Waking Up Scared (Healing, PTSD & Sexual Abuse)

4am is her witching hour. She wakes each morning with adrenaline coursing through her veins. Her heartbeat hammers rapidly and every muscle in her body is impossibly tense. She’s in fight or flight mode but there’s no one to fight and nowhere to run.

The first 30 seconds feels like half an hour. It’s the time in between sleep and waking. What’s real? What isn’t?

It’s much worse than a bad dream. It. Feels. Like. It. Just. Happened. Again.

The tears come but she fights them. She checks the sheets but they’re clean. She sits on the side of the bed – rocking back and forth but it’s a little too fast to bring comfort. “Breath!” Can’t get enough oxygen. Hyperventilating is terrifying. Head pounding. Need light. Need air. Must get out of this room.

She walks outside. Lights a cigarette. Nicotine helps. Start the coffee – no chance of going back to sleep now. Go to the bathroom but turn away from the medicine cabinet mirror. Cold water on her face stings but feels real. Still avoiding the mirror, can’t stand the image there. She needs a shower but it doesn’t feel okay to do that yet.

Settle in with some reading – daily affirmations. Get centered. Prayers are sent but feel futile. She never got the hang of meditation. It just gets her stuck in her head.
Song on Pandora grabs her attention:

“I’m still alive but I’m barely breathing .Just praying to a God that I don’t believe in”
The Script “Breakeven”

Make plans for the day. Staying busy helps. Make lists. Combine them with yesterday’s lists. Sun’s coming up. Therapy today. Have to go shower. Fear. Self loathing. Shame.

She doesn’t know that others struggle with this too. I try to be gentle but direct, “You’re naked and wet in an enclosed area with nowhere to run or hide. You close your eyes to keep the shampoo out. You can’t hear what’s going on in the rest of the house. It’s a form of physical vulnerability. It makes sense that you’re scared.

I just want to help her stop feeling like she’s crazy – like she’s the only one who struggles with these things.

Scalding hot water. Pain. Scrubbing way too hard. Still can’t remove the feeling of being dirty. “You know that it’s not on your skin. It’s burned on your memory. It’s a feeling of shame based on what was done to you. It’s not your fault. Please cool off the water. It’s hurting you.”

We talk about how she copes, how she sees herself, how she struggles to have self control. She confesses what she sees as sin, “I feel like a little girl a lot of the time.” She finds it hard to believe that I have known a lot of adults who feel like children.

I ask her to recall how she described feeling broken when we first met – she nods. We’ve talked about defining moments in her life – the first at age 8. She was never free to be innocent and her emotional growth was arrested by ongoing sexual trauma and abuse.

She’s 35. Physically she feels like she’s 80. In the outside world her composure and behavior is that of a very successful professional. Emotionally/internally she’s somewhere between 8-16 depending on her feelings, stress, and levels of anxiety.

She lives with PTSD, an anxiety disorder. She experiences vivid nightmares, flashbacks, and intrusive thoughts. She has co-occurring panic attacks and depression. Her prognosis is good and getting better, but the work ahead of her is hard. In truth, it’s one of the most difficult things a human being can do – but it’s not as bad as what she’s already been through and it’s not as bad as living this way indefinitely.

We’re working on strategies to promote a sense of safety. She’s implemented simple ways she can use her five senses (taste, touch, sound, smell, and sound) to connect to her here and now. She is mindful that when she’s overwhelmed, she is not dealing with her current reality – she is somewhere in her past.
She’s making changes to her physical environment. She realized that even some of her prized possessions are associated with her past memories. They were in her bedroom when she was eight. They’re packed away now – not discarded – it’s just not time for those now.

We’re working on a very difficult piece. She’s begun journaling the content of her nightmares and we’re exploring the themes and the memories. She’s accepted that the only way out of it is through it because there is no forgetting.

She’s accepted that it’s ok for a grown woman to leave her lights on at night, hug stuffed animals, and do anything that doesn’t hurt her to make the “shadows” to go away. She’s getting better and through group therapy and self help she’s connecting to others with similar experiences. She knows now that she’s not alone.

Telling our stories connects us. The best we can be alone is lonely.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” – Maya Angelou

Jim LaPierre

About Jim LaPierre

Jim LaPierre LCSW CCS is a Recovery Ally, mental health therapist and addictions counselor. He specializes in assisting people in recovery (whether from drugs, alcohol, trauma, depression, anxiety, or past abuse) overcome obstacles and improve their quality of life.