To live in the body of a survivor is to never be able to leave the scene of the crime. I cannot ignore the fact that I live here.Blythe Baird
PTSD is a whole-body tragedy, an integral human event of enormous proportions with massive repercussions.Susan Pease Banitt
Three months ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer. One month later, the oncologist peeled that diagnosis back and said we didn’t actually know yet, that the doctor who gave me my biopsy results was working from an old understanding of the type of tumor I had.
Today, I had a post-op appointment where I got the pathology results from the tumor. It’s not cancer. It’s also not completely disassociated from cancer but that’s an issue for future days.
Two weeks ago, I had a mass of suspicious cells in my breast, so far back and toward the middle of my chest that I could almost imagine the tumor leaning against my ribcage, gravitating toward my center, straining to feel my heart beat.
Today, that mass is gone. Sliced into sixteen planes that were all dyed and inspected and certified to not be cancer.
Also this week, I helped my daughter through a rage episode worse than I’ve seen with her in months and months. She’s been having trouble at school with another kid taunting her and when things are hard, the trauma takes over and her little-not-so-little body shakes and rattles like a literal storm is trapped inside of her.
Trauma is like a guest you asked to leave who just crawls into your walls and rolls out a sleeping bag there instead. I’ll just be right here and I’ll stay real quiet so I won’t bother you, it says.
But it lies.
I lost a lot of weight in the last four years of my relationship with x. Even though I had a baby and all the weight that my body mustered to carry and nurture her, I started to drop pounds like I was on some horrible diet pill.
I lost about fifty pounds in those last four years. I had only gained thirty in pregnancy.
There were so, so many weeks over those four years that I had to force myself to eat.
So I could care for my child. First, so I could nurse her. Then, so I could stay alive and have energy for her.
There were countless meals that I ate standing at the kitchen counter while everyone else, x included, was at the dinner table. Because I would actually grimace with some of the bites as I forced food into my body. And he would roll his eyes. Call me dramatic (which was likely to make me cry and then he’d call me manipulative and dramatic and then the circle would spin itself all night until I was crying into a towel in the bathroom after everyone else went to sleep). So I would eat alone in the kitchen where I didn’t have to feel self-conscious about all the effort it took just to force dinner down my throat.
I’ve been working on writing about the desperation and despair that made me almost unable to eat at all. It’s still a hard thing to explain or get at in just the right ways. It can be an actually painful thing to try to really remember.
I was thin. Thigh gap thin. Maybe my head looks like Al Roker’s too-large-on-a-skinny-body thin. Wow you look great what’s your secret thin.
I stayed close to that weight through the first two years after separation. I gained back about ten or fifteen pounds, within months, because I could actually eat again. But I was pumped full of adrenaline and cortisol constantly, still, so my body was like an anxious hummingbird always on the move, thrumming in a static kind of motion.
I couldn’t relax.
I could keep busy and I could sleep. On. Off. No in between.
After visitation stopped last summer – after however many months it took for it to be real and seem reliable – my body slowly started to take on weight. I didn’t even really notice until I had to buy new jeans. And then I had to buy new jeans again. I was the heaviest I’ve been except for being pregnant.
I wanted to shake my fist at x, again.
I was mad at him. Again. Furious that I could be eating the same as I did when we met – when I felt healthy – but now, he had essentially turned my metabolism into that of someone who’d had an eating disorder or someone who had been held hostage and starved and then, after years of her body eating itself, was trying to give it food again and so it stores it all, swells you up if you even think about carbs or sugar or fat.
One more thing he fucked with and was still fucking with.
One more way he had some kind of control over my body. Still.
I was mad at him that I was mad at him again.
I had been physically unwell a lot after the first couple of years – the happy years – of our relationship: Shingles, chest pains, polyps, headaches, insomnia, abdominal pain, two periods a month, nausea.
I had hoped that once I was out of the relationship, I could be healthy again. I could regain my old normal.
But trauma is a bitch. And even when new trauma finally stops coming at you, your body has so much to shed and heal.
In a lot of ways, your very cells are changed and normal is a thing you have to recreate, not re-find.
And then there’s that sleeping bag in the wall – trauma nestled into it and waiting to just jump up and send your body into chaos.
Two months ago, I met up with a friend visiting from across the country and she brought other friends with her. People who have known x. I started to feel panic at being with other people, especially anyone connected to x in any way.
I almost cancelled after I was already standing outside of the restaurant. I pushed myself to not give up yet another thing I wanted because of what x has done. I willed myself to stand in that one spot until they showed up and it would be too late to run away.
I wanted to see this friend. So I did.
For two days after that night, I had what I have taken to calling a PTSD hangover. It’s different than a trigger. I don’t feel the full blown trauma response. I feel ripples. Pieces.
I have to stop myself analyzing everything the other people did or said. What I said to them.
I feel down. Tired. Like the ghost of hopelessness is just thinking about creeping in.
I feel paranoid. She took a lot of pictures of my child. Will she send them to x?
I have this hangover for 24-28 hours, on average, after hanging out with anyone outside of my most trusted circle. This has been for at least a year now. I have no idea if or when this will not be the case.
I want to see people. I miss socializing. I miss laughing.
But the price is the type of hangover you can’t cure with Tylenol and a Coca Cola. I have to weigh out the desire for contact against the energy it will take to recover from something so seemingly normal. I have to really want it in order to weather the after.
There are so many things like this for people like me – things we deal with for years and years that only our closest friends know about. Ways that functioning how we did before eludes us and we feel, often, like we have cement blocks on our feet holding us down with the weight of the abuse. And we don’t know how to fully free ourselves. We fear the chains will never really be gone.
That the concrete will just become our feet.
Things that make letting go a cruel joke.
