A Guest Post By Elizabeth Brico
When I was 20 years old, I was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is an intrusive mental health condition that causes a host of disruptive symptoms. Many of them are debilitating. Imagine wanting to go out and get a slice of pizza down the street, but instead staying in and having a PB&J because the idea of being around people makes you too anxious. That happened to me last night. Imagine staying up until dawn because your sleep is haunted by nightmares that re-enact the worst moments of your life. That was how I spent my summer. Imagine having to quit your job because every time you saw a six-foot white guy, you hallucinated the face of the man who raped you. That’s why my last conventional job ended. Living with PTSD is one of the saddest and most difficult trials I have ever faced.
I have PTSD because of domestic violence that took place when I was a teenager. My ex hit me and bit me and kicked me and raped me. He kept me in a motel three days against my will. He strangled me until I seized and lost consciousness—several times. He cheated on me more times than I know, lied constantly, and called me demeaning names. He even abandoned me with our three month old son to vacation in Japan with his ex-girlfriend. But there’s one event that truly stands out. One action that makes me curl away from touch to this day, and which has led me to lose faith in the goodness of everything. A caress.
How A Caress Caused My Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Dictionary.com defines a caress as “an act or gesture expressing affection, as an embrace or kiss, especially a light stroking or touching.” Merriam-Webster says caress means “to treat with tokens of fondness, affection, or kindness: cherish.” According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, to caress is to “touch or kiss someone in a gentle and loving way.” Urban Dictionary says that “caress” is “when a guy uses his body part’s to pleasure a girls body part’s [SIC].” While all these definitions vary somewhat, it seems that all of these dictionaries agree that the act of a caress is associated with kindness, love, and pleasure.
My ex’s caress was gentle. That much was accurate.
We were at the Super 8 motel in SeaTac, Washington, United States. It began as a planned trip, but by the time I arrived, I was prey. He chased me there at knife-point. The first thing he did when we got to the room was pass out on top of me. I was too afraid of waking him to try to escape. Looking back, I wish I had tried. It probably wouldn’t have changed what happened, but at least I would have done something.
When he woke up, he beat me so hard I saw stars. Literally. I remember being surprised by that. It was like a cartoon. When he was finished, my eye was swollen. He didn’t want to let me leave until it healed. But it was a non-smoking room and we were both smokers, so he took me out back for a cigarette. We sat on the curb behind the motel. A police car passed on a distant highway. I watched it, wishing it was closer. Wishing I had a way to hail it. Wishing I had the courage.
When we went back inside, he sat me on the edge of the bed. The drapes were open, revealing a window that exposed us to the street outside. My ex looked at me, and caressed the side of my face. A gentle caress, his fingers trickling down my cheek. Then he walked over to the curtain and closed it. It was a lover’s gesture. The girlfriend on the bed. A caress against her face. The gesture of closing the curtain for privacy. A prelude to intimacy.
When he came back, he punched me in the face. I don’t remember much after that. I do remember it lasted a long time.
Living With The Aftermath
That relationship lasted four years. I remember those years in patches. Moments of brilliant, painful clarity rise up from the expanse of darkness that a traumatized memory becomes. That caress is among the brightest. I can’t forget it. He committed so many acts of violence against me that I can hardly tell them apart. For four years, my body was permanently bruised. I carried ligature marks on my neck like jewelry. There were bite marks printed on the side of my face that took years to fade. There are so many terrible memories to fixate upon, but that caress is what haunts me most.
I don’t trust kindness. I dissociate from affection. Compliments slide off of me like water. The beatings I could understand, in their own twisted way. He was an angry man who used my body as the vessel for that anger, as he used other bodies before mine, and is certainly using more now. But that caress was a cruelty beyond explanation. What drives someone to act so gentle for the purpose of committing such violence?
I feel helpless to make anyone understand how much worse that caress was than all the rest. I know I was traumatized by the events that surrounded the caress, but it was that gesture that broke me, and that keeps breaking me. Sometimes I still feel him standing next to me, like a whisper of a body. His hand reaches out, his fingers brush my cheek. Something private and vital inside of me goes a little deeper into hiding. Something inside gets a little bit farther from ever coming back.
Elizabeth Brico is a freelance writer with an MFA in Writing & Poetics from Naropa University. Her blog, Betty’s Battleground, was ranked by Feedspot as one of the top 75 PTSD blogs. She is also a regular contributing blogger for HealthyPlace. Freelance credits include VICE, Vox, The Fix, and Racked. When she isn’t working or momming she can usually be found reading, writing, or watching speculative fiction.Follow her on Twitter
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