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February 5, 2010 12:16 PM   Subscribe

Why am I relapsing on my healing from a previous sexual assault?

Six years ago, I was the victim of a pretty fucked up sexual assault. For a long time this completely devastated my life, necessitating dropping out of graduate school, a LOT of therapy, anxiety problems, etc. I got over it though, and got into a new graduate school, got married, largely got over being an anxious person, and just overall put my life back together. As I said I didn't do this alone - I had extensive counseling to help me.

I barely ever think about the rape anymore and when I do think about it I don't get particularly upset. It's just part of my life story now.

Two weeks ago, however, I suddenly started feeling afraid again. The fear is pronounced at night. Basically I've been freaking out about sounds in the middle of the night, being home alone when it's dark out, etc. Like I used to be. The other night I was sitting in the living room with my husband and the dryer was unbalanced and making knocking noises. Even though rationally I knew it was the dryer and that I had my German Shepherd and husband next to me, listening to the sounds was intolerable and I had to turn the dryer off. I had one severe flashback nightmare during this time as well.

I cannot for the life of me figure out what is precipitating this relapse. I am not under any more stress than I've ever been under, I haven't seen any scary rape movies lately, etc.

So I guess my question is: is it normal to have a random, inexplicable relapse like this? I honestly thought I had put living in this kind of fear behind me. Second question: does this mean I need to seek counseling again? I've been to so many therapists so many times now I'm not keen to do it again. Not that I have any problem with therapy, I'm just kind of over it. Third question: if not therapy, any suggestions on what I can do to stop what's going on with me quickly? I know I can wait it out and it'll go away again, but I'd rather that happened sooner than later.

Personal experiences are welcome.
posted by sickinthehead to Grab Bag (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

I'm sorry this is happening to you.

A friend of mine once had a similar "flashback" to a similar assault; at the time it had happened, she too had taken steps to put it past her, and it was years in the past -- but she saw something when she wasn't expecting it that reminded her of the incident, and it did trigger a bit of a relapse.

In her case, she did decide to go back to therapy (largely because her previous therapist hadn't really been all that great), and was only there for a little while. But she chalked it up to the fact that it was just something that had triggered her when she wasn't expecting it and that's what had brought it back.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:35 PM on February 5, 2010

So I guess my question is: is it normal to have a random, inexplicable relapse like this?

I think "relapse" is a bad word. I've never suffered something as terrible as you have, but have suffered some repeated traumas of an emotional sort when I was young. I've found that what therapy and recovery has done for me has reduced but not eliminated the times that I am affected by what happened to me. So it is totally normal that from time to time, you will feel the fallout again.

The good news is that it will pass as it came. I'd hang in there for a few weeks, continue to experience the difficult things without running away and then if it doesn't go away, seek therapy.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:35 PM on February 5, 2010

Yeah, this sounds normal. Nothing like this has ever happened to me, thank God, but I know people who have suffered traumatic experiences--sexual and not--who report that they'll randomly get nervous/anxious years after the fact, even though they're fine most of the time.

You might consider therapy, but you may also find that just talking about this with your husband may do you a world of good. If he's worth a damn, he'll be more than willing to be there for you. Sometimes that's all it takes.
posted by valkyryn at 12:41 PM on February 5, 2010

Sometimes when we reach a safe, peaceful place in our lives, we are open to allowing ourselves to work out some of the deeper gunk that we've been carrying around and unable to deal with at the time of strife. It sounds like maybe there's just a little bit more 'there' there, and maybe your challenge these days is to learn to process painful memories in times of good well-being too. It sounds like you've done it already in lots of other conditions.

It's kind of like how in the first couple months of therapy you spend a lot of time putting out the fires, the ones that were raging and the ones we create along the way. People often stop going when they start feeling better and have learned how to put out fires. But that's usually a good time to start actually working on the big stuff. Or even just the residual, leftover stuff. Especially when you are in a good mental space that provides solid perspective and clarity. Which it sounds like you have found now.

Also, I'm sorry this has happened to you. But I'm glad to hear that you have made peace with it as part of your life story.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:49 PM on February 5, 2010 [12 favorites]

I am so sorry. I read the article, and I am horrified. I think the relapse you are having sounds like a totally normal thing. I would see you therapist again if you can to be sure, but it sounds completely reasonable to me.
posted by long haired child at 12:54 PM on February 5, 2010

So I guess my question is: is it normal to have a random, inexplicable relapse like this?

