Tiara and Isaiah Martin - Survivor of domestic violence
Tiara and her son Isaiah are victims of domestic violence. Tiara is partially paralyzed as a result of having been shot 2 times by her husband on November 6,2004. She was shot once in the face and once in her back.
Tiara's husband shot her in the presence of their 3-year-old son, Isaiah. Later that day he took his own life. Tiara and Isaiah have experienced a very long physical, emotional, spiritual and financial journey to recover from this dreadful tragedy.
The violent behavior of her husband left Tiara, Isaiah and her family with an enormous burden in every area of her life. Day by day she is achieving victory through her courageous pursuit of true justice.
S.D. - Survivor of military sexual trauma (MST)
LIFE BEFORE MILITARY SERVICE
Normal Uniformed Services Childhood with Wide Breadth of Experiences and High Academic Achievement
I was the oldest of the four children born to my parents, and the only daughter. I grew up in the uniformed services because my father was a career officer in the United States Public Health Service (USPHS), and had a relatively normal, happy childhood. I had good friends both at school and among the other families that were, like mine, living on the grounds of the USPHS hospitals located in major cities across the country. I spent much of my free time with a few really close friends on the USPHS bases where we lived, and whose families we repeatedly met up with when we were transferred. I enjoyed sports such as skating, skiing, and swim team. I had a variety of hobbies and other creative activities that I liked to do (quilting, macramé, jewelry-making, baking, woodworking, and electronics). And I adored caring for my pets throughout my childhood. My family traveled and backpacked throughout many areas of the continental U.S. during school vacations so I had the opportunity to visit many national parks and forests. We all placed high value on physical and academic achievement, and on civic engagement. My academic achievements were consistently excellent, science and math were my favorite subjects, and I knew by the age of 9 years old that I wanted to be a career medical officer in the Uniformed Services.
College Provided Opportunities and Experiences to Develop Personally, Academically, and Professionally
I started college at University of California, Berkeley a few months after my 16th birthday. In college I had the chance to develop friendships with a very wide range of people from many different backgrounds. I was excited about working with other students in co-operative housing and was elected to some leadership positions such as running the kitchen (procurement, budgeting, preparation, etc.) for 35 students for a year. I also worked in a biochemistry laboratory doing research for several years where I found many new friends and mentors. I chose to do a B.S. in Bioengineering because the rigor of the science provided a strong foundation for medical studies. Personally and professionally I was happy and fulfilled at Berkeley. I was on the crew team, learned horseback riding, and took up rock climbing. Between my junior and senior years I was awarded a research fellowship in Marine Biology at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution where I worked on a research vessel and traveled to Europe and Iceland, broadening my perspective through this rich experience of different countries and cultures. I dated a number of different people during the first year at Berkeley and then met a wonderful man who became my best friend and whom I dated exclusively for the next two years. I came very close to accepting his proposal of marriage but, although it was a difficult decision, I decided I was not yet ready to make that transition in my life so we parted when he left to become a chemistry professor.
When I first applied to medical school during my senior year in college I was not accepted. I evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of my application, considered various options for what academic or vocational choices might provide the best addition to my resume for the next time I applied, and decided that graduate coursework in medical physiology and pharmacology would be the most effective way to achieve acceptance to medical school and excellence in the medical career I hoped to pursue. I loved the coursework and studied the material in far more depth than required by the classes. I also did volunteer tutoring of both undergraduate and graduate students because I enjoyed helping people and I was intrigued by the idea that using metaphors and similes to connect new material to subjects a student already knows can help them learn more efficiently. This provided me with an extraordinarily strong foundation in medical sciences and a 4.0 GPA. The second time I applied to medical school I was accepted by my first two choices of schools and I chose the offer I believed would best support my continued professional and personal development. Although U.C. Davis was an excellent medical school and was located close to many of my friends, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS) offered career-specific training for medical officers, the opportunity to develop a new ‘family’ of military colleagues whom I expected to be working with throughout my career, and financial independence that would help me to take good care of all areas of my life so I could give my best to both personal and professional development during medical school.
