Friday, December 19, 2008

PTSD & Anger, Part 5: How To Make Anger Work For You

So, it's been a good week. I've learned a lot about anger I didn't know. More importantly, I've thought a lot about my own anger so that I understand how it hindered me, and also how it helped me to heal. When we can see ourselves, recognize what's going wrong and understand why, then we can find the path to changing behavior and moving forward. Not a bad way to make some daily progress!

Today’s post I’m going to turn over to the voice of Kellie Greene, rape survivor and now activist and founder of Speaking Out About Rape (SOAR). Kellie has been National Spokesperson for the Pfizer/YWCA "Moving Past Trauma PTSD Community Outreach Program". In 1999, she founded SOAR, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the rights of victims of sexual assault. SOAR is committed to raising awareness about rape and its consequences, including PTSD. Kellie also coauthored Florida's "Sexual Predator Prosecution Act of 2000". The law mandates consecutive sentences, rather than simultaneous sentences, for any repeat sexual offenders. In addition, Kellie helped pass Florida legislation that prohibits hospitals from charging rape victims for forensic teams. As a result of her efforts, Kellie earned the Survivor Activist Award from the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence.

What I find so inspiring about Kellie is that she went through all of the phases of trauma – shock, grief, anger, healing – and came out swinging. Kellie’s ultimate reaction to a brutal attack shows just how we can survive and then define a new self that is more powerful and bigger and better than ever.

Here are a few excerpts from our interview, ones I found particularly interesting as they showed Kellie's psychological process in the aftermath of trauma, and then how she constructed a new, post-trauma identity that led her to healing and a new life.

What were your initial reactions to trauma?

I had all of the usual symptoms: nightmares, insomnia, flashbacks. This is all the brain’s way of processing what’s happened to you. Kind of like back in the days when we had vinyl records and you would get a scratch on it and the needle would get stuck and it wouldn’t come out of it and it would just keep playing that one word over and over again. When you get PTSD that’s kind of like what it is: you can’t move past the thought of the trauma. So even though within 6 weeks I had started therapy after 6 months I realized I wasn’t moving forward. I was stuck in the sense that I started to isolate myself from friends and family because it was easier to be alone because I was tired of hearing myself talk about the trauma over and over again. I was afraid to go outside, and afraid to be out in the dark. Just making simple decisions was difficult. It all started to prohibit me from functioning on a daily basis.

On another level though, my initial reaction to the trauma was that I was determined not to let the rapist ruin my life or change who I was. I was adamant about getting back to my daily routine. Not appearing to be frightened. Not giving him control and power beyond the 45 minutes of my life he had taken during the attack. But in doing that I didn’t accept at the beginning that I had changed. I was ignorant to the fact that something that impactful couldn’t not change my life, either good or bad. I had this sense that I had to appear strong because I wanted to bet it. But you have to validate that you have changed, and unless you incorporate both the strength and the change I think it takes a little bit longer to get to where we are today.

What did you do to cope with all of this, to bring yourself to such a place of proactive strength?

In the beginning I was a mess. It was very difficult for my mother and boyfriend to be around me. They had to walk on eggshells. And I became very manipulative. I used ‘victim’ to my advantage. Any time something wasn’t going my way I would say, ‘I was raped.’ I would play that victim role and then everyone was forced to give in. I could even do that with counselors until I found the right counselor that would call me on it and I was stuck in a room and had to sit there to the end. It was my mom and my boyfriend who got me into the counseling and it was the best thing that they did because I was so out of control with wanting to be in control that I was out of control.

What made you decide to go into counseling?

My boyfriend actually had to track me down and take me there, and he did that for the first 2-3 months because otherwise I wouldn’t go. I was really frightened of counseling. I thought it meant I was weak. I thought I was better than this, I wasn’t going to let it affect me, I could deal with it until I thought if I had to go to counseling and ask for help it meant I wasn’t beating it, which was the wrong way of looking at it. Plus, I’m such a perfectionist. I don’t want to fail. I want to excel at everything I do and I didn’t want to fail at counseling. So, all of those things were really making it difficult for me to let go and say that I needed help to help me process what was going on in my head to actually start making sense of it.

