The Longest Winter

As summer turned into fall and fall to winter, I felt the sunshine leave my soul as well as the sky. Though there were circumstantial inconveniences such as being down to one vehicle, my husband working two jobs ’round the clock, and navigating our schedules amongst those things; the real challenge was inside me. The flashbacks became frequent and unrelenting, averaging one every couple of weeks. However, it wasn’t seeing that was so daunting a task, but rather feeling. I was remembering not just in my mind, but with every fiber of being. And it was brutal.

Before a memory would come back, I would get very nauseated, dizzy, irritable, and have terrible hot flashes. I have always found it interesting the way my body reacted to something my mind was not yet aware of. When the flashbacks happened, I would get intense sharp pains in my head. I have heard this is common though I don’t actually know what causes it; but I think of it as information being downloaded or transferred from one part of my brain (subconscious memory) to another (conscious memory). I would get this very strange sensation in my eyes, where they felt to be getting bigger and bigger and I would blink uncontrollably. This is common in switching.

Some indicators that a switch may be about to occur include the following: feeling “spacey”, depersonalized, or derealized; blurred vision; feeling distanced or slowed down; feeling an alter’s presence; or feeling like time is beginning to jump (indicating minor episodes of time loss).

External signs that a switch may have just occurred include the following: heavy blinking as if the individual is just waking up; mild muscle spasms or jerks; disorientation or visible confusion; checking the clock or one’s watch; seeming not to remember anything that just happened; complaining of a mild or moderate headache; adjusting clothing or posture; clearing one’s throat before speaking so that the tone or pitch changes; or a change in vocabulary, syntax, preference, opinion, temperament, skills, or general personality. [Switching and Passive Influence, https://did-research.org/did/identity_alteration/switching.html ]

It would usually be a couple days after the flashback that the even more unnerving trial presented itself: feelings. Sometimes sheer rage. An unquenchable anger not just at my perpetrators, but more so at God. On more than one occasion while everyone else was asleep but my tormenting past kept me awake, I lashed out at Him in the darkness of the night and out of the darkness in my soul. Why? How could you let this happen? So many times? You must really hate me. WHERE WERE YOU?

The grief. Grief I didn’t know existed plagued my days with perpetual sadness until I felt as though the last flame of hope had been extinguished down to nothing but ash from the bright fire it once was. Wondering if I’d ever again be the vibrant, cheerful girl others once knew me as. And how was I to explain this to others when I didn’t fully understand myself? I couldn’t, so I isolated myself from everyone and everything, retreating into my battered and bruised shell as a means of protection and self preservation.

Lord, you said a mustard seed. Just a mustard seed of faith is all it takes. Do I even have that anymore?

Wanting desperately to get back to the “old me” but seeing it would be impossible, I wondered why. Not even why did it happen, but why do I have to remember? Wasn’t everything better before I did? I was happy. I was content. I was hopeful. Knowing there was no “off switch” to stop what I was experiencing, I came to the conclusion that like a woman in the hardest part of labor unable to stop the waves of pain crashing in; the only way out was through.

Switching

That same summer, 2018, during a ministry meeting as I was being prayed over, a rupture of tears came pouring out while I sobbed, “I’m a bad girl.” At first a few were perplexed by this outburst, except our mentor who explained that this was not “33 year old Bethany” who thought she was bad, but rather a very wounded little girl who was wrought with confusion and shame. Upon pressing into prayer further, it was revealed that this fragmented piece was actually three years old. My first experience with being exploited and traumatized had ended with me being told how bad I was.

A trigger often cues PTSD symptoms, but in the case with someone who was very young during the trauma and experienced dissociation, a trigger can also cause what’s known as “switching”, something prevalent in people with dissociative identity disorder. In the website I just linked, it talks about switching due to triggers: “Finally, triggered switches are not desired by any of the alters involved and occur when stimuli has been registered that forces out an alter who can better handle it. For example, if an alter was created to handle abuse from a specific perpetrator and the system then runs into that perpetrator at the store, that alter is likely to be shoved to front so that no other alters can be hurt.” The majority of science and psychology websites will call alters what I prefer to call a fragmented piece. I prefer this because it is exactly that. A piece of the soul is fragmented, broken off from the core personality during trauma through the process of dissociation. The good news is that fragmented pieces can be healed and integrated back into the core personality once the Holy Spirit leads you through the process of reveal,feel, heal.

