Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Normal Holiday

       For the holidays Gabriel and I took a 12-day adventure up to Minnesota and back down to Tennessee. We attended the wedding of a dear friend, exchanged gifts with many people we love, drank coffee and got the stomach flu on Christmas day. The trip was long and over stimulating, but wonderful at the same time. One of our 15-hour drives turned into a 17-and-a-half-hour drive when we hit some unfortunate rush hour traffic in St. Louis. There were a few hormonal meltdowns as I officially entered my third trimester of pregnancy, but these were manageable and even expected. No surprises or new obstacles. It felt like we were a normal newly married couple visiting our families for our first Christmas together. Normal stresses and normal joys.

We spent a lot of time getting glammed-up for the wedding we were attending. We don’t dress up often (it’s a good day when I put on a bra and take off my robe). I put on a black, open backed dress I bought before I was pregnant but never got a chance to wear (thankfully it was spandex), and decided to brave the Minnesota ice on 4-inch heels. Gabriel looked dapper in a blue velvet blazer and H&M skinny cords, and he spent extra time in front of the mirror trimming and crafting his beard. Right before we left for the wedding Gabriel surprised me with an early Christmas present—a gorgeous, sparkling pair of snowflake inspired earrings and a fancy bracelet to match. He calls me his Snow Queen sometimes. I felt very glamorous and beautiful. 

On our way to the wedding we realized this was the first big event we were attending that wasn’t about us. When you get married and are having a baby there are many showers, parties and events centered around you. The dawning realization that we were going to this wedding merely to celebrate, witness and enjoy—was bliss to us. We wouldn’t be stared at or expected to speak. We weren’t required meet and greet everyone. It was the best Christmas gift we could have imagined. We were normal bystanders, supporting someone else making a monumental life decision. What a weight off our shoulders. It was so gloriously normal.

Sunday, December 15, 2013


       Gabriel and I decided to skip church this morning and have our own mini church service at home. He had to work at noon, so going to church would mean he’d have to rush off, leaving church early to begin his seven-hour shift, and that’s not a very peaceful morning. We like our mornings together. We made coffee, I toasted a bagel and we got swept up in conversation, forgetting to keep track of the time. Before we knew it, the morning was gone and he had to rush to work. I climbed back in bed, frustrated that our morning plans had slipped away from us. I don’t do well with plans falling through—another PTSD side effect—anything unexpected is tough to adjust to. 

After a few tears I felt the dark storm clouds gathering in my mind. I didn’t want another afternoon to spiral out of my control, so I quickly looked up podcasts from Central Vineyard, the church I attended in high school. I saw that a woman presented the sermon from December 1, 2013, and that was enough of a reason for me to listen to it. Jessie Boettcher, the women speaking, introduced a fancy anthropological term ‘liminality’ to describe the moment when the Angel Gabriel rocked Mary’s world with life changing news. A liminal moment is a moment in a person’s life where they are suddenly between identities. It’s a threshold moment.

“Even though you’re a virgin, you’re going to be the mother of God. His name will be Jesus.”

The ultimate pregnancy announcement/gender reveal. No Pinterest-worthy photo shoot necessary. The previous life Mary knew was shattered in an instant, and she consented in faith, and I can imagine, a fair bit of shock. 

I remember the doctor coming to me in the hospital, looking more nervous and awkward than you’d expect an ER doctor to be. 

“Well…you’re pregnant. So that’s a positive…literally.” Less angelic fanfare, but that was my annunciation moment. 

Being raped has shattered the identity I used to comfortably waltz through life with. Rape survivors often vividly recall the first time looking in a mirror after being raped. It was hours after the attack before I was first allowed to use the restroom in the hospital. They had to complete the rape kit before I could clean myself. When I was finally given the green light, I rushed into the small bathroom across the hall and stopped–horrified–in front of the mirror. There was dried blood surrounding my nose and mouth and scratches running down my neck. My hair was disheveled, my ears swollen, and my left gold leaf earring was missing. But locking eyes with myself was the most jarring. The blue eyes I was staring into were not my own. I’m less shocked when I see the strange blue eyes in the mirror these days, but honestly I hardly look. I don’t recognize myself.  

The carpet was ripped out from under me and I was shoved into a liminal moment. The structure of the world I knew had been destroyed and chaos surrounded me. Jessie classified liminal moments as “uncomfortable.” I have to confirm that, yes, it is a very disturbing thing not to recognize yourself. Personality tests of all sorts are trending on Facebook right now. What Disney Princess are you? Which Doctor from Doctor Who are you? What Love Actually character are you? Talk about a nightmare for the poor souls drifting in liminal moments. 

Trying to settle into a new identity has been impossible with the seemingly never-ending waves of change rushing through my life. I became a fiancĂ©, and now I am a wife. We have moved twice and travelled to different states nearly every month. And as my tummy continues to expand and my clothes grow tighter, I’m reminded every minute that I will soon have another new title—mom.  

