or constant speech—fear of hearing the embers crackle or a spark would burn me if I stopped; the need to psychologically keep it a good distance in front of it, so I ran with my speech.
- The need to dominate the conversation or be the center of attention—I felt like I was floundering and didn’t want to drown, get lost, or be ignored.
- My hands flew, usually in the faces of others, as I spoke. Though I enjoyed the attention, low self-esteem deemed me unworthy, so I felt the need to push people away.
- Arms folded across the chest—the protective stance. This trait is prevalent with everyone if they are discussing something sensitive to themselves, or if they fear being hurt. It is a move to protect the heart. This was also my way of saying, “No matter what you say….” Much like standing in defiance with my hands on my hips. When my hair was long, I would move my head to move it out of the way or out of my face. This is similar to a mental karate stance. Someone preparing themselves for defense.
- I became efficient, worked overtime hours to do what I thought others could not or would not do to my satisfaction. I was an overachiever, doing the work of two or more people. Work was also a distraction. I never wanted accolades, but they would sometimes spur me on.
- I was so driven, I strongly lead the office or group or created a cause to which I could give my energy, usually my all. This gave me my purpose in life.
- All of my careers were in a field helping others. I couldn’t do anything for myself, so I did for others. I guess I was also looking for answers, especially if I was aware of something amiss in my own character.
I was so focused and driven I sometimes wore blinders to everything and everyone in my immediate surroundings. This focused drive masked or shut down other emotions, enabling me to live on a day-to-day basis. “Living a life of quiet desperation” is an apt description. I’d bounce from job to snack, to phone, to snack, then maybe to just a small glass of wine, or to outrageous sex, then the next day, perhaps, to another job.
When my anger spiked, I might say or do something to hurt another. Upon hearing or seeing what I had just said or done, I’d become contrite and apologize profusely and try to make up for it. Not understanding what was going on with my mood swings and acid tongue, I never kept friends. Eventually it was better to be left alone than to go through the hassle of forming a relationship only to shatter it. If folks were uncomfortable with me—oh well.
My internal fire became a friend so familiar that it inspired me to build a stronger wall. This inspiration became so strong, so invasive, the distraction of it caused me to mishear or miss entirely what was said or not see what was done. I fed on it. Indeed, it became my food, my shield, the anger became the very reason I got out of bed in the morning. It made me feel alive. It kept me alive.
The positive side to this internal rage was its ability thrust me into creativity. I’d go into my studio and create something. In my fifties, I was in the gym working out and rediscovered what moving the body does for the brain. I even trained for the senior competitions in racket ball. I realized I wasn’t working for training purposes, but, rather, to get out excess anger. I recognized my anger, but didn’t understand from where it came.
I now understand how a trauma isolated within us gains strength. Once it is shared, it no longer has a foundation on which to build. When we face the original hurt, we actually crack the foundation to which all other hurts, pains, and traumas have attached their tentacles, each turning into a stone placed on the foundation. Every time we share a connecting dot to that trauma, we lose a stone in the wall, as the trauma loses its control over our lives…”
Going over this submission for the book, I’m pleased to say that I’m no longer the individual I was when the book was published. It did take its toll on me physically, though. Right now I’m doing things for myself as well as seeing an acupuncture to put my body back on line, as it were. I plan to set aside time for myself each and every day for the rest of my life, because I’m worth it.
Every day I pray for men and women all over the world. I know of very few people in my lifetime who have not been affected by abuse of one form or another, even if they just know someone who has been traumatized. I embrace every man woman who survives and do what I can to help her or him. In my heart I praise every woman or man who has the courage to stand up and say, “Hell no, you don’t have permission to hurt me.”
Below is the Survivor’s Psalm, written by Frank Ochberg, MD, author and founder of the Gifts From Within website. Dr. Ochberg is a PTSD survivor. I have permission to use it. A copy of this psalm is still pasted on the shelf door of my desk.
Know you are loved.
I have been victimized.
I was in a fight that was
not a fair fight.
I did not ask for the fight.
There is no shame in losing
I have reached the stage of
survivor and am no longer a
slave of victim status.
I look back with sadness
rather than hate.
I look forward with hope
rather than despair.
I may never forget, but I need
not constantly remember.
I was a victim.
I am a survivor.
Know you are loved
Lady Spirit Moon Cerelli