A sunflower soaks up the rays of the sun at BE Farm in Bayard, Nebraska on August 3, 2023.

A few days ago, I read a column, which really hit home. The author, Lucia Osborne-Crowley, is a trauma expert. After reporting on the Ghislaine Maxwell trial devastated her own mental health, she checked herself in to one of the world’s leading residential trauma-treatment centers.

I would encourage everyone to go read the article, but I wanted to share some parts of the article that resonated with me.

I only remember snippets of the drive, heaving sobs and shallow breaths. A kind-looking woman greets me: “Lucia, it’s so nice to see you again.” I have never seen her before in my life. Or rather, I have, but I do not remember it.

I paused reading the article and I was only in the second paragraph. This has happened to me so often that I have my own unique coping skill for it. People remember meeting me, having conversations, going places, but there is nothing for me. I have been on entire vacations with my husband and even though he tries to refresh my memory, I have none.

There are times I’ve driven to my destination, face covered in dried tears, but with no memory of how I went from point A to point B. This happened frequently with my previous therapist, whose office is 50 minutes away.

I’m here because I have post-traumatic stress disorder so severe that my brain has gone into collapse mode to protect itself, what the experts refer to as structural dissociation. It’s been triggered by my job.

When I read these two sentences, I let out a long “fuuuuuuuck.” My brain started rapidly firing similarities between Osborne-Crowley’s work and the day I had my breakdown. My therapist calls it an awakening. I’m not really comfortable with either word, but people still get what I mean.

Osborne-Crowley is a legal affairs reporter and has been covering the Jeffrey Epstein story for a while. She covered all of Ghislaine Maxwell’s trial and has spoken with many survivors. In 2017, I was just a regular old reporter – still am, but was then, too – and was following everything in the news about Harvey Weinstein. If there was a story about him where he did X, I would read 10-12 articles about it. I did this every day, multiple times a day. The next day there would be story Y and I’d repeat the process. Osborne-Crowley describes how her brain went into collapse mode to protect itself. I have always referred to it as my brain broke and I wasn’t capable of functioning.

I have not been diagnosed with structural dissociation, but, god damn, it sounded familiar, at least during that first week after my breakdown when my brain said, “Fuck you. Not working anymore. Shutting down now.” I still only remember snippets of that day. I know I watched a man die in a car wreck, wrote the article, took the photographs, cropped the photos and put in the cutlines. I just don’t remember actually doing any of it.

Like many of Epstein’s victims, I was groomed and sexually abused by an attachment figure, my abuse starting at the age of nine. At 15, I was violently raped by a stranger. Now 31, I foolishly thought myself immune to the memories their stories would bring up for me.

Welp. Other than the age differences, I nodded along, said “yep,” a few times and kept on reading. It was nice that I am stable enough to continue reading and I smiled when Osborne-Crowley said she had convinced herself she was coping. Humans like to believe we can do it on our own. It’s really difficult to ask for help and I’m glad she realized before it was too late she needed help.

So I have checked into Khiron House Clinic, a centre that focuses on polyvagal theory, one of the most cutting-edge trauma treatments. It’s known to work on people like me, who’ve tried many other things – cognitive behavioural therapy, dialectical behaviour therapy, psychoanalysis, hypnosis, ayahuasca – but with little success.

I sat up when I read this paragraph. First, I know how the structure of articles and columns work and this provided an indication that not only was I going to like what was written next, there was a good chance I was going to nod and say “yep” a lot, too.

Osborne-Crowley goes on to explain how polyvagal theory works. My explanation won’t be as good, but here goes. You know what? The video below does a much better job than I could ever do. If you prefer words over video, I got ya covered with this link.

This is, essentially, how I spent my life until I was 47 years old, was sent out to cover breaking news, and couldn’t keep my shit together anymore. It wasn’t until 2022, when I was able to work with my therapist to figure out why screaming is such a trigger for me. I’ve also learned several other sounds, which trigger fight, flight, or freeze.

I spent a lot of time nodding my head as I read, mainly because I know this information now. It doesn’t make everything magically go away – that’s not going to ever happen – but I can recognize it, which is a huge step forward. I now have a collection of ways to calm my nervous system.

There was another bit which made me chuckle.

…we’ll spend hours pausing after each sentence as she asks me what my body is doing.

At first, I am so unused to this that I blankly say, “I don’t know.”

