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.