Mary understood that unexpected pregnancy announcements are total life changers. She travelled 50 miles to visit her miraculously pregnant cousin Elizabeth, the only solid ground she could find in the angel’s announcement of great change. She stayed with Elizabeth for three months, being encouraged and blessed before returning to her life of uncertainty with Joseph. Mary ran to solidarity and sanctuary, finding rest in her liminal moment. 

       As funny as it sounds, Gabriel is my Elizabeth. His life has been drastically altered along with mine. We go through these changes together.  We are still in a state of flux; our physical location changes nearly as fast as my moods do! But he has stayed by my side, encouraging and blessing me as we teeter on the threshold of yet another major change—parenthood. I’ve been told being a mother changes everything about you. It’s a life shift that I can only try to mentally prepare for, but honestly, I’m still reeling from the last 180° change. 

       Mary took her needed sabbatical with Elizabeth. I am trying to rest with Gabriel through this chaos. Mary had faith in the ever-present nature of God. She believed that he was present with her then and would be present in the future - and he would take care of all the moments in between. Today I was encouraged by the thought that receiving the news of carrying even God’s child, warranted some upset. I’m not the only expecting mama-to-be that finds impending motherhood daunting. 

       Today I have a little more faith that “God is mindful of the state of His humble servant.” God did not abandon Mary to uneasiness and fear in her liminal moment, and He has not left me alone in mine. He has given me Gabriel, and a family that has opened their arms and doors to us. Jessie Boettcher also taught that liminal moments are finite. They end. No matter how lonely being a rape survivor is—or even how isolating being pregnant can feel—today I have more faith that God sees it all, he has a plan to make sense of it and will take care of the in between. 

Here's the link for the sermon by Jessie Boettcher. Listen to it if you can. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Perpetual Summer

       I never liked summer anyway. Now it has another layer of distaste because of July 8, 2013.  I’ve always hated how stagnant the summer months are. The heat is stifling, but the boredom and lack of responsibility make me feel useless. 

       This morning was the first time in 48 hours that I left the house. I had my first counseling appointment since our trip to Minnesota and Chicago. This week has been especially hard. I guess I got pretty spoiled during our 12-day trip because I had Gabriel with me 24/7. When we got back to Nashville he immediately started working 8-hour days again, and I felt lost and alone. Not having a job to go to, any homework to do, rehearsals to attend or script to memorize left me sitting in a perpetual summer of meaningless time fillers. A productive day for me consists of painting my nails or doing a load of laundry. My therapist kindly pointed out today, “But you’re always doing something, even when you just nap! You’re making a baby!”

       Oh yeah, I forgot. I’m making a human, I guess that’s something. In previous months I’ve focused my energies on my healing process by reading articles, going to therapy three times a week, resting and trying to practice positive coping skills. But this week that has just been too hard. My mind has been swirling with fear and anger and insecurity as we try to make a decision about where to live. Unearthing my anger at God has zapped a lot of my strength and resolve, leaving me tired and weepy—struggling to get out of bed. I skipped group therapy this week. I felt too weak and unstable.

       I talked today with my therapist about how angry I am that God seems to be silent as we’re begging for direction. 

       “This seems like a really shitty time to be silent. After what we’ve been through, this doesn’t seem like the time to abandon us.” 
       “It’s okay to be angry. No matter what theology is offered to explain away this pain, you will still feel it. Do you think you’re projecting your anger at God for being silent during your attack onto this situation?” 

       Talking with my therapist always makes me feel more normal. The past few days my mind has been a murky, helpless fog at best. Having someone validate my anger and explain the frustration I have in the face of a silent God, brought some calm. 

       The decision of where to move, is the first decision Gabriel and I have made in the last five months that wasn’t prompted by survival instincts. This one is for us as a family. Where do we want to begin our new family? In Chicago—a place we used to love, but now is overcast with the memory of past darkness? Or in a new city—a place with more family—and freedom from past demons—but less of the excitement we used to know?  Making this decision without feeling the peace or presence of God is terrifying to me. Right now, in the middle of this decision, when we need God the most; I am skeptical and distrusting of his support. 

       I don’t know where we will end up. I don’t have peace about making this decision, but I do have more peace about being angry. I am not by nature an angry person, and in fact I haven’t yet encountered much anger towards my assailant or the legal system, like many survivors do. I am angry with God. But no matter how draining it may be, allowing those waves of anger to pass over me is a part of this healing process. They will pass, but I can’t suppress them. Many rape survivors do not seek healing after their assaults for many years and manage to stifle the pain they’re experiencing to get through the day. I’ve realized that humans are incredibly good at numbing and locking away true emotions. The problem is, we cannot selectively numb. When I numb my anger, I also numb my ability to feel gratitude, or forgiveness or joy. 

       This perpetual summer I’m in may be precisely what I need to simply allow myself to feel what I need to feel. I can’t imagine how women who have been violently raped get up and go to work every morning, care for children, or attend to life as usual. As frustrating as my seemingly meaningless existence is right now, it really is a luxury to be able to cry in bed all day if I need to. Without  any major obligations I can practice not choking out painful emotions. 