We wish. (Oh gawd how we wish that we could just cast it all off like a worn out dress and be done with it.)
We can’t just let go. We have to work through and some days, that can feel like way too much.
I’m getting close to the three year mark free.
I’m getting close to the one year mark of no visitation.
Where at first each week free from the conflict and trauma of visitations felt tentative, like it could restart at any moment – at this point, it feels wonderfully normal.
But I’m still afraid.
That I’ll get a court notice any day. That he will attempt visitation anyway. That I will run into him or his sister at TJ Maxx or the grocery store.
Afraid is still there, in some deep places. It’s buried so deep into my cells that I now know that I have to reconcile the fact that I will always carry at least a small amount of fear in a very animal way: fear of him, fear of him returning, fear of him swinging in like a wrecking ball and damaging the healing we’ve done.
Fear that if I died tomorrow, V would have to live with him and all I fought so hard to protect her from would instantly become her normal.
I thought I saw x while driving in my small city in a car I’d never seen him in and then I saw that car parked outside my house for several hours on two different days the next week.
My whole body reacted. Each time.
It wasn’t him. But my body didn’t care that my mind did the numbers on any probability he would have bought a car that new when he doesn’t even consistently pay for car insurance.
There’s nothing voluntary or intellectual about trauma that’s locked in our bodies.
Three months ago, when I took the call from the doctor giving me the biopsy results, the one who said the c word, I swallowed tears as he told me this was not a death sentence and I will be fine.
By the time I hung up the phone, I was sobbing. Literally holding my head in my hands as my elbows rested on my desk. I was crushed.
I was sad. Afraid. Worried for my child.
But a rage was also boiling in me. Instantly.
For the next two weeks, I had a red-hot anger at x, for the first time in a long time, for what he has done to my body on top of to my soul and my brain and my child. The way his rage and anger and meanness has seeped through my viscera and stretched my cells to the point of breaking.
More than one friend had, as their early reaction, anger at him. The ones who’ve been with me through the worst of this know exactly what his actions have cost me. And they blamed him before I could even share the rage I was feeling.
There’s so much he’s done – not just in the relationship but also after it ended that has pushed my whole being to the edge of what it can handle.
No matter what he or anyone else would say, though, I don’t want to be mad at him, let alone hold that red-hot rage anymore.
I don’t want to feel anything about him.
I worked hard those first two weeks post-diagnosis to let the anger roll off of me. I unearthed the like water off a duck’s back mantra that got me through most of 2020, through his heightened covert abuse of both me and V.
I envisioned the hot poker of my anger melting down into cool water and just rolling off of me. The rage was not a part of me at all. Just a wash of feeling that I could step away from so I could refocus on me and on healing.
By the time I was going into surgery to remove the tumor, I knew it was most likely not cancer. I was grateful. I was on the downslope of the mountain of my rage at x. I was also weighed down with all of the tasks and chores to make surgery possible.
I had to plan for my absence at work. I had to prep the house. I had to set up childcare and let the school know V would miss two days. I had to get a ride to Stanford. I had to get a ride home – a good one hour drive at rush hour.
I sent V off the night before with someone I trust implicitly and I didn’t know if she’d be there two days or five. We’d have to wait and see how it all went.
I had the long night before surgery to myself.
So I scheduled a massage that night. Before my body went through the medical ringer I wanted to do something good. Something that felt nothing like worrying about death or chemo. Nothing like fear.
That day, I had started to think of this probably-not-cancerous tumor as all the leftover bad shit x had done to my body all stuck together. Like all the healing I’ve been working on the last two years was working.
It was doing something below the surface even if some days it didn’t feel like it.
My body had healed enough to track down and reroute the shrapnel of x still in my body. It had glued it all together at the back of my breast – near my heart and my lungs but on the other side of the bone wall, banished from the place where the second-by-second living happens.
My body took all of that crud and stuck it altogether in a small mass so that an imaging machine would see it and a doctor would stick a needle in it and then scalpel it completely out of my body.
I laid on the massage table and focused my energy on pulling all of the bad stuff into that spot so that the next day – it could be gone.
So that the scar left behind could remind me of how much I’ve worked to heal my body.
I told my body that I was so sorry for all it has been through, all it has helped me survive.
As I sat in a car for the long ride to the hospital, as I checked in and changed into a gown and a hair net, leg compression cuffs and traction socks, as I was wheeled down to radiology to place a location wire in my breast, as I sat on a hospital bed in pre-op (for what seemed like an eternity but was only about four hours), as my stomach growled and hunger made me sleepy – I imagined that the last remnants of what x has done to my body were being carried out in that tumor. To be sliced and analyzed and then tossed into a safe container for proper disposal.
When I woke up and walked to post op and got wheeled to the front of the hospital and then finally got home that night, I felt a lightness in my chest. It was sore and bound up and I was groggy, but I felt like I had lost something that had desperately needed losing.
I know that I will still weather the ripples of trauma. And so will my child.
I am changed. And not all in good ways, no matter how Pollyanna I try to make it all.
He broke things. And I can fix them, but like bones reset, they are more fragile now and prone to shooting pains or aching. Easier to snap if pushed too far.
But something dangerous has been excised from my body. Something that needed to go.
And it feels useful to see it that way.
My current diagnosis is cancer free but with a higher risk in the future based on the kind of tumor it is.
x is like that for me. I am free of him, but there are risks. To not healing. To trusting people. To being vulnerable in the wrong places.
To underestimating his desire to hurt me.
I have to be watchful and vigilant for this kind of cancer and have a plan in place with the oncology department to do just that.
The trauma is like that, too: I can’t forget it’s there or it will jump out of that sleeping bag and startle me half to death.
But that danger is not inside my ribcage anymore. It is not in my body or in my home.
It is outside. Outside of my skin now, even.
And that feels important.