Absolutely. And there will be others. And that means there is absolutely nothing wrong with you. And I agree with Ironmouth that 'relapse' isn't the right word. It's a memory, not a disease. And it's not something that can be cured like a disease; the memory will always be there.The trick is to learn how to react to it, and how not to. Going to therapy previously certainly helped you work through some reactions to the memory, but obviously not all of them.

I think you should go back to a counselor, if only once or twice. Think of it as a tune-up. Try to figure out why you're having this reaction, and why it's getting in the way of your life right now. See if you can't get some strategies for working through it.

I think you need to extend the idea of "it's just part of my life story now." Add this to that part of your life story -- that your memory will occasionally trigger some uncomfortable emotional response. AND THAT IS OKAY. That is part of your life now too. You can learn to incorporate it into your life. Don't feel like it's a defeat. Don't feel like that asshole is getting to you again. It's something you need to let yourself be able to do, for you.

It doesn't ever go away. It just doesn't. Ten years from now you might have another reaction to noises in the night. Don't beat yourself up. Allow yourself the opportunity for learning new ways to continue onward, and think of it as your gift to yourself -- not a sign of suffender.
posted by mudpuppie at 12:55 PM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm with the majority take here as well. Memories of traumatic and painful experiences, and the associated stress reactions to them, will have a way of seemingly randomly popping back into awareness even years later, and long after you've healed by any reasonable definition of healed. It'll happen from lesser spots of emotional pain--ever randomly find yourself remembering a favorite pet's dying years later? Or sometimes some ultimately minor humiliation in junior high or whatnot that was a big deal then and ceased to be a big deal long past, but nevertheless. And of course it happens with memories and stress reactions of (much) more horrific events, too.

Counseling should depend on severity and degree to which the recurrences are affecting the quality of your life, I'd say. One thing that might help is deliberately remembering whatever moments of past counseling were helpful then--techniques that worked for you better than others at the time, particularly insightful observations and comments that helped you get some leverage on dealing, that kind of thing. It seems to me that just as the brain remembers pain, it also remembers healing from it--you just need to give it a push on the latter sometimes.
posted by Drastic at 12:58 PM on February 5, 2010

Something like that has happened to me before—everything is fine for a long time and then suddenly I am anxious and insomniac and jumping out of my skin at noises, for no reason. A couple of things helped. One was finding a therapist who did CBT and working on relaxation exercises to help get me through the worst panic; part of that was coming up with a list of things that made me feel better or distracted in small ways. (I felt like a total idiot making the list because it was all trivial stuff like "make a cup of tea" or "wrap up in a blanket" or "breathe deeply", but I found it helpful to have it around because it was all stuff that wouldn't occur to me when I was anxious.) The other thing was clonazepam—it might be worth talking to a psychiatrist if you are not averse to the idea of drugs.

It sounds like you're committed to taking care of yourself, which is awesome. I hope you're doing better soon.
posted by bewilderbeast at 1:04 PM on February 5, 2010

It could be that you're in a stronger place now, emotionally, to deal with stuff that you'd locked away at the time.

The mind is a strange place. I was once walking through a shop and smelled a perfume on a random woman who walked past me. It took me right back to the time I was sent to the headteacher's office at school, because the secretary there wore the same perfume. In the middle of the shop, I started to panic, just like I had before. I was that terrified kid again.

At the time I didn't realise it was the perfume, because my mind was so full of "OMG!!!!!" that it couldn't process anything else. It could be that some innocuous thing has set you off that you didn't even process consciously. When I was near the secretary, I didn't consciously register the smell of her perfume. I also didn't register it during the later incident. It took a while for it to filter through.

