My Search for Significance
I remember losing my self-worth the day my dad and I raced up to visit my mother in the hospital. I was about seven years old. She was sick with bronchitis and asthma attacks and was receiving breathing treatments. It seemed she was there for a few days and was almost ready to come back home. My dad looked so nervous as he kissed my mother hello. He began telling her how well he had been taking care of things back at home.
Hoping that soon it would be my turn to speak, I nodded yes along with my father’s reassurances to her. I was certain whenever my dad told Moma I was sleeping in their bed I would be able to be seen and heard. Moma’s eyes grew big, and she leaned over the bed and asked me if it was true that I wanted to sleep in their room because I was having nightmares. How could any little girl not say yes to a father’s invitation to sleep where Mommy slept while she was away? I knew someone would be in trouble for lying. I felt all my strength wither away at that moment. Again, I nodded my head in agreement, that I wanted and enjoyed sleeping in their bed with him. I could still hear the echo of my promise to my father — that I would tell Mommy what we did in her bed. But I never told her.
My mother was never very attentive to me or my older brothers. She always buried her nose in books as I sat on my father’s lap and got molested. I wanted to be like my brothers but I was “Daddy’s Little Girl” and the “Crybaby,” so I played my role. My childhood was very confusing, and I learned early that I could only exist if I was smiling and pleasing my father. My needs were not met unless I cried loudly and that would result in guilt and shame for expressing myself. Around age thirteen, I stopped crying and feeling altogether. Very distrustful of myself and the world, I became a bystander to life.
At eighteen years old, I began feeling again when my brother became ill. His mood swings, psychotic episodes, and AIDS scared and embarrassed me. I tried to be emotionally there for my family, but I was not able. After my brother’s death, I coped by mentally escaping any painful event that occurred in my life, including the subsequent suicide of a fiance. If emotional pain reached a certain level, I would quit and start over again. Adaptability in various aspects of my life, beliefs, career, or residence helped me to survive but made it difficult to ascertain what my true feelings and self desired.
Hoping to gain control of my finances and utilize the college money granted to enlistees, I joined the U.S. Navy at twenty-seven years old. I was stationed on a supply ship in a port near New York City. One weekend I decided not to hang out with shipmates out in town. Instead, I went to the club on military base to get a bite to eat. While eating alone, I realized that it was the anniversary of my fiance’s suicide, also the first day we began dating. So many memories flooded my mind. I wanted to escape the sad thoughts. I wanted alcohol to take its course in me. I quickly drank three beers, and during my fourth, a sailor from another ship who I never met joined me at my table. After talking for a while, he told me it was his twenty-first birthday and asked me to walk with him to the bar a mile away from the base.
My first thoughts were to go back to the ship, not to trust this guy — I could get raped. I gave him a few excuses why I would not walk with him to a bar. But somehow, he convinced me it was safe and that we would be back before it got too late in the evening. Going to the bar, we walked down a beautiful path; the trees canopied over us. We arrived at the bar safe, and the people there seemed friendly. I quickly became too intoxicated and told him I needed to go back to my ship. On the walk back to base, he pulled me off the path and began removing my clothes. I could not stop him. I felt like a child getting her diapers changed. He spat on his hand and rubbed his genitals to have sex with me in the dark, scary woods. In and out of consciousness, I was helpless to move away from him or the tree branch killing my back beneath me. I stared at the trees watching over me and was ashamed of what was happening to me. I could have died that day or acquired a sexually transmitted disease. Fortunately, all that resulted was a pregnancy.
I did not know I was pregnant for three months, after which I started feeling very ill. I debated whether to abort the baby. I asked the ship doctor for help but was denied counseling due to military regulations against providing counseling for women who want an abortion. I did not want an abortion per se; I wanted help. I needed hugs and to cry on someone’s shoulder. I decided to keep the baby. Even though I was not proud of the child’s father’s identity and not proud of being a pregnant, unwed, junior enlisted sailor, I so much wanted to become a mom. I resolved my uncertainties over having the baby, but soon learned I would have to abort for medical reasons. I had a molar pregnancy, where the baby does not develop properly and may threaten the life of the mother if the pregnancy is allowed to go to full-term. It was an emotional roller coaster ride — I felt despair to desperation to hope and back to despair!
I was rushed by van to the Navy medical center near D.C. for the medically necessary abortion. Without anyone nearby for support, I underwent surgery and settled in the Medical Holding Company barracks to recuperate. After a few days of rest, I was assigned to work in Hospital Administration. The military insists ill service members return to work as soon as possible. I would get no special treatment. I coped with the loss of the baby by working very late hours. Staying in the barracks was very depressing. All my possessions were still on the ship. No food service was available at night. Ordering pizza soon became nauseating. And I was too exhausted to leave the military medical center.
The rooms were dreary, and every night after work I would go to my room and cry alone. Two weeks later, I hemorrhaged and needed another surgery to stop the bleeding. My doctor told me I had choriocarcinoma, cancer of the placenta. The molar pregnancy had gone malignant, I needed to start chemotherapy, and I could not return to the ship. Cancer did not scare me; I wanted to die. I was alone and felt worthless.
