I Stayed Quiet About My PTSD For 20 Years — Here’s How I Found Healing
While some health issues are visible to the outside world, many people face chronic conditions that don't have externally visible signs or symptoms—also known as invisible illnesses. In mindbodygreen's series, we're giving individuals with invisible illnesses a platform to share their personal experiences. Our hope is their stories will shed light on these conditions and offer solidarity to others facing similar situations. Trigger warning: This article contains mentions of sexual assault and rape.
I kept quiet about my experiences with sexual assault and PTSD for almost 20 years. I had shared with a few people in my private life, but it wasn’t until I wrote my second book, The Farewell Tour: A Caregiver’s Guide to Stress Management, Sane Nutrition, and Better Sleep, that I shared publicly—and even then, it was just a tiny section in one chapter.
I finally decided to tell my story because I want people who are navigating that experience (or who may be years out but have an extra-hard time coping with other traumatic events because of their past trauma) to know that they aren’t alone and can find healing.
My experience with sexual assault.
I was 17. Because I was shy and inexperienced, I thought at first that my boyfriend’s behavior toward me was my fault because I wasn’t doing a good enough job keeping him happy. I also found that at first, I blacked out a lot of the scariest stuff—I remember rushing home from spending time with him to write down whatever I could grab onto in my journal. A few months after we broke up, I started to get my memory back, and it shook me to my core.
I remember visiting the RAINN website, hoping to find a loophole out of being a statistic, but even all the things I did remember qualified as rape. I never pressed charges, but I did confront him privately. It’s a very personal decision, and I feel at peace with it now. I knew I couldn’t change the past, but I could focus on moving forward. I just wanted to feel “normal” again.
When the flashbacks first set in, they were debilitating.
Previously a straight-A student taking honors and AP courses, I suddenly started failing classes because I couldn’t focus. The flashbacks were so disruptive, I’d completely space out in class or would start writing in my journal just to stay grounded. Of course, my teachers noticed.
My relationships suffered too. At first, I withdrew from friends, unsure of how to interact with people when my perception of reality felt so split between flashbacks and actual life. I was also in a new romantic relationship at the time my PTSD was setting in, and I found the flashbacks were even worse when I tried to be intimate with someone. For several years, I would have the experience of suddenly coming to with a partner looking down at me with their brow furrowed, or to a gentle tap on the shoulder, a confused and concerned embrace.
“Hey, where did you go?”
After a few months (and some classroom adjustments) I was able to concentrate better in school. I became incredibly fixated on getting good grades and earning a scholarship so I could get away from my hometown. I never wanted to feel like that girl being asked why her grades were slipping ever again. I felt like I had something to prove—that even with my PTSD, I could be successful instead of curling up in bed and crying like I sometimes wanted to, even though no one knew. I held myself to a really high standard.
On some level, I’d been a high achiever my entire life, but now there was this little blue ball of fire in my gut that never went out. Looking back, I’m relieved I never sought solace in drugs or alcohol, but I can recognize now that I developed an addiction of sorts to work. Work gave me something to focus on. If I was constantly moving, there was no room for intrusive trauma thoughts.
During times when I was feeling insecure and inferior because of my past or was experiencing what I call a PTSD flare-up, I would push myself—often to the point of burnout. Logically, I knew that breaks were important, but after so many years of living in a fight-or-flight state, I found I didn’t know how to relax.
My trauma definitely affected my dating life—directly and indirectly. I was always worried about being “too much” or “not enough.” I also had a tendency to go out with guys who treated me poorly or who were emotionally unavailable. I tried on the personas of the “Cool Girl” and the “Tough Girl” and the “Girl Who’s Not Looking For Anything Serious,” but eventually I realized they were all just ways I was trying to protect myself. I also used my busy work life as a way to build emotional distance and set boundaries I didn’t feel confident enough to set for myself.
Over the years, I occasionally tried to talk about the assaults, but whenever I tested the waters, I would almost always be met with the question, “Were you drunk?”
While that answer was no, what if I had been? Or was it somehow worse than I’d been totally sober and therefore more responsible for not preventing it?
Though it would take me a long time to find the words for it, I harbored a lot of anger towards myself: for not knowing better, for not being able to stop the assaults, and later, for my mind and body for not working properly under stress. I became so frustrated at the way I would just shut down when triggered, or if I didn’t shut down, I’d have a meltdown over something seemingly small and feel unable to express it to anyone else.
How I found healing.
For me, healing has come in waves. In the very early days, writing helped. I journaled a lot about what I was going through. I even hid my experience in short fiction and poetry, as it felt like a safer way to sort through my feelings and share with others. I was incredibly lucky to have an amazing writing teacher in high school and professors in college who encouraged me to write in my true voice.
Therapy is another tool that was (and continues to be) immensely helpful.
A big emotional turning point came after my father died when I was 32. I had been at his bedside when it happened, my family gathered around him so he didn’t have to go through it alone. So much changed in that moment. I remember feeling like brick walls fell down and all around me and standing there in the rubble it was just…me. And I was okay.
