As a victim of a sexual assault, I understand to some extent the impact trauma can have on a person’s life. Whilst what happened doesn’t define me, it will always be a part of me and it will always be something I have to work on overcoming.
This week, Elena shares the story of her trauma and the impact it has had on her life.
To the outside, Elena had a good life. Born in Russia, Elena moved to New York as a child and fell in love with theatre. After graduating a top school in New York, Elena moved to Los Angeles where she acted in TV and film. She married and became a mother.
But Elena’s past hid a secret and she spiralled.
After many years of struggling, Elena came face to face with her trauma. Her story is tough, but it shows the power of the mind, not only to try protect itself from trauma, but to heal itself, too.
Can you describe your trauma experience?
My life is sprinkled with mental wellness issues which were challenging to understand because my life always seemed good on the outside. A pattern that repeated was my response to loss, something that stood out more after the loss of my beloved grandparents. I found myself unable to move through the grief. As a result of my response to the death of my grandfather, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder at 34.
But I didn’t have Bipolar Disorder.
To understand my story, I need to go back to my childhood. For the first seven years of my life, I was an only child and the centre of my family’s universe. I lived in an apartment in Brooklyn with my parents, my grandparents and my uncle. Aged 7, I moved to Manhattan and attended a prestigious, private Jewish school from 1st grade through high school. Theatre was my favourite part of my childhood and it was where I excelled.
I was an excellent student until 6th grade – I was even elected to be Editor in Chief of our yearbook! This privilege was taken from me by my favourite teacher who explained that because I had fallen behind in my homework assignments, I had to focus on my school work before taking on other responsibilities.
I do not remember why I fell behind after having been an excellent student. I have no memories from 7th or 8th grade, but I know that my academic performance never improved and I struggled completing assignments and focusing.
I had a close relationship with one of my cousins. She was three years older than me and very much the older sister I never had. We had sleepovers and spent many weekends and summer vacations together. I trusted her. And, until 2018, I had mostly good memories of our time together.
In the beginning of 2018, I was sitting in a meeting when I began having strange flashes of images in my mind. I couldn’t make out any details at first but the flashbacks persisted. They literally felt like attacks on my mind as they were uninvited, intrusive thoughts and images. At night, the flashbacks kept me from sleeping and I developed insomnia. When I was able to fall asleep, I was assaulted by nightmares that woke me up. This was a vicious cycle that persisted and grew worse over time. In my waking hours, I became very sensitive to sound, light and space. I began jumping at the sound of traffic, buses passing, doors slamming. I was on high alert at all times and I didn’t know what was happening.
However, the images and memories were becoming more clear and more painful. I had begun to remember that my cousin had sexually abused me when I was a child and she was a teenager.
I had been recalling this in bits and pieces and I was very confused because so much time had passed. When I spoke to my psychiatrist and disclosed what was happening, she explained that sometimes the mind protects the person by shielding them from the memories of their trauma. People, both children and adults, have the capacity to dissociate from the traumatic experience and the symptoms of Bipolar Disorder can mirror the symptoms of PTSD, especially if the trauma was “forgotten” or set aside. Ten years after being diagnosed as Bipolar, I was told that I wasn’t bipolar – I had PTSD.
It’s hard to imagine what you went through having to experience the sexual abuse the first time around, never mind to have to relive it through flashbacks. How did this trauma effect your life?
I went from being an excellent student to mediocre. I developed low self-esteem in many areas, including healthy friendships and relationships. I have had difficulty trusting and behaving in trustworthy ways and developed negative self-talk. I have had tremendous difficulty making decisions – when choices and decision-making are taken from someone at a young age, making decisions becomes challenging. I have difficulty setting boundaries and sticking to them. Traumatic events bring out my traumatic response. Over time, my responses grew more and more unmanageable with each traumatic experience such as pregnancy, death and divorce.
What coping mechanisms did you turn to to deal with the traumas you were facing?
I took on many dangerous behaviours from addiction to binge eating to binge shopping.
My grandmother passed away two weeks after my wedding. It took me years to recover and I had an emotional affair and a physical affair that led to my divorce. I was self-destructive, depressed and anti-social. I became addicted to weed after my divorce, but I have been sober for 5 1/2 years now.
I have struggled with sex and love addiction, vacillating between co-dependence, unhealthy dating and relationship habits. None of these were healthy. They only brought temporary relief or served as a band-aid.
How did you eventually overcome what had happened to you?
I asked for help. I had intensive therapy. I spent a great deal of time crying, mourning the innocence I lost as a child. I created playlists that uplifted me and others that allowed me to release my pain. I decorated my bedroom walls with images and words that describe what I want for my life. I did this part before I really believed it all. I reconnected with Faith in a Universe/God that loves me unconditionally. My symptoms subsided within a year.
It’s wonderful to hear that after everything you have been through, you are at a place where things are much more positive for you. When you’re faced with difficulties now, what do you do?
I turn to two things: My Mind and my Faith. My mind is capable of causing a lot of destruction and despair. I check my thoughts, check their validity, check the intentions. If my thoughts are saying things that hurt me, cause doubt or fear in me, I choose new thoughts. Better ones, because better thoughts result in healthier feelings and with healthy feelings, I make healthy choices.
I also believe that God/the Universe has my best interest in mind. I don’t believe that I am doomed. I don’t think that I am damaged beyond repair. I used to think that and, because I thought that, I felt insignificant.
Some people believe that every negative experience is a positive in disguise. What is your thought on this?
I think that everything that happens is a lesson for us. Positive or negative, there’s something to learn. I don’t know what my life would have been like without the trauma of my childhood. I only know what is. The trauma itself was a very negative experience. I don’t know if I could spin it as positive.
You want to write a book about your experiences. Can you tell me more about this?
My book is a work in progress. Many essays are already written about my family and being bipolar. My intention was to help people with Bipolar Disorder. Today, my intention is to help people, especially those with a challenge or an obstacle to inner peace.
After everything you have been through, how would you describe yourself now?
I describe myself as resilient. I am full of faith and tenacity. I am someone who is willing to deep dive, tell the truth and an empath who leads with her heart. I am proud of myself. I have many experiences that I have learned from and worked through. I never gave up.
If you could sum up your outlook on life in one statement, what would it be?
DON’T GIVE UP… anything is possible!