Physical sensations of a long ago assault?
May 21, 2011 7:21 PM   Subscribe

Is it normal when processing an assault to get similar body sensations as the assault itself when journaling or contemplating it?

I was raped when I was a teenager and basically dealt with the situation by blocking it out and numbing myself for years and committing self destructive behavior.

Now I find more and more memories of the event coming up when I least like it and figure it is a sign I need to start dealing with it. When I try to journal about the event I find my body starting to feel like it is physically happening to me. I find my throat closing off like I am being choked and end up gasping for breath as well as the sudden need to vomit. Is this normal? Or am I just being over dramatic about the whole thing since it took place 20 years ago.

Sometimes I begin to feel like I am 16 again instead of 36 and feel like I am out of my body. Not connected with myself. That is very scary and I don't understand. I tried to talk to a friend about it but not mentioning the assault and she said that it was silly and of course you are part of your body. Am I freak for sometimes feeling that way?

I am in therapy for depression but have yet to raise this issue as I do not know how to put it into words what happened to me as you can see here with my poorly worded question. I feel lame that I haven't raised it before now and wonder if my therapist will believe since I didn't mention it for the past 6 months of seeing him.
posted by kanata to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not a therapist, or your therapist, but it sounds like a pretty standard post-traumatic stress disorder symptom. I think it's definitely worthwhile to mention it to your therapist, and they should have some understanding that there are likely things any person might take a while to feel comfortable bringing up in therapy. You could always show the therapist this, or some of your journal entries if it's too difficult to bring up in person at first.
posted by bizzyb at 7:25 PM on May 21, 2011

You're not a freak. You're not being over-dramatic. Your feelings are normal. Your therapist is not going to disbelieve you because you haven't brought this up before. It was a traumatic experience and your reactions are completely normal.

As far as the physical sensations you're describing - I have not been raped but I have had other traumatic things happen, and yes I do feel some of the same bodily sensations when thinking about them. All physical sensations are processed by the brain, and it can create its own sensations even when no external stimuli is present. For example, people with amputated limbs can "feel" the limbs that don't even exist.

I strongly encourage you to talk to you therapist about this. This is a lot to hold inside of you and you don't need to deal with it by yourself.
posted by desjardins at 7:29 PM on May 21, 2011

"...and wonder if my therapist will believe since I didn't mention it for the past 6 months of seeing him"

If you tell him, and he doesn't believe you, you need to find another therapist.
posted by Gorgik at 7:37 PM on May 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

Definitely sounds like post-traumatic stress symptoms. If you talk to your therapist about it and he doesn't believe you (which he should, even if you brought it up after much longer than 6 months of treatment; that's his job), find a new therapist.

It might be useful to talk to someone from a rape crisis hotline first if you need to figure out how to talk about it. I don't know where you are in BC but there are some listings here. I've worked at a rape crisis center and people frequently called us to talk about assaults that had happened long before.
posted by camyram at 7:40 PM on May 21, 2011

Just nthing that it sounds like textbook PTSD symptoms. I had something very violent and abrupt and life-threatening occur as a teenager and I didn't think I had any problems with that stuff at first because I thought it was supposed to manifest as anxiety/panic attacks, the whole "feels like a heart attack" gasping stuff, if it was going to at all. That never happened, but what DID happen, and way too often, was what you're describing--feeling physically as traumatized out of the blue at times. Where I could know intellectually/coolly that there wasn't a gun pointed at my head but that logical thinking didn't matter, I felt as physically in danger and there was no way to make it stop. If you've seen the notorious later story arc in Six Feet Under where [SPOILER] David is taken hostage at gunpoint and suffers those sorts of intense, debilitating "physically real" flashbacks/hallucinations [/SPOILER] well yeah, it can be like that. I wish I had known that was PTSD too, and didn't for years and would just wake up screaming sometimes or unable to move or do anything for what felt like an eternity in broad daylight. Please talk to someone--it's very common and you can get help to work through it.
posted by ifjuly at 8:29 PM on May 21, 2011

Your therapist will believe you. It is not lame or weird at all that you didn't immediately tell your therapist about this. What you're going through is extremely normal. Best of luck, I hope you feel better.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:10 PM on May 21, 2011

I am not a therapist; I only know some hurt people and am one myself. The term for that out-of-body feeling is dissociative disorder, and it's completely normal. Sorry, that's just a wiki link, but it might help you do further research.

