When secrets turn into stories: Living with PTSD as a young queer woman

And my shame is the biggest way in which my PTSD and lesbianism are linked.

Two of my most vivid memories are situated in balconies.

One, age 12: My mother was working late and I was left to babysit my drunken father. I knew that if he passed out, I’d get yelled at. So when he stumbled into the balcony of our uncomfortable — yet seemingly perfect — home, I begged him not to drink his fourth glass of whiskey. He screamed at me, too drunk to form proper words, grabbed my legs and tossed me over the railing. I will never forget wanting to fall into night below me as I hung onto a black iron railing for my life; I can still feel the cold on my fingertips. I somehow summoned the upper body strength and climbed back to safety, and I regret it everyday.

Two, age 15: I was at a sleepover and I had my first kiss. My lips felt like fire and popping candy. I had excused myself to the balcony to soak it all in, in disbelief that another girl could like me. The dawn was blue and I wish I could remember the happy fluttering of my heart.

I am nineteen years old now — a fairly successful college student with good grades, lots of friends and tremendous mental health issues. I’ve gone on to kiss a few more girls and collect many more injuries at the hands of my father. I have one foot inside of the closet, but I wear a proud rainbow shoe on the other. My close friends know about the abuse: they have seen my scars, held my hand through panic attacks and seen glimpses of my vulnerability. However, I constantly feel like I am drowning in secrets. And secrets breed shame.

And my shame is the biggest way in which my PTSD and lesbianism are linked.

The first time I spoke about these secrets was in the beginning of eleventh grade, when one of my best friends came out of the closet. When he stared into my eyes and confessed his secret, I knew I had to tell him I was gay. But saying that after four years of keeping it to myself wasn’t nearly as freeing as telling him about my father. Confessing my queerness came with instinctively pouring my heart out about everything that hurt me, and everything I had held in. I realised how all the guilt, hurt and shame sitting in the pit of my stomach was entangled.

It is common for queer youth to feel ashamed of their identities, and people who have experienced childhood trauma tend to feel a similar way about their experiences. My first memory is of my father getting drunk and burning me with a lighter when I was three years old. I didn’t do anything — three-year-olds aren’t capable of doing anything that warrants being burnt. Thus, I have grown up assuming that my existence warrants burns, bruises and cuts. Since these were things that were wrong with me and my family, I knew it was unacceptable to talk about them.

Once I expressed shame and grief to my friend for the first time, it became more difficult to tuck the pain away into corners and avoid feeling it all the time. By the end of that year, insomnia and suicidal thoughts took over my life. My mother finally took me to a counsellor behind my father’s back. I spent several sessions talking to a dismissive professional in a sterile hospital room, who only suggested medical intervention when she found out that I was a lesbian. To her, that was the hallmark of my trauma.

Although Freud’s theories about sexuality have been disregarded by most members of the contemporary academic community, pop culture is still heavily riddled with assumptions about sexuality and trauma. I spent a lot of time believing that if I worked through my trauma, I’d ‘turn’ straight. I was ashamed of my sexuality because it meant that I was weak — I had let my dad affect me.

Navigating mental health care as a queer person is difficult: I attend a support group to help me deal with the trauma of growing up in an alcoholic household. My current therapist recommended it to me — she thought meeting people with similar experiences would alleviate my loneliness.  It’s where I feel most at home, with people who seem to share almost all my dysfunctional traits, people who also have nightmares and flashbacks and live lives wracked with guilt and shame. It is there where I feel most understood, yet I still harbour a secret. I don’t know how my group will react if they find out that I’m a lesbian; most of them are older, slightly conservative and haven’t been exposed to the idea of queerness. So I don’t talk about the immense dysfunctionality that I have had in all my romantic relationships, or my insecurities when it comes to sex.

Description: Intricate vines are painted against a black background. From the top of the vines emerges a face in profile, painted in white with a red circle on the cheek. Credit: Helena Perez García via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Trauma recovery is often focused on living a ‘normal’ life, and socially defined normalcy is not something I can achieve. I am learning to make peace with that. However, even some of the most progressive people I know who reject the notion of normalcy, have had unsolicited opinions about my sexuality.

‘Are you sure you’re actually a lesbian?’ my friend asked me a few months ago, when I told her about a crush I had on a gorgeous senior at college. ‘You know how you’re scared of men? Are you just averse to masculinity? The girls you like are always so femme.’

When I narrated how almost all girls I’ve been attracted to consider themselves feminine, another friend accused me of being sexist.

‘So you only like girls who act girly?’ he remarked. ‘Is that why you are so feminine?’

He didn’t know about my father, but sentiments like his are what send me spiralling into identity crises: if a man coming too close to me can give me a panic attack, am I generalising masculinity? Am I legitimising gender norms? Am I sexist? Is #NotAllMen a valid hashtag, then?

Questions like these make me doubt my personal and political beliefs. Although I stand for compassion and treating people with respect, I often find myself being instinctively insensitive and malicious. Most of the time, I manage to force kindness and feign empathy. However, the dissonance between my beliefs and thoughts make me feel like a hypocrite. We often talk about empathy at my support group, and how going through  childhood trauma can make it difficult to understand emotions that don’t have to do with deep rooted pain and traumatic experiences. We hold our own experiences as a yardstick, and when people experience problems that we don’t relate to, we react with anger.

When queer friends complain about their parents being concerned about their gender or sexuality, I get jealous. I want to tell them that they’re lucky their parents are concerned about them at all. Words like ‘institutionalised violence’ and ‘emotional abuse’ only make sense to me on an intellectual and theoretical level. A bisexual friend told me about how her mother told her to keep her sexuality a secret from her grandparents.

‘That’s institutionalised violence,’ she said.

To me, violence is being chased up the stairs with a golf-club, being thrown against the wall, having a glass tossed at the back of your head. To me, violence is tangible and destructive and repetitive — it’s never an isolated incident. It’s having a flashback in the safety of my dorm room and having panic attacks all through the night, or feeling so distraught that my body is incapable of doing anything but crying for five hours, until I eventually throw up.

The amount of strength it takes to work through all of this grief is not something a lot of people will understand. So when people speak about violence and trauma of a different kind, I react with jealousy. I find myself wishing my definition of violence involved navigating a conservative, but loving family. I know these feelings are wrong, so again, I hide them. I hold them inside, letting them ruminate and make me feel like an insensitive, bad person. My father’s accusations of me being a ‘bitch’ or ‘waste of space’ or ‘child from hell’ all seem valid.

One of my biggest fears is that one day, the world will see in me what my dad sees. However, maybe it is worse that I see these things in myself — that my trauma and shame shape how I view myself. Maybe the ultimate consequence of shame is self-loathing, and there’s only one way to fix it: telling my story.

I write this anonymously because it is not just my story — it is my mother’s and my father’s and the story of anybody else who has struggled with abuse and shame. Writing this has taken strength. It has helped me prove to myself that I have a glimmer of conviction within, and it is with this conviction that I want to let people know that the shame of secrets can sometimes escape when secrets turn into stories. Because our experiences deserve an audience, and because stories are meant to be shared.

Featured image credit: Upasana Agarwal