Peaceful Heart: A Woman's Journey of Healing After Rape
by Aimee Jo Martin
Hello, everyone. I'm a survivor, yes survivor, of sexual assault. The purpose of this article is not just to share my story, but also to offer support and hope for others who are presently walking in the shoes I wore a few years ago. Believe me, there truly is light at the end of the PTSD tunnel. It takes a lot of hard work, but if you keep plugging away at it, you too can live a relatively peaceful life. (I say "relatively" because I honestly don't know if you ever become completely devoid of PTSD.) Please note that Gift From Within has excellent material on PTSD, for those who want to learn more about it. Also, check out The Gateway to PTSD Information. For more information on EMDR Therapy (as discussed in this article), check out The EMDR Institute or do a blanket search in any search engine for EMDR.
For fear of causing triggers to the readers of this article, I will not go into all the details of my rape. Still, please read slowly and stop if anything is bothersome to you.
My life until the age of 17 was what I would consider to be a "normal" one. I was born in a mid-western city. Our family consisted of Mom, Dad, an older sister, and me. My sister is a year and a half older than I. There was no abuse in my family, nothing more than straightforward discipline. Although we were far from "perfect," we were (and are) a good family. A typical family, I think. My parents worked hard to give us kids everything we needed -- and a lot of things we wanted.
I was a very polite and sensitive child who was raised to trust people and respect authority. If a family member was upset, I would desperately try to fix whatever the problem was. I wanted to take everyone's pain away. I wanted everyone to be happy. And if having a happy and peaceful household meant that I would have to take on everyone's pain, then I was willing to pay that price. I wanted absolutely no bumps in our road of family life. But my sensitivity was not limited to my family-life. I would sob whenever our car passed a dead dog on the side of the road. I would shed tears not only over the pain and terror that the dog must've felt when hit by the car, but also for the sadness that its owner surely would feel when he discovered his beloved friend's body. I was constantly taking on pain that didn't belong to me - as if I could spare someone else pain by taking it on myself. And I was OK with that. I preferred that to seeing others unhappy or troubled. My needs and desires were gladly sacrificed in order to make others happy. Maybe I enjoyed being a martyr. Maybe I felt it would be selfish to put myself first. Maybe I felt undeserving and warranted punishment. Maybe it was a combination of all of those things.
I grew up in a very small town - one that easily created a protected, bubble-like atmosphere. Feeling safe is an essential part of being a healthy, happy child. But along with that feeling of safety came an unrealistic view of what the world was like. Crime was not an issue in our small town. At least I didn't think it was until that one night when I was 17 years old.
It was late and my parents were on a well-deserved vacation. I was home alone for the very first time. About 10pm the doorbell rang. When I opened the door, a man I had been introduced to earlier in the day, stood there and smiled at me. He was an acquaintance of my good friend, and she merely introduced us when all of our paths crossed earlier that day. Surprised to see him, I smiled back. He asked if he could come in so I politely stood back and let him step into the foyer. As soon as I did, I realized I made a huge mistake. That night I was brutally stripped of my clothes, dignity and humanity. I was brutally punched, kicked, thrown around the room, stabbed with a pen, had my body written on, was sexually violated in nearly every physical manner imaginable. It took weeks - months - to heal physically. But the mental and emotional torture haunted me for the next fifteen years.
Reporting it to the police and prosecuting wasn't even debated. I felt I shouldn't have opened the door and let him inside. This was my very first time being left home alone and all I could think of was I messed it up by being so irresponsible. Plus, I lived in a very small town. What would people think if they found out? Would they think I was a slut? Would they think it was my fault and that I was just asking for it? No, I couldn't deal with that. So I didn't tell. Looking back, I wish I had turned him in. But I understand why I didn't...and I'm ok with that. But to this day, I wonder if another woman - or women - was later raped by this man because I didn't report it. That possibility absolutely haunts me.
I guess I just wasn't ready to deal with all the emotions. It was unfathomable that within a few short hours I went from a young, somewhat-tomboy who had only been kissed by a boy, to someone who had experienced violent, forceful sex. The world was no longer a safe place to be, so I hid my emotions behind an invisible concrete wall. It was much easier to remain cold and dead inside. It was my way of protecting myself. 'No one will ever get close to me again,' I thought to myself. 'rust no one and you won't be put in that position ever again.' It was then that I realized the "old Aimee" had died and a "new Aimee" had taken over. The old Aimee was naive and trusting. She got me in trouble. This new Aimee was strong, distrustful, cold, and distant. There was no room for emotions. I felt they got in the way of good decision-making. 'New Aimee' wasn't a mean person, just someone whom had built thick, strong walls around herself so no one would be able to get close to hurt her. That was how I decided to live my life.
