The first time I experienced PSTD, I was in college. I was never diagnosed and never sought therapy, but I had all the obvious symptoms, including night terrors. My psychology lecturer begged me to come to counselling after reviewing my answers in in-class exercises, but I refused.
I had lived with an abusive father, moved out twice, finally won emancipation at 17 and was now about 20 years old and in my last year of college. I’m not sure what triggered the nightmares. Maybe it was Mom losing her job and me worrying I would have to drop out, but they came.
I woke up night after night from dreams that were replays of the abuse I had lived through. Sometimes, my own screams woke me up. I dreamed of the night my grandmother had to call the police after I ran out of my house and ran to her with my face swollen to twice its size.
One day, I said to my best friend, “I don’t know if I can keep doing this. What was the point of escaping if every time I go to bed, I just relive everything I fought so hard to leave behind? What do you do when the bad dreams are real?”
The Guinea Pig Cure
I’m going to be brutally honest here. The only reason I didn’t give up is that I thought of all the sacrifices Mom had already made to get me into college and keep me there. I felt it would be a slap in the face to see her investment hanging from a noose or bleeding out in a bathtub.
So, instead, I decided I wanted guinea pigs. During some of the most dysfunctional periods of my family life as a teen, I had guinea pigs and I had been absolutely obsessed with them. No matter what chaos was happening in my life, those were my adorable little distractions.
I thought, I could do that. I could go back to that. Maybe it will help. I went on Twitter and started asking around. As has been my endless luck to this day with Twitter, tweeps came through. In the end, I paid for nothing. Random people that I didn’t even know chipped in to help.
Where is that? RT @YardiiFC: hobby hut.. RT @SisstreDaethe: Does anyone know where one might find a guinea pig or hamster to purchase, in k
— Alexis Chateau 🇯🇲🇺🇸 (@alexischateau_) November 21, 2010
The last 2 days have been so terrible that today I decided it was time for a change. Spent all day working on getting a pair of guinea pigs.
— Alexis Chateau 🇯🇲🇺🇸 (@alexischateau_) September 9, 2011
— Alexis Chateau 🇯🇲🇺🇸 (@alexischateau_) September 13, 2011
I have no idea why, but the very night I got the guinea pigs, those night terrors stopped. They never returned.
The More Persistent Dreams
While the guinea pigs cured the absolute worst of my PTSD, there were other dreams I had struggled with before and continued to fight with. They all followed a similar pattern. I would dream that my biological parents were back together again. When these dreams first started, I would wake up in a panic.
Eventually, though, you get to a point in your life where you’re tired of being sad and decide to be angry instead. So, instead of waking up in a panic, I started to sleep through the dreams and I would give my biological father a good piece of my mind.
I had dreams where he had moved back into the house we had put him out of and he would not leave. I would take his things and throw them out. I screamed. I ranted. I told him what I peace-of-sh!t father he had been. Sometimes, in these dreams, he was remorseful and I would tell him he could shove his remorse “where the sun don’t shine.”
It took me about ten years before these dreams went away. I still get them on occasion, but they are not as intense and I generally wake up, roll my eyes and go back to sleep. They are a little different now as my stepdad makes an appearance and that makes them all the less disturbing because he is all the Dad I’ll ever need.
In the past few weeks, however, these dreams have returned with a new vengeance and most have a new face — my husband’s. Now, instead of only dreaming that my biological parents are back together, I dream that my husband and I never parted ways. I wake up with my heart pounding in my chest almost every morning now, even when I don’t consciously remember dreaming of him.
I spend the entirety of these dreams in a panic, asking, What happened? How did we get back here? How could I be so foolish to take him back? Will he repeat the incident that compelled me to kick him out of the house in the first place? Eventually, I wake up and I’m sweating and out of breath and I don’t know if I’m more relieved it’s just a dream or p!ssed that he was in it.
I don’t know how long these dreams will last, but I suspect I’m about to go up against another battle, just as I did before. A big part of the cause of these dreams has stemmed from the fact that my husband refuses to sign the divorce paperwork. In April, his mistress injected herself into our marriage to prompt divorce proceedings.
I was happy to pass the torch to her, so I sent him the paperwork. Weeks went by and he did not sign them, nor will he say why he has not signed them. Instead, he and his attorney continue to stall. You would think I was asking for alimony or half of his things in a state where, based on the circumstances, I certainly could.
Instead, all I asked for was six months of therapy at an insanely cheap package from a lady I was referred to for just $1,200. I can’t even say his refusal to pay for therapy is why he refuses to sign the paperwork because I only asked for that in the past two weeks. He had the preliminary paperwork before that and didn’t sign those either. The constant, empty and fruitless back-and-forth is ultimately what fed the dreams.
A Blatant Accusation
When I first shared my hatched plans to move out west with my parents, my dad was the first to accuse me of trying to get away from my husband but no one was surprised as to why. Recently, the conversation came up again and my dad said, “I think getting an RV is a bad idea. I think you’re so desperate to get away from him that you’ll jump from a pot into the fire, as long as he’s not there.”
