My Journey with… continues today as we hear another story from one of my readers.
This new series is about getting real and honest… Sharing the “tough stuff” on a public platform in the hope that by retelling the story it will help heal the person affected and also help educate, encourage and help others to seek the help they need should they experience a similar situation…
I’m so grateful to the brave woman who have been so willing to share their journeys with me and my readers….
TRIGGER WARNING This article contains information about assault & violence which may be triggering to survivors.
Today’s “Journey” is shared by Danielle who experienced a traumatic assault incident which has left her battling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.
One Saturday afternoon in April 4 years ago, I had just dropped off my friend’s divine 4 year old daughter at her home in Devil’s Peak after a kiddies’ party. Her mom had just had a new baby that week so I offered to help drive her daughter to the party in her car, leaving my car behind at her house. It was early afternoon and a lovely, warm day. We’d been singing along to her favourite songs in the car, so when I walked back to my car parked down the road, I was still singing the songs to myself, in a generally happy mood.
As I was walking, I was rummaging in my handbag looking for my car keys when I heard a car start behind me. We were in a very suburban area so I figured it was a neighbour leaving their house. A few seconds later, the car screeched to a halt beside me, closing me off between their car and my parked car. I was in such a calm, relaxed mood that I thought perhaps they were lost and needed directions, so I went to their window to see if I could offer any help.
Just then, 6 men jumped out the car with a gun, pushing me back up a slight uphill embankment. I screamed as they pushed me to a tree and held the gun to my chest, not one of them saying a word. I think the silence was the eeriest part. I threw my handbag into the street for them, one ran to get it and tried to look for my keys, as I had been doing (it would be two weeks later when my friend discovered my keys that I’d forgotten in her car – a real miracle!). I was screaming and crying hysterically, begging the man with the gun against me, not to hurt me. I literally begged for my life. When I could see they were trying to steal my car I said ‘take everything’, yet the man still held the gun to my chest. I didn’t know what else he wanted and I was terrified he was going to kill me anyway, as they weren’t wearing masks and could easily be identified. I then realised I was clutching my phone to my chest and that that was what he must have wanted, so I threw it too into the street. Just then, neighbours who had heard me screaming leaned over their balcony and shouted ‘hey!’ to the men, so they jumped in their car and sped off.
I immediately ran back to my friend’s house, effectively breaking down her wooden fence to get in, although I had no memory of this until I saw my bloodied hands the next day. I ran into her house and hid under the kitchen sink, screaming and crying and incoherent. My friend and her husband ran to help me, pushing the panic button, calling Neighbourhood Watch and the police, but their daughter who I adored saw me like that and I terrified her, leaving her screaming – one of the worst feelings in the world. I don’t remember much after that, aside from vomiting in the street when Neighbourhood Watch and all my friend’s neighbours came. I still thought at the time that they had my car keys and would come back for my car. They also stole from my handbag the visa I’d just got for travelling overseas along with my house keys and all my personal details, so I was convinced they would find me and kill me. The next thing I remember is being carried by one of the men from Neighbourhood Watch into my mom’s house. She thought I’d broken my leg, but when they told her what had happened and the police came, we both went into severe shock.
During the statement I was giving that evening from my bed, one of the policemen asked me what kind of gun it was and I said I didn’t know, so he pulled his gun out to compare it and I immediately ran screaming out of the room, absolutely terrified. He then said I needed trauma counselling, so I was given a SAPS appointed trauma counsellor. That did nothing to help, and spending hours at the police station surrounded by men with guns only served to scare me more, so I elected to see a clinical psychologist who specialised in trauma. The first two sessions I was catatonic, unable to speak or understand what was going on. I spent the first few weeks not sleeping or eating or leaving my bed. Thereafter I was put on tranquilisers to help me sleep and I finally started talking in my therapy sessions. My therapist diagnosed me with PTSD and I’d spend the next four years with her, trying to overcome what happened and slowly rebuilding my life, day by day.
The good news is that a few days after my attack, and with the help of the identikit I gave to the police, the men were arrested after attempting to do the same thing to another woman. They were charged with assault since they were armed. Knowing they were in jail was a huge relief, but it didn’t help quell the PTSD symptoms. These included hypervigilance, constant intrusive flashbacks – usually of the moment I saw the gun slip down from the man’s sleeve (which feels so real it’s like you’re back there again) as well as crippling anxiety and panic attacks, night terrors, refusing to see people or go anywhere that reminded me of the attack, and extreme feelings of depression, hopelessness and lack of will to live.
