Tag Archives: birthday

The Shape Shifting Ghost of Trauma

Every year before my birthday, I try to go to bed early, because my anxiety gnaws on me until I can’t take feeling like a caged animal anymore and I just want to rip the bandaid off of the next morning.

Last night, however, I decided to stay up and face the day at midnight. I ran the laundry, tried unsuccessfully to read and generally tried to distract myself until the clock struck midnight.

I sat on my couch and meditated for ten minutes before crawling into bed. Eric groggily rolled over and kissed my forehead as he said, ‘Happy birthday.’ The tears I didn’t know would come, silently stream down my face as I bury my body into his.

They’re tears of exhaustion and sadness and grief. Inexplicable grief. The exhaustion of a constantly shapeshifting ghost of trauma and its hall of mirrors of which I can never seem to escape. The stifling feelings seep in like a fog, subtly at first, where it’s hard to notice. And then all at once, the fog is so thick I can’t see.

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Today marks 25 years since I was raped. It is also my 42nd birthday.

This year, as it has been for most of you, has been one of the most difficult I’ve ever experienced. I started the year with a terrible case of the shingles, for which I am still in physical therapy with no end in sight. I am currently recovering from a kidney stone. I have struggled with kidney and bladder issues for years because of scar tissue from the sexual abuse I endured from childhood.

My birthday has always been my personal barometer. The only way I know how to live with the baggage that comes with extreme trauma is to be open and vulnerable about what I experienced. There are no support groups for my level of trauma, no peers to talk to about it, only a therapist and a trauma specialist. Because of this, I have to talk about it because if I don’t, I feel the shame creep up my face until it’s on fire and I refuse to feel shame for someone else’s actions.

Every year, in the season of my birthday, I make myself busy, busy with something I feel is meaningful. I’ve never stopped going to therapy, but therapy for me has changed over the years. Initially, it was for acute trauma and trying to manage my anorexia enough to keep me out of the hospital. Then it morphed into therapy on trust and healthy relationships. I knew I would never have a healthy marriage and children if I didn’t. Then again it changed, into how to parent without being driven by fear of their safety. Now I go on an as needed basis, except for the three months before my birthday. Sometimes it’s once a week, sometimes monthly.

This year, because I am recovering from shingles and the pandemic, I don’t have a distraction. I don’t have a project. I’m just…here.

The root of my struggle with anorexia was and continues to be control. I started starving myself when I was seven, searching for control in a situation of abuse. I’ve been in recovery for twenty years; I wake up every day and actively make a choice to fuel my body and not starve myself. Twice in the last five years, I’ve almost relapsed. Both times, my team of providers helps me fall back onto what I call my ‘default plan’ — a plan in place so ingrained in the very fabric of my being, it’s a comfort to lean into it.

This summer, when the fog crept in earlier than normal, my therapist looked and me and ask, ‘Have you ever noticed that the only thing we’ve discussed over the years are things out of your control?’

I laughed, because until that point, I’m not sure I recognized that. I simply continued therapy because I wanted to be the healthiest person I could be. But that simple statement brought an epiphany — there are things I have control over (and don’t condescendingly say how to react and handle the situation because I’ve been gracefully ‘handling’ it for years). I was infuriated the shingles were bad enough to go to physical therapy twice a week. The answer the universe was trying to show me is to value my sleep. When I got the kidney stone, I was dehydrated. The lesson the universe was trying to tell me is to take care of myself before others because I can’t pour from an empty cup. In the simplest terms — I need hydration and sleep.

It sounds so simple, but I can feel a transformational shift. I don’t know that I’ll ever celebrate my birthday like a ‘normal’ human, or that it will get easier. My trauma is the petulant child in the room, demanding my attention while I try to ignore it. But this year, instead of trying to please a petulant child while holding my grief at a distance as my inner peace struggles to regain footing, my trauma, grief, and peace are sitting together, cohabitating with each other. They have settled into the core of me and I am able to breathe.

The Place Past Forgiveness

In my late teens, I forgave the people who abused me. I can remember the day clearly, as though it was last week, instead of some twenty years ago. The sky was a remarkable blue color, the color of a ring I often wear, with a single cloud in the sky.

I remember looking up because even though the sky was clear and it was a beautiful day, it felt like I was working every muscle in my body to put one foot in front of the other, that I had to remind myself to actually breathe because my body felt so heavy.

