An Open Letter on Trauma

To Anyone Who Will Listen:

As Catherine Woodiless wrote, trauma permanantly changes us. This is the big, scary truth about trauma: there is no such thing as “getting over it.” The five stages of grief model marks universal stages in learning to accept loss, but the reality is in fact much bigger: a major life disruption leaves a new normal in its wake. There is no “back to the old me.” You are different now, full stop. This is not a wholly negative thing. Healing from trauma can also mean finding new strength and joy. The goal of healing is not a papering-over of changes in an effort to preserve or present things as normal. It is to acknowledge and wear your new life- warts, wisdom, and all- with courage. I’m somewhere in the midst of this, still trying to find my way to the other side. People misunderstand so much, or think they understand when they simply don’t. I have to admit, I was one of those people who thought I understood trauma- until it began affecting me in a way I never could’ve predicted. I’m still learning what this means to me, and I’ll never stop learning. I’m recently coming back from what they call a PTSD exacerbation, and due to an experience I had at a local doctor’s office back on April 18 of this year, and after much prayer, I feel it’s so important to share this.

From an early age, one of my earliest memories was the cardiologist speaking with my parents outside the door at the doctor’s office about possible death, not knowing I could hear every word. At five years old, I was diagnosed with Long QT Syndrome. I always knew I could easily die from a sudden cardiac arrest from my diagnosis from a very young age. Although many with Long QT Syndrome go on to lead completely normal, symptom free lives, I was not one of them. My Aunt suffered a sudden cardiac arrest despite her otherwise appearing great health before I was born from this, and I lost a cousin to it in 2012 in his mid-twenties who passed in his sleep from it. In 2004, I had an event in which I was given an implanted defibrillator at 16 years old. This has traumatized me over the years, whether I wanted to admit it or not. Receiving the defibrillator gave my parents and myself a peace of mind, but at the same time it brought on new, huge anxieties within me and forced me to look reality straight in the eye, as opposed to deny it which I had done up until that point to cope. This was my very first traumatic experience.

In 2012, I experienced an event that “put me over the edge” so to speak. I barely escaped an attempt on my life in which I completely dissociated from my body and saw my life flash before my eyes, and yes- that literally does happen. By the grace of God, I survived. This man was initially charged with felony battery, felony false imprisonment, two counts of felony strangulation and suffocation, and ended up facing three additional charges of bail jumping after breaking a no contact order several times following this event. He was potentially facing 40 plus years imprisonment. Unfortuneately, due to the legal system in this country favoring those who come from wealth, he plead down to one count of strangulation and suffocation and only received a sentence of one year in jail, three years of probation.

Since 2012, I have gone through extensive treatments and therapies, tried many medications. I even have to admit that I self medicated for quite some time beginning in 2004 when I was forced to face reality. These aren’t things that will simply ever just go away, but to be quite honest- I quite proud of how far I’ve come since then. We don’t get over trauma, we get through it. For whatever reason though, despite all the treatment, my body has reacted to trauma in ways I never knew was possible- until it happened to me. I had what appeared to be seizures, and despite seeing a few neurologists, and trying several medications, I couldn’t seem to figure out why or get it under control. It wasn’t until I saw a doctor at UW-Madison’s Epilepsy Clinic that I discovered what was wrong- they were not seizures, they were a result of PTSD and trauma. It was just how my body reacted, and something I couldn’t control. This conclusion was made after two hospitalizations for video EEG monitoring. It’s actually more common than people would think, and about 20% of the doctor’s patients at UW-Madison’s Epilepsy Clinic actually deal with this. Thankfully, since then, it has gotten better.

Trauma has a way of burning memories deeper into the mind. However, the mind also has ways it protects itself as a result of trauma, causing the mind to forget. I too had also had developed huge memory issues, as a result of trauma. This was another thing I didn’t know was possible. I had my longest known best friends tell me the exciting news of her pregnancy. Months later, I got kind of upset thinking she never told me such news when in reality, she did. I also had an event that scared me to death in which I had rented, watched, and returned a movie. A few days later, I had no recollection of ever having seen that movie. I still deal with huge memory issues, and probably always will. I have made plans with new friends, have had whole conversations, and the following day had no recollection of ever having such a conversation. These issues have made it extremely difficult for me to form and keep relationships. It’s so easy for someone to just assume that I ignored or ditched them. It’s so easy for someone to just assume I don’t listen- when that’s so far from the truth- I think I actually listen quite well, and make a conscious effort to listen to people instead of just hear people. Prior to my experience, I admit, I would have made these assumptions. This has been truly isolating, and has made it difficult to make and maintain all relationships in my life- both friendships and romantic relationships.

A few short years ago, I met a doctor who would play a significant role in my life although neither he nor I knew it at the time. He was an older gentleman, but for some reason I felt comfortable talking to him. He’d actually encourage me to make doctor appointments if I just needed someone to talk to- even someone to pray with. He was one of those doctors who cared so much he’d go out of his way to call you to check on you to see how you are doing. He even called me once to reassure me that I was worth it- and to let me know he was praying for me. I was able to open up about my past traumas to him surprisingly easily, and at the time, I was so lost. I was seeking spiritual truth (which I now KNOW and believe that spiritual truth to be the Holy Bible and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ), and for a while I delved down the path of other religions outside of Christianity, which I was raised as. This doctor would eventually help me work through so much- and it was never the medication with him- it was prayer. He was never afraid to hold my hands and pray out loud for me, over me, always with my permission. You never see this with doctors, especially these days. He set me up with his personal church to seek out spiritual counseling to help me through this pain I was going through but couldn’t quite grasp and understand. I will forever be thankful to this man, who was eventually forced into retirement. Fast forward to January 2018- I had met a nurse practitioner at this same office who I initially really liked. She had experience in nursing with cardiology, so I found her to be a perfect fit. I never had found someone to replace this very special, one-of-a-kind doctor, and I was so badly seeking after that again. Because Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota has a Long QT Syndrome Clinic, I ended up being blessed enough to be able to go there for my cardiac care. Following a heart related surgery to receive a new subpectoral defibrillator and pacemaker at Mayo Clinic in January, I followed up my healthcare locally during healing, and this is when I met my new primary care provider.