I have little advice other than this - feel the fear. Just sit with it, and don't try to blot it out or turn the dryer off. Eventually, you'll stop being scared because the body can't keep that up for very long, and then you can start applying logic to the situation - you're in no danger, it was years ago, etc. I find this version of homebrew CBT to be helpful in times like this.
posted by Solomon at 1:04 PM on February 5, 2010

i was last abused by my brother 17 years ago. i was last raped 11 years ago. i will sometimes have an hour, a day, a week, where i just can't get my brain out of the feedback loop of bullshit. so, yeah, i'm gonna just throw my hat in the ring and say "totally normal".

fwiw - counseling has never worked for me. i think it's a great tool for people who can accept it - but i'm not one of those people. what i have to do is become really well acquainted with my triggers and my responses to those triggers. when i go through periods like this, that pop up with seemingly no cause, i rack my brain trying to figure out the cause - usually there is one - someone's tone of voice, a scene in a movie, a scent...it's only been the last couple of years that the smell of vanilla perfume/oil/candles don't leave me a sobbing mess. but, when i a met with with a trigger, since i've chosen to not have the support of a therapist, it's up to me to figure out how to get myself out of that rut. for everyone it's a different thing - i find that cooking really helps, as does ferocious cleaning. for some it's relaxing or going for a walk. some people i know have had great success through art therapy.
posted by nadawi at 1:24 PM on February 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

It is completely normal. I had my first flashback right when I reached a new security threshold - a time of safety and belonging and comfort and feeling a rightness with the world. It was like my core was trying to put me back in a guarded state of alert. I guess you could call it a deep-seated defense mechanism. I've had several other flashbacks since, of varying degrees of intensity. I'm over therapy, too, for what it's worth.

The first one I had after I thought, "Oh, good, I'm OK now. I've dealt with this thing, and I've come out on the other side." was easily the worst because I didn't know how to handle it, and I thought I was broken again. The flashback tangle of emotion and fear AND the added-on despair that it was happening again for no good reason was a nasty thing.

The first thing I do is to isolate out the thing that is nominally triggering the item. I have walked out of a movie theater. I've gotten out of bed at 3 am and turned on every light in the house. I have arranged an assortment of glass beneath every window and door and on a random pair of steps on the stairs. I have stood over my dryer rebalancing it every 10 minutes so that wild rapid thumping stops. Doing what you have to do to get through the short term is the first step. I may know that I'm being ridiculous when I figure out where the best place to hide from an intruder is or how best to hurt someone with a screwdriver, but it helps get me to a place where I can think somewhat clearly.

Then when things are clearer, when the immediate trigger is resolved, I try to apply logic and understanding to my life. My visceral memories are a part of me; I have survived something which is still a part of me and still changed me, but they do not own me and they do not define who I am. I try to figure out why I'm suddenly reacting like this - For me, the flashbacks that happen sometimes mean that I'm at a place where I can deal with another piece of shrapnel. Sometimes they've been inspired by something at work or in my personal life, and my body reacts by going on guard. Sometimes they merely reflect that my inner defense mechanism thinks I've been slacking and it has to be on ultra-guard since my conscious has been too lax.

As I've gotten older, they've gotten a lot more managable, and the fear subsides a lot quicker. So, long story short (too late), it's normal and it sucks, but it gets better.
posted by julen at 2:20 PM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sometimes when we reach a safe, peaceful place in our lives, we are open to allowing ourselves to work out some of the deeper gunk that we've been carrying around and unable to deal with at the time of strife. It sounds like maybe there's just a little bit more 'there' there, and maybe your challenge these days is to learn to process painful memories in times of good well-being too. It sounds like you've done it already in lots of other conditions.

This, absolutely. For me it's cyclical - last year was the first time summer didn't throw me off balance completely. So when it happened this year I was so fucking angry on top of the anxiety and flashbacks and terror. It sucked. Yes, I'd had a lot of stuff happen this year that made an environment where the flashbacks could thrive, but I was still so angry. I was angry at myself, angry at the rapist, angry at the media, angry at everyone. But once I'd realised that it was hitting so hard because I'd had a relatively long period of time without it, the whole thing got easier to deal with. The actual flashbacks and stuff probably weren't as bad as they had been previously, but because I hadn't had to deal with them for so long, it felt just as bad.

Give yourself a little time, a little space. Concentrate on the things that help. If you need to keep lights on, keep them on. If you need to turn the dryer off, turn it off. That's not a bad thing. You might need therapy again, you might not. Right now you need to not beat yourself up over not being 100% totally fixed and okay.

