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SocietySeptember 24, 2023

The Sunday Essay: Take your trauma on holiday with you


My trauma doesn’t come with warnings. It attacks me out of nowhere when I least expect it.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

Illustrations by Devon Smith.

This essay contains descriptions of sexual assault. Please take care.

The night is a write off. At 1.48am on a Friday, I know that I won’t sleep a wink. I’ve been woken up by someone else and I can never return to a restful sleep after that. I was woken up tonight when my partner came home late from work drinks. I’m not angry about that in the slightest, I’m glad he had a fun evening with his colleagues. Even a light, fitful doze won’t come. I am wired, wide awake, and wild with anger. 

All I did today was go to work. I treated myself to a curry for lunch from the food court, completed tasks for my job, chatted with my colleagues, walked home. My life today is objectively safe. My home is safe. My day has been simple and comfortingly uneventful. Yet here I am, awake and unsettled. My mind is a fucking war zone. 

At night it is the worst. My resilience is thin when I’m deprived of rest. I feel porous. I long to return to sleep, but my mind snaps into action. I’ll lay there for an hour or two, trying to gently talk myself out of any unwanted thoughts. Sometimes I try listening to sleep stories for adults, or setting the timer on the audiobook app in the hope that I’ll doze off. Usually, I’m doomed. 

I am awake. That’s all there is to it. 

Rage at experiencing violence is never far from the surface of my skin. It simmers constantly. I have a lifetime of being used to the unsolvable fury. Trauma comes up all the time, anywhere, throughout every day I live through. 

When I was six years old, I was woken up by a man my mother had recently broken up with smashing the glass of my bedroom window. He climbed in. The neighbours heard mum and I screaming and called the police. It wasn’t the first time he’d disturbed us. That night he breached a non-molestation order (called a protection order these days) that police had previously put in place stating he couldn’t contact us. After giving statements, we fled in the dark before dawn with only the clothes on our backs. 

Mum was so unnerved that we never returned to live in that house. I changed schools to somewhere on the other side of Auckland without going back to say goodbye to my teacher or the friends I’d known since kindergarten. I lost my life as I knew it that night. 

Obviously this was shocking. The man did not physically hurt me that night, but it was unsettling, unsafe and deeply traumatic. My stepdaughter is six years old now, and the idea of anyone invading her bedroom or interrupting her sleep to scare and hurt her is so awful that the thought sets my teeth on edge and turns my shoulders to stone. It is unbearable. A six year old girl is a vulnerable thing. Small and deserving of protection and safety. I was not safe. 

Soon after the man broke in my bedroom window, he rammed his car into the side of mum’s car when we were on the motorway. No one from nearby cars helped us. I was in the backseat which had no seatbelts because the car was old and it was 1989. Mum had shakily driven to the nearest police station. He had again breached the non-molestation order that said he wasn’t allowed to contact us.

When I started working full-time as a journalist in the mid-2000s, I called mum before my first byline was published to check if I should use a pseudonym. I didn’t want that man to locate me. “No,” she told me fiercely, “you never need to hide from him again. Live your life. Use your name.”

In 2021, out of the blue, he contacted me on social media. I called my mother, then the police. They enforced the non-molestation order again by knocking on the jerk’s door and telling him to leave me alone. Apparently he said he understood and wouldn’t do it again. He said he’d leave me alone a long time ago and it wasn’t true, so. Victim Support called me and were kind. I spoke several times to a woman named Ginny who told me I was a victim of a crime, simple terms I hadn’t articulated to myself before. Am I safe? I went to work as if nothing had happened, keeping active, showing up for the life I’ve built and putting on a brave face.

When I’m woken up, even now, part of my body and brain go back to the night he broke in when I was six and I’ll be wide awake with the bone-deep, baked-in hyper-vigilance of a trauma survivor. I feel unsafe even when I am safe because I have been unsafe and that feeling never leaves you. The body keeps the score. On subconscious levels, it stays present in unexplainable ways.

Perhaps I’m with friends, or waiting for a bus. Maybe I’m driving or enjoying myself on a sunny day when a memory roars into my mind like a bullet train bearing bad news. My surroundings cease to exist. Sometimes these thoughts are a replay of an event, like watching a video tape of an episode of my life. Remember that time you were raped when you were three years old, my brain reminds me every day, at least once. (That perpetrator was a different person, not the man who broke in through my bedroom window). Sometimes the facts are repeated in my mind, just the words, an unwanted mental intrusion. Sometimes it is images of what happened that haunt me. Suddenly I see the rapist’s face, feel my fear as if it is happening right now, feel the physical sensation of scrambling backwards on the bed away from him then being held down and suddenly I can’t breathe even though I’m 38 and I’m safe, I’m safe, I’m safe now. 