In mid April, I suffered the biggest mental health relapse I had ever had- and it scared me so much. I found myself dissociating again, and having moments of sheer and utter panic where my mind would just go blank. I was at a loss as to what was going on with my body, and no real answer as to what specifically triggered this, although I think it may have been a trigger from my attacker from the 2012 incident. Because I was so scared of myself wanting to go back to self-medicating and dark, suicidal thoughts, I sought after the professionals at Mayo Clinic, since that was my new home for cardiac care and much of this stemmed from this. The Long QT Syndrome Clinic even has psychiatric care itself. The psych doctor at Mayo advised to follow up with a primary care physician, and I followed up with her. Despite my personal beliefs on psychiatric medicine being no good (for myself anyway, not saying for EVERYONE), I was willing to try whatever it took- even if it meant going back on Zoloft, but I needed a local doctor for that. What transpired at that follow up appointment left me in a state of complete and utter shock.

By this point, I had felt like I was on fire again. You’re burning and burning so bady, and it’s incredibly painful. In the meantime, while you’re burning, all those around you in your corner are beginnning to die from smoke inhalation. The one thing I learned about trauma is that it is really good at one thing- and that is stealing your voice. When people ask you what’s wrong, you eventually run out of nothings to tell them. You’ve tried and tried, and they’ve tried, and the words just turn to ashes. You just don’t know how to get that fire extinguisher out at that point either. So I sought out a “fire extinguisher” in the form of this medical professional. What I didn’t expect was lighter fluid, and that’s what I got. After pouring out my heart, confiding my traumas in its almost entirety as time allowed, I sat there for thirty minutes listening to someone tell me things like, “I just don’t understand- you have nothing to be anxious about. I have five children at home, a husband, and this job, and all you have to worry about is getting your child too and from school half the time.” I was told that maybe my cell phone is the issue, I don’t have a need for one, I should just get rid of it. I was told to “go confront my attacker with my dad or something, it’s not like he’s going to pull out a gun and shoot your head off.” And my attacker is “just a person, in fact, he’s not even real” (I know, doesn’t make sense). I listened to such things for literally thirty minutes. There was nothing she could do, going back on Zoloft would not help, I just needed to get over it. The “I just needed to get over it” is the only thing above that I mentioned that she didn’t actually literally say. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and was at a loss for words. I quietly picked myself up, and walked away as she was saying to me,”If you ever need a pep talk, feel free to call!”

When I came home that day, I found myself way worse off than I was before. I really did have a few suicidal thoughts as difficult and embarassing as those words may be to write. I could feel myself slipping back into this victim mentality that I worked SO HARD to get away from. I worked hard to make the conscious decision to go from victim to survivor to thriver, despite still working on the thriver part. I broke down, and just sobbed. Was there something seriously wrong with me? Would I be better off dead? All I did know in this moment in time is that I did not want to feel that pain, I didn’t ask for any of this. My feelings were completely invalid. As opposed to completely and entirely going back on my pity pot, I ended up reaching out to a my best friend (who I am forever grateful for, you know who you are 😉 ) who validated me, validated my feelings. After the brief time I had feeling bad for myself, thinking dark thoughts, I did come to realize one thing- she did not mean me any harm. As horrible as the things that she said to me, and as dangerous I believe a medical professional like that may be, I came to the honest conclusion she really did not mean harm. I came back to the monkey-bar analogy in that getting over a painful experience is much like crossing monkey-bars- you have to let go in order to move forward. I knew I had to either let go or I had to sit on my pity pot- I chose to let go in a little time.

The point in me sharing this story, in sharing my story in brief, is to spread awareness. I cannot express enough how important it is to not just assume someone else’s pain, someone else’s struggles. I’m not asking anyone to fully understand- this journey I’m on is my life, and it’s just that- MINE, for ME to understand. I am just simply reaching out, and asking people to consciously listen instead of hear. Read instead of see. You never say those things to a survivor of trauma, a thriver of trauma. Although I’m one to believe that facts don’t care about your feelings (which is true- I still stand by that!), we all need to be more aware of our words, what we say, and how we say them. We all need and can use more empathy. Never just assume you know someone else’s pain and struggles. I can now say with certainty, that what I felt at that time, most survivors of trauma would have felt that way- having dark, dark thoughts. Thankfully despite my body reactions saying otherwise, mentally I truly do feel good- I have a lot looking up in my future. I’m finally working, I feel optimism for the first time about my future in a long time. However, I can now say with certainty that there are survivors who perhaps may have done something horrible to themself after hearing such words. It’s important to remember that the person with PTSD is not refusing to let go of the past, but the past is refusing to let go of them. You can only control so much, and what I cannot control I hand over to God. Be more aware. Be more empathetic. And if you’re reading this and made it to the end, THANK YOU.

-Elizabeth “Betsy” Hunsader