October 11, 2019

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Guest Author

Patterns: What I Learned In Trauma Therapy

What you need to know is earlier that year I met the man who I thought I was going to marry. You know how it goes - he kisses you on the corner of Leroy and Bleecker and you think you’re just going to faint right then and there, and he pulls away and looks at you with those ridiculous blue eyes and says...

What you need to know is earlier that year I met the man who I thought I was going to marry. You know how it goes - he kisses you on the corner of Leroy and Bleecker and you think you’re just going to faint right then and there, and he pulls away and looks at you with those ridiculous blue eyes and says

“Fuck, I think I’m going to marry you one day.”

He left for a national tour four days later, and I for an acting contract a week after that. We spent the next three months long-distance aching to be together. I fell asleep every night, iPhone in my hand, staring into those blue eyes and smiling at the man who made me happier than anyone else in the world.

Two days before he came back to New York, I was raped.

_________________

I spent the first five minutes staring at the rug. A thick, crimson border tucked it into each corner of the room from which stemmed flourishes and swirls and loops that darted around each other  birthing color after shape after line until it met a sister loop, whirled back in around itself, and started all over again. I tried to find a pattern in there somewhere. I could not.

I had been here before - this very room - after my last assault, milder in comparison. This was the first time I’d truly given the rug any attention. The rest of the room I had memorized - the basket of assorted pillows, the bookshelf of assorted titles (Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, EMDR, Neuroscience, you name it), the turtle in the corner constructed of neatly defined wood-block puzzle chunks. Knowing the space gave me some comfort, but knowing the woman sitting in the center of the room in her usual armchair felt like the hug I wanted and wasn’t ready to receive.

Kathy, my trauma therapist, was sitting with her eyes down, a courtesy to the frightened shell of a man in the chair in front of her who simply wasn’t ready to be looked at yet.

“I’m so sorry that happened to you,” she said, eyes still down.

‘That’ was referring to my rape. My ugly, ugly, rape.

I’ll spare you the details I shared with her (the gorgeous blonde man who didn’t take“no” for an answer, the gruesome aftermath, the harrowing walk home, the doctor’s visits, the blood in the bathtub basin night after night).

Kathy and I made a plan. She knew me well enough to know my patterns: Once met with a challenge, I needed a concrete, spelled out plan and I could do anything. Timelines were less useful; simply having a direction was enough to keep me motivated.

Back in her office with the rug and the swirls and the turtle and the heap of tissues at my feet Kathy met my gaze.

“How can I help you?”

“I want to heal.” I said.

“Alright.” She smiled. “We’ll start gently.”

---------------

Step 1: Education

We started with education. What is a rape? How does it affect the body? Where does our body store trauma? Why did I freeze, instead of fighting or fleeing? Why did I feel an insurmountable shame? Kathy knew if she got me to read about trauma from an academic standpoint, I’d be able to intellectually process what had happened to me. We read (devoured) “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk. I sent her journal entries after the chapters that resonated with me. I absorbed the science and began to see the parallels in my own experience.

Step 2: Bodywork

While I read van der Kolk, we did bodywork in her office during our sessions. Trauma therapy is tricky - Kathy wanted to safely replicate exposure therapy, though of course I wasn’t going to be exposed to another rape in our sessions. We had to get creative. I would lay on the floor, and recount the story of my assault while she placed her hands on different parts of my body that would elicit a response. Sometimes I shook. Other times I cried. Once or twice I felt something leave my body as she touched me. It was draining - mentally, physically, emotionally - yet each session I walked away lighter. Taller. More embodied.

Step 3: Rewriting the Story

One of my biggest recovery hurdles was that during my assault, I froze. Intellectually I understood this was a normal, natural, reptilian reaction to danger, and yet emotionally I felt betrayed by my body. When Kathy and I did bodywork, I would always get stuck on one specific plot point: there were candles all around - on the floor, the shelves (an oddly romantic juxtaposition for a brutal assault). I got stuck because my brain wanted me to reach out, grab a candle, light the bed (or him) on fire, and escape. But I couldn’t. My arms and legs stayed frozen. I had medically disassociated as a survival tactic.

Knowing the science wasn’t enough to help me heal; I still felt betrayed by my body. We began what we called “Rewriting The Story,” where I would narrate what I wish had happened from the third person, like I was suspended on the ceiling, watching. Every week I’d lay on the ground and recount the flirty texts, the planned meetup, his apartment, and I’d make up the part where I fought back when he tried to hurt me, and I’d invent my Great Escape. I felt phony and discouraged, like I was watching a series of horrific reruns, starring me, on a channel I wished desperately to turn off.  

One session I lay on the ground with Kathy’s fingers notched into the base of my skull. As always, I began narrating the incident, turning on the familiar (awful) channel I didn’t want to watch, but knew I needed to. This time the episode took an unexpected twist: just when he was about to attack me, I heard myself invent a Great Punch to the Throat followed by a Clean Escape Out the Door, Unscathed. And you know what? I felt like it actually happened.

While I’m told what happened next wasn’t an exorcism, I’m here to tell you it felt like one. All of a sudden I was uncontrollably shaking and was crying - or laughing - I’m not sure which. Kathy told me it lasted thirty seconds, and when it was done, I felt euphoric. The knot in my gut had dissipated. My chest had broadened. Kathy told me my eyes were lighter. I would later realize that this experience was my body discharging the trauma. By taking the arial viewpoint of my own rape, I had somehow given myself the power to fight and flee instead of freezing. In a way, it was like tricking my nervous system into believing this is what actually happened.