Though there are so many things that can be a trigger, for me personally the main one has been words. This has made managing it very difficult because we are surrounded by words all the time. From real life conversations, to listening to the radio, watching television, reading a book, or scrolling Facebook, words are everywhere and unavoidable. Since I cannot always avoid or manage when triggers occur, it has increased my dependency on the Lord. I have no control over when it will happen, because I cannot control what other people say. Thus, I lean on Jesus day in and day out. There is no other option. I can’t stop it from happening, so I cling to the One who gets me through it when it does happen.

Remember above how I mentioned a fragmented piece being attached to the words, thoughts and feelings, “I’m a bad girl?” Here are just a couple examples of how that one word, “bad” triggered both ptsd and switching. The first happened with my husband, unbeknownst to him. He had said the word right before we were going to bed, and though we had both been hopeful for intimacy that night, once that word was spoken all prospects of any time together quickly vanished. Within a few seconds I went from feeling relaxed and ready to snuggle up with him to feeling panicked and concerned. I knew something was suddenly wrong but didn’t know what. Why do I feel so anxious? What is happening to me? Something is not right. Please Lord, let the baby wake up…give me an “out”, I don’t know how to explain this to him…I don’t even understand… And my prayers were answered. The baby woke up, intimacy was no longer an option. Not that he wouldn’t have understood if I tried to explain to him, he’s so understanding and patient and good to me through all of this, but I didn’t even know where to begin. I went to bed that night feeling relieved and thankful that the baby woke up when he did, but also feeling so much frustration that my “condition” was costing me so much. I felt like a failure as a wife, and so much anger that someone could do things to me that would cause me this much turmoil and impact every aspect of my life. That is an example of a trigger, one word, causing PTSD.

About a week later I was at a bonfire at my friend’s house. There weren’t many of us there, it was a pretty small group. At one point we were able to sneak away for a few moments and I shared with her the experience I had after my husband saying the word “bad”. She helped me connect the dots back to that prayer meeting, and how that word was triggering the three fragmented piece that was wounded and traumatized. As we went back out to the bonfire, I felt really odd. Not panicked or anxious, just really strange. Almost like a different person. This was the first time I experienced depersonalization/derealization. The article explains it great, but all I can say when it happens is “I don’t feel like me.” This can be rather frightening but it never comes with panic, just a ton of bewilderment. It is very bizarre, to feel so disconnected from everyone and everything. I was really confused about how I was feeling, but in this incident talking about the word “bad” and how it impacted me triggered not ptsd but rather a switch, with that fragmented piece who had no sense of identity being pushed to the forefront of my personality. When I went to bed that night I felt everything I had felt at three years old during that first traumatic episode that had been frozen in time for so long. That feeling was complete and utter abandonment.

I want you to keep the perspective that this post was about one trigger. One word. One memory. One week. Since starting this journey of healing, there have been 156 weeks. 27 memories. More triggers than I could ever count. There’s also been One solution. One Lord over all. One Savior whose blood and love has gotten me this far. I know this process isn’t over, I’m not done. But neither is He.

The Blessing and the Curse

Dissociation is a very common coping mechanism for young children who experience trauma. While it protects our minds in that moment, allowing an escape for what is too overwhelming for our little souls to bear, it results in what’s known as fragmentation. I think this concept is widely misunderstood or unknown, so I’ve included a few links I think describe it well.

https://did-research.org/

https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/dissociation-overview#1

https://www.verywellmind.com/dissociation-2797292

I have tried to capture the essence of what this experience is like:

I want to tell you what they did,
tell you everything;
so that it never happens again.
But try as I might, the words won’t come.
The terror inside has left me undone.

It’s silence for now,
my mind has gone blank.
It’s transported to safety;
though my body trembled and my heart sank.

I’ll forget for now, though
part of me will always know.
I’ll keep pushing it down,
but the little girl won’t let it go.