A few years after I moved out of my parent's house, I realized that I was lonely, so I decided to get a dog. There were only two requirements in my mind. I wanted a big dog, and she had to be female. Eventually I decided upon a German shepherd. Being concerned about hip Dysplasia (a genetic disorder common in large breed dogs), I decided to look for a breeder rather than adopt. I found a local one with whom I really clicked. She and I talked endlessly on the phone about her dogs and the puppies. When I decided on the parents, I put a deposit down on a female pup and waited for the litter to be born. The breeder and I became fast friends. She called me when the litter arrived and continually gave me updates on how the pups were doing. Five weeks after the litter was born, I received a call from her telling me that the momma dog had died in an accident. She said that she normally wouldn't allow it, but would I like to choose my puppy early? I met with her that weekend and looked at the litter. It was a large litter of 8 or 9 pups.... and they all were bundles of fluffy puppy energy! I wanted them all!! But when this big-boned pup poked her head out of their puppy hut and our eyes met, I just knew we were meant for each other. My eyes instantly filled with tears as the pup looked at me. We took to each other instantly and soon we were inseparable. I named her Tascha. Little did I know at the time that she was going to become more than just my very best friend. Tascha would soon become my "dream catcher."
I didn't have a problem with nightmares. Instead, my sleeping hours were filled with night terrors. There is a difference. With a night terror, you actually open your eyes and live your dream in the real world. I would sit upright in bed and see my rapist standing in my bedroom doorway. To ensure my eyes were truly open, I'd poke my fingers into them to see which I felt, my eyelids or eyeballs. The terror began the moment I realized they were really open. If they were, I could not logically tell myself that it was only a dream. Not a night went by that I didn't dream about him.
He haunted my subconscious and invaded my dreams. Like a hunter stalking his prey, he came after me every time I closed my eyes. Numerous times, I awoke in different rooms of my home, obviously hiding from the terror seen only by me. It was all too real. Not only could I see him, but I could also hear his voice. And when he caught up with me, I would smell his breath and feel his disgusting touch on my skin. I would awaken drenched with cold sweat, breathing erratically; eyes wide open, struggling to pull myself from this dream state. This became an everyday occurrence.
After years of these dreams, I got used to them. To have a night terror-free sleep was unheard of for me. But that was where Tascha came in. She and I bonded quickly and it didn't take her long to learn how to read my moods. She seemed to know what I was feeling before I did. Our bond was more than just dog-owner - our hearts were connected. By the time she was 6 months old, I realized how safe she made me feel. I knew that she would never let anything bad happen to me in her presence. She would protect me with her life, and in return, I would do the same for her. It had been a long time since I had felt that type of safety. Years, in fact.
Our bond solidified when she was around 6 months old. One night, as I was starting my usual bad dream and was about to get up and run from the room, Tascha climbed up on my bed, lay on top of me, and licked my face until I woke up. This continued night after night, until finally I was able to bring her into my dreams. When I would start into a bad dream, all I had to do was look down at the floor where Tascha was sleeping. I was able to tell myself that if my rapist was really in the room with me, Tascha would be all over him. Seeing her asleep on her pillow gave me the ability to convince myself that it was only a dream and that I was safe. Tascha had indeed become my personal dream-catcher.
My sense of security was completely lost. After I was raped, my entire world turned upside down. I realized I couldn't trust anyone.
My initial career choice logically followed this intense feeling of distrust.... I became a police officer. It was a career in which I was in complete control. I loved it! But deep inside, a cauldron was bubbling.
After an on-the-job injury cost me both my career and the use of my right arm, life picked up in speed. It became that way because that was how I chose to live it. I moved to Florida and started law school. Can't get much busier than that, right?? As long as I was working toward something external, I didn't have to deal with what was going on inside of me. So, for close to fifteen years I stayed busy - striving to reach one goal after another, each goal more challenging than the one before it. For some reason I thought with each accomplishment I would obtain happiness and contentment. But when happiness continually alluded me, I would set my sights on yet another challenge - absolutely sure that this next achievement would bring peace and fulfillment my way. And now, fifteen years later, I was exhausted, burned out. For the first time, I realized I was unhappy with my life...with who I was. Finally I accepted the fact that I needed to get help.
