The First Steps of Exposure Therapy

The men who attacked me were trying to make me small. They wanted to keep me quiet. I was a reminder to them that strength knows no gender, and neither does intelligence.

Regardless of their race, orientation, age, and class, they all shared a contempt for women. They resented any woman they perceived as “withholding” what they felt entitled to (kisses, promotions, girlfriends). They comfortably dismissed women’s experiences and feelings as faked or exaggerated.

Then I came along and, without meaning to, challenged all that. They responded with violence designed to force me into the box where they thought I belonged.

For a long time, it worked. I fell silent. I shut down. At first, they left me afraid of them, and anyone like them. But then, as the traumas piled up and the PTSD went undiagnosed and untreated, the fear grew.

I am afraid of so much.

I can fill pages with my fears.

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The truth is I will never know why.

My story is a jagged shred of photograph, torn in half.

I don’t have the other side. The part of the picture that would solve the mystery. I have to rely on sociologists and psychologists to tell me what my attackers won’t.

Which is why.

None of my assailants can admit they assaulted me.

So none of them can talk about why.

Why my no counted for nothing when set next to what they wanted. Why me shoving them off was read not as a refusal, but as an invitation to use more force. Why simply looking at me was sometimes enough to incite violence. What did they tell themselves? How did they justify it? Or did they never feel the need to justify it at all? Was it so normal to them?

Was it only my anger afterward, my rejection of them, that seemed abnormal?

Were consequences so unfamiliar to them?

Maybe it would help me to know.

Maybe it would help us figure out where parents, teachers, families, neighborhoods, churches, and media go wrong. Where, exactly, do boys become bullies, abusers, rapists? When do children grow up and turn into predators? Would it help if I could set my finger on a date and time and say ah yes, that was where it happened?

But I’m the only one out here talking about their violence.

So I will never know.

All I know is they terrorized me.

And most of them smiled while they did it.

That is a terrifying thing.

It’s no surprise then.

What they left me with was fear.

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Photo by Whicdhemein One from Pexels

First, I had to name my fears.

It’s the first step of exposure therapy, and maybe one of the most uncomfortable. But let’s be honest. It’s all uncomfortable.

At first, I misunderstood.

In the beginning, I thought exposure therapy was a kind of torture. I thought it was designed to force me to accept being terrorized, until I became numb to my own terror—just as abuse had.

So that was wrong.

Next, I thought well then, maybe exposure therapy is about the things I’m most afraid of like being raped, beaten, chased down. Saying no to people who are prone to violence, then being attacked. You know. The usual. I’ll do exposure therapy, I’ll put myself in situations where these are real risks, and then I’ll never be afraid of these things again.

So that was wrong, too.

Exposure therapy, it turns out, can’t do a thing for those fears. Violent people are violent people. Maybe it’s best to be a little afraid of them. Stalking can also precede violence. In my past, it certainly has preceded verbal and emotional abuse. So maybe it’s good to see that as a red flag, too.

I can’t fix those fears because there’s nothing wrong with them.

So what the hell is exposure therapy for?

Well, as it turns out, it’s for not limiting myself.

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Photo by Johannes Plenio from Pexels

And this is actually the second step of exposure therapy. We think of ourselves before the trauma, then after. What did we once do that we’re afraid to do now? What did we enjoy before, that we can’t stand now? What do we miss? What part of ourselves was amputated?

Psychologists use the term “avoidance,” but I don’t like that word very much. My insides are already shellacked with shame. “Avoidance” reeks of accusation and more shame. Why have you been avoiding me? Or She narrowly avoided a collision, taking another swig from the open wine bottle in the passenger seat. Or Ashamed of the lie she’d just told, she avoided her mother’s eyes.

The curse of the fiction writer.

So I think of it differently. Instead of I’m avoiding my fears, I prefer I don’t know how to face my fears without having a heart attack.

Which is more accurate, thank you very much.

This is especially hard for those of us whose traumas began early and multiplied. We are right to ask What before? There is no before.

But when I sat down and looked hard at my memories, I glimpsed little pieces of myself that I’ve lost.

For example, up until the age of twelve, I loved public speaking. I loved giving presentations at school, reading my writing to my classmates, performing puppet shows for my neighborhood, giving church talks to full chapels. I loved stepping up to a microphone. I loved performing. The first time I stepped foot on a stage I was seven years old. It felt like I’d come home.

Now? I avoid it if at all possible. When I get sick of hiding in the shadows and step into the spotlight, I hyperventilate. The room spins. I can’t breathe, let alone speak.

So I wrote down public speaking at the top of my list.

I kept doing that, remembering parts of myself that had been sliced off by the men who preyed on me. The parts of myself I want back. One by one I listed them off:

  • Submitting my writing
  • Using social media to express myself
  • Reading messages, especially those I’m not expecting
  • Riding my bike or scooter
  • Networking with other writers
  • Attending events centered on art
  • Saying what I really think
  • Setting boundaries
  • Making myself visible to many people at once (stages, social media, etc.)
  • Disagreeing with people who like to have the last word or think they know best

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Photo by Masha Raymers from Pexels

There are more, of course. If our traumas began in childhood, or if a trauma has gone untreated for decades, there will always be more.

