How learning about my PTSD at Queen’s helped me overcome it

Finding my inner strength after trauma

Image by: Tessa Warburton
An on-campus support group helped Raechel realize her own strength.

This article discusses sexual assault. The Journal uses “survivor” to refer to those who have experienced sexual assault. We acknowledge this term is not universal.

A long time ago someone hurt me, and I turned off. 

That’s how I described my situation before I learned about hypo-arousal, one of the ways the brain responds to unresolved trauma.

Widely experienced by trauma survivors and also known as the “freeze” response, hypo-arousal is what happens when your brain can’t handle all the bad stuff going on in your head, causing you to shut down. 

Up until this year, I didn’t know any of this. I thought I’d been used up, or that I’d just stopped working somehow. In between getting triggered by seemingly tiny things, I felt flat. I don’t know how much I can describe what it’s like to feel nothing because an even deeper part of you believes everyone and everything exists to hurt you. All I can say is that it was incredibly lonely. 

My life at Queen’s before I learned about why my brain was functioning in a hypo-arousal state alternated between pain and exhaustion.

If I used a smaller stall when I went to the washroom, I’d start panicking, so I found myself using the larger wheelchair-accessible stalls. If that wasn’t an option, I’d close my eyes and hold my head in my hands until I was done. 

Sometimes, I’d go home and cry after, and those were the days I felt like I was losing my mind. Other days, I felt like I was barely there at all. 

I lived 20 minutes from campus but I rarely took the bus home, afraid of the noise and being physically close to strangers. If I did end up on the bus, something as simple as someone’s arm brushing against mine gave me the urge to start screaming. 

I isolated myself, spending entire days in bed. I’d stop eating, and then I’d overeat. Small tasks overwhelmed me, and when I couldn’t do them, I’d hate myself. I couldn’t go to class or maintain relationships. The smallest noise or touch would make me jump, and I’d wrap my arms around myself, trying to feel so small I couldn’t feel anything. I put pillows behind the blinds in my room because any kind of light seemed unbearable. 

When I showered, I’d make the water so hot it was scalding and turn off the light so it was completely dark. Even though it was pitch-black, I’d sit down and put my head between my legs, letting the burning water beat into my back. I had no concept of how much time went by. 

A couple months into my second year at Queen’s, I finally admitted to myself that something was wrong. I made my first appointment at Student Wellness Services.

I could barely get through the call without crying, but I showed up there a few weeks later and started saying out loud what had been in my head for years.

That same term, I was harassed in my place of employment on campus. I was already feeling vulnerable from opening up about my abuse, and this couldn’t have happened at a worse time. 

I had never made a formal complaint before, and I became too distressed to go to my lectures at all. At a time when I was trying so hard to get help for what happened to me a long time ago, I had to meet with a lawyer and repeat what had happened at work again and again. 

I received a password-protected email from the University saying I shouldn’t tell anyone at Queen’s about what had happened at my place of work, and that scared me enough to listen. My faculty didn’t have its own counsellor, so I couldn’t continue making appointments. Unable to afford my own therapy, I felt more alone than ever. 

Thanks to that initial counselling, though, I was able to make small steps, including applying to my student newspaper, The Journal.  

I started my third year at Queen’s, my new job at the newspaper requiring me to constantly be on campus and interact with others. Spending days in bed was no longer an option for me, but when I found myself alone, my limbo state returned. 

Trying to appear fine to the rest of the world turned out to be exhausting, and it’d only be so long before something broke. 

When I finally did reach that breakdown in October, though, somebody was there with me. 

My best friend was the first person who wasn’t a counsellor I’d ever confided in about what happened. Walking home together one night last fall, she told me I didn’t need to carry everything myself. It was okay to let other people take some of it, she said, and then she did exactly that. She was there when I had my panic attack, pulling me out of a bathroom stall and taking me outside where I could breathe.

I started seeing a counsellor again later that day, which taught me one of the biggest lessons I’ve ever learned: letting people help you is the key to moving forward. 

By this time, my faculty had its own embedded counsellor, and I was able to have regular appointments. I began to understand why something as simple as going to the washroom made me so upset, but I also learned about post-traumatic growth. Slowly, I stabilized. 

In the winter term, I registered for PEGaSUS, a psycho-educational group for survivors of sexual assault at Queen’s. I’d never been to group therapy, and the first few times I went were the most difficult. Simply being there felt like a confession, and I couldn’t always make myself go. When I did go, I rarely spoke, but I listened. 

In one of the first meetings, we learned about how the brain can respond to trauma. Everybody says when faced with danger, we choose between fight and flight, but when it comes to unresolved trauma in the brain, I learned it’s not that simple. 

As I sat in that room and listened to hypo-arousal being described to me, it felt like someone was reaching out and punching a flashlight into my chest. 

There was science behind that sense of being all used up, of spending days in bed feeling like I was barely there. The most shocking part was that I was surrounded by other people who’d been going through the same thing. 

A few weeks later, we talked about shame. We were told if we’d spent years carrying around guilt for what’d happened to us, we didn’t have to anymore. I’d been told before it wasn’t my fault, but sitting in a room full of people who were realizing their freedom for the first time made the truth of what I’d been told tangible. It was my abuser’s fault, not mine. It was his shame to carry, not mine.

The most memorable part of the program for me, though, was a five-second exercise. 

Write your name on a piece of paper. Decorate it if you want to, but you don’t have to. Now crumple it up. Unfold it. Your name is still there, and you can still read it. You’re still there.

That’s what changed everything for me—a wrinkly piece of yellow paper I carried around in my bag for days. That night, though, I sat on my bed and looked at it, crying. 

I was grieving, mourning my lost years and loss of personhood. He’d had so much of me, but no more. He’d had so many of my years, but the next second was mine.

As the weeks went by, counselling combined with the support group built my resilience. 

I still had days when everything that happened came and sat in my head for a while, turning me off, but I started to see myself as someone who had strength. 

I let myself believe I could have good things, and that I was capable of doing great things and being loved by other people. I pushed myself outside my comfort zone, again and again. 

I finally realized I wasn’t used up.


Postscript, PTSD, Support

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