“Just don’t think about it.”
It’s something I’ve heard quite often throughout my life, something many “anxious” or “emotional” individuals have learned to tune out. My initial reaction to this piece of advice has always been to argue, “I can’t help it. My brain is literally wired this way.” My more rational, enlightened self has a better response.
My entire life, I did everything but think about what happened to me when I was 4 years old. In fact, my mind repressed my sexual assault for years. What I did instead was fuel my body with pure hatred. Self-doubt and shame became the norm. I lacked confidence and searched for validation in anyone who would give it to me, and I ended up attracting many toxic people in the process.
When I finally opened up about my trauma in high school to a guy I had been seeing, I knew deep down he was not someone I should trust. But I couldn’t help my attraction to him. He was exhilarating. I never knew what to expect from him and was always on high alert — which is how I spent most of my life till that point. In a sense, that was my norm. It was when I felt most myself.
On top of that, I was so fearful of abandonment, of losing his approval of me, that I consciously gave him “chances.” It’s not that I didn’t see the red flags; I just didn’t care about myself enough to believe I deserved better. I let him curse me out, belittle me, control me. There came a point when we were arguing and he threatened to tell the entire school that I was sexually assaulted as a child — as if it was my fault, something to be ashamed of. He fueled the chronic guilt and doubt that had been growing within me since the day I was assaulted. And I thought that was “love.”
There’s a reason survivors of abuse/assault have a higher risk for victimization than their peers: they become conditioned to think and feel a certain way, especially without proper intervention. The intensity of their emotions becomes addicting, and they are left in a vulnerable state. This is a phenomena is referred to as “revictimization.”
The more this occurs, the more it enforces the idea that it is their fault. “Something is wrong with me if this keeps happening.” “I must deserve this.” “Maybe I’m asking for it.” These are all common obsessive thoughts trauma survivors experience.
When we tell someone who has endured a trauma to “not think about it,” we are actually (and likely unintentionally) dissuading them from healing. By not processing abuse, victims not only are at a higher risk for revictimization, but they can also become extremely ill — mentally, emotionally, and physically. In fact, according to Harvard Health, “Early childhood trauma is a risk factor for almost everything, from adult depression to PTSD and most psychiatric disorders, as well as a host of medical problems, including cardiovascular problems such as heart attack and stroke, cancer, and obesity.”
This is exactly what happened to me — only I didn’t know it at the time.
Two years following my assault, I was diagnosed with OCD due to the obsessive thoughts and compulsions I developed as a coping mechanism. I then started exposure and response prevention (ERP), which is great therapy for OCD but extremely harmful for PTSD (more on that in another post.) I continued this treatment on and off my entire life, falling in and out of recovery, treating my OCD but ultimately reinforcing my PTSD.
Last year, 20 full years after my assault, I finally became sick with a “mystery illness,” as many doctors called it. My skin, once clear and smooth, broke out in itchy, painful rashes. Every bone in my body ached as though I had the flu. On bad days, my temperature reached 101 degrees, then only hours later would drop to 95 degrees as I’d lie under the covers shivering.
It was like my body was rejecting me. I didn’t know what to do. I was facing difficult life experiences on top of everything, but those situations are only made worse by unprocessed trauma. My stomach was a clenched fist at all times, and my heart was broken, mourning a life I no longer wanted to live.
Only now do I realize my body was just trying to tell me it had enough. It could only take so much hatred and blame. It was time to stop fueling the shame that had been breeding for 20 years.
The strangest part is, while I didn’t consciously admit the trauma was the root of many of my issues, from debilitating anxiety and guilt to depression and dissociation, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And I’m thankful every day that was the case, or else I’m not sure I would have made it out alive.
Deep down, I knew my sexual assault was a big deal, despite it happening so long ago, and despite the perpetrator being another (though older) child. Deep down, I knew it wasn’t my fault. And I knew it impacted my 4-year-old brain in ways I couldn’t explain.
So, I started to talk about it. I talked to new friends, old friends, family members, strangers on the internet — anyone who would listen and possibly validate me. I trusted everyone but myself, yet no one’s opinions seemed to be enough.
That’s the issue with trauma: until you have someone you value or deem credible spell it out for you, you might not believe it was “bad enough” to be considered such. Even then, after being wired to doubt yourself and your experiences, it’s difficult not to rebut the idea.
Thankfully, when I was close to having a nervous breakdown (as I was later told), I ended up confiding in a new therapist, who finally diagnosed me with PTSD.
Many survivors with this disorder spend time obsessing over their trauma because it is the reason for so much of their pain and suffering. To grow, we must understand what injured our roots in the first place, so we can properly tend to them and mend the damage as best as we can.
But there’s a difference between dwelling on a past event with no intentions of getting better and taking time to process said event with the intention to heal. It’s empowering to own what happened to you so you can take back control of your life.
Throughout my journey to recovery, which has only just begun, I lost contact with a lot of people I love and care about simply because I lost contact with my own heart. But I also found myself; and I can’t apologize for that. I can’t apologize for “thinking about it,” because doing so saved my life.