The Transition to College Also Brought Some Challenges and Changes in Perspective
I was happy in college and graduate school, made many friends, and found much support there for my hopes and dreams. As I gained perspective I came to recognize that I had been physically and emotionally abused by my father who was extremely controlling. The confidence I gained from academic success and new friendships helped me to overcome the anxiety and lack of confidence that this sometimes caused. While in graduate school I was a victim of sexual assault and, for a while, this caused a return of the feelings of anxiety and self-doubt. The fact that I had been able to fight back during the attack, that there was a witness (so people believed me), and the strong support of both friends and a clinical social worker at the school helped me to find a path to healing from this traumatic experience. With the help of the social worker I was able to develop a plan for overcoming this challenge and also to gain increased understanding and compassion for others who had experienced pain in their lives. This served to increase my conviction that although I enjoyed scientific research very much, my true calling was to become a medical officer because this was a profession where my empathy and knowledge of science would allow me to directly help others.
LIFE DURING MILITARY SERVICE
Initial High Expectations
During boot camp and the first weeks of school I was thrilled and proud to have begun my lifelong dream of becoming a medical officer and to have started a new phase of my life. I had achieved entrance into training for my chosen profession with the kind of preparation that gave me real confidence; I had no doubt I would succeed and these were some of the happiest days of my life. I felt that I had joined a dedicated community of people where my skills and abilities would allow me to build strong, healthy, life-long friendships and colleagues. I consciously sought out new challenges that could further increase my self-confidence like joining the group that was rappelling down the highest campus buildings at USUHS when we first arrived.
Hostile workplace, sexism, bullying, social isolation, and labeling
So I was shocked to find during the first month of classes that there was little respect for the few women medical students at the school, that it was common for male students to touch and grab women students inappropriately when passing in the hallways, and that the study area was covered with posters of naked and partially clothed women. This constant re-victimization and hostile workplace brought back nightmares of the sexual assault and memories of the physical abuse during childhood. I had never seen any behaviors like this at U. S. Public Health Service hospitals or military medical centers and had certainly not anticipated finding it at the school. A major reason for choosing USUHS was the promise of a strong social support system of dedicated professionals and solid teamwork among my colleagues, which was the complete opposite of what I found when I arrived at the school. I explained this to the administration and asked for assistance to make it a less hostile workplace and to stop the harassment. This would not have been a controversial request at any other institution I had ever had any contact with so I was stunned when my request for help was treated as an attempt to create a problem. I was told that it was my responsibility to adjust to the military culture, that the naked posters in the study room were a matter of free speech, and that I was welcome to post pictures of naked men. The fact that I’d complained was made public and I was labeled a “trouble maker”, and repeatedly told that I just needed to “get laid” and stop bothering people. I was systematically socially isolated, bullied, and scapegoated by both classmates and faculty for having complained.
Continued Hostility and Abuse led to Social Stigma, Social Isolation, Compromised Ability to Memorize, and Typhoid
Every effort I made to deal with the problem only served to make it worse. I was told there were no female personnel I could talk to about the issue. Instead, I was assigned to the one psychiatrist at the school, who was male. This, too, was made public and I was soon labeled “the crazy bitch” by my male colleagues, and increasingly avoided by the few other women students because (as one of them told me) “I can’t afford for them to start focusing on me, too.” For a period of time the psychiatrist was understanding about the effects of the re-victimization, and very supportive of my efforts to overcome this trauma and achieve my goals at the school. He was also interested and enthusistic about the fact that I was reading books on theology, philosophy, and human development, and working to develop myself spiritually in order to deal with the hostility at the school. He was very clear about being impressed with my medical knowledge, empathy, and compassion. He repeatedly said he believed I would be an outstanding physician. But the situation at the school remained extremely stressful, the psychiatrist was now my only source of social support there, and I don’t believe he fully understood the effect of that environment on female personnel. The anti-depressants he prescribed did not work for me and had terrible side effects, making me physically sick and making it difficult to think clearly.
After an extremely stressful week of harassment at the school I suddenly became ill, was rushed to the emergency room by ambulance, diagnosed with Typhoid (the health department was unable to explain how this happened) and hospitalized for several weeks. When I returned to classes, the professors had started calling me Typhoid Mary and were making jokes about me from the podium at the front of the lecture hall. In spite of this humiliation, I did well in all of my classes except for Anatomy, which I failed. Not one person ever talked with me about the fact that despite the extreme stress I was being subjected to I was still managing to do well in every other class except Anatomy; it was never explained to me until decades later that severe chronic stress and fear cause changes in the brain that make rote memorization nearly impossible. I do not believe there was a single other student in my class who could possibly have done well in all classes except one if they had been subjected to the extreme level of harassment and humiliation that I was subjected to; I do not believe there was a single student in my class that year who was better qualified or better prepared than I was, and there was every reason to expect that I would have enjoyed a successful medical career were it not for the abuse.