(To help myself this summer I put a total media ban in place, didn't look at comments on a lot of websites, avoided a lot of blogs I usually read including Metafilter - that cut out a lot of the rape noise, jerkoffs making arsehole comments and news stories. I burrowed down a bit and tried to avoid the environmental triggers like heat and humidity and the smell of jacarandas. I let other anachronism know so he could adjust how he treated me as well. Yes, it was a step back, but for the month or so we did that, I could get my balance back again.)
posted by geek anachronism at 3:32 PM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's normal. Regardless of extra stress or reminders in your life, it can just ebb or flood back in and set you back for a while. It's one of the reasons survivors have fought so hard to have PTSD recognised as a bigger deal than the system was willing to acknowledge.

Resuming therapy is a good idea. You can also get workbooks (I like the CBT for anxiety workbook, myself) to give you a daily re-focus.

Also ramp up any other self-care that helps you rebalance and reconnect with yourself. Reach out to anyone who can help you see how well-supported you are and give you positive feedback (not mindlessly, of course, but I think you know what I mean).
posted by batmonkey at 3:44 PM on February 5, 2010

Adding to the chorus of "it sucks, but it's normal". And as much as I hate to say it, it will likely happen again.

It has been almost 25 years since the last time my father did anything to me. It's a chapter (or five) of my life that are well and truly closed. But it does still pop up occasionally. It's random, inconsistent and really scary/annoying. I had a nightmare last month about it, and I think previously it had been like two years since it crossed my mind. The obvious can trigger it; a father yelling at his child, being touched unexpectedly, the bedspring-noises in the opening of Tool's "Prison Sex" which is a song I should never ever listen to anyway. But worse than that are the times when a totally unrelated thing (or indeed nothing at all) brings it up. A certain noise. Someone giving you a certain look on the street. One night I completely freaked out because my other half woke me up by getting into bed beside me.

In my experience, (and I think this AskMe sort of touches on this), living through a traumatic experience not only changes a person but it leaves a permanent mark, a sort of mental tattoo if you like.

I also think that confirmation bias has some role here as well; I also occasionally remember that one really embarassing time that I lost the spelling bee on my first word in front of the entire school and my family, the time that I was in a pretty bad car wreck, being beat up, etc.

The fucked up thing about this kind of recall (agreed with Ironmouth that "relapse" is not the best term here) is that it isn't simply remembering unpleasant memories of previous events like I mentioned, you are almost physically reliving said event(s). Cold sweat, shallow breathing, suffocating from terror. Rationally you know that it isn't happening, but you can't necessarily control your physiological reactions.

I don't have a magic bullet that will make you forget or make sure you never found yourself in that experience. I dearly wish I did and you would be at the top of the list. All I can say is that you are not crazy, you are not abnormal and most of all you are not alone.
posted by geckoinpdx at 4:45 PM on February 5, 2010

I don't think this is a setback, it's just a revisiting, and I wonder if it is happening because you feel so secure -- with your husband and your dog and all that, you are now in a position to occasionally explore the wreckage of these feelings in perfect safety.
posted by hermitosis at 5:17 PM on February 5, 2010

Normal. PTSD doesn't resolve itself in a straight line, but in blips punctuated by long periods of what seems like normalcy (the new normalcy, that is, after being assaulted). And, then, every so often, there is a surprise.

The way I see it now (I was attacked six years ago) is that "it's" always there. That there are periods of reprieve between (what are) stages of healing/acceptance. The episodes of flashback might very well be necessary for "healing". So you can look at this as progress. Maybe it's merely that you mind is ready (healthy) enough right now to continue processing what happened to you.
posted by marimeko at 5:27 PM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you see a therapist, ask about EMDR.
posted by IndigoRain at 7:06 PM on February 5, 2010

Years ago I read something that's always stuck with me: recovery from trauma doesn't happen in a straight line; it manifests as a spiral. That imagery -- visualizing myself at a different place on the spiral -- has helped over the years to reassure me that I'm not relapsing, but am dealing with stuff over time as it comes up. And each time stuff does come up, I'm in a different place and have different (hopefully better) ways of coping. Don't know if you'd find that sort of thing helpful, but ... fwiw.
posted by worldswalker at 8:42 PM on February 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm not a specialist or anything. But it could be that you were triggered by a fragment of the trauma - something that hasn't been reintegrated into your experience of the trauma. So there was a sound or something that triggered you. You might want to look into EMDR, as it is a relatively quick therapy where you don't have to rehash the whole story and where you look at integrating fragments of the trauma.
posted by acoutu at 8:58 PM on February 5, 2010

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