Do not worry about your therapist not believing you. It is also very common for people who've been through a traumatic experience not to deal with it for many years; there's no rule that says that you should have discussed this six months ago. Your therapist will understand; but if you don't feel like he's 100% with you, you should find someone else (as stated above).

Also, your post is not poorly worded at all. I'm so sorry you're going through this and wish you the best of luck working through it.
posted by torticat at 9:27 PM on May 21, 2011

Yes, it is exactly what happens to millions of people who have been traumatized and never been able to heal properly. I don't know what "heal properly" really means when a sixteen year old is raped; I was raped at sixteen and it was sixty years ago. There was no one to tell and I didn't know how to deal with it. I think for years I had what is now known as PTSD. Perhaps you do, as well.

I started dealing with it in my thirties for much the same reasons you mention. I needed a good bit of help from therapists and excellent friends. I did finally feel I was able to become whole and able to function comfortably and happily in the world, have a successful career, etc.

I know there are many women who write these days about similar experiences and share their experiences, thoughts, coping mechanisms, successes, and fears in feminist communities such as this one. I have read a lot there in recent years, as well as at other places I've found helpful online.

Please start right away talking with your therapist about this and reading things that might help you understand how tragically common this is. If you don't feel your therapist has comprehension and respect for the problem you are having, consider finding another therapist. You are not imagining things and you are not alone. You can achieve a much better level of comfort and overcome much of the restriction this trauma has imposed on your life. It was very important to me to have a group of people who knew what I was trying to do--a support group, we called it in those days.

I wish so much for happiness in your future. You absolutely can reclaim your life and make it better. The way out is through it but you don't have to do it alone. (Me mail me if you like.)
posted by Anitanola at 9:53 PM on May 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

You are not at all a freak for feeling this way. I agree that your symptoms sound like a panic attack, and I wouldn't be surprised if it stemmed from PTSD.

One minor clarification: some dissociative sensations are common in the general population and they are frequently associated with PTSD, but you probably don't have a dissociative disorder per se. Those are very rare.

It also sounds like you are highly critical of yourself. You are not being "over dramatic", "silly" or "lame". I'm guessing that those words are coming from your depression (i.e. the feelings of guilt about doing everything wrong, including treatment). I want to emphasize that, from an objective perspective, you are none of these things and you do not deserve to be denigrating yourself by using those terms. Think about the words that you would use to describe a good friend in your situation. I might choose words like "courageous" and "willing to work hard for change".

Finally, As Anitanola mentioned, a good therapist would understand your hesitance to report the assault and would certainly not blame you for it.
posted by monkeys with typewriters at 10:02 PM on May 21, 2011

Yes, normal. Try the book "Waking the Tiger" about trauma and look up dissociation. Body psychotherapists can help you work through this through the body, the approach is variable. I would find one that understands trauma and is willing to do nitty-gritty stuff.
posted by Not Supplied at 12:33 AM on May 22, 2011

I was with my therapist for 2 years before I mentioned my rape (happened when I was 19, it had been 15 years when I finally told her). Like you, I didn't know how to put it into words either. The only people I had shared with had been my parents... they being fundamentalist Christians, I was punished for lying about having seduced a man, made to speak with our pastor about being a "fallen woman", and then had to follow several sessions of being told I might never go to heaven since no man in his right mind (i.e. Christian) would ever have me :-/ as you can imagine that did not help heal at all, and only compounded my desire never to speak about it with anyone.

