I am one tough, badass woman, if I do say so myself. I am resilient. I am strong. No matter what comes, I can, and will, move through it. These are not just mantras I repeat to myself, like I did half-halfheartedly in my younger years, desperately hoping that if I said the words enough somehow I would begin to believe them. These are my unequivocal truths, borne out by experience and proof that I am a survivor.
It hasn't always been this way. I have done a lot of work to get here. I am still in the process of working through some old trauma that, until recently, I did not realize I hadn't fully dealt with. I didn't know that these experiences have permeated every relationship I have had, platonic and romantic. I didn't know that they prevented me from ever feeling like I was safe, or that I could fully trust my own judgment. I thought the combination of talking about them in therapy, working through the resentments in my recovery program, and the simple passage of time meant that they no longer affected me.
I was wrong.
If you've read my blog before or know me personally at all, you know that I was widowed at age 31 when my loving husband Patrick died ten months after being diagnosed with glioblastoma, grade IV brain cancer. My grieving process, which arguably continues today and will always be an important part of the fabric of my life, was long and difficult. I shared in recent blog posts about what it was like to attempt to reenter the romantic arena about a year ago through the bizarre world of online/"app" dating, which was enlightening, uncomfortable, and ultimately pretty short-lived. What I have not shared is how one of those experiences resulted in triggering horrific past trauma that put me back in a position of feeling constantly afraid, vulnerable, and unsafe. I finally feel like I am ready to talk about it, and I think it's important that I do because it has reluctantly become an important part of my story.
In December of last year, I went on a lunch date with another lawyer who was visiting my town for a court appearance. Because I am not interested in casual flings, it seemed silly to bother meeting someone who did not live here; but he was persistent, and I was trying to learn how to go on dates without expectation and to learn more about who I am and what I am looking for. So, I agreed to meet him. We went on one lunch date, which did not go well for a variety of reasons. There were red flags left and right, and my intuition told me that this was not a healthy person to be involved with. Some of the things he shared were cause for legitimate concern, but since he did not live in the area and the conflicts between us were so obvious, I figured I would never hear from him again and that would be the end of it. And so it was -- at least for a few months.
At the beginning of March, this person sent me a text message and informed me he was moving to my town. I found this strange, since he told me when we met that he did not know anyone in the area and had a young child where he was living at the time. The town I live in is relatively small, and the legal community is even smaller, so the last thing I wanted was to have a conflict with him. He asked for information about the firm he was going to work for, which I did not have, and about the surrounding area because he was looking for somewhere to live, which I provided. I kept it light, offering nothing but responses to the questions he asked.
A few weeks later, I received a text message from him telling me he had decided on a place to live, followed by "Hey, I like you and think you really would love dating me. We could take over the world together. Let me know if you're interested." The narcissism oozed from his words. I was obviously not interested, but I did not want to provoke any issues, so the next day I told him I appreciated him reaching out, but it was pretty clear to me when we met that we have very different values that I didn't see us being compatible in a romantic way. I wished him the best, and hoped this would be the last communication. Unfortunately, it wasn't.
A few days later I began receiving a series of frightening, threatening, belligerent, and incoherent text messages from him. He was calling me names, ranting about the Devil and the Book of Revelations, and saying awful things about my late husband. I never responded to a single message, though this continued for several hours. I was forced to call the police because I did not know whether he was already living in my area and if he had access to public records so that he could find my home address. To this day, it remains unclear to me what incited his rage, but I felt extremely threatened and unsafe. I ended up getting a Temporary Restraining Order, which he responded to by hiring counsel and causing substantial delays in the process. We ended up taking the issue all the way to trial, where he called me "one of those #MeToo people" in front of the judge. He seemingly saw that as some kind of insult, though it was more true than he even knew. It took several months, but I ended up winning my case and the TRO was made permanent, at least for a few years. He still ended up taking that job and moving here, and his office is less than a mile from mine, but at least I know I am legally protected for the time being.
To someone who has not dealt with trauma and issues like PTSD, my response of involving the police might seem extreme. (If you had read the text messages themselves, you'd be less inclined to think so.) However, what this experience did was trigger unprocessed trauma from years ago. What I have never shared publicly is that I, like most women, have been a victim of assault and abuse at the hands of more than one man. The first of those experiences happened when I was 19 years old. I was attacked at a party by an ex-boyfriend whose 6'2", 220+ pound body forcefully snapped my neck back so hard when he started to choke me that it caused whiplash. After agonizing over the decision, I told one of my college professors, who took me to the campus police, who then brought me to that same police department who got involved in the current case. I went through the process of getting a restraining order, going to court, and watching as ultimately the DA declined to pursue the case against him in spite of my injuries. I felt violated not only by my ex-boyfriend, but by the system itself when it either failed to believe my story or decided "he said, she said" wasn't going to help their conviction percentages and they decided not to take the case to trial. Subconsciously, it ended up being a big driving factor in me going to law school, originally wanting to become a DA -- I wanted to help other people who had been victimized, so that they would not feel alone and unheard.
