Mental Illness: The attack, and the PTSD that followed

A woman shares her story.

—Illustration by Matthew Kramer

We opened this series on mental illness with Hermine Hull’s touching piece about her struggles with depression (bit.ly/HHDepression). Last month, Martha’s Vineyard Times contributor Jonathan Burke, who lives with mental illness himself, reported on a man who suffered PTSD after having fought in Vietnam (bit.ly/ptsdMV). He has also written about Islanders who have suffered from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, and eating disorders (bit.ly/MVMentalillness). At that link, you can also find Dr. Charles Silberstein’s monthly column, “On My Mind,” which addresses mental health questions and issues.

Henrietta was within a breath of being bludgeoned to death by a psychopath when she was 18 years old. Years of depression and anxiety, and panic and numbness, followed. She did not know she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) until she was 55.

At the time of the attack, Henrietta, who has lived on Martha’s Vineyard for the past 25 years, was attending an art school in San Francisco. It was summer, and she hitchhiked north along the highway as she often did, and found a place to climb down toward the water to draw and write in her journal.

On this day, she was near a nude beach called Stinson. She found a rock partway down from the highway, looking out over the water. She took up a perch. She opened her journal and started to draw.

She said: “I had put my journal down and was just looking at the water, and I felt an impact on my head, like a huge impact. Like my body reverberated. And I thought a rock had fallen on me. My first response was something just hit me from above … and before I could complete that thought another rock hit me … another impact. And I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s an avalanche. Rocks are coming down on my head.’ And then I felt another impact and I could sense somehow something was hitting me, and I thought, ‘Oh no, someone’s hitting me with something hard.’ Another two hits later I had my hands on my head, and I thought, ‘Oh no, someone’s trying to kill me.’”

Henrietta had grown up in Chicago in an environment that felt unsafe. Because of that childhood, she always has had a safety plan. She came up with a safety plan to survive the attack. She would pretend to be dead.

Her assailant hit her a few more times. She tried to stop breathing. She willed her hands that were protecting her head to go limp. Due to the adrenaline, she was not feeling any pain. Her brain was moving fast.

“I was just in fight or flight,” she said.

Her assailant tried to move her clothes. She willed her body to stay limp. It was a man. She thinks he decided to leave her alone because he thought she was dead. He walked around her. She could see his legs from the knees down. She became unconscious.

She woke up some minutes later with her head in a pool of blood. “Now I was scared. Now I was actually scared. I was like … ‘Oh shit. I made it this far, and now he is going to take me out.’ … My next thought was, ‘Where’s my mom, where’s Superman, where’s God?’ I felt like nobody was there. I have to do this by myself.”

“I just stood up really quickly and veered around to look to see that he wasn’t there … I didn’t see anyone. I grabbed my purse and pulled my clothes back up and scrambled up what was a steep way to the path.”

She walked down the path to the beach. She saw some people and started screaming “bloody murder.” People came over to her, including someone who turned out to be a paramedic. Her head had been cracked open in three places, just missing her brain. The paramedic and his girlfriend put her in a car and drove her to a hospital in San Francisco.

Henrietta called her roommate from a pay phone at the hospital.

She was very disoriented. A nurse came and knocked on the payphone door. She told her friend she had been attacked on the beach and had to go. The next thing she remembers is her girlfriend holding her hand in a hospital room. Her head was being sewn up.

The police came to the ER. She does not really remember much. They told her she had been attacked by a psychopathic serial killer. They asked if she wanted to file a report. She was confused by what had happened and said no.

She was not thinking of preventing future attacks. She wanted to normalize what had happened, just as she always had tried to normalize things since she was a child. She wanted to forget about the attack and move on with her life. She later would learn that the police had gone to the scene and found a wooden club with semen on it.

Henrietta said she did not blame the attacker. He was a psychopath and an incredibly sick individual. She blamed herself somewhat for the attack, for putting herself in harm’s way.

Shortly after the attack, she went to Guatemala with her boyfriend.

A few months into the trip, she started having nightmares. Satanic attackers were coming at her. At the time, she made no association between the nightmares and the attack on the beach. She was fearful of waking up.

Henrietta fell into a depression. She withdrew and shut down. She stopped talking to her boyfriend, and they drifted apart.

Henrietta moved back to Chicago after Guatemala. In Chicago, she worked for an environmental group. She came home every day and cried. She isolated herself, and did not socialize. She felt very little, and slept a lot.

“It felt like existential sadness, like nothing’s ever going to get better and this is the way life is,” she said. She hugged her cat a lot.

Ultimately, she had a breakdown. She had a period where she was lost and could not work. Eventually, she started dancing, and received a scholarship to dance. “When I was dancing, I could act out that mental anguish. I could relate to the other people. I could immerse myself.”

She kept herself busy — dancing nine hours a day, and now waitressing eight hours. One day, she fell apart in ballet class. After the class, she opened a phone book and called someone and started counseling.

Henrietta lived in Chicago for a while, then in New York City, where she attended Al-Anon every day for three years. Al-Anon provided needed structure. She had grown up in what she described as an “alcoholic-like home.”