I remember not knowing how to answer this question the first time my therapist asked it. I knew I wasn’t going to be yelled at for not knowing, but my body was screaming, “run the fuck away before you get yelled at and get hit.” That is trauma and I had to convince my brain it was okay to say “I don’t know,” I wasn’t going to be in trouble, and I didn’t need to run away or implode because I didn’t know the answer.

Although I’ve been working with my therapist for 19 months, polyvagal theory is still somewhat new to me. Fear is a big factor in it all. It takes time to learn all your triggers and I haven’t learned all mine yet. I think I had all of them hit during the week of July 26 to August 2. It resulted in barely any sleep, but, because I am stable enough, I managed to get through the week. I was mostly in survival mode, but I did it.

Sounds and smells are my worst triggers. Simply hearing another person breathing too loudly can trigger one of several flashbacks. I never know which one. Smells often lead to nausea and vomiting.

Osborne-Crowley also details what it’s like to come out of a state of dissociation. I am grateful for the work I’ve been doing recently and that those times are greatly reduced. I’m better at listening to my body when it needs to cry. I’m better at recognizing why I wake up with my fists clenched or am already swinging. I still have many questions, but at least now when I listen to what my body is telling me, I’ve got a starting point to make some sense of it all. And sometimes, that starting point is not the beginning.

…sexual assault survivors may find it easier to ground themselves with their legs crossed, despite the accepted wisdom being that groundedness means having both feet on the floor…..

This was a big “holy shit” moment for me. I rarely sit with my feet on the floor. I tell others it’s because I’m short and my feet don’t touch the floor. While that is usually also true, the real reason is because I use my legs to protect myself from being assaulted. It has become my natural state, which also makes me feel safe. If you make me put my feet on the floor to do grounding exercises, it isn’t going to work. I could never explain why, but after learning about polyvagal theory and talking through it with my therapist, it made sense.

I still don’t put my shoes on the furniture though. No need to tempt fate and have my dead grandma come back to life and yell at me for having dirty shoes on the sofa.

My days are now filled with constant body checks. My biggest issue when I’m awake and especially coming into the Fall, is jaw clenching. It happens when I’m awake and asleep. It causes headaches. I am rooting out its cause – and there’s a real possibility there is more than one.

Whether it’s jaw clenching or something else my body is trying to tell me, I’ve become an expert at hiding it from other people. Some of it is necessary to protect myself. Some of it I’m still working through in therapy. Some of it I can explain to others.

For example, if a Bruce Springsteen song plays in a department store or grocery store, there’s a good chance my shopping cart will be left behind and I’ll flee to the safety of my car. “Born in the USA” was the top album in the Fall of 1984. My brain has associated Springsteen, and that album in particular, with being raped, getting sick, being in the hospital, the horribly intrusive physical exams, and the way I was treated in the hospital after the abortion. I only need one measure of a song from that album and my body tells me it’s back in 1984.

It’s gotten to the point where I can’t listen to any music, but I’m working on that, too. In a structured environment through the Safe and Sound Protocol, I am working through a variety of things which will help in that area, too.

Healing from trauma is a slow process. There is no finish line.

Damned straight.

I still have bad days, because I can’t change what happened to me. But I’ve learnt that what I can do is build a life around it.

I am fortunate to have found a therapist who can help me to see clearer on the bad days, who understands polyvagal theory and sits with me silently when the bad days knock me down. I am now slowly rebuilding my life. I don’t know how long it will take or what it will look like in the end. Hell, the end will be the day I die, so it’s going to always be changing.

After being devastated with a misdiagnosis because someone refused to listen to me and speaking with someone who couldn’t help, learning how to listen to my body has finally produced results where I won’t be continually mired in my trauma.

It has helped to change how I react to situations, how I think, and why I need to take days to myself sometimes. I understand the importance of putting a “no Wednesdays” boundary up where it’s just a day for me to think and process. It’s led to a more stable me, so I can tackle the really deep trauma.

I’m doing a lot more of what I want and which I couldn’t do during 2020 and 2021 (no, Covid had nothing to do with it) because of being triggered into the fight, flight, freeze responses.

I’m also writing more. I’ve written quite a few more poems and am thinking of trying to get them published. I’m not sure that will happen because I haven’t figured out why I freeze when I send query letters for my memoir and poetry. I wish I had the money to hire someone to do it for me until I could get it sorted why my brain crashes at the idea of sending them.

As I’ve written this post, I’ve unclenched my jaw several times. I know each time I did it and stopped to take the time to sort it out instead of pressing through.

I’m enjoying being a journalist again. Listening to what my body tells me is key. Being able to work from home and take time off during the day as needed is a key factor in remaining mentally healthy.