When I Requested Leave to Heal from Exhaustion, I was Instead Given a Brutal Administrative Psychiatric Evaluation
The humiliation, social isolation, and abuse escalated after I failed Anatomy. During my second year the panic and nightmares and exhaustion had increased and I still could not do rote memorization. A college friend took time off from her job to come stay with me for a while that year and her support and kindness helped enormously but she could only stay for a week. Later, I requested that the student health service allow me to take leave to go back to California to spend some time with my college friends because I knew that the lack of any social support was putting me at risk of becoming ill again. I told them I was concerned for my health because I had already been hospitalized once for Typhoid, and I was now so physically and mentally exhausted and overwhelmed that my defenses were too weak to prevent all the insults and humiliation from just "going right through me," and this was causing severe emotional pain. The student health doctor wrote down in my chart that I had reported “solid objects” passing through my body, he physically grabbed me, and roughly dragged me to a locked ward at Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) for administrative evaluation without ever even explaining to me what he was doing or why. I have no way of knowing for certain but it happened so fast, and with so little justification, it was as though they had already discussed it before I ever went to the student health center.
At a time when I was physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted almost to the point of complete collapse I was precipitously, without any warning, placed into an even more hostile and violent environment than the school had been. Despite the fact that my medical records showed I was a survivor of sexual assault, I was subjected to a full physical exam by a male resident. When I sobbed and protested they responded by tying me down and forcing my legs open. They tried day and night for two weeks to get me to ‘confess’ to hallucinations of physical objects passing through my body. Everything I said was treated as a lie, including the record of the sexual assault (they repeatedly asked me why, if it really happened, had I not gone to the police and taken it to court). Since absolutely everything I said to them was treated as a lie, and I had no way to escape, I was utterly helpless and terrified. When I was given injections, they refused to tell me what was in the syringes. I was suddenly overwhelmed with horror at the truly monstrous and chilling reality of what it actually means to give up all your civil rights when you join the military; I had signed my commission papers in good faith that the military was a rational and decent institution that would not abuse their power, never considering the potential consequences that could result if they were not. The psychiatric resident did an extensive write-up of the pattern of hair growth on my legs, telling me that it was a clear indication I was not a normal woman and might not even be able to have children. The extreme fear, isolation, helplessness and humiliation made it hard for me to know what to believe; I was so vulnerable during this time that I spent decades afterwards secretly carrying the terrible shame of being abnormal before I finally got copies of my records and discovered that the endocrinology department had told them this was complete nonsense. The resident who had spent hours telling me I was a freak, never took one moment tell me he had been wrong.
While I was on the ward I got my menstrual period. This was not surprising since I did have severe premenstrual syndrome and the additional stress of PMS, when piled on top of the constant harassment and hostility at the school, was almost certainly the reason I had felt the need to tell the student health service that I needed to take a few days to be with friends; It was common sense and was one of many ways I had been taught by my clinical social worker to take good care of my health. Despite the fact that severe menstrual pain was documented in my records and the need for pain medication was clearly indicated for the first 24-36 hours of my menstrual period each month, they refused to provide pain medication. While I was curled up around a pillow in my hospital bed from the excruciating abdominal pain, I could hear them talking in the hall about how “curling up in the fetal position” was a clear indication of mental illness.
Students in the class ahead of me, whom I knew from school social activities, were assigned to do rotations on the ward where I was being evaluated, so I had no privacy at all. I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Adjustment Disorder and a notation was made that these diagnoses provided the school with sufficient justification to make any administrative decision they wished with regard to discharging me from medical school. They told me not to be upset because “most women have BPD” and I would very likely find that I was much happier leaving school to get married and have children. My mother read that BPD was often associated with child abuse and accused me of getting the diagnosis on purpose to humiliate her and my father. The psychiatrist I had been talking with at the medical school was told that people with BPD were extremely manipulative, that he would have to change his diagnosis to BPD, and that all future sessions with me would have to be supervised because I was dangerously manipulative and compulsively lied. This humiliated and terrified me to the point where I was emotionally numb and could barely function, it effectively removed the one single source of support I had left at the school, and caused me to be disowned by my family. I was sent back to the school and told that if I didn’t pass Anatomy I would be expelled from the school. My ability to do rote memorization was even more severely compromised after this additional trauma though, at the time, I still had no idea what was causing this to happen so I was helpless to save my career. During this final semester the school administrators repeatedly called me into their offices for discussions of my progress. They discussed me with each other as if I wasn’t in the room with them. If I looked upset, or cried, or protested in any way about the cruel, humiliating things they were saying about me to each other they would point at me and talk among themselves about my behavior and expressions as if I were an animal in the zoo. I was not even human to them.