She demands to be heard.
Doesn’t anybody care?
What they said, what they did;
my innocence stolen, my soul laid bare.

Lights, camera, action, I do what I’m told.
But obeying is the death of all that is right.
Dissociation is the curse that keeps me quiet,
and the blessing that keeps me shining bright.

No evidence here.
All appears well.
You’ll never know,
because I can’t tell.

I was scared, and confused.
How could I understand?
Their hands were overwhelming;
so my mind went to another land.

Where I’m safe and no one touches me,
I’ll just block this all out.
But inside I’m shattered;
I just want to shout.

Why am I floating?
Who’s that little girl below?
What’s happening to her is unthinkable.
Will anybody stop it? Does anybody know?

They can’t know while I’m up here,
I’m separated from it all.
Here I’m safe from these people,
but from here for help I can never call.

So I guess that leaves the question,
how safe can I really be?
For this momentary escape is nice,
but how many more times will this happen to me?

I was a commodity,
exploited for their gain.
Nothing of value to them;
how long will I live with this pain?

But forgetting is temporary,
at some point, we remember.
Now I can tell you everything;
All it takes is courage and surrender…

The Shower

It had been one year since the evidence of past sexual abuse had come knocking on my door, and if you’ve been following my story, you know that up to this point I had believed it was only one incident. Though I had been in a season of rest there was an area of my life that although should be an ordinary, mundane task, was sadly a nightmare: showering.

Ever since my first PTSD episode, I had been unable to shower. What should be easy and mindless was a constant source of dread. A few times a week, I would force myself into the bathroom, turn on the water, and contemplate getting in. I couldn’t do it, the fear I felt was too strong. So, instead I would stand there on the towel, with the shower curtain open, getting water everywhere, and do my best to wash myself while never actually getting in. I would then wait until my husband was showering to lean over the tub and have him wash my hair. He didn’t really know why he needed to do this, but he never complained. Being so broken that I couldn’t wash my own hair was a sobering picture of the devastation and destruction sexual abuse leaves, but it also made me love my husband even more. His patient, quiet support was a rock of refuge.

When the flashbacks and memories came of a time I was in the shower at the age of four, a couple of things happened. First, some of the shame and humiliation from how I’d been “showering” for the past year was lifted as I finally understood the root of why this was happening. I wasn’t just anxious to shower for no reason, rather showering was a trigger to a horrific memory. While I won’t get into the sad and disturbing details that took place in that shower, I will say that when you are four years old and you’re enjoying a shower, feeling “big” that you know how to do it and don’t have to take a bath like a baby, and a grown man gets naked and gets into the shower with you, it most definitely will impact you.

While in a way it was good for me to finally have the understanding of this trigger so I could begin healing from it, walking through the necessary but difficult steps of forgiveness, there was a second thing that resulted from this memory surfacing that I wasn’t sure was such a good thing. If it didn’t happen just once, how many times did it happen? That became a painful and nagging question I wasn’t sure I wanted the answer to. But, with this newfound knowledge of what was going on, a determination to prove that because the light of Jesus lives inside me, I wasn’t going to let the enemy have this power over me anymore. I could and would shower.

Opening up and sharing something that had been so embarrassing was really freeing as I saw the love and support of family and friends, and was reminded once again that we “overcome by the blood of the lamb and the word of our testimony” Revelation 12:11. Unfortunately, full healing would wait another year from this particular memory. Though the next year I would be able to get in the shower, I would still have to pray through it and have worship music on, and be in and out as fast as I could. I am happy to report that I now shower like a completely normal person, it is no longer a trigger. But for two whole years, it was. That shows you that sexual trauma does leave a big wound, but it doesn’t have the final say. That is because of the healing power of my Jesus, and I hope that gives you hope. Sometimes healing doesn’t happen exactly when or how we want it to, but it does come. He is good.