       One of my favorite quotes that was shared in group therapy is: 

Many of us spend our whole lives running from feeling, with the mistaken 
belief that you cannot bear the pain. But you have already borne the pain, 
What you have not done is feel all you are beyond that pain.
-Kahlil Gibran

       Feeling betrayed and abandoned by the God I always called Father, is a wound I don’t know how to heal, but I have survived the worst of it. I survived the assault, and now I feel this great array of emotions is a part of my healing. ‘I have borne the pain.’ The worst is behind me.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

God With Us

       Last Sunday was the five-month anniversary of the hellish morning that destroyed the life I used to know. Gabriel and I visited a church we plan to attend if we officially move to Chicago. I realized during the service that it was Advent season. I have been excited about the holidays for months, and I usually love Advent. So I was surprised to find it had started without my notice. Advent has always been an exciting season, full of amazing sermons, praying for newness and waiting to celebrate Jesus’ birth. People use the phrase ‘pregnant with expectation’ to describe the church during Advent season, but I am opposed on principle to using the word ‘pregnant’ to describe anything but a woman carrying a child. 

       The pastor preached on ‘singing like Mary did’ in hard times. He talked about everyone being ‘pregnant with glory’ (I assure you—that’s not how pregnancy feels), and many inspiring Nelson Mandela references were made about achieving the impossible when God is with us. 

       Emmanuel. God with us. We sing that word during the Christmas season and Christians believe that God is always with us. He sees us always. He hears us always. Emmanuel. God is with us. It’s what Christmas is about. As I listened to this wonderfully hopeful sermon about being with God in unbelievable circumstances, I kept thinking Man, that really applies to me…I’m even pregnant like Mary...but I felt numb. It was as if my body was in that sanctuary, drinking that subpar church coffee, hearing those words, while I was really a million miles away. The memory of my own voice echoed through my mind. I screamed for God on July 8 when I was grabbed, hit, thrown to the ground and torn apart. I screamed His name. Begged to be saved. 

       When I recall the exact events of what happened on July 8, people remark that I’m lucky to be alive. I know I could have died in that gangway. Maybe I would have, without God intervening. But I don’t feel like I was rescued. It doesn’t feel like I was saved. The life I knew and the world I knew were killed that morning, and I’m left feeling abandoned by a God who promised to be with me always. 

       It has been hard to pray. Gabriel prays for me at night before we sleep when I ask him too, because I can’t. We felt encouraged by friends in Chicago, but the last two nights we were there ended with panic, sadness and a warm bath to calm down. There was an uneasiness that kept me glued to Gabriel’s side, afraid to be alone. Is this uneasiness to be expected? Or does it mean we shouldn’t move back right away? So we prayed. We prayed and asked God what we should do. I cried. Gabriel held me. We called my sister Becca and prayed with she and her husband, Teddy, and still we don’t know. We prayed some more and waited and listened, hoping for an answer. 

       The promises that God can heal anything, and that he has good plans for my life have kept me from breaking when darkness threatens. But the continual silence and fear is cracking through what faith I’ve held onto. I have to trust in God, because without him this is hopeless. But when I try to pray, I remembering screaming for him and getting no reply. Was this part of the plan? If I’m really his daughter, then why did he let this happen? Did he hear me? See me? I cannot move forward without faith that he will heal this and he has good for me. But it is nearly impossible to trust, when I already feel forgotten.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Back to Chicago

       Yesterday we packed up our things (again) and left cozy Minnesota for Chicago. I could feel the anxiety building in me as we gathered our things that had quickly spread themselves throughout the house. We tried to keep our environment calm and relaxed as we prepared to leave. Gabriel made some coffee, I took a bath, and right before we left his family gathered around us in prayer. 

The only time I had been back to Chicago since July 8 was when my father and I flew back when they caught the man who raped me. I had to do a police line up. That whole experience had been a nightmare. I had to see him again. I had to talk to countless attorneys and police officers repeating every detail of the experience over and over again. My loving father helped me through all of the painful legal hoops—while all I could do was cry and beg to go home. 

       I was afraid that being in Chicago would be too hard, too triggering, too scary. I was afraid to see a bus stop. I know he’s locked away for now, but I was still irrationally afraid I would see him. I didn’t know how walking down a Chicago street would feel. 

       One of my best friends from University grew up in a nice suburb just north of Chicago. A few months ago her parents graciously and generously offered to host us if we wanted to transition back to living in Chicago. The idea of living in Chicago conjures up a mixture of excitement, terror, hope and insecurity. Moving to a city with so much pain and no family to help when the baby arrives sounds crazy, but we did love Chicago. The life, culture and opportunity always felt exciting. And becoming our own independent family, no matter how young and poor, is empowering. As hard as it would be, we want to be in Chicago. This weekend was a mini test run to see if I can handle it. 

       When we arrived late last night to our hosts’ beautiful Victorian home, excitement bubbled. Friends were here. They had set up and decorated a nursery for our little babe. The closet space in our room is amazing and the room is cold, like I love it. And there is a beautiful piano for Gabriel to play (he’s been playing it all evening). I felt immediately that this was a safe, comfortable, welcoming place. 

