A well-known phrase that we all hear, “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone” truly applies to my life in all aspects.
I grew up in a privileged environment with a great family and I am able to look back on a truly happy childhood. I had a great high school experience and began school at the college of Charleston. My first year of college was my breaking point. My high school boyfriend and my first love committed suicide. October 7th of 2007 was the day that everything came crashing down.
I literally stopped sleeping, my appetite disappeared, and I became anxious a lot of the time. After seeing the aftermath in his back yard when giving a police report, my mind slipped away from me. The bloody mess I saw invaded my mind like a ghost at the very worst times. I would stay sick to my stomach for hours and the thoughts stayed in my mind until they were nice and ready to leave.
I moved on the best I could. I began dating a very nice guy about six months after my boyfriend’s death. Nowhere near healed from my last relationship, I entered another one. We got serious very quickly. About a year later, the day before my 19th birthday I was walking through a parking lot and an Escalade slammed into my body going in reverse. I flew about ten feet in the air and landed on my head. There I was again, sitting in a puddle of blood. The sheer terror that I witnessed that day took the flashbacks I was already having and engrained them in my mind. The man that hit me didn’t get a ticket and I never saw his face. He never even apologized to me for hitting me with his car.
After the accident, my flashbacks became more powerful and more disturbing. I rocked back and forth all night every night and cried until the sun came up. My boyfriend was witnessing what I now know to be symptoms of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I was too anxious to eat, too anxious to sleep, and too anxious to function. I somehow continued with school and eventually, my relationship came to an end. Having made the unhealthy decision to live together the year before, I found myself begging for my belongings. I gave up my key and moved in with some girlfriends. Before I could get my belongings that week, my ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend had already moved in. I was knocking on the door constantly begging for them to open it and get an explanation from him and so I could get the rest of my things. He finally opened the door and threw a bucket of water in my face while his new girlfriend watched and laughed. Next thing I knew, I was being held by the ankles and dragged around the apartment on my back.
I spent the next few months completely heartbroken and torn apart. I was dealing with the pain of my first boyfriend’s suicide and my breakup with my second boyfriend at the same time. I somehow continued school and got a job. I trained as an ABA therapist, doing behavioral therapy for children with autism. Looking back, this job was what held me together at the seams. My anxiety was at an all time high and my sleep was at an all time low. I attended my classes in a haze and took anti-anxiety medicine morning, noon and night.
I eventually met another guy and we started an incredibly tormenting relationship. We always wanted more than the other could give. We moved in that next year directly across the street from one another, and so the relationship grew. We were on and off the whole next year as I worked, attended school, and began to make my debut into southern society. Determined to make my family and myself proud, I became a member of the Carolina Assembly and a debutante while still fighting flashbacks from the suicide, the Escalade, and the violence that took place with someone that I cared so much for. I rented another house on campus and entered my senior year of college taking far too much anxiety medicine than anyone ever should. My focus was barely there and I had to take a break from my job because school was beginning to become unbearable.
I had been out with some friends one night and came home only to get a phone call from the guy I was dating. He was incredibly drunk and I started to worry about him. I went and picked him up from down the street and brought him back to my house. He soon passed out. I made the bad decision of going through his phone for the first time in two years and saw something I didn’t appreciate. I tried to wake him up and finally got his attention. Things escalated and the next thing I knew, he turned around and had demon eyes. He took me to the ground on my bedroom floor and broke my arm in the process. With his hands tight around my neck, he began slamming my head against the hardwood floor. Unable to breath, I realized I was once again taking a trauma to the back of my head. I finally got out of his grip for a moment and began crawling away only to have him grab me by the waste and begin biting me on my back. He broke and bruised my skin he was biting so hard. My roommate eventually came in and he fled. I woke up the next morning barely able to move with bruises around my neck and down my back. I had scabs from where he had put his teeth.
After this night, I flashed back to four different scenes in my life and they all rolled into one another. I lost the little control I had over my mind and I was utterly consumed with fear and terror. My nervous system was shot and I didn’t know where to turn. I didn’t want to be alone, but I couldn’t stand being around people. I felt so out of control that I barely left the house unless it was for class. Hopeless was an understatement. Helpless was an even bigger one. I verbally abused my mother because I had nowhere to place my anger. I lashed out at the drop of a hat and I had what you could call and incredibly short fuse. I couldn’t stand being around guys, including my brother and several very close guy friends. My friends and family watched me deal with everything that had happened and probably felt more helpless than I ever did. I was at the end of my rope.
My parents had done some research on places for me to visit. I decided to take my Christmas break and get some help. I told them I would go somewhere for a maximum of two weeks. They finally talked me into going to a place called Brookhaven for 30 days. I had never been away from Charleston for that long.
