It’s 75 degrees out and I’m on a long hike through the beautiful rolling hills of my hometown. My favorite place. My favorite activity. I hike at a quick pace when I’m alone, and love to feel my calves burn in that satisfying, muscle-working way. It’s warm and my heart is beating fast.
Despite the heat and my mounting discomfort, I’m wearing a sweater, and I can’t take it off. My PTSD won’t let me.
I think to myself: “Take it off, you’ll feel so much better. Think of how refreshing the breeze would feel on your shoulders and neck.” My mind races, lambasting myself for how irrational it seems to maintain this added layer.
“I can’t. It’s too much. They’ll see me. I’ll just leave the sweater on, then I’ll be safe.”
My neck spins around, eyes darting, checking my surroundings for someone behind me. My PTSD takes over. I flash back to the night that there was someone behind me. A night that it didn’t matter what I was wearing. No number of layers would have stopped him.
It’s been more than ten years since I was raped, and about four since I was diagnosed with PTSD.
Since then, I’ve studied and read and connected with other people who also have sexual assault-related PTSD. I’ve learned how to cope with mine. The challenges persist, but they are fewer, farther between, and much less intense than they used to be. I know my triggers, and I can shield myself, for the most part.
But when I think about depriving myself of the feeling of the breeze on my shoulders on a warm day’s hike, it’s hard not to feel frustrated. It makes me wonder what other experiences or sensations I’ve missed – what so many of us have missed – because of sexual assault. Because of PTSD.
A couple of years ago, I got a big tattoo on my left shoulder. It’s wild and brave and abstract. There are birds flying in different directions in the wind with the words “oh, but my dear, what if you soar” inspired by a resonant quote that I’d seen before. My tattoo is bold. It takes up space. It’s not afraid to be noticed.
It’s my anti-PTSD. It’s on my heart, and near my mind, always reminding me that I have that capacity. To be bold. To take up space. To not be afraid to be noticed. To be wild and brave.
I used to force myself to take the sweater off. It would come off and immediately, I would feel the tension rise from my stomach all the way to my forehead. I would get a headache, my neck and jaw clenched. Sometimes I’d try to push through it, but that never worked.
I’ve learned to stop trying to force “healing” before I’m ready. I’ve learned that if a sweater (or any other comfort item for that matter) is all that I need to feel safe and enjoy my experience, it’s worth it, and it’s ok. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Now, I challenge myself to stretch my boundaries in service to my healing only in ways that feel fun and bold and brave. Not in ways that cause unease.
I hike alone all the time these days, and I love it. It brings me joy, strength, and confidence. And, most of the time, I do still wear a sweater that covers those birds that long to feel the breeze. But those birds show me patience and trust they will have their chance – when I’m ready.