While Being Processed for Discharge I Was Raped by my Commanding Officer at WRAMC
After I failed Anatomy they assigned me to a non-medical department at WRAMC while my discharge was being processed. I was numb, exhausted, humiliated, and terrified. I had no job and no place to live after discharge. I knew I would have to find a job and a place to live before I could even consider forming a plan for re-applying to a civilian medical school (except for Anatomy, I had done well in all my coursework) but it was now difficult for me to organize my thoughts to develop a coherent plan for dealing with all the new challenges that would result from my discharge. My life prior to this time had revolved around academia so job hunting, creating a resume, and preparing to interview for full time employment was new to me.
The commanding officer of the department I’d been assigned to, said he felt the best use of my time was for him to help me with preparing a resume, job hunting, and practicing for job interviews. One night when I was working late in the conference room he knocked at the door and said he had some materials for me to look at. When I unlocked it and let him in he knocked me onto the floor, and raped and sodomized me. I remember the shock and confusion of being shoved to the floor. The next thing I remember was the pain of penetration, the suffocating heaviness on top of me, and the nauseating smell of sweat and cigarettes. There was a sharp pain in my shoulder. I was frozen. I wanted to scream but couldn’t. I felt like I wasn’t even in my own body. When the terrible weight of his body lifted off of me I remember thinking for a split second that it was over. Suddenly there was a huge weight on my chest again as he forced his penis into my mouth. I was unable to breathe. As I blacked out I expected to die. When I regained consciousness I was aware of hearing the sounds of him putting his clothes on. He started talking as he left the room. He said he had heard about me when I was in the psych ward and had requested that I be assigned to his department so he could find out what it was like “to do it to a med student.” He said the people who assigned me to him knew what he wanted and that he’d had sex with lots of young women at Walter Reed. I lay there for hours, unable to move or even open my eyes. I remember the smell of sweat and semen and cigarettes. I remember the burning on the side of my face where the tears dripped down in silence for what seemed like years. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to think. It hurt to move. Even the fluorescent light coming through my closed eyelids caused excruciating pain. It hurt to exist. I wished I could will myself out of existence. When I had been assaulted in graduate school, I had fought back and escaped before my attacker could penetrate, so I was still a virgin before this rape. I was young, shy by temperament, and had grown up in a relatively sheltered and conservative environment so the concept of oral sex was as unimaginable to me as having raw sewage shoved into my mouth. I knew now, that everything the school had said about me was true and that I was garbage. My life, as I had known it, was gone forever. I was never the same again.
It was early morning when I was finally able to force myself to get up and crawl to a phone, trying to keep my eyes closed because light was excruciating. I called the officer who was second in command and reported the rape to him. I asked him what to do. He said he would write up a report and take care of everything and that I should go home and wait. He directed me to a back route out of the building so I would not have to be seen with my torn clothing, bruises, tangled hair, and red eyes. He told me I didn’t need to come back to work and that I would be contacted when I needed to come back to WRAMC. I had difficulty finding my way out of the building. I was confused and I vomited as I was trying to find my way out to my car. After a period of time (I have no idea whether it was days or weeks) I was called to come in and I thought it was about the rape report. Instead, it was to sign discharge papers.
