How PTSD Crashed My Wedding Night
Editor’s Note: If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
A typical wedding night usually ends with the couple falling onto a large plush king-size bed, laughing and reminiscing about the night’s events, before embracing one another for the first time as a married couple. Romantic music plays in the background, candlelight flickers across every wall and surface. End scene.
I was not your typical bride and planned my wedding during one of the most difficult semesters in graduate school. While these two things would be stressful enough for anyone, I was also raising two kids under the age of 3 years old, one of which was still nursing. Often I’d be holding a book in one hand, while my son was nursing, my daughter dancing at my feet begging for my attention. I would be glancing up every few sentences to check out her moves or switch my son’s position. As my husband struggled to support our family, with us trapped in societal roles from the 50s, it felt more like we were drowning on the way to the wedding as opposed to floating on bliss toward the beautiful day.
Working on a memoir for grad school that went in-depth about my mental health issues threw me right back into the trauma, and forced me to relive many of my darkest moments. This took a huge toll on my relationship with my soon-to-be-husband; he recognized my depression and anxiety were affecting my ability to function. I wasn’t eating or sleeping and I had a very short fuse with him and the kids. My son was particularly clingy and fussy, which only made things that much more difficult.
Our September wedding was coming fast. We made an attempt at our first family vacation to a small festival at the end of May. I hoped it would give me the break I needed from such emotional and in-depth writing, and help strengthen our bond as a family before the wedding. Here’s the thing about vacations: they can’t magically fix anything, especially when you carry the weight from the past with you everywhere. With our son not even mobile yet he was confined to the baby carrier on my stomach the entire weekend. This gave me no break from emotional or physical weights. It was a weekend of bickering and silent treatment.
Two weeks later I had to go to a week-long residency for school 8 hours away. While this gave me much needed space from my family, I was still diving head first into understanding my own mental illness. I spoke openly with faculty and peers about what I had survived. One day, as I cried alone in my hotel room to my husband over the phone about how difficult and impossible school is, he tried to suggest I should take a semester off and take care of myself. To me, that translated as quit, give up, you can’t do it.
I couldn’t accept defeat or even dream of waving that white flag. That and with impending and growing student loans, I knew we couldn’t actually afford me taking more time for school.
The summer slipped by and I woke one morning to the sound of a school bus and a familiar scent of fall carried along with the breeze. It was time for the final dress fitting. I lost substantial weight from my first fitting to the week before my wedding; a diet of coffee and Nutella sandwiches while nursing will do that to you. My bridesmaids were genuinely concerned my dress would slip right off during the wedding with barely anything to hold onto. Luckily I had no wardrobe malfunctions, and the backyard wedding at my mother-in-law’s was straight out of a fairy tale.
Why was I fighting off a panic attack at the end of the night?
Wasn’t this supposed to be the happiest day of my life?
I couldn’t ask my husband; I didn’t want him to know a cloud of depression was completely engulfing me. I didn’t want him to know how much I was struggling on such a special day. I was ashamed and felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. As very young and exhausted parents, we didn’t greet the luxury suite in the same dizzying bliss as most new couples. We turned on Comedy Central, popped open champagne, and opted for chips from the vending machine since we checked in after 11 p.m. and food was no longer served at the bar.
I counted the bubbles that floated to the surface in my glass. I counted how many times I chewed each Frito. My husband would randomly glance at me during commercials — a look that he knew something was up, a look encouraging me to speak. I took a handful of chips instead. Neither of us could hear the TV over my crunching.
I turned the lights off before our clothes came off, and it wasn’t because I didn’t want my husband to see me. I didn’t want to see myself, to see how skinny I had gotten and to admit how sick I actually was. It was easier to deny in darkness.
Everything was fine at first; one of those beautiful Hollywood moments of true love’s embrace. But then his hand held my wrist, and the demons grabbed me, and my body tensed, and it felt like knives were stabbing me between my thighs. The second my husband moved away, I curled into the fetal position and cried. He rubbed my back and kissed my forehead while repeating, “It’s me, everything is OK, it’s just me.” His hand on my wrist triggered my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) of being raped, my wrists being held down so I was defenseless. I felt 15 again, being raped by a monster of an ex.
My husband was used to being punched and kicked during my episodes, as I’d defend myself from the monster I thought he was.
We have been married three years now and that was the last time I had an episode during an intimate moment. My husband has also learned my triggers and knows there are things he can’t say and certain ways he can’t touch me. Neither of us let the hiccup from our first night of marriage affect the rest of it. My husband didn’t make me feel guilty for “ruining the night” like I was convinced I had. He reminded me he loves me and isn’t going anywhere, and that’s why he married me and gave me his name.
I do hope other couples out there stay patient and understanding during more difficult periods of mental illness. It is never easy going through panic attacks, depression or PTSD, but it can be just as exhausting and difficult loving someone with these issues. Remember to stay strong and to be an active listener; this means using empathy.
It is a long and exhausting process to open up to family, friends and strangers about mental illness. But it is also incredibly rewarding discovering those connections with others, especially when they realize they aren’t alone in their struggle. So, to others who felt guilty about not enjoying a big day like we think we’re programmed to do, I see you and you’re not alone.
If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.
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Unsplash photo via Alvin Mahmudov