So here’s one of the most fun things about being a sexual abuse survivor in a world which just loves telling us that somehow everything is always going to be our fault—in a society where sexual abuse is almost a rite of passage to being a woman, to the extent that we aren’t really allowed to be traumatised and are criticised, mocked, disbelieved, harassed etc., if we dare not to be perfectly “normal” even after horrifying abuse, apparently, that could be burdensome to our loved ones, to that same society, to anyone but ourselves. We start believing all this, internalise it, and only if we’re lucky, will we start that gruelling and never-ending process of de-socialising ourselves and learning how to show basic kindness to ourselves.
I’m one of the lucky ones, in so many ways. Despite not having any support when I was actually being abused, I was able to get enough smatterings of it towards the end to survive. A few years after it all ended, my privilege allowed me to find a therapist who helped that de-socialising and relearning process to kick off. And yet, six years after the abuse ended, three years of therapy later, I’m still a frustratingly slow work in progress.
I lost my sleep around the time the abuse started. I went from the person who could sleep in the loudest of settings—who had interesting dreams but rarely any nightmares, who once asleep, stayed would be asleep until the alarm went off—to the one who battled with sleep before, during, and after every single day. In the beginning, I couldn’t sleep because of pain; I couldn’t find positions where my body didn’t hurt, and I’d wake up in the middle of the night because I had moved and aggravated some ache/hurt.
Then came the nightmares. I started avoiding sleep; then sleep started avoiding me. At some point in time, the nightmares became more infrequent. But the memories did not leave me alone, and they brought the nightmares back with a vengeance. When I was living at home, the nightmares were more in control, apparently even asleep, my brain knew to traumatise me enough inasmuch as it could be hidden from my family. And then I moved, my brain realised there weren’t parents around and even that weak filter disappeared. Now, there’s rarely a night I don’t have nightmares, usually a few a night. I wake up exhausted.
Psychiatrists have prescribed medicines which helped me fall asleep, but they did nothing to take the nightmares away; instead, I’d be locked in them even more, unable to wake myself up. When I didn’t have the nightmares, I’d be plagued by these intensely vivid dreams, again in which I wouldn’t really know I’m dreaming, and feel everything just as intensely. They are less traumatising but no less exhausting. I’ve never been able to explain this to a psychiatrist or a doctor truly. I wanted to get a sleep study done, but that was going to be harder to hide, not to mention there were very few places near me which were reputable.
So, a few months ago, I got a Fitbit. More than the steps or exercise components, I just wanted to measure my sleep. I was excited! I would finally have actual tangible proof of how fucked up my sleep is!
But no. Fitbit showed my sleep to be pretty normal, with cumulatively anything between 20-60 minutes of “restless” sleep and one or two times of waking up. I was surprised, confused, and disappointed. Despite that, it made sense that my sleep wasn’t as bad as it felt to me; it would explain why I’ve been able to be so functional even through it all. My therapist helped me realise that a single nightmare could taint the entire night’s sleep, even if I did get actual rest during it. It made sense.
So, on point with what society has been telling me forever, I believed that I was obviously making things worse in my head than they actually were. I started feeling like, maybe, I was doing what I’d been told by so many: victimising myself. That I was trying to make my situation seem more dramatic, sympathetic, maybe because this could have been the one tangible struggle of my daily life, whereas all the others were too internal.
A few weeks later, I realised that Fitbit is just not as accurate as I thought; it would show me asleep when I was clearly awake, not mark the times I woke up at night when I know I did because I sent a text, or took a call or something and could see that on my phone. And yet, I’m still feeling like I exaggerated my sleep issues because a stupid app isn’t showing it to be as fucked up as it feels. This is what being a survivor means too often; finding ways to blame ourselves, feel bad about ourselves, feel like we’re making things up just because we can’t measure all the bad thoughts, the struggles, the deep dark emotions.
I know what I feel. I feel exhausted to a point where I genuinely don’t know how I’ve been keeping myself running for years. I know the terror I feel every time I wake up from one of those nightmares, needing ice-cold water to literally jar myself out, spending too much time trying to make myself believe that I’m safe, that it was a nightmare, that I didn’t have any new bruises, aches, pains, so I must be safe.
But an app doesn’t read all that. It didn’t read each time I woke up with my heart racing so hard, adrenaline flooding my body, almost ready to scream, sometimes with tears on my face because I wasn’t just crying in the sleeping reality that is my nightmares. . . It literally leaked into my waking reality. It didn’t read it, so of course, it’s all in my head. I must have exaggerated that pressure in my chest which made it hard for me to breathe. I must have imagined feeling the cold water force me back into my waking reality, even if the bottle was full when I slept and half empty when I woke up. I must be victimising myself into feeling as tired as I do in the morning because the app told me that I only had some 21 minutes of restless/awakeness and slept for a total of seven hours and thirteen minutes.
I feel like I’m doing it to myself. I spend my night re-traumatised by my nightmares and then when I wake up, I add to all the trauma by berating myself, by hating myself for having those nightmares in the first place, and responding to the nightmares. This is another super fun aspect of being a survivor; we traumatise ourselves through self-hatred, self-criticism, impatience, and an overall lack of compassion. We haven’t been taught how to be kind to ourselves; how could we, in a society which is rarely ever kind to us?
I kind of wish I hadn’t gotten a Fitbit at all, because even though I know it isn’t reliable, it’s done society’s work of making me feel like I’m doing all the nightmare+exhaustion thing to myself, that it’s all in my head, that I’m not doing enough to be better or that I’m refusing to believe that I actually am better. The simple solution would be to stop using it at night; it’s uncomfortable; it isn’t accurate; it makes me feel worse about myself. But another part of my survivorness is this need to not let my being a survivor stop me from doing something because then it feels like he wins.
If I stop wearing it, maybe I’m scared of it, denying what it says. Maybe if I stop wearing it, all I’m doing is avoiding the “proof” of how okay I actually am and just enabling my victim behaviour. I have enough actual proof to know that the data isn’t perfect. And yet, all my brain really believes is that I’m doing it all to myself. Even though I know I’m being unnecessarily mean to myself; I cannot stop—just another fun aspect of being a trauma survivor.