Rest

Immediately following the birth of my son, I spent a rough three days driving back and forth to the NICU as his oxygen levels were not where they needed to be. While three days is nothing compared to the heart-wrenching journey many parents face when it comes to the NICU, I was devastated. I really thought that God was going to give me a perfect birth experience after everything I had battled during my pregnancy. I had cried out for him to protect this baby so many times in the months leading up to my home birth, and my faith had already been so tested and stretched, that I had this high expectation for how the delivery would be. To say I felt let down would be an understatement. I didn’t want to be disappointed in Him, but I was. Hadn’t I been through enough already? Couldn’t You just make this turn out right?

Aside from the toll this took spiritually and emotionally, I also wasn’t able to start recovering from birth right away. While most mom’s who deliver at home get to stay snuggled up in their cozy bed while their family nurtures them, and mom’s in a hospital stay for at least a couple days after the delivery while nurses and Dr’s look after them, I was traveling back and forth from home to the hospital. Now to be fair, my husband, family, and midwives were amazing during this time, doing all they could to help me. It’s just that it was exhausting, mentally, physically, and emotionally. And to be perfectly honest, I felt cheated out of an experience I was sure I deserved.

During this time, the stress, anxiety and intrusive thoughts were rearing their ugly heads. Can you picture it? You just gave birth naturally, in a pool in your living room, after struggling with intense panic and anxiety for the past 8 months. You’re sore, tired, and drained. Your sweet new baby who you’ve longed to hold, snuggle, nurse and who basically was the only thread of joy you held onto throughout the whole ordeal, is now in the NICU. You already have this thing about not trusting Dr’s. You just want more than anything to be home with your new little one, in safety and comfort. You’re trying to keep it together and be strong but you feel like you’re at your breaking point. I know in the grand scheme of things, three days is not long. It just felt REALLY long. It was solely His grace and strength that got me through.

While I was disappointed that things didn’t go how I had hoped and imagined, I feel as though I was given back seven-fold what was missing once we finally came home. The joy and relief I felt to be at home with my family was overwhelming. I was so thankful for this new baby. We had been through so much together, and now he was here, in my arms, nursing what felt like a million times a day, as it should be. I would cry just looking at him, thinking about everything we’d just endured.

The next few months were nothing short of wonderful. I was beyond grateful for all the quality time we were having as a family, and that I felt normal. I can now see this time for what it was, a precious gift. A break in the agonizing journey of healing from trauma, so that I could enjoy my sweet baby and just get some much needed rest and relief. The downside is that I didn’t know it was a break. I thought it was done. It was hard for me to recover from it all, and feel hope again. But after a lot of prayer and reflection, with His spirit at work in me, I found myself once again excited for the future He had for our family. I didn’t know that everything I’d already been through, was really just the beginning.

Emmett

While my anxiety lessened in intensity once I accepted the truth, I still battled often with triggers, though I didn’t realize it or understand the reason for the panic attacks. I thought that since I remembered and chose to forgive, moving on would be easy. For some reason, I really thought it was only one time, which doesn’t make sense to me now. If someone could do something so evil to a small child one time, what would stop them from doing it again? They’re obviously lacking a conscience. But I was nowhere near ready to confront more trauma.

I had it in my mind that this “trial” was only surrounding my pregnancy, after all, that’s when it started. So as summer came to a close and I was drawing nearer to the birth of my baby, I kept expecting some big breakthrough. I had planned this perfect birth, and I needed to be completely free from the chains of trauma before the big day came. I wrestled often with the Lord, lots of tear stained prayers written out, begging for deliverance to take place before the delivery.

I can’t pretend after everything I’d battled with throughout my pregnancy that I wasn’t scared. All these doubts were unlocked with the memory of trauma and they were hard to shake, even for a faith filled believer like myself. Abuse causes deeply ingrained faulty beliefs. Is my body bad? Am I safe? Is something bad going to happen to me? You can imagine that wrestling through these questions while pregnant and knowing you have to go through the labor and delivery process is extremely difficult.

By the time it was October and I was still struggling with the same thoughts and feelings, I had to reconcile that sometimes breaking through to victory isn’t big and dramatic, but small and consistent. “This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength…” Isaiah 30:15

With Bethel’s “No Longer Slaves” on repeat, scripture cards as my birth affirmations to look at between every contraction, I labored peacefully in the comfort of my own home, almost a night and day difference between my previous birth experience.

