Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
A brave woman steps from beneath the shadows of shame, abuse, unworthiness and pain to heal from deep trauma — and help others do the same
At the age of 39, I had a psychotic break.
It happened during a time when I was under a significant level of work and relationship-related stress. The tipping point came when I recovered a memory of being molested at the age of three.
The break itself was terrifying, because I couldn’t distinguish between hallucinations and reality; people I knew were suddenly different to me. I couldn’t figure out what was really happening versus the paranoia-driven creations in my brain.
As I slowly returned to reality, I had a fresh perspective on previous years of mental illness and treatments I had undertaken. I finally understood why, years after the molestation, I was taking dangerous risks — physical and emotional risks — that led to further traumatic episodes.
In college, I was drinking and behaving in promiscuous ways. One night on a girl’s trip to Mexico, I was gang-raped. Although I now understand that I wasn’t to blame, I do take responsibility for putting myself in situations where I could get hurt. Later I would become entangled in two relationships in which I was abused — one of them my first marriage.
The psychotic break in 2007 helped me understand why I was placing no value on myself and my body.
Molested at three, I felt completely alone and unprotected from life’s dangers. I believed I wasn’t worthy of unconditional love. I believed I got what I deserved.
Even the job I was doing at the time of my break was dangerous for me. My married boss lured me into a relationship using classic predatory grooming tactics. Not having remembered my childhood molestation, I was unprepared to deal with his antics.
In fact, I believe that his behavior is what led to my memory recovery. I had already gone through a similar experience — I just hadn’t remembered it yet.
But I had undertaken years of therapy and treatment for mental illness, even before the break. Besides taking medication for depression and anxiety, I went to a psychologist who treated me with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
These treatments helped me immensely with healing from the domestic violence and rape. But I wasn’t prepared for the memory that came flooding back to me. I believe my brain went into survival mode, creating an alternate reality for me, and putting me into fight-or-flight mode.
With rest, therapy and medication, I survived the psychotic break and I began to heal.
As time passed, I found my way into a healthier relationship and had a baby girl. I started working for someone who appreciated my talents but did not try to take advantage of me. I learned how to stand up for myself in a healthy way.
Gradually I built a better life. It was a restart.
Reprocessing the Trauma
Fast forward to 2019. I was 52, and my daughter was 10. Two years earlier I had married the love of my life, a good man who treats me well.
I was struggling with my career — the burnout was severe — and wanting to make a change. I downshifted from taking on another leadership role in technology marketing (the field I worked in for 25+ years) so that I could spend more time focused on other activities that would help me feel motivated and fulfilled.
And I finally decided to write a book: a prescriptive memoir. My goal? Helping other complex trauma survivors get through their own healing journeys.
I felt strong, alive, ready.
Starting in January 2021, I began writing. I went deep into my experiences — good and bad — and worked consistently to get the first, second and third drafts completed by the end of the year. Of course, other things happened that year. The pandemic raged on. I continued to work from home while my husband returned to the office. Luckily my daughter was able to return to school. I kept writing.
Writing about my experiences gave me the opportunity to look at them from a different, more mature, clear-headed perspective.
Realizations were a routine occurrence. For example, I finally put together that at the time of the molestation, I wouldn’t have been able to see. That was the same year that my four-year-old brother’s preschool teacher discovered that he wasn’t seeing well. My mother took us both to the eye doctor. We each had severely limited vision and needed strong glasses.
I realized that the molestation would have been that much more terrifying because of this impairment. And although it is rare for someone to remember experiences from that age, it would make it even more difficult for me because of my lack of vision.
And there’s a parallel that goes with this. In 2021, I finally had eye surgery — refractive lens exchange along with laser — and could see without glasses or contact lenses for the first time in my life. Remarkably, I was also able to see other aspects of my life more clearly.
I put together a timeline of my life interwoven with major events in my family. I realized it was Spring of 2012 when my mother was sharing more details about the extended family with me, just a few months before she would die after a 25-year battle with Lupus.
She had always been more open with me than others were about what had happened in the family. Because of her, I learned of my grandmother’s rape at 13. She told me about her father abusing my grandmother when she and her siblings were little. And she told me that her cousin had recently gone to prison for raping a 13-year-old girl.
But it wasn’t until I was writing the book that I gave it all a hard look.
There was an interconnectedness of family trauma and secrets and abuse; it all became clearer to me through the writing of the book and underscored my decision to share my story.
Although it was clear to me that others in the family wanted me to keep quiet, I declared to myself that there would be no more sweeping under the rug. I planned to stop the cycle, at least in my own family lineage. I resolved to help others do the same.
Hitting an Unexpected Wall
Then in May, having completed the writing of my book and working on the marketing for it while looking for a publisher, I considered a new writing project.
I decided to write a limited series television screenplay inspired by my life story. But it would be different from the book. This time the lead role would be a fictional character, and the story would be more extreme than my own. I’d weave in some drama and humor to make sure it would be entertaining enough for television.
Before I started to write the first draft, I knew I should do some research, this time about more than the psychological aspects that I dug into so much for my book. I thought about where it would take place and began to look into the setting so I could create something realistic.
I also decided to do more research into my family — and my mom’s cousin — to be able to write a story initially based on reality but expanded into a broader storyline. As I was researching, I read the court records for my mom’s cousin, the one who went to prison for raping a 13-year-old.
This is how I discovered it was his own daughter that he raped. Learning this left me utterly heart broken. I felt such shock, unable to fathom how his daughter could survive that horror and be in a better place now. I knew from my own experience that she was probably broken.
And for me, learning the details of what actually happened brought back all my own feelings from past traumas. It was like the wounds were freshly opened.
I was suddenly that three-year-old, sickened and afraid, not understanding what was happening, and not knowing where to go for help. And then I was 39 again, going through the nightmare of unreality that terrified me during the psychotic break. And finally, I was a mother, looking at my 13-year-old daughter, fearful of what could happen to her and wondering how I’ll ever be able to fully protect her from life’s tragedies.
I felt derailed. Prior to my discovery, I had big plans for my summer. I would be promoting my author platform, building my followers through social media, speaking, and writing. And I had big plans for the screenplay.
But I completely stalled; my motivation swept away. Even so, I knew I could not give up. At least, not completely.
Living with mental illness can be a real slog. For months (or years in my case), you’re doing just fine, and then there’s that blasted trigger, stopping you cold.
What did I do, you may ask?
I decided to simply go through it. I let the stall-out happen, giving myself grace so that I could heal again (and heal as many times as I needed). Having the past experiences I did, I was able to see clearly that I would survive, and life would get better.
And that’s just what happened.
Why am I sharing this? Because you are not alone in the depths and darkness of your despair. There is a way out… and I’m living proof. I want that for you.
You may also enjoy reading Recovering from Emotional Abuse and Learned Toxic Behaviors, by Dr. Lisa Cooney