At the time of discharge I had a fever and a very visible scabby rash on my face and arm. I was terrified that it was a sexually transmitted disease from the rape. I told them I was sick. They ignored this and asked me to sign the papers. They told me nothing about how to get healthcare, how to deal with the fact that I’d been taking prescription medication for anxiety that was not supposed to be suddenly discontinued, or what to do about the rape report that had been filed. I was afraid that if I pressured them further to talk about these things they might put me back on the psychiatry ward and that thought was so terrifying that I just did what they asked me to do and left: I knew that another experience with that psychiatry ward would kill me --- I was literally in fear for my life. They discharged me, sick and utterly alone, with no information about where to go for help, terrified and unable to trust anyone enough to ask for help. I had come to believe that the people at the medical school had been right that I was a monstrous, crazy, freak. I didn’t think anyone would believe me about the rape, and I felt that it was my fault. By this time the feelings of shame and guilt and humiliation were almost too much to bear. I couldn’t imagine calling friends from college and letting them see me in this state, and my childhood friends had been told by my father, after the diagnosis of BPD, that I was a crazy, dangerous liar. So there was no place for me to go except the street.
LIFE AFTER MILITARY SERVICE
For the First 6 Months After Discharge I Was Homeless, Raped Repeatedly, and Nearly Died from Exposure and Colitis
I took what little money I had left in traveler’s checks and lived in my car until the illness became so severe that I rented a basement room where my fever remained at or above 104 degrees for many weeks. I vomited blood, had bloody diarrhea, was unable to eat anything, and lost one third of my weight in 6 weeks. When the fever came down, I was emotionally entirely numb and the world seemed completely unreal. I could no longer relate in any way to the world I’d known before entering the military. I now lived in a world that lacked all law, human compassion, kindness, or reason. The man who owned the basement had stolen almost all of the money I had left while I was sick and sold everything I had that was of any value. He had sex with me when he wanted to and I no longer cared. The only things that had meaning to me were being able to hide from the world in the basement and being able to take care of my two remaining cats. I’d had 4 cats when I was discharged but my neighbor had found a co-worker who had adopted 2 of them because I was very afraid I would be unable to care for them. I had learned before renting the basement room that the person who adopted them was leaving them outside in a small cage with no shelter or water, I saw one of them dead in the cage and could not rescue the one who was left because they threatened to call the police if I tried to come on their property to get her. The agony of seeing this violent destruction of my beloved pets, the only family I had left, was beyond description. But after the 6 weeks of fever and illness I felt nothing at all. When I looked out the window at the world outside I knew, cognitively, where I was, but emotionally I felt like a very young child looking out at a totally new and alien planet for the first time. I was grateful that the pain was gone. I lived in the moment without any concept of a future and little thought for the past. The only thing I wanted was to be left alone in that room where I felt no pain, and to be able to protect and take care of my cats. But eventually, having taken everything I had that was of any value so I had no money to pay him rent, the man decided he wanted his basement back and I was living in my car again with my two cats.
It was one of the coldest winters on record for Maryland. I tried to find help. But I was terrified of everyone and had no experience being on the street. I was having difficulty thinking clearly since my fever had returned and I was physically past the point of exhaustion. Many times the people I looked to for help would rape or rob me instead, including the manager of the Red Cross in Baltimore who told me that because of the freezing cold weather and snow that the shelter was full but offered to let me stay in an extra room at his house. Many times I was told I was “difficult” and didn’t seem to want help because I refused to get rid of the cats in order to comply with the rules of the shelters; they seemed incapable of understanding that the only reason I had for continuing to try to stay alive was to protect my cats and keep them from getting hurt. Occasionally someone was kind, like the State Trooper who told the other police to stop harassing and threatening me and gave me $20 to get some gas and feed my cats. Kindness was so rare and precious that I still remember his face after more than 25 years, as if it was yesterday. I did finally manage to get some assistance and was put in a motel room for several nights and provided with some money for food. But by that time I was acutely ill again (with what turned out to be ulcerative colitis and impetigo) so when I went out for food I collapsed in the snow. I woke up in the ICU where I stayed for several days before being moved into a hospital bed for the next several weeks. I received a tissue diagnosis of Acute Ulcerative Colitis as well as Impetigo and PTSD. They said that because of the PTSD they could let me transfer from the medical ward to the psychiatric ward if I didn’t want to go back out into the snow. But I have never recovered from the violence I suffered at WRAMC and have never gotten over the fear of psychiatrists, so I chose the snow. The hotel workers had been kind enough to keep my cats so as soon as I was discharged from the hospital I went back to get them and returned to living in the car, in temperatures well below freezing, with a week’s supply of medicine for the ulcerative colitis and a half tank of gas.