Kathy called my experience a ‘neurological trauma discharge’ and explains it this way: when I was being raped I froze because my body released the chemicals that would make me fight and flee at the same time. This cross-signaling resulted in a full freeze, like stepping on the brake and the gas pedal of a car at the same time. I had neurologically internalized all of this stored energy from the fight and flee signals, and it had nowhere to go. By Rewriting My Story, I finally released the valve under which my gas and brake pedal’s potential energy had been stored.

Step 4: Sex Friends

Here’s the truth: I love sex. I’ve had a lot of it. I fully enjoy being a queer New Yorker and having as much queer sex (which is really just sex, but that’s another article) as I want.

After my rape I was (understandably) scared. How would I react? What if I got triggered? Why did I still have a sex drive? What if someone took advantage of me again? What if I wasn’t good at sex anymore? What if I was stuck like this forever?

I had an idea. Given my rich (former) sex life, I was fortunate enough to have what I called ‘sex friends,’ men who I enjoyed intimate relationships with, sans any romantic interest. I knew these would be the only people I’d be remotely comfortable being intimate with again after my rape, and I asked Kathy if I could employ them in my recovery. If she thought it was an offbeat request she never showed it. Instead, she smiled and told me this seemed like as safe a way as any to begin experience intimacy again in the safety of friendship.

And you know what? It worked. Little by little I became more and more comfortable with sex again, until I was ready to re-join the apps, build new connections, and have sex confidently with my chosen partners.

Step 5: Completely Healed!!!

Sounds like it stops there, right? I went to trauma therapy, learned about how the body stores trauma, discharged it from my body, cultivated a healthy relationship with sex again...happy ending, right? (no pun intended).

Well, almost right.

---------------

Remember Henry? Bleecker and Leroy street? The fainting and the kisses and the blue eyes? Yeah, well, he moved to New York and after a month of ‘trying to make it work’ he decided he ‘needed to take care of himself,’ and ‘didn’t have room in his life to support my healing.’

It absolutely wrecked me. I came into Kathy’s office one Thursday a landslide of tears because Henry had just left me on a park bench and I absolutely felt like I was going to die. Despite all the healing I’d done with her I felt like I was back at square one, even more broken by Henry than my rapist.

I was lamenting over the breakup (another pile of tissues, another Very Sad James), when I began to describe how much I missed his blue eyes, how I would’ve done anything to be close to him while we were on our separate contracts.

“What did you do when you missed him most?” She asked, referencing the stretch of our relationship in which we were long distance.

“I’d call him. And if he didn’t answer, I’d go on Instagram or Grindr - we kept our relationship open - and try to forget about it.” I hated admitting that. It felt like a weakness of mine, though I knew if I wanted to heal I’d have to be completely honest with her. Kathy was an expert at not passing judgement.

“Most of the time I was horny so I’d hook up with some guy, though he was never Henry so it was always unfulfilling. It was like I was looking for him in all the wrong men.” I rolled my eyes at myself.”

“Will you show me a picture of Henry?”

I sifted through my phone, producing my favorite photo of us on the Fourth of July. He’s kissing my cheek and I am grinning ear to ear.  Kathy’s face didn’t move.

“Can you show me a picture of him by himself?”

I thumbed through my phone, offering his professional headshot. Kathy observed his blue eyes, his blonde parted hair, his toothy grin. She handed my phone back to me.

“Can you show me a picture of your rapist?”

I hesitated, and pulled up his Instagram. When I clicked on his headshot I gasped. I turned my phone around to reveal a photo of what could’ve been Henry’s twin: same blue eyes, same blonde hair, same toothy grin. Kathy nodded. I dropped my phone and caught my head in my hands. How had I never seen this before?

“What’re you feeling right now?”

“Fucking mortified,” I choked, already crying, realizing why she had me pull up his photo.

How could I be so blind? How did it take me this long to realize they looked like the same person? Is this why I ignored all the signs? The red flags? Why I went over to his place despite my gut instinct? Did I really miss Henry so much my brain tricked me into thinking I’d be closer to him if I hooked up with this guy?

I was yelling now. I remember pacing frantically around her office, gesticulating wildly, blaming myself, blaming Henry, blaming my rapist, blaming myself for everything that had happened. I felt like I was relapsing. When I started to really lose it Kathy stood up, looked me square in the eyes and said in most stern voice she ever used with me:

“James, this was not your fault.”

I stopped. I felt like a five year old talking to their mother after they spilled a glass of milk in the kitchen, terrified she’d be angry. She wasn’t.

“James, this was Not. Your. Fault. You loved Henry very much. You were - and are - entitled to those feelings. Sometimes our hearts get so big they block our brains from seeing what they can typically see. You didn’t ignore the signs when you were planning to hook up with that man, you didn’t even see them to begin with. You didn’t intentionally put yourself in harm’s way. You were so lonely and had lost so much of your sense of self that you were looking for Henry anywhere you could find him. Your brain conflated that man with Henry’s face and tricked you into thinking he’d be safe. What you’re recognizing is a pattern, not a fallacy or a deficit in you as a person.”

I took a minute to let that settle. Her words felt like an oversized pill on my tongue. I took a breath. I swallowed.

“Can I have a hug?” I asked.

Kathy obliged. I was finally ready.

_________________________________

On my last session together we had cupcakes. She surprised me with my favorite kind - red velvet with vanilla frosting and rainbow sprinkles - and we sat on the floor together and celebrated my progress, my health, my happiness, my recovery. It was like a poignant birthday party. A rebirth, I guess.

When we said goodbye, I took one last look at the rug. It still pushed at the corners of the room with its crimson border. Lines and loops and flourishes still whirled across the floor. They seemed to have no beginning or end, no rhyme or reason, no structure. After all this time, I still couldn’t find the pattern in the rug.

I did, however, learn my own.

I walked out smiling.

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