       Now we just had to see how Chicago felt. Gabriel and I had an easy morning today. He played some piano while I drank coffee and cuddled with Hank, the cat I’m swiftly becoming buddies with. I picked out my favorite warm Nordic sweater and we bundled up for our first venture into the city we used to know so well. It felt like the pressure before a big date. I wore lipstick and Gabriel kept self consciously flattening his hair. 

       “I feel like I have to impress Chicago! I want Chicago to realize how much it missed me and compliment my new beard.” Gabriel joked as I applied another layer of blush. We were just going to our old campus. As we approached the campus in our little stick shift, we saw our first bus stop. I caught my breath and Gabriel grabbed my hand. 

       “How are you doing?” He asked. My heart rate quickened and I squeezed his hand, but I was okay. We drove right past and soon arrived at North Park University. Surrounded by all of the coffee shops, restaurants and stores that are so familiar to us, we walked through Chicago for the first time as husband and wife. We walked across our campus where we shared so many good, light hearted and transformative memories. We slipped into one of the school buildings and with bated breath visited the theatre where we spent countless hours on the stage rehearsing for shows. Walking around that familiar, safe place where I had been so brave and loved, tears filled my eyes. Gabriel immediately filled the huge theatre with song, while I simply sat on the stage soaking in the energy from past shows and personal triumphs. This was a home for me. 

       We later met a dear friend for lunch and soon warm conversation and lots of laughter mixed over cups of Swedish coffee. We took tours of friend’s new homes and discussed future plans. So many faces that we had seen daily were once again surrounding us, and I wasn’t afraid, ashamed or intimidated. It was tempting to feel sad about what we were missing, but soon the hope of what is too come for us overwhelmed me. My life does look remarkably different, and getting my college degree with a husband and young son will be difficult and trying I’m sure, but there is still a place for me there. I am still supported and loved, and now I have a wonderful man by my side that lovingly walks through life with me. 

       Moving back to Chicago after the holidays will be hard, and adding even more transition for our transitive lives isn’t ideal, but today I could picture it. I won’t always have the safety and security of Gabriel’s hand in mine, but I am getting stronger and the many things I loved about Chicago are still here. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

The First Snow

        I woke up early this morning and rolled over to the window. I sat up quickly, wide eyed. 

“Gabriel! It’s snowing!” I pushed him awake and flattened my nose and hands against the frosty glass. He chuckled groggily and pulled me back into bed. I drifted in and out of sleep, warm under the covers in my husband’s arms; occasionally peeking to see the small snowflakes cheerily dancing passed the window. 

I felt warm, safe and normal. 

        With three older, talented and beautiful sisters “growing up” was of high importance to me. I always acted old for my age and matured very quickly. But every year, snow changes that. With the first snowfall I am childlike with wonder. Gabriel and I were in bed last night when I saw the first few flakes fall. I was out of bed and pulling on socks and shoes in seconds. We ran outside and caught snowflakes on our tongues and made silly footprint patterns on the fresh white street. I giggled, ran, shuffled my feet and kissed my husband as our curly hair dampened under the fall. I felt like a child, but not in the scared, small way that I have felt since being raped. Snow makes me feel innocent. For the few minutes we played outside, I felt normal and more whole than I have felt in months. 

        Gabriel and I have been traveling for the holidays and will continue to do so for the next month. We were in Northern Tennessee for Thanksgiving, now we’re in his hometown in Minnesota and next weekend we will be in Chicago for the first time since I was raped. The holiday’s have always produced a fair amount of anxiety for me—family time, traveling, expectations…I usually escaped into a book when I needed a breather. This year is different. This is Gabriel and I’s first holiday season together and there have been sweeter, more intimate and beautiful moments than ever before. But the more “normal”, or sweet or kind the moment is, the more distant I feel from it. Flashbacks distract my mind as we are sitting around the Christmas tree with family, drinking coffee. How can my life be so simple and peaceful when I now know how evil and dark life can be? 

        But the snow. The snow is simple, unassuming, quiet and beautiful. The snow is fresh and still as it tumbles passed windows, through the trees and settles amongst its brothers, making everything new. I’m giving myself permission to feel normal. I’m allowing myself to feel as innocent as I can, and as childlike as I want to. I don’t know how to reconcile the horror of my memories with the potential of my present, but I am learning to breathe through the paradox. I’m afraid to trust the joy that this morning has brought me, but I will at least sit in it while it’s here. I will sit and write, drinking hot coffee by a frosted window while Gabriel plays piano and sings Christmas music and I will be grateful.

Monday, November 25, 2013

My Grey Dress

       I was wearing a yellow dress on July 8, 2013. Gabriel and I planned to meet up downtown when my shift was over at the bakery. I had wanted to show him a restaurant called the Soup Box for months. I let him pick out my outfit the night before—dark grey leggings, that yellow dress and a black cardigan. I bought the dress about nine months before then, when my sister Katie came to visit in Chicago. We went shopping at Water Tower place. H&M was having a sale on dresses so I bought two—a yellow one and a grey one, each 12 dollars. They are the same dress, just different colors. They’re a simple, form fitting, spandex-like material that suits my layering style perfectly. Of course the yellow one is gone now…but I still have the grey one.