Anyway. My therapist believed me. It helped her understand some other symptoms she hadn't quite been able to put a finger on, as well. Being honest about your doubts, even your doubt that he'll believe you, will be helpful. If he's a good therapist (I'm guessing he is since you've trusted him for six months with other things :) ) then he'll probably, like mine, have noticed some things that he hasn't mentioned because he can tell it needs to be in your own time.

Your friend who thought the dissociative feelings were "silly" is probably someone who's never had a truly traumatic experience in life; I bet it was her way of trying to make you feel better. It can be hard when you've lived through trauma, so many people haven't and are just blissfully ignorant (I mean that in the best way possible, sometimes I wish I knew what that's like).
posted by fraula at 3:10 AM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree with Fraula -- If your therapist is a good therapist, they will have picked up on something related to PTSD and will (1) believe you, and (2) not be hugely surprised by this revelation. PTSD is a difficult thing to deal with on your own. I know from experience that my PTSD is apparent to those close to me (and sometimes those who aren't close to me) even when I think I'm hiding it really well.

Putting it into words is difficult. It seems impossible, even. Writing it out can be even more difficult because you have to see the words on the page.

The physical sensations sound like a normal part of flashbacks. From everything I know, the flashbacks manifest themselves in many ways, because you pick up on specific details. When people ask victims about rape, often they cannot describe the entire event in full; they can, however, describe in detail how they felt (physical and emotion).

Have you told anybody about this, ever? It happened when you were sixteen; you're thirty-six now. Your current therapist isn't aware of it, but is anybody else? (Either because you told them, or because they noticed things and suspect?)

You're not alone, you know. Your friend has obviously not had any actual experience with PTSD (otherwise, she would have recognized right away that you were describing flashbacks) . Don't assume that everybody's reactions will be like that. Those of us who pay enough attention to the issue to understand how to react to revelations of PTSD -- not to mention those of us who have experience it ourselves.

You're not alone. You're not alone. You're not alone.
posted by hypotheticole at 7:51 AM on May 22, 2011

I told one person about this back when I was 16. A friend but they did not believe me because I had been drinking and flirting with the men who did it. Which is understandable and I recognize I shouldn't have done that. I guess this is why I am afraid that my therapist won't believe me either or will blame me as I shouldn't have placed myself in such a situation, didn't fight them off, let them drive me home and didn't report it....I don't know. It may not even have been rape. I probably shouldn't have posted this question. Thanks all for answering.
posted by kanata at 10:56 AM on May 22, 2011

Kanata - please don't let your self-doubt keep you from getting help with this. Whether or not it fit any legal definition of rape, the important thing is that you did absolutely experience trauma.(Actually it sounds like it is legal rape but that doesn't matter - you aren't taking these guys to court, you are just trying to deal with this awful thing that happened to you.)

I have a friend who was in therapy for six months and suddenly had flashbacks related a childhood molestation. My theory was that she had tried to bury this memory in her subconscious but it takes a lot of work to keep monsters from breaking through a closet door. Once she had established trust with her therapist, her subconscious decided to ease up on the constant fighting and to start letting the memories surface. It is the nature of unprocessed trauma that you experience the memories as if they are happening in the moment (this explains physical sensations, overwhelming fear and the sense of being 16 again). The good news is that you have far more resources as an adult to deal with this stuff - plus a therapist that I think that your subconscious trusts to help you through it. My friend went through a really nasty 6-12 months as she got flooded by these memories but when she got through to the other side, she was much healthier psychologically.

So, I think your therapist might find this to be, maybe not expected, but at least not surprising.