I called a friend who put me in touch with Gail Azar, a counselor who proved to be invaluable to me. I met with her that evening and tried to explain what I thought was going on. Little did I know that this was just the beginning of a long journey. There would be a long pathway in front of me, filled with sudden twists and hairpin turns. This course would be fraught with a crazy mixture of depression, suicide attempts, anti-depressant drugs, warm and funny childhood memories, and calm, almost peaceful, days. I learned I would have to travel back through my past in order to be able to live in the present and look forward to my future. This would not be easy. My reason for speeding through the last fifteen years was based upon what had happened during my first seventeen. Now it was time to deal with the emotions I had pushed down inside of myself.
Gail introduced me to a therapy called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), a treatment often effective for trauma victims. EMDR is an innovative clinical treatment that has successfully helped over a million individuals who have survived trauma, including sexual abuse, domestic violence, combat, crime, and those suffering from a number of other complaints including depressions, addictions, phobias and a variety of self-esteem issues.
When disturbing experiences happen, they are stored in the brain with all the sights, sounds, thoughts and feelings that accompany it. Being traumatized, the brain is unable to process the experience as it would normally. Therefore, the negative thoughts and feelings of the traumatic event become "frozen in time" and are "trapped" in the nervous system. These distressing feelings and memories may be re-lived day after day, without ever seeming to get better. Such memories have a lasting negative effect on the way a person sees the world and relates to other people, as well as interfering significantly with their ability to live life.
EMDR seems to have a direct effect on the way that the brain functions. The EMDR technique does two very important things. First, it "unlocks" the negative memories and emotions stored in the nervous system; and second, it helps the brain to successfully process those memories. The patient will still recall everything that occurred during the traumatic experience, however the intense emotions will no longer be associated with the memory.
During my therapy, I kept a personal journal. It not only helped in sorting through my emotional issues, but also gave me a wonderful retrospective look into how far I had come in my therapy.
Although it helped to understand that the memories were busily being processed (and thus the therapy was working as expected), the physical discomfort was sometimes unnerving. Many times after a session, I would curl up in a ball on the couch and rock myself, waiting for the bombardment of memories to slow down. My head swarmed with mental activity - activity that was so busy it was unrecognizable. But once it slowed down and the memories were processed, a delightful calmness settled into my mind. Now when I pulled up a traumatic memory, the pain...the emotional and physical reliving of the memory...wasn't bothersome. I remembered everything that happened with as much detail as before the therapy session, but the intense negative emotions associated with that memory were simply nonexistent.
The PTSD symptoms I had grown accustomed to - the ones that, oddly enough, felt seemingly normal - finally began to release their grips on my life. Night terrors that I experienced every single night since being raped suddenly ceased. Never, in over 15 years, had I experienced a night of sleep that was terror free. Having the dreams stop felt like a miracle!
My eating disorder took a lot more work, but it too slowly worked its way out. Don't get me wrong; I still have to be very careful not to slip back into that self-destructive behavior. But no longer is eating (or in my case, the lack of eating) always in the forefront of my mind, as it was prior to therapy. The issues I had (and still somewhat have) with eating were two-fold. First, growing up, I saw my mother constantly dieting. Although she never said it out loud or made me feel fat, the unspoken message I received was clear..."in order to be loved, you have to be thin." Fat was totally unacceptable. That message planted the seed of my eating disorder. Second, being raped solidified my becoming anorexic. After being raped, I had the need to be in total control...especially in control of what went into my body. That need, combined with the subconscious desire to become invisible, made me an ideal candidate for an eating disorder.
In conjunction with anorexia, I also became obsessed with working out - running, actually. I would run every morning, even if I hadn't eaten for days. If I "splurged" and allowed myself to eat more than 300 calories in one day, I ran double, while damning myself the whole way for being weak. Even when I incurred a knee injury, I continued to run...or I guess you would call it hobble. I simply could not stop. I feared that if I stopped, I'd get fat. Resolving these body-image issues was difficult, to say the least. To this day I have to keep myself in close check - always making sure my feelings of self-esteem and self-worth are top priority. I work at it every day.... and yes, there have been times when I slipped and stumbled. But I haven't fallen, and I think that's what is important.