This experience is not the only time I have been abused at the hands of someone I once loved, but I share it in order to provide context that might give you a window into what happened to me when I started receiving those threatening text messages. It was instantly like I was right back in that fraternity house as a teenager, terrified of what might happen next, unsure of whether I would walk out of that room alive. The day after receiving the text messages, I went to the store and bought a stun gun, pepper spray, and a knife that I began to carry with me at all times. I spent hundreds of dollars installing security equipment on my home, including alarms on every point of entry. I started to avoid leaving the house if it wasn't necessary. I began taking Krav Maga self-defense classes, which ultimately I couldn't handle because the simulations were too terrifyingly real and I would be nauseated for hours after I got home. My anxiety sky rocketed in large crowds. When I would arrive at the studio where I teach spin classes in the morning, it would still be dark outside, and every time I was scared to enter the building. I began to withdraw from humanity - not just strangers but my friends, too. That deep, unfiltered belief of "You will never be safe and you cannot trust anyone," regardless of the logical facts to the contrary, played on a loop in my mind every day.
All of this came to a head about a month and a half ago when I got a call at 6:30 AM while teaching a spin class from my home security system notifying me that one of the alarms had been tripped. I went home after class and although I should have called the police to enter the house with me, I entered alone and found the door between my garage and kitchen propped open with all the lights on. There is, quite literally, no way for that to happen without someone physically opening that door. It appeared that they must have entered through the garage, though I don't know how they got in. I don't know if somehow the garage had accidentally opened, or if someone opened it manually. After clearing the house and confirming nothing was missing, I called the police again to make a report. Because nothing had been stolen there was really nothing they could do but record the incident. At the time, I didn't have a camera on that area of the house, so there was no way to know for sure what had happened. I didn't know if it was the text message guy. I didn't know if someone had been watching me, and knew my schedule and that I would be gone at that time of the day. I wasn't sure if it was worse to think that whoever it was knew I wasn't home, or that they thought I would be. What I did know was, yet again, my sense of security was violated and I was terrified. I installed more cameras on the house, but that did little assuage my fears.
PTSD lives at the cellular level, and when it is triggered, my experience is that you live in a veritable hell until you can get to the other side of it. Those all-too-familiar feelings of suicidality returned. I knew implicitly that the intensity of my reaction was not because of the text messages; rather, it was more from those old traumas that were still affecting me. I finally decided that it was time for me to find a new therapist, preferably someone specializing in trauma and PTSD. It is not easy to find help like that in a small town, and even harder to find someone that both accepts your insurance and is accepting new clients. But, as the Universe always does, it showed up for me and led me to the perfect person to help me.
A few weeks ago we started EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), a psychotherapy treatment designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories. Much like the hypnotherapy I did while working with my grief counselor after Patrick died, at the start it was horrific to revisit that night in college. I was flooded with overwhelming feelings of terror. I became aware of the fact that I felt a lot of guilt and blamed myself for what happened. I had never truly forgiven myself for the belief that I put myself in a position to be hurt. Regardless of the fact that nothing I could have done ever would excuse my ex-boyfriend's behavior, I still held anger towards myself for that night. Slowly but surely, I began to soften towards the teenage me who had zero coping skills, was an active alcoholic and bulimic, and had absolutely no sense of self-worth. I imagined going back to that night, as the 35-year-old woman I am now, and holding that 19-year-old in my arms and letting her cry. I told her how sorry I was for what happened to her. I assured her it was not her fault. I told her she did the very best she could with the tools she had at the time. I also reminded her that now, unlike then, I have an arsenal of tools at my disposal to deal with the inevitable challenges life will throw at me. Unlike when I was a young girl, I no longer ignore red flags out of desperation for someone to validate my existence. I don't worry about what someone will think of me if I report their unacceptable behavior. I understand that the system might still fail me, but that does not mean that I failed.
By the end of a few sessions, I no longer felt like a victim of that experience. I felt strong and empowered. I began to trust myself more, knowing that it was not a result of a poor decision to allow a sick person into my life that this recent event happened. Instead, I saw the signs immediately. I did not allow the unhealthy person to share any part of my life. And when he acted out, I held him to account. I do not remotely resemble the trembling, helpless college student who blotted out the pain of that assault with drugs, alcohol and food. I have survived an eating disorder, alcoholism and drug addiction, the loss of my best friend and husband to brain cancer, chronic debilitating physical pain, and countless other life experiences that could have broken me. Regardless of what happens, I have always and will continue to move forward.
I still have work to do. There are some additional traumas that need to be dealt with, but you know what? I am actually looking forward to working through them. Why? Not because I am a masochist, but because I see the freedom that is waiting on the other side. I look forward to the day that my past serves only as a source of wisdom and strength for myself and others, rather than a trigger for anxiety and fear. I can tell that day is coming soon, and I am so proud of myself for hanging on.
I am, plainly, un-fuckwithable.
Lisa O'Leary is a lawyer, cat mom, widow, sports enthusiast, truth seeker, soul searcher, meditator, and consciousness practitioner who is actively engaged in quieting down the mind to allow the song to play.