It’s a long, winding road to recovery, full of people who will never really understand you, but the quicker you begin confronting the issue, the easier it is to start feeling human again.
Is there anything you might have done differently before, during, or after, your tough life experience?
I can’t say that there’s anything anyone can do differently before something like this happens. I think what shook me the most from this experience, aside from the obvious trauma of it, is the latent acceptance in this country that one day you will be a statistic, one day you will be the victim of some kind of crime, and we just need to be prepared. We build walls and fences, put up security cameras and electric fencing, learn self defense, install alarms and get armed response, but you can’t possibly be prepared for something going wrong, especially outside of the supposed security we give ourselves. I’ve been mugged a few times in my life and it’s always a jarring experience that leaves you feeling violated, angry and scared, but an aggravated assault like this is something completely different and I realised, as a country, we have accepted crime as a given but we don’t yet have the vocabulary to deal with the aftermath, with trauma.
We don’t know to deal with the trauma of others. Whether it’s loved ones, friends, family, employers, etc, they simply don’t know what to say or do to help, and in my experience, they just assume that because you’re alive, you’re fine. PTSD is invisible, which only leaves the victim feeling more isolated and misunderstood. The worst thing I found that anyone can say is ‘thank goodness you’re alive’ because it dilutes the situation. Yes, we’re grateful we’re alive, but we’re also not. We’re now burdened with the task of rebuilding our lifelong sense of safety that is all but destroyed. And we have to do it alongside going back to work, acting normal, completing normal tasks like stepping out the front door without a blind panic attack, and just ‘getting on with it’. It’s much, much harder than that and there’s a lot of mistakes people make that can easily be avoided with a little bit of understanding.
What I know will be different now is how I will deal with my loved ones should they ever be victims of crime or any traumatic experience. Trauma requires very specific care and understanding, and I think as a nation that is virtually synonymous with crime, we should work harder to educate ourselves about effective treatment of traumatised victims to help them feel more humanised rather than treating them like just another number.
What I can say though for during the experience, and the thing I wouldn’t change, is that I am proud that I begged for my life instead of trying to fight back. Perhaps that’s a contentious topic, but statistically you are more likely to survive if you allow the perpetrator to feel like they are in control, like you’re pandering to their ego. I had a taekwondo lesson right before it happened, and I still think it’s best not to fight back. You can plot your earliest escape while begging for your life, but fighting back, especially against a gun, is likely to offend them more and you’re more likely to get hurt.
What, or who, helped you to overcome or push through this experience? A book, a person, an incident, therapy, medication or was it just simply time etc?
Definitely my therapist coupled with medication, and lots of time. I was always vehemently against medication, but a year later I had a total nervous breakdown. Even though my therapy was working and I was able to do things like drive at night again, or walk out the front door (though very briskly and always with mace or a taser), my brain chemistry completely changed after the attack and I needed medication. I was put on a gentle anti-depressant that truly saved my life, and I’m now the biggest advocate for it! If you need it, don’t feel weak or embarrassed or less of a person because you have to take it. The alternative – losing yourself completely – is not worth it. I think people also make the mistake of thinking that popping a pill alone will do the trick, and that talk therapy doesn’t help. Medication only works to help you find a middle space in your mind, a clearing of sorts, so you can be receptive to the treatment and guidance from your therapist. They really have to work hand in hand. Of course, not everyone needs medication but if you do, take it! Please take it!
I was also very impatient and hard on myself at first. I thought every time I was making progress, something would happen like a dog would bark or a car would screech and I’d jump out of my skin, crying and shaking and out of my mind. And I’d think ‘why am I not better yet??’. It takes time. Lots of back and forth, and back again. But if you’re diligent with the therapy and the medication, and you learn to be patient like I had to, it will help you break through.
Obviously there is not always a reason for going through such hard times in life, but now that you have come out the other side of the “tough stuff” (or are further down the journey) can you share any insights or personal growth that the experience taught you?
They say once you’ve begun to overcome PTSD, you experience what is called Post Traumatic Growth. One of the first feelings I had when I had the gun to my chest was not only blinding, white hot fear and total acceptance that I was about to die, but also a real sadness for these poor men. I knew this wasn’t who they wanted to be, and their lack of privilege led them to make some really bad decisions. I went with that feeling in my therapy, feeling compassion for my attackers, to relearn how to trust men again and know that not everyone wants to hurt you.