I got to Brookhaven two days after my exams ended and met my therapist. All of the women reached out to me and I started to feel comfortable a lot quicker that I thought I would. I hit the ground running and worked on the projects I was assigned day and night. I came in and listed off all of the traumas in a matter of fact manner to my “core group” of women that I was to do group therapy with. After everything that had happened, I couldn’t understand why I was able to talk about it all without shedding a tear. On that note, I couldn’t cry even when I tried. I read a lot of books on anger, boundaries, emotions, etc. I identified that I had a lot of unresolved guilt and anger. Still the tears wouldn’t come. One day near the end of my thirty days, my therapist walked me down to the creek and we sat down on the wooden bridge. She sat with me until I cried as hard as I could. For so long, I was scared to cry because I didn’t think stopping would be possible. I could cry over burnt popcorn or the color of my shoes, but nothing that truly mattered.
I had finally gotten to a place of curiosity about myself. I felt so much better after thirty days that I wanted to know what another thirty would do. I couldn’t imagine what I would look like with even more tools and even more time with my trauma and myself. I got excited to see how much better I could get. I decided to take the next semester off of school and to stay at Brookhaven for a second thirty days. I had grown close with the women; the type of group therapy I was getting was incredibly unique. The only place I felt safe for a long time was in the therapy room with my therapist and my core group. We shared twice a day every day. Brutal honesty and zero judgment are encouraged.
Things got worse before they got better. I found myself up all night talking with nurses. The whole staff at Brookhaven was there and eager to help. I had never felt so cared about. I confronted the anger, pain, guilt and many more emotions with the support of my core sisters. I dealt with my pain as they dealt with theirs. Being in different places with different problems, I was able to draw a great deal of advice and knowledge from the other ladies. I had ladies that were almost finished with their emotional journey that could encourage me to keep going and that helped me look forward to being on the other side. I also had ladies that reminded me of my previous self that I knew I didn’t want to go back to.
I attended grief and loss classes, yoga, meditation, emotional sobriety, trauma recovery classes and many more, all led by incredible therapists. My therapist truly changed my life. She gave me some serious tough love. She knew when to take it slow and she knew when to push me further. She walked me through everything that had happened and introduced me to EMDR therapy. I went through the traumas piece by piece and processed them with her. I learned to manage the flashbacks, identify triggers, and manipulate the way I think. Control of my mind was slowly coming back to me.
While all of this took place, I was forming a special kind of camaraderie with the ladies that I sat next to and cried next to every day. We watched each other work, cry, talk and laugh.
I went home after two months for a weekend. I was astounded how different I felt and acted. My sister told me that there had been a huge hole where her little sister was and that she was so happy because I had finally come back to her. My brother told me how proud he was and that I was my old self. The verbal abuse towards my mother was gone and I was able to hold my head up and speak slowly and surely. My family was overwhelmed with how different I acted. I was overwhelmed with how different I felt, I never thought I would have control over my thoughts again. I flew back to Brookhaven and had decided to stay for a third month by this point. I was determined to see myself through to the end of the 90-day program.
My therapist had me doing research and reading about abusive relationships. I learned that abuse was not just physical, but emotional and verbal as well. Not only was I able to draw abusive patterns in my own life, I learned how to recognize warning signs of abuse, how to prevent it from happening, and what to do if it ever happened again.
For the first time in four years, I felt like I had a future. I began making plans for myself and realizing how dangerous and easy it would be to get back into an abusive relationship. My flashbacks were significantly less disturbing and became manageable. I have learned to appreciate the emotional disconnect and even my anxiety for what they are. They were signs from my body that I needed to address and deal with an issue. I am now able to breath properly through my anxiety and work through it all on my own. I am able to recognize a flashback for what it is and keep it from rolling into another one. Instead of letting difficult situations trigger my emotions, I let them trigger a tool for me to use. I am now able to sleep well through the night and go about my days without any anxiety medicine whatsoever. What’s even better is that I don’t want or need it anymore. Instead of feeling like a victim, I feel in control and empowered. If I can work through the traumas that have come my way, I can certainly take on anything else life has to throw at me. I am able to care for people without carrying them. I am able to listen to people talking about serious problems without trying to fix them. I am able to recognize a trigger for what it is.
My Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may not ever leave me, but the tools and coping skills I learned at Brookhaven never will either. I was able to draw a lot of patterns in my life that began with my boyfriend’s suicide. I have learned that a relationship has to be made up of two healthy individuals so that if one falls, the other won’t fall as well. I have learned that there is no possible way for me to help others if I am not able to help myself first. I’ve learned that boundaries are difficult but important to set, physically and emotionally.
Leaving Brookhaven, I am overwhelmed with gratitude that I am able to start my life over. I have confidence in myself and in my recovery. My therapist has turned into a mentor for me and I will never be able to thank her or any of the Brookhaven staff for what they have helped me to achieve. The ladies I had the opportunity of meeting are from all over the country, and I have every intention of keeping in touch with them. I am now leaving Brookhaven with a Life Safety Plan in place and my friends and family are educated in how to help me maintain my recovery. I can now finish my last semester of college and get back to the job I loved so much.
They say you don’t know what you have until it’s gone and thanks to Brookhaven, I was able to rediscover everything I lost.