I went through a handful of therapists before I began working with one who was calling me on the manipulation and was forcing me to talk about why I was actually there. Once I was working with her I started getting a little better, but then I reached that plateau where I wasn’t and that’s when things got really difficult and I knew that I needed more help and it was 6 months after the attack. I’d been working with this counselor for 3 months and I felt myself getting worse and worse with flashbacks and nightmares, not being able to make decisions – simple decisions, like in the morning not being able to figure out what to wear. It kept snowballing and everything was getting worse and I thought I was going crazy because I’d never heard or read about anyone being raped experiencing those types of problems, like also, crying all the time, or trying to read – at that point I couldn’t even get past one page. Maybe ½ an hour had gone by and I’d read 2 paragraphs, but I hadn’t understood what I’d just read. So, I thought I was going crazy, losing my mind. I didn’t tell anybody because I was really afraid of that. About six months afterward I was in the shower and broke through in these terrible, terrible sobs. I sat on the bottom of the tub in the fetal position rocking back and forth.

Finally I found a counselor and he read back to me from a book everything that I told him and he said. “You have PTSD”; he gave it a name. And he said, “This is what we’re going to do…” And at that point I could just let out this exhale. I had some hope because, one: I’m not alone. It’s in a book. Other people have had it, too, and they’ve studied it. And obviously there’s some sort of treatment for it because it’s in the book. And he laid out the treatment with me and I worked with him for about 6 months and I was able to recover from the PTSD pretty quickly and then go back to the rape crisis counselor and begin working on the aftereffects of the rape. All in all I was in counseling for about 3 years.

What in your PTSD process worked for you?

He got me to look at everything in a different way. To really examine everything that had happened in a different way. To get out of that mindset that I wasn’t going to let it change me to… One of the greatest things he said to me was that we all change. Every day we are changed by things we come in contact with. And to say that we don’t change kind of cuts us short of evolving as people. So, once I realized that it was okay to change, that it was okay that this affected me, that it didn’t necessarily have to affect who I was going to become, or who I was going to be in a negative way, I was able to look at it and say, ‘Yeah, that was a bad thing that happened, but it’s okay that it’s changed me because I can decide how it’s going to change me now. I am the one who has control over whether or not I’m going to let it control me for the rest of my life.”

Mostly we did talk therapy. The breathing exercises were great because they would keep my mind focused on breathing and not on what I was remembering, so it really quieted the mind for me so that I could actually work the counseling. And then he also said I was discovering some really great things about myself, because I had discovered that I was able to get up and speak in front of groups, which was always something I had feared. That I had a voice, and that I was pretty powerful with that voice and making positive changes for others and I should celebrate that, and I should embrace the counseling experience because I could go in and examine everything about my life from the beginning to where I was at that point, and it was an opportunity for me to keep pieces that I really liked, discard the ones I don’t like, and work on the ones that I could improve. So, it was an opportunity and once he presented it to me as an opportunity, then it was a little bit easier to swallow, as opposed to the rapist forced me into counseling.

When did you get to the point that you realized you could channel your anger into something positive?

That was from the very beginning. I owe that to my mom because my mom realized at the very beginning that if I were to fall into self-pity I would never have gotten out of it, or it would have taken a long, long time to get out of it. So, she wanted to keep me mad, as ticked off at the rapist as she possibly could. And that’s what she did! Whenever she would hear me feeling sorry for myself she would say, “Do you think the rapist is sitting around feeling sorry for you right now?” And I answered, ‘Hell no! Why should I? He’s probably not even thinking about me!” So, by helping me stay angry I was able to find different channels for that anger. One of them was I joined the Raped Abused and Incest National Center, which is RAIN. I joined their speakers bureau and started doing presentations for universities. I worked with the Attorney General in the state of Florida in passing new legislation. I also worked with the Attorney General in training law enforcement in dealing with victims of sexual crime.

Did the outreach help lessen your feelings of anger, or help you deal with them better?

As time went on I lost the anger toward the rapist because I started to be thankful for the direction that my life had gone in. Before the rape I really didn’t have any goals in life, I didn’t really have any direction. I was happy, I loved my life and I was living it very well and I was doing very well, but I didn’t really have a sense of purpose and I would say within 6 months to a year after the rape I knew what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to educate the world about the aftermath of rape. Of what it’s really like. It’s not like in the movies, it’s not like in the soap operas… And that was what I wanted to do. So, I just started to channel all of that anger, that energy that I had from the anger into making this the reality and I honestly think that it was my chosen path and that it was my true chosen path because I remained true to it. I try not to question the direction I’m going in now because somehow these opportunities, these amazing opportunities keep presenting themselves to me, so I know that I’m on the right path and I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing and that this is my purpose in life. And I wouldn’t go back and change anything that happened in my life, including the rape, because it’s brought me to who I am and what I’m doing today and I love both.

(Photo: Glenn Loos-Austin)

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