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When an Encounter With a Stranger Brought PTSD Back to My Door

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I struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The sexual abuse I endured has changed me undeniably. Though the intensity of everything ebbs and flows, the undercurrent of my past trauma is ever-present, threatening to pull me under every minute of every day. I have this constant feeling that I am not safe, never safe. I hate the dark. I must sleep with the light on so I can see if someone is ever there. I cannot close the curtain completely when I shower, because someone might be able to catch me off-guard. I like to know that doors and windows are always locked, because there is safety in security. I am a self-induced insomniac. I am prone to nightmares, so I have trained myself to stay up over the years until I am so exhausted I know I’ll sleep heavily, without dreams, out of exhaustion.

• What is PTSD?

There are certain sights, smells and sounds I avoid like the plague because they remind me of past assaults. At the least, being around them makes me uneasy, uncomfortable and on edge. At worst, they trigger my memories of those events, and I get pulled — whether partially or fully — back to that time. The feelings themselves begin to emerge. Not safe. Need to go. Need to run. I feel like I’m caught in a Groundhog Day loop of nightmarish proportions.

I feel I have no control over my thoughts, my feelings, my body — so I try to control everything else. I micromanage. I need to have important things in my life outlined and know where everything stands in every moment. I never want to be caught unaware again. I do not want to be vulnerable in any way ever again.

My flight response is very high. Growing up, there was a lot of abuse in my home. If you wanted to be heard, you yelled louder than the next person. If you wanted to shut someone up, you would say the meanest, cruelest thing you could muster. I hated that side of everyone and loathed it more in myself. I swore I would never live that way again and pushed that side of me down. During times of stress when I am feeling irrationally vulnerable, that side rears its ugly head. Part of me wants to lash out viciously, to yell, rant and unleash outwardly all the pain I feel inside. I refuse to let this monster out to create damage that can’t be undone, so instead I run. More accurately, I walk. I walk and walk miles at a clip, until the feelings subside and reality returns. I’ve been running — and walking — away from my past my entire life. That is my life with PTSD in a nutshell.

I have been staying with friends recently. Thankfully, they hadn’t questioned why my bedroom light is always on, or why I keep such odd sleeping hours. Or why most nights I am awake until 2 or 3 a.m. Or why I occasionally need mini-naps because I’m always exhausted. They know about my history of sexual abuse and my diagnosis, so they have been wonderfully patient with my many quirks and thankfully have not inquired too deeply about them. I am admittedly very self-conscious about my mental health and have lived persistently in fear of the stigma of the mentally ill being “damaged” and “crazy.” Nothing makes me feel more like I fall into that stigma mold than the irrational feelings and behaviors caused by my PTSD. I am grateful beyond belief they accept my peculiar behaviors at face-value and have never drawn attention to them or made me feel unhinged or broken because they are there.

A couple nights ago, noises from outside woke me from a dead sleep. I heard some banging and clanging at my bedroom window. We are out in the middle of nowhere, on the outskirts of where the country meets the woods. All around us are farms and forests. Being used to the city myself, initially I tried to chalk the sounds up to nature and wildlife to convince myself I was just being silly. The noises continued. As they persisted, I became more on edge. I crept to the window to peek through the blinds just in time to see a dark figure bolt away.

Trying to harness my paranoia and rein it back in, I hopped online. My friend’s cousin had messaged a short while earlier, asking if we were still awake over here. I lightheartedly asked if he had been outside my window, because I knew he lived a short distance away. I didn’t want him to know how anxious I truly felt. When he laughed and said he hadn’t been, that he was still at home, I entered full-blown panic mode. Though it was after 1 a.m., I went out to speak to my friend.

My friend and his dog took a lap around the house, a ranch-style home with only one story. The outer storm windows of both my bedroom and his son’s bedroom had been forced up a couple inches into the first locked position, as if someone had tried to get in. The dog reacted to the area around both bedroom windows, sniffing and looking around alertly. The next morning, my friend heard from a neighbor that there were strangers in the area that the locals neither know nor trust.

There went any possibility I had imagined it. Admittedly, part of me hoped I had just been paranoid due to being in unfamiliar surroundings. I hoped maybe I was hearing things, seeing things and making mountains out of molehills. Confirmation has sent me into a hyper-alert state. In my head, I have taken stock of every weapon I know is in the house so I can protect myself if the need arises. I am sleeping in small bursts of an hour or two, bolting awake at the slightest sound. I am checking to make sure windows are locked each time I pass them and trying my best not to appear an unhinged mess. Inside, my anxiety has begun pulsating steadily in a loop. Not safe. Not safe. Not safe. I find myself hiding in my bedroom more and more because I am agitated and scared and don’t want to subject anyone else to the mess I am until I can find a way to rein it back in and get it back under control.

It may have been area kids pulling a prank, trying to be funny. It may have been my friend’s cousin after all, his denial being prompted by feeling foolish about trying to get our attention in an absurd way instead of coming to the door. Or perhaps it was the strangers in the area the neighbors had mentioned, checking houses for whatever reason. It was most likely a one-time occurrence, unlikely to happen again. Regardless of who it was, though, or what their intentions may have been, having someone at my window has brought my PTSD knocking at my door.

Image via Thinkstock.

If you or a loved one are affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-0656-4673.

A version of this post originally appeared on Unlovable.

Originally published: October 28, 2016
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