But another misunderstanding I had is that exposure therapy isn’t about addressing all our fears. It just isn’t. It can’t.

It’s about addressing the fears that limit our lives the most, that stop us from doing what matters to us.

So we have to pick and choose. Some trauma survivors say that conquering their fear of crowds is just not a priority. And that’s fair. That’s a legitimate choice. We’re not going to conquer every fear. And if crowds aren’t a regular feature of your life, your family, or your career (or those you want to have), then why waste your time on it?

But then again, if one of your lifelong dreams is to travel or do a book tour or take the kids in your life to Disneyland, then it might be worth considering exposure therapy for crowds.

It’s a cost-benefit analysis for each of us. We have to determine whether the cost (the effort, the time, the discomfort) is worth the long-term rewards (being able to do that thing we want to do).

Not all of my fears limit my life. My fear of murderous coconuts is not a problem because I don’t live in the tropics. My fear of being electrocuted by faulty outlets, electronics, or appliances is also not really a problem because I still use all those things. True, I often picture myself flat on the floor, my heart stopped, when I do. But this reflexive mental picture makes me laugh. It doesn’t stop me.

But I do want a writing career. And novelists, for some idiotic and incomprehensible reason, are supposed to behave like minor celebrities (when virtually no one will ever recognize us off the street or really, deep-down care what we’re wearing or what we ate for breakfast or what we think of the latest political spectacle). The only segments of the public who know our names and care what we do are the people waiting for our next story. And what they want is the story, not an Instagram shot of our breakfast.

But here we are.

For whatever reason, I’m supposed to make public appearances when it’s time to sell my book. Give readings. Sit down for interviews on podcasts or at bookstores or, if my book is really doing well, on stages or television.

Which means to have the career I want to have, I’ve got to deal with my fear of public speaking and being visible to large numbers of people.

Ditto for my fear of social media. Ditto for checking messages from strangers. Ditto for submitting writing. Ditto for, when chronic illness allows, attending digital events.

But my fear of drowning? I’m not a scuba instructor, so not so much. I’m letting that one go.

As stated in earlier posts, I’m going through a workbook by Dr. Tull, Dr. Gratz, and Dr. Chapman titled The Cognitive Behavioral Coping Skills Workbook for PTSD. And this is chapter five. So after we’ve got our list of fears, they ask us to rank them. We jot down how much distress they can cause at their worst (0 to 100), and we jot down how reliably we avoid such situations (0-never to 10-always). Once we’ve done that, we set a reasonable goal.

Given that I’m terrified of public speaking, that goal is not going to be “Give a TED talk.” We start small. We dip our toes in. Just enough to feel that tingle of fear, and then we wait—staying in the situation until the discomfort begins to subside, just a little. (For a handy overview of how to set effective goals, click here.)

Photo by Monica Silvestre from Pexels

The most important key is that we start with the smallest fear we want to tackle. We start with the one that will be the easiest to handle. We need a win right out of the gate. So I didn’t start with public speaking (my biggest). I started with looking at social media a few minutes each day, not even interacting. Just scoping it out.

Then, after a couple weeks of that, I tried retweeting on Twitter. Just enough to make myself nervous.

After a few weeks of that, I tried scheduling out a few extremely safe tweets from the comfortable distance of Hootsuite.

Once that became less scary, I tried wading into more difficult territory, such as posting about my uncertainty over how to support Black Lives Matter while stuck at home with chronic illness.

Gradually, I worked my way back to feminism, the topic for which I had been reliably trolled on Twitter. The accusations and insults from misogynists could reliably trigger me because they so often echoed the sentiments of my abusers (i.e., valuing women’s dignity means you hate men; therefore, I am justified in threatening you). So I had to approach that topic slowly, gradually, step by step.

I still don’t use hashtags.

I’m not sure I ever will, when I’m tweeting about misogyny, feminism, gender-based violence, or equal rights. I’m not sure that battle is worth fighting. Hashtags draw trolls. They make me easy to find.

So I’m still thinking about that.

But the most important step for me was figuring out which fears I needed to address, and which ones don’t matter so much.

It was also about figuring out which fears are reasonable and healthy. Which fears should I hang onto?

Think Marie Kondo. Which fears are holding us back?

Those are the ones that don’t spark joy. Those are the fears that need to get tossed.

We tucked them away in our closet because we thought they were useful. And maybe once they were.

But it’s not helpful for me anymore to go around hiding in the shadows, stopping myself from saying what I think, avoiding topics that might be uncomfortable for some people to hear.

That’s on them. Truly, I cannot control other people’s reactions. I cannot compensate for other people’s lack of self-control. It’s not my job to make them better people. It certainly isn’t my job to make them comfortable with distorted beliefs that leave them thinking calls for equality are threats.

So I thank those fears. They did the best they could to protect me. But now it’s time to let them go.

Unlike Marie Kondo’s style of decluttering, I can’t just drop them in a garbage bag and be done. It’s going to take some time.

But at least I know which fears are keepers, and which aren’t.

*             *             *

Photo by Sorapong Chaipanya from Pexels

Featured photo by Tobi from Pexels

*I am not a therapist or treatment provider and am only recounting my personal experience of PTSD and its treatment. This blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician, licensed therapist, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding PTSD or any other mental health disorder.

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