I’ve nearly thrown it away several times. Why should I keep it? It was cheap, and now it is attached somehow to that horrible memory. But every time I start to throw it out I feel like a coward and I bury it back in my closet. As my baby bump rapidly expands, the number of comfortable outfits I own simultaneously decreases, and I keep thinking, That dress is made of spandex…it would be so comfortable right now… 

“I’m afraid of what it’ll feel like to have on. I don’t know if it’ll be too hard to wear.” Sitting on the edge of our bed, this morning I finally admitted my fear of the grey dress to Gabriel. I felt like a little girl.

        He held my hands and said, “Then why don’t you try it on with me? You’re safe here and if you don’t like the way it feels you can take it off.” We walked together to the closet and Gabriel unburied the grey dress. He slipped the dress over my head, picked out a red Christmas sweater to wear over it and handed me my cozy thick, grey house-socks to keep my feet warm. “How do you feel?” he asked.

I took a minute and assessed my body.

        I remember walking to the bus stop early that morning on July 8. I remember how thin the soles of my sneakers felt against the pavement. I remember planning to patch my grey leggings because they had holes on the inner thigh. I remember how the yellow dress pulled against my legs as I walked. The grey dress felt the same on my legs, but my socks were much warmer and more comfortable than my work sneakers ever were, and these new black leggings only had a small tear on the knee.

        Physical triggers have caused some of the scariest panic attacks for me. I can be perfectly fine, no fear in my mind but if I move in a certain way or if someone touches me a certain way, I can snap right back into a horrifying flashback. It’s as if the attack is happening all over again. I was afraid that putting on my grey dress would feel too much like the day I was raped, and I would have flashbacks. But as I stood in our bedroom with the grey dress on, nothing happened. No flashes, no dizziness, no psychological pains—just me, standing there in a comfy dress, festive sweater and cozy socks.

       I don’t think I have to be afraid of this grey dress anymore. I’ve had a salad for lunch, two cups of tea, napped with my sister’s dog, Willow, and now I’m home alone writing about it. I haven’t had one flashback. The list of things I’m afraid of has tripled in size in the last four and half months and it now includes embarrassing things like public transportation, being alone, or the grey color of early morning sky—but it no longer includes my H&M, 12 dollar grey dress.

       I move through the world differently than I did before. I know more of what the world holds. I’ve seen it’s potential for random evil and it’s darkness is no longer a stranger to me. I don’t expect to ever feel the same, but I am beginning to slowly eliminate those debilitating fears that only hinder my enjoyment of life. I might never feel as fond of my alone time as I did before, but I already find it much more bearable than I did in July or August. Now I can add one more comfy dress to my small wardrobe of pregnancy clothes—and this one is perfect for layering.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Less Than Glowing

       Sometimes I forget I’m pregnant. I’ll be trodding through my day, mind consumed with something else, and then he’ll kick. And he kicks hard. I think my son is destined to be a tap dancer, or a marathon runner, or maybe a mall cop. He seems created for movement because this boy loves to jive. But feeling him in motion connects my body and mind with the little life inside of me. Otherwise, I just feel fat. 

My back aches, my feet hurt, my hips are the width of two football stadiums and I don’t even want to discuss what’s going on ‘down there’. Pregnancy basically feels like I’m getting sick and fatter all at once—at an accelerated rate. There is less ‘glowing’ than I expected. At least now I look undeniably pregnant. I used to just look kinda chubby. 

I know I drive Gabriel crazy with my insecurity. “Am I fat?” “Don’t look at my legs.” “Will I ever have a flat stomach again??!” These are words I am ashamed to say have flown out of my mouth often. Maybe it’s because we weren’t trying to get pregnant. Or maybe it’s somehow attached to the emotional turmoil I’m dealing with after the assault. I know a lot of survivors have issues loving their bodies. It’s hard to feel comfortable in my body when I constantly remember what has happened to it. Either way, I never thought I’d feel so unattractive when I became a vessel for new life. I thought it would be majestic. I thought I would feel motherhood shining splendidly from my being—but mostly I feel like a walrus with a sex drive of a koala. 

All of this panic about weight gain is revealing an ugliness in me that wasn’t hidden too far beneath the surface. It’s clear to me how much of my identity and self worth was derived from feeling attractive. I was a theatre performance major at university and I was rather successful in school productions. I told myself over and over again that I earned all the parts I was given, but in my heart I always feared I got the role because I ‘looked the part.’  I feel like my one unshakable attribute has been taken from me and it’s hard to imagine being successful again. That I associate the size of my waist with how successful I can be doesn’t exactly surprise me, but I wish it wasn’t true. I call myself a feminist. I even claim to be an intellectual, yet I find myself standing in front of the mirror, wide eyed in horror counting the stretch marks. 