My husband was a rock of support, and my midwives offered me the quiet confidence and peaceful demeanor I needed. Anyone whose gone through natural childbirth can tell you that it’s intense, that’s kind of a given. I fixed my eyes on Jesus and didn’t take them off for even a moment. I didn’t want a repeat of what happened while in labor with my daughter. In between contractions, I would thank Jesus for getting me through one more, and ask him to help me just one more time. Focusing on Him and taking it one at a time was a concept I adopted later on as well when faced with more memories. Philippians 4:13 and Jeremiah 29:11 echoed over and over in my soul when I was in the hardest and most intense parts of my labor. And then, on October 12, 2017 at 4:14 p.m., after three hours of active labor and nine minutes of pushing, he was here.

For the first several minutes all I could say was, “I can’t believe I just did that”, in absolute awe. I think perhaps it was as much to do with everything leading up to his birth, not just the birth itself. It was like reaching the top of the highest mountain after climbing for months in a spiritual blizzard, most of which took place in the darkest of nights. My midwife was spot on when she said, “that was one of the most redeeming birth’s I’ve ever seen.” After months of questioning my body, I saw what it could do. What it was designed to do. That it was good and strong. I was shown that I didn’t have to be afraid of my body. What happened to me as a little girl was not the fault of my body.

I felt so bonded to this baby, like we’d literally just been through hell together, and it brought a closeness that an easy pregnancy may not have. He was with me when I was fighting fear, daily struggling to survive and hold onto a faith I once thought was so strong. His birth birthed a warrior, a survivor, and an inner strength that only comes from above, in me. We had decided on the name Emmett, and the Hebrew meaning is truth. This was a season I had to not only face hard truth, but learn how to lean on the truth of scripture to replace all the lies my mind was bombarded with. Jesus’ words in John 8:32, “then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” became even more personal to me.

Surrender

By June 2017 I was utterly exhausted from the daily battle of incessant panic attacks and never ending anxiety. Every day for several months I was pleading and begging for it to stop, crying out to the Lord to help me understand why this was happening to me. Why was I so afraid all the time? Why were these terrifying thoughts replaying over and over? Am I going to be okay?

Being pregnant, just numbing my emotions by going on medication wasn’t an option for me, but I was desperate for some relief. I just didn’t know how much longer I could take it. Even in the scariest of moments, I held onto hope that somehow, I was going to make it out of this. That my Heavenly Father knew what was going on, and He had a purpose for it. Even if I didn’t understand.

It’s like the more I ran away from it the worse it got. If I ever wanted this nightmare to end, I was going to have to face the truth. I eventually accepted that something did happen, I just didn’t care to know what that was.

The fear of the unknown and remembering what it would be like held me hostage. Will it be scary? Am I going to feel like it’s happening? What if I remember wrong? There’s something really difficult about knowing something devastating happened to you, when you were in the most innocent and vulnerable of states, but not really knowing the details.

So it was, that after months of being like a child who writhes and squirms and kicks and screams against their parent who is just trying to help them, I wore myself out in the fight, and I gave in. I collapsed into my Father’s arms, the very arms I’d been wrestling against all this time.

And I saw it. I saw myself in bed, staring at the green and yellow border on the wall, tractors, I think. I saw how the small sliver of light from the hallway slowly got bigger as he entered the room. And now I know why I haven’t been able to let my husband come to bed in white t-shirts. I was told we were going to play a game but quickly found out this game wasn’t very fun. All those glimpses and pieces from before finally came together in a cohesive memory. It was strange, like I was watching it in the third person.

After I saw it, I thought, wow, that’s really sad… but I’m okay! Remembering wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought it would be. A peace fell over me as I walked through the steps of forgiveness, and the Holy Spirit connected all the dots as to just how much this impacted me. From my self esteem, my promiscuous teen years, the birth trauma, it all had roots in this incident. It’s like everything clicked and made sense for the first time.

So, it’s over right? I thought since I finally let that memory come , walked through the steps of forgiveness and let the healing in, that this nightmare was over. I was wrong.