From there, and looking back now, I can see how that pivotal moment of the attack was a massive catalyst for positive change in my life. If it hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have been set down this path in my life for which I am so grateful. I became a completely different person. More patient, more loving, more thankful for every day of my life, and so incredibly proud of the people I call my loved ones. I definitely lost some friends who didn’t know how to deal with the traumatised version of me and were hoping the old me would resurface. But I also gained new friends who showed me love and gentleness even when I couldn’t put one foot in front of the other.
People are amazing. Whether they’re the ones holding a gun to you because they made a series of bad choices, or whether they’re ones holding your whole body weight against theirs to try to teach you how to breathe again. A few months later, after dealing with plenty of insensitive remarks from well-meaning people, I saw my friend’s 4 year old daughter who took me aside to whisper in my ear, ‘I hope something like that never happens to you again’. There is goodness everywhere if you know how to look.
Where do you find yourself now? Please share an update on your current space to encourage others who find themselves in the midst of the “tough stuff” right now.
I am better. Not 100%, though I don’t believe anyone with PTSD is ever fully 100% again and I’m not convinced that’s a bad thing. I am definitely world’s apart from where I was 4 years ago though. I’m happily married now and rebuilding my life. PTSD will always be a part of who I am and I’m fine with that. I still startle easily – I can’t handle sudden noises or unexpected and unpredictable behaviours or movements. I don’t like driving alone at night and if I have to, then I will talk to my husband on the phone the whole way home. I still battle with Generalised Anxiety Disorder, or GAD, and panic attacks though they have become far less frequent. I do require compassion and understanding from people about why I can’t always hang out or be as spontaneous as I once was, but I’m lucky that I already have those kinds of people in my life.
I’ve surrounded myself with people who lift me up and I’ve let go of a lot of ‘excess’ people. I realised I’m allowed to give myself healthy boundaries that I fiercely protect and I no longer have time or energy for things that don’t empower me. I recognise beauty more now and have found a deep empathy for others, while being able to detect what kinds of people I don’t want around me. It’s a very helpful tool to learn to listen to yourself and honour your own needs.
I think for anyone going through this, or if you know of anyone going through this, compassion is key. Compassion for yourself while you’re going through this and have become a complete stranger to yourself, and compassion for others who are experiencing it. You can’t possibly understand it if you haven’t been there, so just listen and allow the bizarre behaviours and reactions and feelings to happen without judgement. Also, please educate yourself. There are some things that you can say or do with the best of intentions that can really set back those battling PTSD. It helps not feeling alone in this, and for that to happen you need to practice real empathy.
PTSD affects and disrupts your whole life, from your job to relationships to your physical and mental health. My whole body changed, both externally and internally (my immunity is now always suppressed, I’m frequently ill and have many gastric and metabolic issues and sensitivities that I’d never had before).
Mentally, I battle every day and have had to practice radical self-acceptance of who I am now. I will most likely never again be the person who loves to be in a crowd, or at a party, or be in loud spaces, or who can even go to the supermarket unaffected. I am different now and that’s fine, but getting help is critical, especially if your symptoms are severe.
If you or a loved one experience any of the following PTSD symptoms, it is important that you get professional help, whether from a therapist, the police or a community or spiritual leader:
– hypervigilance or jumpiness
– inability to sleep
– prolonged emotional distress and/or hysteria
– emotional numbness
– aggression or extreme anger
– mood swings
– persistent fear
– avoidance of places or people that remind you of the event
It’s especially important to get immediate help if you ever experience suicidal thoughts or reckless, destructive behaviour. These can be quite common and was something I battled with. Get help immediately!
There is light in the darkness that is PTSD. I won’t say it’s at the end of the tunnel, because this isn’t a tunnel with an end. It’s just your life now. But there are real moments of hope and more joy than you’d had in your ‘previous’ life, and most importantly, you will – I PROMISE – you will eventually find meaning in all this.
If you have experienced Post Tramatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or a traumatic event such as an armed robbery, hi jacking, assault, torture, hate crime or domestic, sexual or gang violence please seek help from your local police station as most offer trauma counselling.
Alternatively contact a therapist or a specialist trauma centre such as The Trauma Centre (located in Woodstock, Cape Town).
Tel: 021 465 7373/ 082 444 4191 (Emergency) Email: [email protected]
LifeLine Southern Africa also offers a 24-hour free and confidential telephone counselling service where trained counsellors help callers with challenges such as trauma, suicide, rape and relationship issues.
Helpline: 0861 322 322
Words: Danielle Withers Le Chat