The Life I Have Now Began When I Received Help from Rev. Price’s Social Action Ministry to Heal from the Trauma
A woman who was staying with her children at one of the shelters that refused to allow cats told me about Rev. Price and his Social Action Ministry so I went there and have received counseling from him ever since. I had such severe panic attacks when I arrived that he came to realize my “normal” state was constant terror but that I had learned to cover it up because visible fear made me such an easy target on the street. He helped me to find safe shelter and counseled me until I was ready to find my first job. I did live-in childcare for the Dean of Georgetown Law School for the next few years while I got counseling and got the ulcerative colitis into remission while living in a relatively protected environment. Because of the PTSD and the ulcerative colitis I reacted very severely to any sudden stress. I even had to avoid drama on television because a mildly suspenseful program was enough to cause severe intestinal cramping that lasted for hours.
The counseling saved my life and has continued to help me slowly rebuild a new life. It made it possible for me to regain the will to live; without it there is no doubt I would have died that year. If the cats had not been in the car I would have simply waited to die in the snow and cold of that winter; I wasn’t suicidal --- I simply didn’t care if I died. The counseling helped me to recover the ability to feel something other than fear and to have friendships and a life but I never regained the ability to reach the goals I’d had for my life before the trauma. If I’d found this type of counseling during the first year I was in the military I might very well have had the career I dreamed of and prepared for, but I did not find it until after I'd been through three years of unimaginable trauma. The happy, confident young woman who had run the kitchen for her student co-operative housing, worked and played with the many brilliant people in the chemistry lab (one of whom went on to win a Nobel Prize), built a loving relationship with a wonderful man who went on to become a university professor at a major university, successfully committed herself to the exciting challenges of developing an extraordinary depth and breadth of knowledge in medical science, and exuberantly shared the beauty of that science with others --- that woman no longer existed after my time in the military.
The 2 years of harassment, isolation, humiliation, abuse, Typhoid, re-victimization, confinement and labeling in the psychiatry ward at WRAMC, rape by my commanding officer, and being discharged with severe illness and no support for finding any means of safety and healing resulted in severe PTSD and chronic medical health problems. This also caused me to be homeless with life threatening infections and such extreme terror and helplessness that I lived with constant high fevers, repeatedly being beaten and raped and robbed for another year after discharge. After those 3 years I never again regained the ability to believe in my previous goals or in any other long-term goals. I no longer had a sense of faith and confidence that I could really achieve them; I did not have the conviction that my goals and plans were real and achievable the way I had prior to military service. I could still write out plans, goals, obstacles, and action steps but could never again find any way to feel that these goals had any substance or reality that could give me the ability needed to carry them out the way I did before entering the military medical school. There was an inescapable sense that I was helpless to prevent others from using me and that anything I worked to achieve would be destroyed or taken away from me by others. I simply had no capacity to believe in the future after those 3 years of chronic, unrelenting, inescapable trauma.
I had lost the ability to trust other people and I still struggle with that today. I lost the ability to believe that the basic rules and laws of society would remain stable enough to support any long term efforts I could ever make. I desperately wanted to have children but I had lost the ability to trust men and I no longer had any confidence that I would ever be able to protect a child and keep them safe in a world that was so devastatingly heartless and dangerous and unpredictable. So despite the terrible pain of loss it still causes me, I never married and never had a child. To this day it is extremely hard for me to believe that I will remain safe from one day to the next; I always go to sleep at night worrying that I might be homeless in my car the next day.
My anxiety, fear, shame, hypervigilance, and the fact that I am easily startled are not possible to hide in work environments so I have been an easy target for office bullies over the years. My fears also make it much more difficult for me to make the best choices about who to trust when choosing people to work for so I have repeatedly been taken advantage of and exploited by those I worked for. Although I have had excellent counseling that saved my life and helped me learn to manage the symptoms and problems I was left with as a result of being in the military, over time the effect of the PTSD and other problems that resulted from my military service have caused progressive deterioration of my health. The strategies I used to be able to use to overcome these handicaps when I was younger no longer work as I have gotten older: I became unable to make up for concentration problems by working twice as many hours to get work or studying done because I was not strong enough to do it. I became unable to make up for the inability to be promoted at work by getting two jobs or by saving on rent by living in unsanitary conditions because I was no longer strong enough to survive it. The many medical problems such as colitis and irritable bowel, fibromyalgia, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, chronic bladder infections and irritable bladder, paresthesias, temporomandibular joint syndrome, and headaches that developed in the military have become worse over the years, exacerbated by the stress of living with PTSD until I have become unable to work and now live as best I can on SSDI that is a few dollars above the poverty level.