I have had some beautiful moments admiring my growing belly. Feeling our baby dance around in my tummy is glorious. Christmas music really gets his feet moving. And I cannot wait to meet my son, but insecure moments seem to outweigh the glowing mommy moments. I’m sure I’m not the only soon-to-be mother who is less than excited about her changing body, but in the end we will all give birth to little humans we can call our own. Some women blossom into pinterest-worthy pregnant goddesses, and some of us feel a little occupied, blindsided and bloated. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Tiny Pink Heart

       “I don’t want to go.”

       I whisper this to Gabriel nearly every morning when our alarm goes off early because we have to go to counseling. He takes me three times a week. He reminds me that I say this every time, and every time it’s hard but I’m better for it. 

        I was very nervous for my counseling session on Monday morning. The previous Friday’s session had been the hardest one yet and I wasn’t looking forward to opening all of that back up again. I’m doing a type of therapy called EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing). It’s a way of helping the brain reprocess traumatic memories and store them properly by using bilateral stimulation. By stimulating the brain in a certain way while remembering the trauma, the memory can be sorted and changed from something anxiety producing into just a memory. Basically, I sit with headphones on that beep in one ear and then the other and hold buzzers in each hand that vibrate back and forth while I recall different parts of the attack. It sounds crazy but it works. 

       On Monday morning my therapist brought me into her office. I sat in my usual chair and she sat in hers. I’m always nervous I’ll have nothing to say, but that has never happened. I sit down and thoughts just start pouring out of me—thoughts I didn’t even know were there. Monday was no different. I sat down and immediately a fear bubbled to the surface. 

       I’m afraid to go back to the hospital when I’m in labor. Of course I knew I was nervous about it, but once I started talking with my therapist I realized how frequently my mind spins with fear around the inevitable visit in four months. 

        After I was raped, I spent nearly five hours in the hospital by myself. I had two nurses and a doctor examining me, doing blood work, and conducting the rape kit. That meant taking pictures of every injury from every angle. Collecting all of my clothing into little bags that were taped off with red rape kit tape. Scraping my mouth and under my nails for DNA. Then there was the vaginal exam. I wasn’t in a hospital bed with the correct leg stirrups so they just propped my bottom up on an overturned bedpan and shined a spotlight down there. They scraped, prodded and spread to their heart’s content, all the while talking about me as if I wasn’t there.

       “What’s that green thread?” 
       “A remnant of ripped underwear.”
       “Save it for the rape kit.”

       The idea of going back to a hospital and having strangers poke around in my nether regions is horrifying. After sharing this in counseling my therapist surprisingly said: 
“Let’s have a lighter day. It’s okay to let up and let your mind continue to process last Friday’s hard session. Let’s do something empowering. Let’s do some future work.”

I didn’t know EMDR could be used to settle fear and anxiety around future events—but apparently it can! I was all for working on the future. Even though it’s scary, it is nothing compared to the past. With the headphones beeping and the hand buzzers buzzing, I closed my eyes and started imagining the future. How would my ideal birth and labor scenario play out? What would Gabriel and I look like as parents? How will it feel to hold our son? By processing through these possibilities and assigning words like ‘blessed’ and ‘whole’ and ‘grateful’ to this future we’re hurtling toward, I was able for the first time to imagine delivering this baby without severe emotional trauma. 

At first I was struggling to even picture Gabriel and I with a son. I couldn’t imagine what our confident, fuller lives could look like. I was trying to summon past feelings of wholeness and confidence and slap those onto a conjured up future me—it didn’t fit. My therapist reminded me ‘that this future won’t look like the past. Imagine a new normal.’ Finally I could see it. I could see Gabriel helping me through labor, and me confidently talking with nurses and making the choices I need to make. I could imagine our family falling into healthy rhythms and flourishing, as we get better at being a unit. I could see it and I felt hopeful, not afraid. 

My therapist even said “I don’t ever picture along with the people I’m guiding through EMDR, but with you I couldn’t help it. I could see you in labor at the hospital with pigtails and a bandana on, confidently calling the shots and owning your labor. You looked like a badass! You looked a like warrior.” 

At the end of the session I got to reach into a purple velvet bag and pull out a little memento. My fingers closed around a cool, cold heart shaped stone. I had pulled out this tiny pink heart that will remind me of the strength I conjured up; the hopeful future, the possibilities outside of fear. I’ve already pulled out the stone several times in moments of fear or doubt and it has been enough to pull me into a lighter perspective. I fully intend to bring that tiny heart with me to the hospital when I go into labor, and who knows, maybe I’ll even wear pigtails.