Three months of chemo treatments rid me of the cancer. However, every month for a year my blood was monitored for the pregnancy hormone, to insure I remained cancer-free. If the lab tests had indicated pregnancy, that meant the cancer could still threaten my life. That served as a constant reminder of the bad pregnancy.
I tried beginning a new life with my newfound health. I began socializing with a few sailors and met a friend, now my husband. I was still experiencing health issues and had chronic breathing problems. I experienced difficulty breathing any time I was stressed, emotionally or physically. I underwent several tests. One test included a bronchoscopy without sedation, which was very traumatic. I felt like I was drowning in saliva as the doctor shoved the scope down my throat. Tests confirmed diagnoses of asthma and vocal cord dysfunction. I began speech therapy to resolve the breathing problems. I was taught proper breathing and relaxation techniques. I felt embarrassed I could not breathe normally. Having someone listen and watch me carefully breathing created much anxiety in me. After a year of unsuccessful treatment, I was referred to a psychologist.
I had been silently suffering for so long. The psychologist was the first person in my life willing to listen to me and who was qualified to help me. He taught me relaxation techniques and waited patiently for me to tell my story. Many sessions seemed wasted because I was so scared to talk about my secrets. I thought maybe I was crazy. One session I presented to him some artwork and a poem I created during my chemotherapy treatments. That session helped reduce some of the anxiety of disclosure and helped begin the dialogue necessary for me to begin healing.
After many sessions and with help from the counselor, I realized I experienced a sexual assault in those dark, scary woods. I began to remember some of the feelings I felt after the assault. I felt very ashamed, embarrassed, and responsible for the rape. That is why I never reported the incident. I also realized the breathing problems I was having were caused by the panic attacks that I was experiencing. Going outdoors was a major panic attack trigger. For some time, I was scared of trees. During the rape, I focused on the trees to escape the pain. I retreated indoors to avoid strangers. The counselor diagnosed me with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), then referred me to another therapist, a female, to work with me more intensely.
PTSD is an anxiety disorder resulting from a traumatic experience. Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will have PTSD. I was probably more susceptible to mental illness and PTSD because of my history of incest at a young age, lasting many years. I never learned how to cope with stress without emotional detachment and numbing. I never dealt with or healed from my past hurts. So, PTSD took hold of me tightly. I lost the ability to function in almost all areas of my life.
For me, the most paralyzing symptom of PTSD was (and still is) my fear of strangers. I fear to be seen. I believe that when someone is looking at me, it means that they want something from me, and I become afraid and feel unsafe. I don’t want to: make eye contact, be seen, feel, remember, be embarrassed, be smiled at, or hear any compliments. I also fear sharing my inner world with someone; I feel I can never go back to feeling safe with my secrets. It creates a dilemma, whether or not this person (that I’ve shared my secret with) will stay in my world or alienate me. I choose to alienate myself beforehand. It feels safer, hiding.
One area of my life that worked well was my relationship with my friend I met after my recovery from cancer. Certainly the counseling helped me learn to trust him enough to marry him after two years of friendship. I was lucky to have found my husband. I easily could have been victimized again.
Psychotropic medications were of little use for me. They could not take away my pain, memories, or flashbacks. Anti-anxiety medication, specifically Ativan, was the only medication that calmed me down during a panic attack, without impairing me too significantly. Anti-psychotic medications, both Geodon and Seroquel, created too many adverse effects in me. I was on so many medications at one point, that I had a drug-induced manic psychotic episode — the most embarrassing few weeks of my life! At one point, I was catatonic in the emergency room. I found myself in the psychiatric ward refusing all medications. I cannot talk in much detail about what happened to me during that period. I experienced so many delusions and hallucinations, some which I still “feel” were real. My husband experienced just about the same amount of pain as I did, as he watched me lose my mind.
My husband and I began marriage counseling shortly after I was discharged from the Navy. We both avoid talking about anything that is bothersome. Neither one of us wants to embarrass the other. Just by attending sessions, it reminds us what is important: that we keep talking and listening to each other. Marriage counseling has also taught me that I need to remain open to new ideas and solutions from my husband.
I struggle with a mental illness. Five years ago, I became physically and emotionally ill and longed for my life to end. I felt alone and stuck in my misery, not able to envision a future life with significance. Now with the help of a few therapists and my husband, healing has taken root in me. Last year, I became pregnant, and this year, I had a beautiful, healthy little boy. Caring for my child brings meaning to my life. I have the family I have always wanted. Five years ago, when I was depressed and wanted to die, I could never have imagined I would have so much as I do today. I have faith, hope, and love.
PTSD symptoms still affect me but can be managed without thinking of suicide as my only option. Memories, nightmares, dissociations, and panic attacks have become part of my life. I cannot avoid them completely, but I don’t have to let them drain all my resources. I accept I have been hurt and my body and mind needs to deal with the past. I want to believe that time heals all wounds. But, if I am never cured of PTSD, that is okay with me. I have a promising future with my loving husband and wonderful child.
Story, P. (2020). My Search for Significance. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 6, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/my-search-for-significance/