A few days later, when the guy I’d been seeing throughout my dad’s pancreatic cancer journey told me he’d “try to swing by” the services, something in me lit up. We never know how much time we have on this planet, I realized, and what the hell had I been doing spending my energy on people who treated me and my feelings so casually? Deep down, I had to admit I neither wanted nor deserved that. Sure, the idea of opening up to someone and letting them know all of me was daunting, but the moment my dad died, I’d lost my ability to care whether I was too much or not enough for someone.
I knew my father had always wanted me to have the kind of deep love he and my mother had. He wanted me to have a partner who would worship me the way he’d worshiped my mom. But I’d been keeping myself closed off for so long because I was, whether I had been conscious of it or not, scared. I was scared of being hurt, scared of being judged for being a survivor of sexual assault, and because of that, I’d been playing small, emotionally.
After emerging from a grief hole, during which I cleaned my apartment obsessively and banged out the 60,000-word first draft of my book The Little Book of Game Changers, I approached dating with the intention to focus on how a person made me feel. Some words I remember thinking about were “warm,” “safe,” and “loved.” I wasn’t looking to meet a long-term partner when I met my husband (I thought I was leaving New York), but all of a sudden, there he was. I couldn’t believe he had also been in New York the whole time.
Yes, I was nervous to tell my story the first time it came up, but he made it very clear that he would be there to listen and support me.
How I'm caring for myself today.
As a registered dietician (RD), I wish I could go back and tell my younger self what I now know about nutrition and mental health.
From the ages of 18 to 22 I basically lived off of canned soup, microwave popcorn, artificially sweetened oatmeal, and “light” yogurt. I used fat-free salad dressing and ignored the healthy fats I now love like olive oil and avocado. I drank copious amounts of coffee and diet soda and definitely wasn’t getting enough protein or calories. When the body is not nourished, it’s much harder for the mind to heal.
When the body is not nourished, it’s much harder for the mind to heal.
When I went back to school at 23 to study nutrition and eventually began working as an RD, my eating habits greatly improved. I noticed the difference in how resilient I felt when I experienced little flickers of PTSD. The two biggest game-changers for me were learning about the impact of blood sugar on energy and mood, along with the gut-brain connection.
To support stable blood sugar, which is key to fostering a calm mind and maintaining energy, it’s important to have a balance of protein, fat, and fiber at meals and snacks. Though it’s become second nature, I always use this formula when figuring out what to eat.
There are also specific foods that are associated with a healthier stress response, thanks to nutrients and compounds found in those foods. A few major ones I keep in the rotation: olive oil, avocado, oily fish, eggs, chia seeds, ground flax, berries, leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, turmeric, plain yogurt and kefir, and other fermented foods like sauerkraut.
To support gut health, I make sure to eat fermented foods, plenty of fiber-rich foods (in particular those that provide prebiotics), and lots of water. Movement also helps with digestion, as do things that benefit mental health like meditation, journaling, and exposure to sunlight.
Exercise also helps a lot. There were definitely times in my late teens and twenties when I overdid cardio because I liked the way it helped me get out of my own head. However, it was actually getting into yoga, pilates, and strength training in my late twenties and early thirties that helped me learn to feel more present in my body and much stronger, mentally.
The things that helped me heal have become my everyday habits. Sometimes I need to fine-tune my approach as life evolves and new challenges come up, but having a strong foundation has helped me stay grounded.
What I want people to understand.
For anyone that has gone through similar trauma that I experienced, I want you to know that your experience as a survivor does not define you or mean that you are somehow less worthy of the good things you believe others deserve. It’s one thing to know that shame can hold you back, but it’s quite another to actually get out from under it.
Sexual assault is unfortunately very common. According to RAINN, every 68 seconds someone in the United States is sexually assaulted, and every 9 minutes, that victim is a child. It is estimated that 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (14.8% completed, 2.8% attempted). About 3% of American men—or 1 in 33—have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.
If this is something you’ve experienced, I can’t stress enough how important it is to take care of your mental health. There are more resources than ever to find mental healthcare, and I would strongly encourage exploring your options. Your insurance provider’s website can be a good starting place, and there are a variety of companies offering virtual mental health services as well. Additionally, you can also access the National Sexual Assault Hotline for 24/7 support.
To me, being healed does not mean never feeling triggered or never having a flashback again. It’s about recognizing when I’m triggered and why and putting the self-care habits I need into place to come back to myself. I once thought I’d never feel at home in my body again, and every day, I’m grateful to be here.
Jessica Cording, M.S., R.D., CDN, is a registered dietitian, health coach, and writer with a passion for helping people streamline their wellness routine and establish a balanced relationship with food and exercise. She received her Masters of Science in Clinical Nutrition from New York University, and a dietetic internship at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. Her writing has been featured in Forbes and Shape. Her book, The Little Book of Game-Changers: 50 Healthy Habits for Managing Stress & Anxiety, offers simple hacks that help her patients and clients reach their goals and nurture their mental, physical, and emotional health, even when life becomes hectic.