The severity of the PTSD and trauma, and the medical problems that have become progressively worse over the years since they began during those three years of terror have made it impossible for me to fully overcome the feelings of helplessness and fear and inability to feel real trust in other people. These many problems have prevented me from being able to support myself in any consistent way since leaving the military and became completely disabling several years ago. In addition to the severe stiffness and pain of fibromyalgia that has become progressively worse since it first began in the military, I have difficulty concentrating which becomes paralyzing during even mild stress, irritable bowel and bladder syndromes, insomnia, nightmares, chronic exhaustion, many daily panic attacks from triggers that I sometimes don’t even recognize or understand, headaches, paresthesias that can become extremely severe if I am startled (which is often), hypervigilance, brief flashbacks and (rarely) I can still lose consciousness as happened earlier this past year when a male friend unintentionally did something that triggered the memory of the rape by my commanding officer at Walter Reed. I am afraid to be away from home unless I have my cell phone so that I constantly have the ability to instantly contact my counselor. I lived without medical insurance for 5 years after I was discharged, when I was severely ill with colitis and chronic infections, and again for several years between 2001 and 2005 when I was often severely ill with chronic bronchitis and pneumonia, because I could not force myself to overcome the fear of going to the VA or anyplace connected to the military for help. When I finally realized I was going to have to go to the VA for medical care last year, I was shaking so severely when I walked into the Veterans Services Office for my county that I fell down and would have left were it not for the incredible kindness of the Veterans Service Officer in reassuring me that I was safe there and that I would be believed and not called ‘crazy’ for reporting the rape and the effects it had on my life. To this day I still drive many extra miles to make sure I never have to go by U.S.U.H.S. or Bethesda Naval Hospital, or Walter Reed. The necessity of testifying about my experiences in the military in 2005-6 triggered a severe exacerbation of the fibromyalgia and PTSD. During this time I was having continuous panic attacks so close together that they overlapped. I had nightmares almost every night about suffocating and trying to scream for help when I could not make any sound, and I would wake up at the point in the dream where I died, to find my pillow drenching wet with tears. I have always had nightmares like this ever since the rape in the military, but for many years it did not happen more than once a week, and there have been times when it only happens once a month. I feel that no one will believe me about the rape or anything else I say, the world often seems so dangerous that I am uncomfortable leaving my home (which made living in the car terrifying beyond belief for me), I have to make a huge effort to make new friends, and I am often depressed by the massive amount of effort it takes to get anything accomplished as a result of these disabilities (antidepressants have consistently made this worse rather than better and an SSRI caused permanent hearing loss and tinnitus). I am always surprised to find that I still blame myself for being raped no matter how many times I have worked through this issue in counseling --- it seems impossible to permanently banish this feeling because it always comes back, especially during times of stress or loss. The income from SSDI has helped some with my ability to stop the panic attacks and other symptoms enough to keep them from being paralyzing but the income is so low that I am unable to build any real security and safety in my life which constantly exacerbates the symptoms. When my car broke for a year I was unable to leave home except once per month when someone took me to get groceries. With PTSD, medical problems, and income that has been at or near the poverty level for many years I repeatedly get trapped in living situations that are extremely unhealthy because I don’t have the resources to leave.
I qualified for full disability under SSDI in 2010 and probably would have qualified several years earlier except that I was unable to find help to fill out the forms and continued to be rejected for several years based on having filled out the initial forms incorrectly.
My dream is to keep working with my counselor and with my doctors to continue increasing my physical health and my ability to trust the world and other people enough to have a happier, healthier life and to decrease the effect of PTSD on my life expectancy. I know that it is unlikely I will ever be able to support myself but I can still do some volunteer work to help others like myself by listening, and sharing my testimony, and assisting them to find help. And I can still hope that someday I might have my own home where I can remember what it is like to feel “safe” the way I did before the military, and a service dog so that I can become more independent from my counselor when I want to go out of the house to do things, and begin to participate in some of the activities I used to enjoy like gardening, reading, sewing, building things, and having a home where I can invite friends over for dinner. I dream of feeling normal and having friends who believe me when I tell them the truth about my life.