Learning to Thrive After Trauma
by Caitlin Lagnese
| PTSD: My Story Project #007
I remember the day as if it was yesterday. My husband Mike was holding my hand as we walked into the building and up the staircase. The room was spinning, and I was spiraling. “Caitlin and Mike, come on in,” my therapist Kristen softly said. Mike took my hand again and walked beside me into her office. I took one deep breath and began rambling for what felt like an eternity. Mike held my hand tight as I spilled my guts all over the office. Talk about a weight being lifted. I walked in one person and left another. And I was about to embark on an incredible journey!
I had been seeing Kristen for a few weeks before this appointment. I was experiencing depression and manic-like episodes. My thoughts were often obsessive and scary. I was doing things that were totally out of character. I was also experiencing major brain fog and mood swings. So I did what I had done in the past, found a therapist, and prayed they didn’t figure it all out. “Are you sure there isn’t something else you want to tell me?” A question often asked by Kristen before my big confession. It’s like she could see right through me. “Nope,” I said. “Just feeling sad and down. No clue why. Maybe this stems from that break-in I was telling you about my senior year of college.” But she knew there was much more to the story. It was only a matter of time before she got the truth out of me.
You see, for six years following college, I held an awful secret. I was sexually assaulted in my senior year at Bowling Green State University. Mind you only a week after a scary break-in occurred at my apartment. I carried the shame in complete silence. As many do, I blamed myself. The more days, months, and years went by, the more I lost sight of myself and the things in life that mattered.
Looking back, those lost years were an absolute mess. I was constantly searching for validation. My pursuit of acceptance overshadowed everything else in my life. Acceptance was approval. Approval meant everything was okay. But I wasn’t okay. Oh, how far from okay I was. I was in full-blown survival mode. During those 6 years, I got married to Mike, had two children, got baptized into the Catholic Church, joined just about every club or group I could find, attempted to run a marathon, and had my calendar completely booked for months. Slowing down wasn’t an option for me. I was searching endlessly for a miracle, for divine intervention. I figured if I just kept running long enough and fast enough, my problems would disappear. Do you know how they say you can’t outrun your problems? They were right. I eventually became breathless from my marathon of rage and shame.
I hit rock bottom in 2017. More like slammed into the rock, if we are being honest. I remember falling to my knees in my kitchen, praying as I had never prayed before. Truthfully this was a life or death situation, total fight-or-flight. Just when I thought I had zero fight left in me, I confessed EVERYTHING to my husband. I then found myself confessing these truths right alongside my husband to my therapist Kristen.
“So the truth is I was rapped in college…by someone I knew… a week after that break-in. I was by myself, and this person was so intoxicated he was foaming at the mouth. I don’t think he knew what was going on, or maybe that’s just a poor excuse. And I have been hiding this because I am ashamed. Why do I feel like I should have been able to stop this? I don’t recognize myself anymore, and I cannot go on like this. This isn’t just affecting me anymore.”
I spent a year in intensive cognitive behavioral therapy with my therapist. I also spent a year monitored by my psychiatrist. Both of these ladies stayed in touch with each other and came up with a treatment plan which consisted of medicine and therapy. I was diagnosed with clinical depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (was originally diagnosed in 2014), and bipolar depression.
One of the hardest, yet most beneficial things we did in therapy was EMDR. EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) is a psychotherapy that enables people to heal from symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of disturbing and/or traumatic life experiences.
We started with a questionnaire and talked about my history. Then a treatment plan and goal were made. My goal was to move past the trauma of the assault. I wanted to feel “normal” again. No more nightmares, flashbacks, obsessive and worrisome thoughts. No more depression and stretches of mania. And no more running from the trauma. I wanted to be me again.
The next step was figuring out what the target image for distress would be as well as picking a mental happy place/safe place that could be utilized any time things became too stressful. My target image was the event itself. I described to my therapist in detail the time of the day, my surroundings, my feelings, and my fear. My happy place was a secluded beach. We also did the jar exercise at this time which is creating a jar or container in my mind that all my thoughts can go at the end of the session. My pink glittery mason jar kept all my unresolved feelings and thoughts from that day’s session. It was not to be opened until the following appointment.
Next, I revealed the number one negative belief I felt about myself when I thought about the target image. I believed that I was worthless and deserved the attack. I truly felt I was being punished by God. The ultimate goal was to replace the negative and false beliefs with a more positive and true beliefs. Of course, this horrendous event is in no way positive, but my therapist firmly believed that if we broke apart the event, I could come out on the other side changed and transformed. I would see this wasn’t my fault, nor was it a punishment from God.
Suddenly I felt ready to take my power back. I had my doubts but was willing to give this a try. Little did I know 4 years later I would start a women’s mental health and wellness blog, trying to encourage and help other women to take their power back and have these hard conversations in a safe and stigma-free space.