My parents were not surprised when I put my husband out. It was a long time coming, but they knew there must have been some final catalyst that led to it and I never told them what it was. That night, my dad put the question to me. “What did he do?” he asked me. “I want to know what he did that was so bad.”
I didn’t respond. I merely stared right back at him until he gave up and Mom insisted we return to playing board games. As my mom later informed me, that night, my dad spoke to her. “Do you think I was too hard on her?” he asked. “I just think she needs to be careful.”
Mom assured him that he was no tougher than her tough cookie could handle and left the conversation there, but Dad wasn’t done. After a pause, he asked her if she had seen the look on my face when he asked about my ex. Then, he added that he felt he had figured it out and he knew what had happened. I will not repeat what he said, except to say this: he was right.
Learning to Spot Abuse
As I explained in an earlier post, when I was living through the abuse with my biological father, it affected me terribly but much less than it should have. In fact, I didn’t know it was abuse until someone else used the word to describe the marks on my body. My God! I thought. This is abuse? Why didn’t anyone tell me?
In the case of my husband, I didn’t initially think of it as abuse either. I thought of it as his fragile male ego and toxic masculinity, which it was, but that certainly wasn’t all it was. Nevertheless, his lashing out fell on deaf ears. I would watch him in quiet amusement while he had tantrums and said unkind things about everything from my immigration status to my sometimes-stoic personality.
In these moments, I would think to myself, “Wow, Alex. You really did marry an idiot, didn’t you? Look at him. Is he five years old? What grown man acts like this?” Eventually, I would go back to work and leave him to argue with himself or I would go take a shower or go for a walk and laugh to myself at my composure versus his emotional immaturity and instability.
One day, when he went off on one of these tantrums, I decided not to ignore him. Instead, I asked him, “Why are you like this? I ask you a simple question about dinner and I can see the immediate change in your expression. It’s resentment. Now, you’re saying mean things for no reason. Does it make you feel better?”
My response caught him off-guard. He paused the video game he had been playing and then his eyes started to water. “I don’t know why I’m like this,” he said, softly. “I don’t mean to do it. I love you and I want to be nice to you, but I can’t help it. You say something and, yes, for no reason, I just want to be a d!ck.”
One tear prepared to roll down his cheek. Emotions are not my rodeo, so I left him to his feelings and went to my mom. I told her what had transpired to see what she could make of it. She was very serious when she responded. “I don’t like it.” After a long pause, she added, “Be careful. That’s abuser behaviour.”
After that, whenever he was home from school, my mom would text me the same message, every few hours, “Are you okay?” Whenever he wasn’t home, Mom didn’t text, except to ask if I needed anything on the way to the store or wanted to accompany her somewhere. I don’t think she was conscious of doing this, but I was conscious of it on the receiving end.
It also took me a long time to grasp the full application of her words — for me to understand that someone failing to strike a nerve didn’t mean they weren’t emotionally abusive. And, much later, that being able to defend yourself against a physical attack does not neutralize the fact that it happened.
New Cause for Recovery
When that final catalyst took place, I had the good sense to act on principle and not on lack of feelings. I put him out. Still, my mindset at the time was not unlike the others. Amid the relief and good riddance, there was also, “Ha! He tried me but I sure showed him!” When I told my friend what had happened, he was not as flippant. He told me to report the incident to the police. I thought about it, but ultimately, chose not to.
When this incident comes up between my husband and I, he has a formula. He starts off first by acting flabbergasted. “What?? WHAT???” Then, he says, “Okay, yes. I remember that incident.” Then, he admits everything I said happened did happen, but that the word I use to describe it is — to use his phrasing — overkill.
“I’m not sure why you’re so worried about it happening again when you can obviously defend yourself,” he told me in our last phone conversation.
“A woman shouldn’t have to physically defend herself against her husband!” I replied. “The fact that I was capable of doing so and able to put you in your place doesn’t change the fact that I needed to because you crossed a line — and I will never forgive you for that.”
“I think you’re overreacting,” he replied. I don’t know how he says these things without realizing what he sounds like, but he also added, “I’ve done so many bad things to you that I think you just finally latched on to this one thing out of everything.”
He then proceeded to tell me I should feel grateful because my legal proximity to him as his wife made my immigration process less stressful than if my mother had pursued the petitioning process alone. He told me I owed him for that and I should be grateful to him for it.
“You want me to be grateful to my abuser?” I shot back at him.
“I’m not saying that, but…” and he continued to renew his argument.
Thankfully, I do not have dreams of that last, fateful night. I don’t even dream about his tantrums or this phone call. Instead, the dreams that have grown more frequent and more intense through the divorce process are of our former everyday life together. We’re driving in the car to the store or going to the park: like nothing ever happened. And somehow, to me, that is what makes them most sinister of all.
A few days after the final incident happened, I had called his mother and told her what he did. “I’m overwhelmed! I don’t want to hear anymore,” she had told me after 35 minutes on the phone. “I think you two are just not compatible.”
Her excuse for her son’s disturbing behaviour was “incompatibility.” This same woman who confided that her son’s tantrums had been an issue since childhood. I fumed for hours after that phone call. And, would you believe she has a daughter just two or so years older than myself?
So, here’s to another jolly round of PTSD! May it not take another ten years to resolve.