Sunday, November 17, 2013


It’s raining this morning. Gabriel had to work at eight and I woke up with his alarm. I watched him get ready for the day—working a sweater over a button down shirt, pulling on a pair of my socks. I love him. The sky was a white grey then, but now it’s a grimmer pale grey, as if it knows what has to be done but isn’t happy about it. It was raining when I left the hospital on July eighth.
Last night was a bad night for sleep. I had nightmares again. I’ve had several recently: dreams about a having the baby in a Walmart hospital with no privacy, laboring in an insane asylum or giving birth to a headless baby—horrible dreams like that. I have four more months of pregnancy and I’ve been having these nightmares for weeks. It’s often hard to pinpoint the true cause of my symptoms. Is it because I’m pregnant? Plenty of pregnant women suffer from insomnia and nightmares. Is it because of the PTSD? Nearly everyone with PTSD has a hard time with sleep and most of them have nightmares. Or maybe it was just the terrible cold that has settled nicely into my head and shoulders. I think last night was more PTSD related though.
After a fun evening of pizza in bed, looking at baby pictures and watching our favorite shows Gabriel and I went downstairs to get some water before bed. We ended up sitting at the kitchen table, sipping water and reading. More like, attempting to read. I couldn’t shut up. I kept turning to Gabriel to tell him about a show I watched recently, or a fact about breastfeeding I heard, or a new birth fear I have. The silence was killing me. I didn’t notice, but Gabriel did. I was yawning and sniffling, but my mind was manically racing about. 
Gabriel took me upstairs. We settled into bed but my mouth and mind kept running off without me. Finally Gabriel began stroking my hair and calmly said, “Okay Emily, I want you to try to soothe yourself. We can still talk but let’s try to be calmer and prepare ourselves for sleep.”
I didn’t realize until that moment that my mind had been in hyperactive gear. What often impedes the sleep of people with PTSD is the hyperactivity of their mind. It hasn’t affected only my sleep though. Hyperactivity has made relaxing in public impossible, so forget a chill Starbucks chat with me. I’m a nut job in places like that. I sit with my back to a wall, count the number of people in the room, notice their every movement. Little warning sirens go off in my head if anyone moves into a five foot radius around me. Hyperactivity has stolen reading from me. It was one of my dearest pleasures and now reading a page and actually retaining the information is too much to ask for. 
I can often tell what triggers hyperactivity or dissociation (another security system of my brain). For me sirens, darkness, loud noises, being touch a certain way, certain words, being alone, laying on my back are just a few of my triggers. But last night seemed good! Gabriel came home early from work, I cleaned our room, we made love and ate pizza—what more could I want? But something snapped and my brain was in high gear, making sleep a distant dream for the time being. 
Gabriel is such a sweet man. He really deserves a prize for how well he takes care of me—especially in odd moments like last night when I don’t even recognize that I’m freaking out. He stroked my arm and held me against his chest, letting me say what I needed to say. He slowed me down, telling me, “You’re safe. You’re with me.” Over and over again. I cried a little. He held me. And eventually we fell asleep.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Dissociation and Encouragement

“I got 12 'likes' on my blog post! Cool!”
“Four people just messaged me their stories. Wow, I did not prepare a response…”
“Oh man. People keep calling me brave…shit.”
“But it is powerful that people are encouraged by my story…”
“What if I can never write again!?!”

My fragile, turbulent inner self could hardly handle the emotional turmoil. I almost allowed a break down. But I had group therapy Tuesday night and I knew that would be emotionally taxing so I needed to remain strong. I say ‘allow’ a breakdown, because I have discovered that I have a nearly supernatural ability to control emotional breakdowns. I feel them coming on. I decide if the timing is good. If it is, then I shut my bedroom door, crawl in bed and sob for as many hours as it takes. If the timing is bad, I wait and do it later. Of course it doesn’t always work, but with some practice and the proper motivation I can hide extraordinary pain.
One of the common symptoms of PTSD is dissociation. Every rape survivor I’ve talked to has experienced its astounding powers. I honestly indulge. Dissociation is basically zoning out. It’s a psychological detachment from surroundings and often your body. It’s very sci-fi.
If I’m honest, it makes me sad and angry that spacing out and numbing are necessary survival techniques now. I studied theatre performance and creative writing at a university in Chicago before all of this mess, and ‘staying in the moment’ and ‘being present’, where cheesy phrases I genuinely tried to live my life by. Now sometimes the present moment is exactly where I do not want to be.

There was a fair amount of violence involved when I was raped. My brain reacted so fast to the assault that I hardly felt some of the blows. I certainly felt them afterward, and sometimes I feel them now, but my brain numbed me when it happened. Protected me.

I cerebrally comprehend that sharing my story is a brave thing to do, and I can even feel bravery glimmer in my heart sometimes. But being called strong when I feel like a kicked puppy locked in the backyard during a hurricane was nearly impossible to hear. Thankfully, beautiful numbing juice gushed from my brain to my toes and settled everything down allowing me to resist any sizable freakouts. I could even reply to a few encouraging notes.
I oscillate between admiration for the girl who finally mustered the courage and drive to post her story online for all the world to see, and horror. It has touched other survivors. Hopefully they feel less alone. I do. The stories, prayers, thoughts and facebook ‘likes’ stretched to me like telephone wires connecting us in a small way. Being heard feels beautiful. But when sometimes being around my family is too taxing on my strained mind and soul, the support of thousands seems scary. Going public as a rape survivor is something I always intended to do, but sharing in this capacity has its paralyzing side effects. Don’t worry—my therapist informs me that this is normal.
I will still share because being raped is not my fault and I will not act ashamed of it. Being depressed is not a shameful thing, and having PTSD is not a malfunction or mistake. I’m often afraid to write because I’m afraid of what I have to say, but the response to my story has again showed me the strength in vulnerability. I am blessed by it, even if that’s hard to feel right now.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The New Normal

