Never give up....
By Alexandra Lopez-Pacheco
“I need help,” I said to the doctor at the clinic. Then, close to tears, “I can’t cope.”
“With what? What’s going on?” he asked.
From the doctor’s perspective, what was wrong was that I was suffering from depression and anxiety, caused primarily by the fact that I was going through a difficult divorce, facing financial difficulties while trying to rebuild my career and raise my kids alone and fighting an emotionally devastating legal battle for my share of my mother’s small estate after I had discovered my brothers had lied when they’d told me she’d left a will that said only, “Nothing to Alexandra.” For the first time in my life, I was fighting back. But I’d been falling apart for the previous five years.
“You’re going through a stressful time,” the doctor said, adding I was clearly a very strong person and I was doing OK given the circumstances. He offered me a prescription for anti-depressants.
I didn’t want a prescription. I wanted someone to talk to, someone to help me. Someone who understood trauma—because I knew I was suffering from PTSD and dissociation due to the traumas in my life. I even listed off my traumas to him.
As a child, growing up in what from the outside appeared to be an idyllic middle class home, I was sexually abused by my mother. Though I would have flashbacks of the abuse for many years, I would run away from them, dismissing them with self-loathing, shame and self-blame, not ever comprehending the terrible dark truth my unconscious mind was trying to help me face.
At 17, I was raped by my brother. Afterwards, I locked myself in the bathroom but I ran out when my parents came home, believing they would help me. Instead, my mother beat me, calling me a slut. I managed to run away, walking half-dazed through the streets, feeling as if I was in a different dimension than the people I passed, like a ghost walking in the world of the living. It got dark. It got cold. There was nowhere to go. No one to trust. I turned around and went home. My family must have been out looking for me when I walked in through the side door. Alone, in about a minute, I gulped down an entire bottle of Scotch.
Three days later, I woke up in my bed, covered in bruises. I had fallen into an alcohol-induced coma, a life-threatening condition, and my parents had decided to keep me hidden in my room, feeding me ice chips rather than call an ambulance—and risk the police getting involved. Severely disoriented and feeling as if I’d been run over by several trucks, I asked what had happened. My mother shamed and blamed me with a story about me getting drunk that excluded the rape and physical assault. She claimed they’d called an ambulance but when it arrived the paramedics had realized I was in good hands and there was no need to take me to the hospital. I remember hearing her narrative while looking at the bruises on my arms, feeling memories coming back to me—and then blocking them.
For years, whenever I had flashbacks of the rape, I would escape from the memories by blanking out. Sometimes, I would joke to others that perhaps I was still 17 and in a coma—although I didn’t really find it funny. The possibility seemed very real and would spiral me into a state of terror and feeling I was losing my mind.
When I was 19, I was tricked into a car by a man who offered me a job as his secretary. He drove in circles for a long time, and we eventually ended up in his isolated house in the country. He sexually assaulted me. Two years after that, a former employer raped me--angry that another girl and I had quit because he was sexually harassing us and that I had reported him to the employment agency. After the rape, I spent a week or two lost in a dissociative state locked up in my apartment until finally I awoke one day suddenly feeling hungry. I went on with life, building a career in journalism, first as a single mother of one, then eventually getting married and having two more children.
In 1996 I discovered my mother was sexually abusing my younger children who were pre-schoolers at the time. When I went to my parents’ home and told my mother I knew what she’d done to my babies, she became violent and started choking me. I froze, paralyzed by fear. After what seemed like a lifetime of no air, my father pulled her off of me. I left their house and--except when my father was diagnosed with cancer and passed away—their lives. Later, I discovered she had sexually abused my oldest child as well.
It wasn’t until I was triggered by the surreal terror of 9/11 when I was 41 that I began to descend into deep depression, anxiety, panic attacks at night, horrible gut pains that had me walking crouched over and insomnia that once kept me up for three days and nights in a row. There were moments when I was so distraught and dissociative that I’d fall into near catatonic states; others when I saw—literally—the men who had raped me walking passed me on the street looking exactly as they did when they raped me. In other words, I experienced psychosis. Nightmares. Panic attacks in the middle of the night. Blanking out. Sleep paralysis. Over-the-top startle reflex with terrified screams. Feeling so cold I’d wear my winter coat to bed, and still I shivered. Oh, I had so many overwhelming symptoms for so many years. I also escaped into internet addiction.
Yet, apparently, I was just suffering from depression and anxiety caused by a stressful period in my life. And all I needed was anti-depressants and anxiety pills.
With only a brief period in which I was able to see a counsellor through my former husband’s employee assistant program, I worked through my traumas on my own, researching voraciously to try to understand the effects of trauma, striving to overcome layer by layer, symptom by symptom. I could not afford to pay for a psychologist after my divorce. Sometimes, I would crumble, believing I wasn’t going to make it, and I’d rush to the clinic and ask for help. Again and again, the only help they offered was anti-depressants or anxiety pills.
Even when after many years of trying to get help, I was given a referral to a psychiatrist, and diagnosed with PTSD, the only treatment I was offered through the public healthcare system was ten sessions of cognitive behavioural therapy with one appointment every two weeks because, they said, there’s not enough funds for longer term therapy, let alone trauma-specific therapy. I waited for some nine months for the first appointment. I thought then, “I bet many trauma survivors are dying every day because supposedly there’s insufficient funds to help them. No one says this to people suffering from other life-threatening conditions.”
I have taken 100,000 steps and missteps over 14 years so it’s hard to say what helped me the most but I know that I have overcome the majority of my symptoms so something has worked. One thing that has been critical has been breaking through my denial and avoidance, building the emotional muscle to cope with the agony of the reality of my life rather than escaping from it. Dissociation, denial and blanking out had all allowed me to be a happy, energetic and positive-thinking person for decades but at a huge cost to my children and myself. As much as the weight of that agony seemed unbearable and seemed to knock the life out of me, step by step, I have been rebuilding my strength to feel joy again. Sometimes it has been just one joyous second at a time but I’m a strong believer in neuroplasticity. Every joyous second builds connections for joyous minutes, then hours, then days and years.
Studying and researching the effects of sexual abuse and trauma, including dissociation and PTSD, and seeing how they were reflected in me helped me tremendously. You can’t heal that which you don’t understand. Very early on, I also realized the mental health research community exists in silos within silos within silos within tiny silos of specialization and that much of their findings never reach each other, let alone frontline healthcare practitioners. I placed myself in charge of my journey of recovery and that allowed me to explore all kinds of diverse research and knowledge, try many different things and trust my own critical thinking and growing self-awareness—not that I had much of a choice, given the lack of support in Canada’s healthcare system for trauma survivors.
What has helped me the very most, though, has been that I have never given up hope recovery is possible and never stopped searching or trying.