On holiday in Japan with my partner recently, I was overrun with traumatic memories while we spent the loveliest day together. We were hiking in the Nikko region, just the two of us. It was April and there was snow on the ground. There were few other humans in the sparse landscape. Signs warned us in English to watch out for bears. A website advised us to “be bear aware” when we planned this part of the trip and we’d been jokingly repeating that phrase. I was freaked out by a map tacked to the fence beside a waterfall indicating bears were frequently seen nearby. 

In a public toilet on the trail, a sign showed pictures of bear poo so hikers could recognise the danger if we spotted it. My trauma doesn’t come with warnings like that, no helpful descriptions to indicate where a fear outbreak could occur. It attacks me out of nowhere when I least expect it. If you see a bear, another website said, curl up and play dead – much like taking the brace position in a plane crash or a solid stance in a doorway during an earthquake. Hold your body like this when the danger comes, advice tells us, get cosy and stay still before your possible death. 

The threat of bears unsettled me, but as we set out on our hike it was my childhood that felt like it was trying to kill me, invading the peaceful day. 

When that violent man’s car impacted ours, I’d been thrown from one side of the vehicle to the other, terrified, injured and powerless. The feeling of that moment remains in my throat. It is never far away. Even without a clear trigger, I thought of it against my will over and over like a torturous loop there in the Japanese woods, walking with a good man who helps me feel safe. I told him without going into detail that I wasn’t having a good day in my head, and he was kind. When things get real bad, I repeat simple facts: the date, my age, my location to help bring me back to the present: It is 2023 and I am safe, I told myself. 

We had a whole day of hiking to enjoy, so my mind had lots of mileage to torture me with. By the afternoon, after I talked myself out of the fear, I typed in to the Notes app on my phone:

Of course you are in pain

It is painful

Those things are wrong and pain is the correct response

Accept the pain

It is OK to be in pain

You are still good

What I must have meant in that moment is something I’ve been thinking about recently: I will never recover from being raped as a child. No form of therapy can make that feel better. It was wrong, and anger about that is normal and healthy. I can work to slowly manage the daily symptoms of anger and memory, but the anger can’t be cured. It is what I’m supposed to feel. 

I need to keep practising at all the things that help me feel better in small ways in daily life. It’s like a line I once saw on the wall of a gym: “It won’t get easier, but you’ll get stronger.” 

Usually I’m safe from traumatic thoughts when I’m cooking. Hands busy, creativity engaged as I tackle a complex recipe like vegan ramen, including stomping on the noodle dough, or attempting my first burnt basque cheesecake. 

Cooking is therapy, a hot bath is therapy, sex that I choose to have with someone I trust is therapy, tending my houseplants is therapy, cleaning my home is therapy, walking my dog is therapy, crafting of any kind – embroidery on felt, cross stitch and the knitting projects I’m midway through – is always therapy. Music is therapy, especially performed live, when I can lose myself. The grungier the better. Writing is therapy because it helps to discharge the thoughts that trouble me. Eating is always therapy. The comfort of the tang of natural wine is therapy, and so is a cup of tea and a biscuit. I could go for an English breakfast and a Krispie right about now.

Of course I meditate. Of course I write in a journal. I breathe deeply. I count to four as I inhale, hold for two, then exhale for four, hold for two, start to inhale again. 

I know all the tricks. I do all the things.

I have spent so many years of my life paying for psychotherapy to talk about someone else’s actions, to reclaim my story. It helped, but I still suffer. My ACC sensitive claim to cover support for being raped as a child was declined. I’ve tried support groups, somatic experiencing therapy and just recently I’ve started a very expensive course of healing-but-harrowing EMDR therapy that I’m paying for out of my own pocket.  So much of my money has gone towards talking about someone else’s crimes. It makes me feel like I’m paying for their mistakes – they did the bad thing, I’m the one suffering. It is unfair. Life is unfair, and I wonder if adopting more of an attitude that “life is shit so suck it up” could help, but that negativity is not in my nature. 

Having explored different kinds of therapy over the years, I’m coming to believe there’s nothing to actually do about it but lots of little things every day. Fill my day with simple pleasures. Crowd out the fears. 

It’s now 3.24am so I’ll make a cup of tea and watch an episode of The Marvellous Mrs Maisel to wind down. I only started the show recently, how did I miss the fact it was made by the Gilmore Girls people? It’s fast paced and funny, and I love anything set in New York. There are good things in the world. There is always another cup of tea, always another episode of a show, always another pat to give to a pet. If you’re lucky there will be a biscuit. I’m wide awake and I am safe. Wish me luck.

Keep going!