I think I’ve found a kindred spirit. I’ve been reading Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott and though in the past I thought her writing was a bit egotistical and too self-deprecating, right now it is right on the money. Not because I have suddenly become a self-centered person, therefore I understand, but because she is a woman who understands depression, anxiety, fear and loss, and it makes me feel less alone to hear someone else talk about it. In the past four months I have encountered more terror, sadness, and change than I ever imagined possible. PTSD graciously set in to protect my mind in a lot of ways, but nothing could protect me from the shock.
On July 8, 2013, I was raped at a bus stop on my way to work. I caught the 5:08 49 bus every weekday morning to supply all the early downtown risers with their morning coffee and scone for another day’s work. But that Monday morning I was beaten, shaken, ripped apart and destroyed in a moment. A moment of immense darkness that my heart and mind can still not understand. Police were immediately called to the scene and I was taken to the hospital where many treatments and tests were conducted. CAT scans, blood work, rape kits, preventative HIV medication and police interviews filled the longest, loneliest four hours of my life. About an hour after the attack a doctor came into my room with some results.

“Well, it turns out you’re already about 3 weeks pregnant…so that’s a positive…literally.”

What a gift. I smiled, closed my eyes and rested my head. What a gift from God. My boyfriend Gabriel arrived at the hospital after receiving a horrifying facebook message from me: 'Hey. I was raped this morning on my way to work. I'm at St. Mary's, room 12. Please wake gabe up or someone come to get me.' My phone was stolen and using a nurses iPhone to facebook message my roommates was the only thing I could think of. (Needless to say I’ve memorized a few numbers since then.) Gabriel rushed into the room with tears in his eyes. He had brought me a change of clothes. Sweet man. They had impounded my clothes as evidence. He crawled onto my hospital bed with me, wrapping his arms around me gently. He has become a safe place.

That morning my father flew from Baltimore to Chicago and brought Gabriel and I back to my parents’ new home. All of my sisters were there waiting for me. Support and sanctuary. Since that day Gabriel and I have been in at least four different states, countless counseling and doctors’ waiting rooms, and fearfully we’ve clutched each other’s hands through it all. Our whole lives changed in a moment.
On Sunday, August 13, 2013, Gabriel took me on walk around Lake Agnes while we were visiting his family in Minnesota. I was feeling really depressed that day–but still the lake was beautiful and Gabriel was with me. We stopped on a dock to take in the Minnesotan splendor, and my sweet man got down on his knee and asked me to marry him. Hope leapt vigorously in my heart. October 4, 2013, we were married.

In all of this pain, trauma, beauty and love it is endlessly encouraging to read the words of another damaged, less than glowing new mom like Anne Lamott. Alongside individual counseling twice a week, I go to a rape survivors group on Tuesday nights. One of the girls asked, “What’s the point of coming to group therapy? Can’t I just google ‘coping skills,’ and read articles about trauma?” My therapist nodded slowly and then replied:
“You could. But there’s something magic about a group. There’s something healing about coming together, seeing other people hurting just like you and feeling their strength pulling you together.”
She’s right. When one woman shares more about her story and tears stream down her face we nod, we pray, and tears spill over our own lashes as solidarity weaves us together. Some of us email, some of us text. We’re all screwed up, but knowing that makes it a little bit easier.
That’s why I’m writing this blog. I’m writing because I want other young pregnant women to not feel like such monsters when they more often than not feel terrified and sick inside about how becoming a mom will change their life. I hope another rape survivor might read this and feel less hopeless when they realize that they’re not the only one who can’t sleep with the lights off. If facing a completely ordinary day feels like the hardest thing you’ve yet to do, and you can’t even consider getting out of bed, well, then you’ve found a kindred spirit in me. Solidarity in pain is magic, and healing.
I always assumed life changed slowly, and I would be able to see the turns coming in my headlights—it always had before. But sometimes life turns 180 degrees without warning, without hesitation when you’re on your way to work Monday morning, thinking about the date your boyfriend and you plan to go on that afternoon. Sometimes life 180s again with a few simple words from a doctor. Those are the hardest parts (I’ve been told). But getting to know the new you is a pretty hard thing to do, too.
With this space I hope to stand by those who have 180 life changes, or just have some really hard and glorious days collide. I want to record some of these moments that have flown past me without warning. I want to remember them. I used to want to forget, but I’ve grown to want to remember. 
I’ve already come to remember that the world isn’t all evil. It isn’t even mostly evil. Blessings are also really hard things, and really hard things can be made into blessings if you let them. And although my life will invariably never be the same, I will be okay. I will never be what I thought was “normal” before being raped, and before finding out I was pregnant, but I will discover a new normal.