Warning: This article discusses sexual assault, trauma and PTSD.
When Katie* got into the lift at her new job and suddenly felt her breath catch in her throat, she couldn’t understand what on earth was happening. Was she choking? Deathly allergic to something in the lift? Having a heart attack?!
The A&E doctor she promptly visited couldn’t find an obvious cause, so she followed up with her GP later that week – by now having felt the same sensation several times in that lift – who gently suggested to Katie that she may be experiencing panic attacks.
On some levels, it made sense: she’d been having intense nightmares as well as a feeling during the day like she’d had too much caffeine, even though she’d given up coffee months earlier. When she’d had her dental checkup, she was surprised when her dentist was concerned that she appeared to be grinding her teeth at night.
But on other levels it made no sense: she felt like she was in a great place in her life – she’d got married the year previously, had great friends and now had an exciting new job.
Her GP suggested having a chat with a counsellor, so two weeks later she was sitting in the office of a local psychotherapist who gave her a rather surprising diagnosis: PTSD.
It was something she rarely – if ever – thought about, but seven years earlier when Katie was in her late teens, she went through a traumatic event whilst working in a retail shop.
One afternoon she was assaulted by a male member of staff in the storeroom. Shocked and traumatised, she immediately quit. Then, five days later she reported what had happened to her former boss. He called her back that evening to tell her that because she was no longer an employee and the male staff member had denied everything (and allegedly had a staff member as a witness that he was not in the storeroom that day), there was nothing more to be done about it.
Stunned, and ashamed, she dropped it. “I had only told one person and to have them say it never happened and they didn’t believe me was humiliating and disturbing,” says Katie. “I didn’t tell anyone about it after that and I put it as far out of my mind as I could. I had nightmares for months, but they went away, so I kind of thought I was over it.”
She’d taken quite a different career path, but now, in an entirely new job, entering a confined space where she felt vulnerable, she was triggered. “Once I was getting where it was coming from, I could start dealing with it,” says Katie.
For seven years she’d stuffed her feelings away, so finally confronting it and opening that box of pain up was incredibly powerful – but challenging to unpack.
The Mental Health Foundation says PTSD can affect people of any age, gender or culture but is more common among soldiers and refugees who have endured major traumas, or in adults or teens who have experienced childhood sexual or physical abuse. PTSD suffers can experience intense fear – many feel constantly watchful or jumpy, and have disturbed sleep, like Katie. Memory, concentration and decision-making are often affected.
This week, on the other side of the world, another woman told her firsthand story of trauma. US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (better known as AOC) told of the fear of not being believed, of the insidious nature of trauma and the importance of acknowledging it for what it truly is.
In an Instagram Live she spoke directly and powerfully to the camera for 89 minutes, discussing the trauma she experienced during the Capitol riots, while also revealing she is a sexual assault survivor.
Early in the video she explained, “I’m a survivor of sexual assault and I haven’t told many people that in my life,” she said. “When we go through trauma, trauma compounds each other.”
She then revealed her recent experience of trauma – telling her story from the insurrection on January 6, from the warning signs that something violent was coming, to the day itself, when she innocently videoed herself receiving a second dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine, before the first signs appeared that something was wrong in the Capitol that day.
“I hear these huge violent bangs on my door and then every door going into my office,” she recounted – telling of how she decided to take shelter in a bathroom attached to her office, before realising that someone had entered the room, searching for her.
“I thought I was going to die,” she shared, saying that she also made her peace with dying in that moment. “I felt that if this was the journey my life was taking, I felt that things were going to be okay and that I had fulfilled my purpose.”
She also spoke of her fear of telling her story, knowing that as a sexual assault survivor, she was used to not being believed.
“There’s the trauma of going through what you went through,” she said, “and then there’s the trauma afterwards of people not believing you, or trying to publicly humiliate you, or trying to embarrass you. And that also gets internalised, too, because a lot of times you don’t want to believe it either.”
Back home in New Zealand, Katie was watching and felt immense pride in AOC for speaking out, but she was also, understandably, rattled by hearing her story.
“it hit a really raw nerve,” she says. “I completely understood what she meant about trauma – how something scary can trigger something else inside of you and make that scary situation feel ten times more scary. Even something not that scary, like getting in a lift, can be terrifying!”
“But I also felt really inspired when she said that she’d been speaking to mental health professionals in the month since who told her that it’s important to tell your story if you experience trauma. I think she said something like, ‘tell it over and over again.’ So I’ve been doing that and the day after I watched it, I told people that I hadn’t told before and they were so encouraging.”
After seeing her psychotherapist, Katie began opening up to those closest to her – her husband, and her mother and father. With their encouragement and support she decided to contact the retail store where the attack took place and is going through a formal complaint process, whilst also speaking to the police. She’s not sure if anything will come from it, but telling her story has helped her recovery process and she’s been overwhelmed by the support of the people she has told. It’s also why she’s telling her story in public today.
“I wish I had the guts to put my name to it like AOC did, but, baby steps, right? I just hope women reading this will know that even if your trauma happened a long time ago, and people didn’t believe you back then, or even realise that something so life-changing had happened to you, that doesn’t have to be the end of your story. It’s never too late to tell people and to be believed and to start to heal from it properly.”
On Thursday, AOC took to Twitter to continue the conversation around surviving abuse. She said, “To survivors of any trauma who worry about being believed, or that their situation wasn’t ‘bad’ enough or ‘too’ bad, or fear being branded or deemed ‘manipulative’ for telling the truth: I see you.”
“Community is here for you. You are safe with me, & with all of us. You are loved.”
The Mental Health Foundation offers the following advice. Family, whānau and close friends of someone with PTSD have found the following strategies important and useful:
- In the early days after the trauma give the person time and space to be alone if needed. As time goes by encourage them to get back into life again, but never force them. Try to make sure they get the help they need.
- Learn what you can about PTSD, its treatment and what you can do to assist recovery. Sometimes the person with PTSD finds it difficult to explain to others how hard it is for them, or they may have trouble understanding what is happening to them and their behaviour.
- Do not blame the person for having PTSD. Understand the symptoms for what they are rather than taking them personally or seeing the person as being difficult.
- Help the person to recognise stress and find ways of coping with it. This may include helping to solve problems that are worrying them.
- Find ways of getting time out for you and feeling okay about this. It is critical to do what is needed to maintain your own wellbeing.
- Don’t overlook any situation or suggestion from the person experiencing PTSD that they are suicidal and wanting to end their life. Get support for this immediately, eg, by talking to their GP or counsellor.
- Some useful links include:
- Talking Therapy NZ
- Beyond Blue
- Big White Wall
- Engage Aotearoa
NEED TO CHAT?
- Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.
- Healthline: 0800 611 116 (available 24 hours, 7 days a week and free to callers throughout New Zealand, including from a mobile phone).
- If you’ve experienced sexual assault or abuse and need to talk to someone call the confidential crisis helpline Safe to Talk on: 0800 044 334 or text 4334. (available 24/7)