Also, you can ease into the discussion with your therapist - just let her know that some old memories are coming up and they are making you uncomfortable. Just say that much and your therapist can help you from there. It is OK if the story comes out gradually as you are ready to tell it.
posted by metahawk at 1:01 PM on May 22, 2011

I agree 100% with metahawk. The legal definitions and details are less important than how you feel and how the events are affecting you now. You are traumatized and you'll be doing a good thing by taking care of yourself. You deserve it. Please talk to your therapist. It's not your fault.
posted by desjardins at 1:15 PM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Every trauma our body goes through (from tripping over clutter on the floor to the most distressing events of our life) gets recorded into the muscle memory. This deeply affects how we move and interact in the world. I'm currently undergoing Structural Integration (also called "Rolfing" after the creator Ida Rolf). It is an alternative therapy much like a massage, which basically releases those uncomfortable memories (tension) from the body. It is actually a very emotional experience, and has helped my lifelong depression and anxiety (and ptsd) enormously. If this at all interests you, I highly recommend The New Rules of Posture by Mary Bond, which is a very readable guide to all of this.

And of course talk to your therapist, or find one you may be more comfortable with.
posted by lrrosa at 3:03 PM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

> I told one person about this back when I was 16. A friend but they did not believe me because I had been drinking and flirting with the men who did it. Which is understandable and I recognize I shouldn't have done that. I guess this is why I am afraid that my therapist won't believe me either or will blame me as I shouldn't have placed myself in such a situation, didn't fight them off, let them drive me home and didn't report it....I don't know. It may not even have been rape. I probably shouldn't have posted this question.

These are, unfortunately, very common and typical feelings you're having--the self-doubt, the "what if nobody believes me, or what if they blame me and they're right", etc., but I just want to stress along with everyone else saying it that they're not "true", and with the right support system and a lot of hashing out your feelings with people you trust, you can get past them which will probably make it easier to heal. I know there have been various accounts on Mefi from women (and men too) who experienced these fears and eventually realized they were not responsible for what happened and were deserving of help and support. I hope somebody with experience will feel comfortable MeMailing or otherwise contacting you...really, you are not alone in your feelings, and it can get better. I wish I could say something more helpful and specific than that.
posted by ifjuly at 3:36 PM on May 22, 2011

Your therapist will believe you, your therapist will not think that you deserved it or did something to earn what happened to you, your therapist will not think it was your fault. Seriously. Telling someone about your trauma is incredibly difficult and I congratulate you on having the courage to post this question.

I concur with metahawk that it's very likely that the therapeutic relationship you have built up with your therapist is what is getting this stuff back up to the surface of your conscious mind. It's important to realize that this is good, even though it won't at all feel like it. In my own therapy, as we explore my stuff, I find myself going back over old, almost-forgotten events and reliving them to some degree. I have built up a number of defense mechanisms to deal with that stuff without processing it, and so part of the therapeutic process for me is breaking down those ineffective strategies and learning how to cope more healthily, which means going back into those traumas and re-experiencing them in some way.

That may or may not end up being a course you choose to take, but I mention it just to say that this stuff is coming up now in part because you've buried it for a long time, and in part because you're starting to believe that you're in a good place to deal with it. You should trust that instinct. Your therapist will not be at all surprised that there are things, even big things, you haven't told him yet; in fact he'll see it as an encouraging part of your therapy that you're starting to deal with it consciously.

Anyway, I wanted to address that. As to your original question: yes, it's PTSD, and yes, it's completely normal to relive the sensations of the experience, also known as being "triggered" in support communities. It's very common in cases of trauma, especially sudden, severe, and/or chronic trauma. You're not a freak at all, you're not being over-dramatic, you're not wrong. Please talk to your therapist about this if you can, it really will help.
posted by Errant at 4:06 PM on May 23, 2011

Thank you all for posting. I read and read your words over and over and over again today and when I went to therapy this afternoon I told my therapist. I couldn't go into a lot of detail and had that out of body experience just talking about it but he recognized that and helped me with it and showed me some grounding techniques to use when it happens. I'm not sure what we actually said about it as right now I just feel like being vomitty and sort of spaced out of the whole situation. But he did say he believed me when I said he'd probably think I was lying so that made me feel better.

Thank you all for giving me the nerve to do it (even though part of me wants to take it back now) and telling me I wasn't alone or a freak.
posted by kanata at 1:47 PM on May 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

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