My distrust in people was another issue I had to work through. After 15 years of being distrustful, it was very difficult to even have the desire to want to trust someone. But I knew how unhappy I was, so I made a conscious decision to try. Therapy made me realize that it wasn't "everyone else" that I was afraid of, but rather I was afraid to trust my own judgment. I had no personal boundaries established and that, in turn, made me feel out of control of what was going on around me. Once I re-learned how to trust my judgment, my social world flourished. I learned how to give a certain amount of trust to people, while keeping my boundaries firmly in place...keeping myself safe, while allowing people a chance to get to know me. In time, my issues of trust slowly disappeared.
While these major issues were being resolved, a brand new one cropped up (at least I thought it was brand new). I began self-mutilating. Some may argue that my getting tattoos and a piercing or two is just a socially acceptable form of self-mutilation, and I suppose I somewhat agree. I fully admit that I enjoy the "pleasure pain" of being tattooed, but it didn't give me the same emotional release that 'cutting' did. My bout with self-mutilation didn't last too long - maybe a couple of months. Looking back, I now understand that I was simply exchanging one destructive behavior for another. After a couple more months of therapy I no longer felt the need to cut myself...and my healing process continued. Slowly my life became my own.
After ten months of journaling my therapy process, I'm at the end of my journey. I'm also at the beginning of something new. I feel like my life is just starting. Up until now, I haven't been really living.... only existing.
Looking back at how I felt about myself before therapy, and comparing it to today, absolutely stuns me. I cannot believe how far I have come in less than a one-year time period. I can honesty say that for the first time in my adult life I am calm, content, peaceful and, yes, even happy.
I no longer have the rage swirling around inside my stomach. Now anger comes out in a healthy way. I no longer race my way through life. I now am able to enjoy the journey.
I know I still have some work ahead of me. I still need to continue to work on my self-esteem, and on processing whatever negative emotions are still hanging around in my subconscious. But now that the mental blocks are gone, and now that I have learned the proper ways of dealing with these emotions, I know I'm going to do great. There may be some times when I'll have to get a "tune-up" session of EMDR, but I think for the most part, my therapy is over.
So really, I just have to ask...is this the end of my journey, or the beginning? I guess it's both. Life is full of journeys. Now that I've found my way to inner peace and happiness, it's time to enjoy the fruits of my labor and set my sights on a new course. What this new journey will bring me, I don't know. But the one thing I do know is that I'm going to greet each new morning with a smile. There's a wealth of living out there...and I plan on grabbing as much as I can.
One final note I wish to leave with each reader: If you are presently suffering from PTSD, please seek professional help. Don't wait 15 years like I did - or if it's been more than 15 years for you, don't add another day to the count. You don't have to be in this emotional pain. Learn from my experience.... it doesn't get better over time without professional help. I decided to share my story in the hopes that others won't have to suffer as long as I did. Please accept this gift from me, and seek help.
Portions of this article have been taken from Peaceful Heart: A Woman's Journey of Healing, by Aimee Jo Martin, with full permission from said author, publisher and copyright owner.
To order Aimee Jo Martin's book click on: Peaceful Heart: A Woman's Journey of Healing. (Amazon rating 5 stars). $13.95.
Aimee Jo's first career was as a police officer in a small mid-western town. After she sustained a permanent on-the-job injury, she moved to Florida, where she attended law school. During her 2nd year of law school, Aimee interned at a nearby states attorneys office. Upon graduating and passing the Florida Bar Exam, she was hired at a private law firm. Aimee resigned from that position in order to seek professional therapy on a full-time basis, to assist in healing from an earlier-in-life sexual assault.
Presently, Aimee Jo is a self-employed, part-time attorney. Her specialty is Estate law, but she also practices bankruptcy and civil law.
Aimee Jo currently lives in west Florida with a menagerie of critters. She has 8 dogs, all of which were adopted from various agencies. She also lives with a mixture of adopted birds (cockatiels, finches, parakeets), and has 1 large fish aquarium.
For hobbies, Aimee Jo enjoys scuba diving and is an avid reader. Her ultimate dream job is to speak publicly about her book, while having enough time left over to continue writing.