The next step/phase of my EMDR was bilateral stimulation. Bilateral stimulation is stimuli (visual, auditory, or tactile) that occur in a rhythmic left to right pattern. I chose tactile, so my therapist put vibrating plastic electrodes in my hands. While this stimulation was occurring, I closed my eyes and let my mind naturally go through the event. After the bilateral stimulation was turned off, usually after 2-3 minutes, I would take a deep breath and then talk about the emotional reactions and sensations I was feeling.
Eventually, as I talked my way through the event alongside my therapist, my brain started to heal the traumatic event. Trust me, it didn’t happen overnight. It took many sessions and many tears. It took a lot of patience and a whole lot of grace. But it did happen. I was gifted this chance to go back in time and see what happened to me through a different lens. EMDR permitted me to move on and that has been the biggest blessing of all.
After a long intensive year of therapy, I was able to make my appointments every two weeks. Then every four. Then every six. We talked about my depression and all the new tools in my toolkit. We talked about self-esteem and self-worth. And also about limiting beliefs and self-acceptance. We talked about my OCD and ways to better manage it. We talked about people-pleasing and eliminating toxicity in my life. And also about my family and how to be the best wife and mother I could be. We talked about my growing faith and how I wanted the next few chapters of my life to look. Perhaps most importantly we talked about forgiveness.
Believe it or not, forgiving my attacker was the easy part. Forgiving myself took a bit longer. I have forgiven myself for keeping such a dark secret. Also for not seeking help when I knew I needed it. For the years, I wasn’t present for my husband and kids. I forgave myself for the absolute hell I put my body and mind through. I have forgiven myself for the binging and yo-yo dieting. And for the suicidal thoughts, I often had. I forgave myself for not turning to my higher power. For all the blame I put on myself and the shame I carried in silence. Therapy was hard, but it would have been even harder, if not impossible, to keep going down the road I was.
Read also ‘‘Your Story Does Not Define You by Emily Natani‘
Growing After Trauma
I still see my therapist and psychiatrist for check-ins. I also see them whenever I enter into a tough season. For the longest time, I thought therapy was a place to let go of the old you and get started with the new you. That’s not how it works. I still am prone to clinical depression. I still have OCD. And I still have bipolar and can fall easily into a manic episode. There isn’t some magic pill or treatment for any of this.
For me, this will be a lifelong battle, but it’s a battle I don’t have to face alone. Therapy has become my safe place to learn and grow, to continue on my journey of healing. So often we are quick to forget the pain. Therapy has taught me that while I do not believe we should live in regret or hold onto the past, I do believe we should always remember where we came from. If we lose sight of the challenges, how can we fully appreciate the triumph?
Therapy is much more than just healing and forgiving. It’s also about growing, and I’m hellbent on growing until the very day I draw my last breath. And I am so proud of my progress. And I am so proud of the woman I am today. I am perfectly imperfect. And I am flawed. I am learning. I am GROWING. It has been a long journey. A journey that showed me that it is possible to thrive after trauma. Maya Angelou said, “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has to go through to achieve that beauty.” Perhaps we all start as caterpillars, just waiting to come out of our cocoons transformed.
I want to thank Journeyofsmiley for allowing me to contribute my story to PTSD: My Story Project. These types of blogging communities are very important. I love finding safe spaces to share my story. I also love reading others’ stories of trial and triumph. Because of communities like this one, we don’t have to struggle alone.
Caitlin defines herself as many things, from trauma survivor, a strong woman filled with an abundance of love and hope to a mother and wife. Her experience molded her into who she is today. In her struggles, she has found her silver lining – her blog.
ReelChat is a safe place to participate in raw and meaningful conversations. It provides commentary from subject matter experts and professionals, giving readers an outlet for trusted information. It covers a wide variety of topics that aim to help women improve their life. Check them out at https://www.reelchat.net Instagram @reelchat_blog Facebook reelchat_blog
Read some more real-life stories from trauma survivors here: ‘PTSD: My Story Project‘.
Do you have experience with PTSD, or do you take care of / live with someone who has? Would you like to share your story in a guest blog post?
I’m not an expert or a health professional, so the aim of this project isn’t to offer professional advice. Neither is it to pity those who experience PTSD. That’s not what I want. My aim is to raise awareness of PTSD. By sharing your story, you can inspire and empower others. You can highlight the methods that helped you. This way, you can encourage others to reach out for help.
And it may help you as well. Perhaps it’s something you feel like you’re not able to talk about within your closest circle and would like to connect with others in a similar situation. It’s nothing more than bearing an untold story inside you. The fact is that our society still lacks an understanding of mental health. Therefore, I’ve decided to share my story and invite others to join me in this project and write a blog post about their experience. By working together, we can help destigmatise mental health problems and promote wellbeing.
To be featured
If you would like to join in and share your story on my blog but don’t have the experience of writing a blog post, this isn’t a problem. You can still contact me, and I’d be happy to assist you with the writing. And you can use a pseudonym if you wish to stay anonymous. You can share as much of your story as you want in a way you feel comfortable with.
The only thing I ask is that you mention ‘PTSD: My story project’ in your post and briefly state why you have chosen to take part in it. You will be allowed to approve the post before publishing it, should it be edited.Follow Journeyofsmiley on WordPress.com