The years went on, and she became the mother to two children — a single mom, who eventually got married. She struggled to normalize the attack.

She had experienced childhood trauma. Her father had diabetes, and could hit her or her siblings when in a diabetic rage. Her mother would put their coats on and have them go outside until the rage was over.

Her life had been ungrounded. When she first moved to San Francisco, she had hung out with grad students and other adults. Many were drug users and risk takers. This somehow felt safe to her — like she felt when she was growing up. The attack and the feeling of helplessness and being unprotected was also a reminder of her childhood trauma.

After the attack, Henrietta did not talk about it, or allow herself to feel what happened. Without recognizing what she was doing, she said, she shoved all of the feelings of the memory into a little storage unit in her nervous system.

Inevitably, the emotions of the attack would be triggered. She would be unable to distinguish between the traumatic event and real time.

For example, one day she found out her husband was cheating on her: “I would become freezing cold [when I thought about it], no matter how much heat I put on my body. I would become panicked. My whole chest would tighten down. And I would feel like I was fighting for my life.”

In another instance, one day when she was in her 20s, she was undergoing cranial therapy. One minute, she said, someone was holding her head, and the next minute she was kicking and screaming, almost to the point of falling off the table. She had no idea what was going on. She ended up curled up on the table. She saw the blood again, and was back at the rock above the beach.

Again, she would move on. She would try to normalize. She did not go back to the cranial therapy. She still not didn’t talk about the attack.

After New York City, she moved to Woodstock, and she lived day-to-day. She worked multiple jobs, and did not eat much. She lived her life in much the same way that she had saved her life when attacked. She was always in survival mode, in a hyped-up state, and with a numbness to her feelings. In a way, she said, she lived her life in the “specter of the traumatic event.”

She talked about the attack for the first time when she was 25 years old, when she told her counselor in Woodstock. It was a huge relief: “That day, I remember feeling like someone had put speed in my soda. Something was lifted. I called my therapist … I [felt] like there’s a tailwind on my car.”

She was beginning to let some of the pent-up feelings out. Her mood totally changed. For the first time, she realized something significant had happened to her when she was attacked on the beach, even if she still did not realize how significant that something was. “Someone pretty much wanted to kill me … It’s pretty much a miracle I am here,” she said.

Woodstock was a key turning point.

Still, her struggle and the underlying illness remained unlabeled. There was no talk of PTSD. She continued to have episodes. She tried many therapies. Anything that slowed her down and brought her into the present was one that worked. Anything that amped things up was not good.

Henrietta moved to the Vineyard with her kids 25 years ago. Seven years ago, finally, her recovery from PTSD began. Her mother had just died, and she had other personal struggles. She made an appointment with a local psychiatrist. He diagnosed her illness as PTSD, and put her on a medication. It was the first time PTSD had been mentioned to her.

Henrietta started cranial therapy work again.

Her first time on the table, she kicked and screamed as she had before. But this time she went back. She started regular work with her therapist. Soon she started to be able to go back to the attack. She could remember the attacker’s legs and other details that she had not been able to remember before.

It took more than 100 sessions with her cranial therapist and with her psychiatrist. The therapy allowed her to go back into her memories in a way that did not feel traumatic. It was, she said, like letting her nervous system unkink and unwind. She could orient herself in real time.

The PTSD has been, she says, like a sniper in her chest. With the therapy, Henrietta now can recognize the feeling: “its shape, its size. How it manifests in [my] body.” Now she can say, ‘Oh, that’s not real … that’s not what’s actually happening right now. That’s the PTSD.’”

Now, when she is having a nightmare at 3 in morning (it is always the same time), and she feels the pain in her chest, she is able to wake herself up and remember where she is. She turns on a light. She looks at something and sees details. She can squeeze her hand, touch her husband, and return to real time. She can go back to sleep.

Henrietta’s recovery has brought hope. “I could feel the demons dissolving and like my head is above water. There’s light. There’s beauty. It was amazing,” she said.

She has learned how to take care of herself. “The key is taking care and not being in [certain] situations. I’ve learned what situations are good and what are not. I did not like performing as a dancer. That was way too stressful. I don’t do certain levels of stress.”

Her PTSD can still be triggered — mostly when something happens that she has to survive, or a serious event, such as an illness in her children. She is careful talking about the attack, as it brings up the emotions.

Henrietta now believes with her recovery that the traumatic event has made her stronger. She even feels like she has some superpowers, and can persevere through difficult situations. She can feel other people’s trauma. She tries to use her strength and her insight from her experience to help others.

 

Reach out for help
MVCS Island Intervention Center Provides urgent care, brief interventions, assessments, and immediate access to appropriate services for both mental health and substance use disorders. In case of a mental health emergency, their team can be accessed 24 hours a day through their answering service at 508-693-0032.

MVCS Island Counseling Center Provides support for those struggling with mental illness, addiction, or crises. Contact them at mvcommunityservices.com/islandcounselingcenter, or 508-693-7900, ext. 290.

Island Wide Youth Collaborative Provides support to families and children in crisis. Contact them at mvcommunityservices.com/iwyc, mvcommunityservices.com, or 508-693-7900, ext. 400.