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Ode: A trauma survivor runs from Sioux City

Patti Strong
Ally Karsyn
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I was standing on a platform waiting for Delta flight 642 to depart from Omaha with $2,600 in cash and whatever I could cram into a suitcase. I boarded the plane, found seat 23A and opened my notebook to fill its pages with a flood of emotions. A fresh start was just hours away.

At 26, I not only moved to Boston to pursue professional goals – I ran there to escape Sioux City. I had to get out of here, because I didn’t want anyone around me to discover what a mess I was.

By this point, my life was marred with traumatic events that left me an emotionally illiterate, hyper-vigilant, dissociative woman residing in a body I did not know.

Having my innocence taken away from me by a drunk, drugged uncle when I was 3-4 years old cut wounds so deep I had no concept of safety or trust. My parents sought justice for the crime but didn’t help me process the assaults. Not being told it wasn’t my fault and I was a good girl left me to process what was happening. I never did.

I imagine my parents were terrified by what had happened. They unknowingly allowed their little girl to be molested by a family member in a scary basement where the kids slept while the adults partied together upstairs. My mom had been abused when she was young too, and it went on for a while. Maybe she hoped I wouldn’t remember and, by not talking about it, maybe I would forget.

Growing up with emotionally distant parents and living in an alcoholic home with an abusive undertone was a ripe environment for me to grasp for anything, anyone who would lavish me with attention.

In my late teens, I dated losers and drop outs, who were lost, just like me. Ended up pregnant at 17. Lost the baby. That moment shattered me into disrupted parts, though I didn’t acknowledge the inner turmoil it left behind until later in life. I lost control of my nervous system. Mentally checked-out. Like the last line in the Eagles’ Hotel California, “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.”

I was emotional dynamite waiting for the right match to set me off. A teeter totter of explosive and inhibitory reactivity, screaming, yelling, whether out loud or in silence.

My body was disconnected in its inability to match the timing of feeling my emotions with the moments I experienced an event. If a friend said something that upset me and I grew angry, there would be a time delay between my mind acknowledging and connecting to why I was angry. I would freeze and grow quiet, not knowing how to respond or what to say as a comeback. Sometimes hours, weeks, months passed before there was a matchup. I couldn’t live in the moment. I was stuck.

By my early twenties, I felt deeply flawed, on the brink of being defective.

I moved to get away from the place which caused me so much pain, to hide away and figure out what the hell was wrong with me so I could get better.

What helped me process my emotions and make sense of this cycle of traumatic experiences was writing stories.

The fragmented memories of my childhood – the flashes, short snippets of memory, the images – somehow created a collage for me to study. Like the patchwork quilts my grandmother used to sew, I began unraveling my life, reflecting, and then piecing the parts together to create the fundamental story of my past.

For over two decades, I worked with this quilt that was my life and, in doing so, I could be in the present moment. I could find healing in how I came to be so broken.

***

Moving to Boston put me in the perfect place to mend old wounds and expand professionally.

I worked four years for Genzyme, a biotech corporation in Cambridge to learn the business side of science and then went on to work for the Harvard Medical School, where I directed a clinical review program for five years. I earned a graduate degree in psychology, found help and moved back to Sioux City when I became a better version of myself.  My dad thought I would be out East for two years—try thirteen.

When I moved on to Harvard, I gained access to highly skilled mental health therapists and found a groundbreaking book, called Trauma and Recovery, by Judith L. Herman, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the university. In these pages, I paused when I read the symptoms of Complex PTSD.

While most people have heard of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, its lesser known cousin often rears its ugly head with additional symptoms like explosive or inhibited anger; forgetting or reliving traumatic events; feeling detached from your own mental processes or your body (during a date rape in college, I watched from the ceiling). Also, feeling distant and confused with symbols of existential meaning—God, spirituality; feeling helpless, isolated and distrusting; and constantly searching for a white knight to save you from yourself.

I was often frozen in place (my reactionary corset), angry at my 3-year-old self for not being strong enough to stop my uncle from violating me. How sad. I was damaged goods and felt profound loneliness, almost like I was non-human.

All I know—through flittering fragments and my sister’s memory—is that the weekend of Fourth of July 1975, the abuse stopped, thanks to my dad. I never saw my uncle again.

But being molested as a toddler set me up for further victimization and prolonged, repeated traumas. I would hesitate in a dangerous situation, my instinct saying get out of there, but then an unconscious self-cue would ignite and over-ride the hesitation—I stayed because I thought I was supposed to. I learned to communicate through vacant sex. Dissociation became my best friend, my great protector. My body may have been present, but I was not.

I grew angry with God. And though I did have fun, full-of-life experiences living in Boston and made long-standing friends, mostly I felt dead inside, simply going through the motions of life alone.

When I finally found answers in Dr. Herman’s book, tears welled in my eyes. I finally knew what the hell was wrong with me and I began doing something about it.

***

Over four years later, on the morning of my graduation from Lesley University, I courageously emailed Dr. Herman, who was, to my surprise, one of the commencement speakers. Chills radiated through me, mildly shaking at the absolute awe of the odds of this happening—the woman, who had a lead role in my trauma treatment and survival, would be sending me out into the world to fly.

Wicked awesome.

In the email, I thanked her for her work in researching and creating a treatment model for this disorder. It saved my life. And I expressed my eternal gratefulness for her desire to correctly diagnose the symptoms she noticed in trauma survivors.

***

When I sat down among a sea of caps and gowns, my cheeks hurting from laughing, smiling, and crying with classmates, I closed my eyes to take in the moment, to pause and reflect on what I had accomplished.

What happened next blew my mind. During Dr. Herman’s speech, she spoke of a trauma survivor who sounded remarkably like me. The tears rolled down my cheeks. She noticed and looked directly at me smiling.

Crossing the stage, I wanted her to see the strength, love, and mightiness in the breadth of my wings, the expansion exuding from me.

It was mid-June when I loaded up my car and drove down I-90 West on my way home as a new woman, a connected, confident woman, ready to love and be loved. What I have learned is once someone has been unraveled and ripped to shreds, they rarely ever will be truly whole again. All I can do is continue working to sew and repair my life’s quilt. It is not as torn as it was the day I left.

---

Patti Strong teaches courses in psychology as an adjunct instructor at Western Iowa Tech Community College, and she tutors at-risk elementary school kids in math and reading skills. Patti is a poet, a writer. A risk-taker. A mentor, a listener. A fighter, a protector. Believer in the good in people. Two-time cancer survivor. Grateful to be alive.

Ode presents an evening of true stories, told live outside at Koffie Knechtion, 419 Golf Road, in South Sioux City at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 23. Storytellers will share personal essays crafted around the theme "Just Work." Admission is $10. Bring a lawn chair.

For more information, visit Ode on Facebook. Click here to listen to stories from past events, recorded and broadcast by Siouxland Public Media.

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