I had been in therapy for years and years at this point and my therapists and doctors were solely focused on getting me to a point where I would be able to be a functioning human, a feat of superhuman capabilities, no doubt. While I remember the word ‘forgiveness’ coming up occasionally, it wasn’t something I was concerned with, nor was anyone caring for me concerned with it, either. Anger and vengeance, those were topics I was familiar with. And who could blame me or anyone else? These people had basically destroyed me and no one would dare argue that level of evil deserved forgiveness.

That blue day, the sky the color of blue topaz day, with its single cloud changed everything for me. I had the epiphany that they could no longer physically hurt me. The secret was out and they could no longer touch me. The physical power was now mine. I was now an adult and it was my decision to continue to live in anger or in peace. The emotional power was now mine, too.

It felt as though a bag of physical bricks fell off of my shoulders. Even though they no longer had access to me or my body, I let them continue to hurt me through my festering resentment and anger.

What people don’t tell you about forgiveness is that it is a power that only you have. It doesn’t mean that you have forgotten or that it’s okay, it just means that someone else’s actions have no control over your emotions and actions. You, and you alone, are more powerful than the person who hurt you, if only by the mere fact that you hold the key to forgiveness.

I recently have started going back to church because I started to have anger towards my abusers that I had not had since that blue day. The anger came back because no matter how healthy I am, physically or emotionally, their actions have wrecked my body. For a few weeks, I wondered if I was struggling to forgive, but then I realized I was struggling with new anger, and the anger was appropriate and the length of time it would stay was in my control.

I really want to throw a tantrum some days, just throw myself down onto the ground, roll around and scream that it’s not fair. It’s not fair that I have to do all of this bullshit and the people that hurt me just went on with their lives. I don’t do it, but when I’m sick, sitting in the doctor’s office, I close my eyes and picture myself acting like a toddler and it makes me laugh. Because, really, who doesn’t want to throw a tantrum once and awhile?

A few months ago, after I had moved past my anger and onto acceptance, while kneeling in church to pray, the service came to the Litany of Healing. The Litany of Healing is a part of the service in the Episcopal church where we pray for those that need healing. Most of the time, I pray for those that I know are sick, family and friends. That day was different. I was the sickest I had ever been with a kidney and bladder infection and I also needed healing.

Dear Lord, please help them find peace. Their redemption is not my responsibility, but I wish them peace.

All of a sudden, I couldn’t breathe. Instead of praying for myself and my sickest point, I was praying for the people who caused the sickness. Why in the hell was I praying for the people who put me in this situation to begin with? I forgave them and that’s all I can give. The tears started to stream down my face, mainly because I was so unnerved.

After the service, I went to the bathroom and wiped my face. When I came out of the bathroom, the Rector was waiting for me. I told him why I was upset and he studied me for a moment. “Maybe they need your prayers, Audrey.”

I’ve been sitting with this for a few months. I knew my birthday was coming up and the anxiety would start the closer it got, so I stopped questioning my thoughts and just sat with it, expecting no explanation.

The last two months, my birthday started creeping up and I felt different than I have in years. I had no anxiety about it until three weeks ago. I had started the day out
meditating, and I found myself praying for them again. I do not understand why I keep praying for them to find peace, I want to scream. I think maybe it’s finally happening, maybe I’m finally cracking up and losing my mind. Or maybe it was something else entirely that I had not thought about: the place past forgiveness.

We’re so focused on forgiveness, acceptance, revenge and karma, no one talks about what happens next. I had a very wise person tell me that day when you’ve genuinely forgiven someone, you can pray for them to have peace. This is the place where forgiveness isn’t just a word, it’s an act.

I normally don’t celebrate my birthday, but that day I decided I was going to do something this year. Choosing the life I want to live, with the love of my life and children, close family and a very small circle of trusted friends is absolutely something to celebrate. I did this. I walked through the flames of hell that are actually people in this world and made it to a very simple and beautiful life that I created with the people I love. The demons will remain, of course, but I celebrate knowing that my choices are stronger than the demons.

I woke up yesterday, on my 39th birthday, let my husband and precious boys sing happy birthday to me and ate unicorn cake for breakfast. Yesterday was bittersweet. I deserve every bit of happiness I have but it’s easy to grieve what could have been. I’ve accepted it’s okay to feel anger and sadness for all of the things that were taken from me. I’ve also accepted that praying for the people who hurt me is where I want to be. It’s uncharted territory and I have the tools to navigate through it.

My birthday has always been an easy litmus test for me to check where I am emotionally and in my life. It’s also an easy one to pass.