Surviving PTSD... My Personal Journey
Strength of Friendship
Friendship and Dance
Pittsburgh Ballet 1992
Benedum Center for the Performing Arts
The Vital Importance of Friendship in Surviving Trauma
Good articles are easier to write and more enjoyable for the reader when the author has a personal attachment and passion about the topic. PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) would not be diagnosed in my life until years later. I might have circumvented the future disasters of my life if my father had not died, totally unexpectedly, a few months after what I am about to write about. His death reversed the improvement I was beginning to make spiritually and psychologically. The stealthily encroaching PTSD also might not have happened if I had stayed attached to my friends. I again returned to compartmentalizing my life and began detaching from my friends. This is my own journey. I could never have written about something so personal and close to my heart and soul if I had not already wrote about this in the book I am working on, "Scars of the Heart and Soul ". Anyone who knows me or has read some of my articles knows the topic I picked for this article has an important ingredient: ballet. As I wrote in another article, my love for ballet exploded into my soul and psyche at the age of three. The music, athleticism, story lines, choreography, etc. of ballet would infuse into my life, my very spirit, as time progressed from that sweet age of three.
It was not until I started ballet classes at the "old" age of 19, "on the down low", and became close friends with fellow ballet students and members of the Pittsburgh Ballet that my love of this art fully bloomed - became three dimensional, I should say. Again, I NEVER had any hidden desire to become a professional dancer. My fathomless desire to help people took me into another direction. I took ballet just for the sake of satisfying my curiosity that I could do it.
It is now when my life in in such flux, that I fully realize how important it is not only to have people in your life that are friends but are friends by MY definition ( and we all have our own definition), whom love and care about you. We all have family members who love us because that comes with the territory of being blood related but it is so sweet when people love you just because you are YOU and you love them because of the same reason(s). It is even better when these precious friends share some of the same passions. In the instance of this article, it was ballet.
It was some of my friends from ballet school and the Pittsburgh Ballet who helped me survive going from the most glorious and close to perfection time of my life through and across the biggest horrors and nightmares of my life, in a very short period of time. I will state now that my group of friends in pharmacy school were invaluable but they are part of another story. The sad aspect to my article/story is that I did not realize fully, consciously anyways, the importance of that these bonds of friendship were. Perhaps, I think I did but I was too numb and shell-shocked to fully appreciate those bonds of friendship. Being a reflective person, especially now, I do appreciate those bonds and have for a quite a while. I will now begin the more formal part of my article.
February 14th, 2015 and I was standing outside the Benedum Center and looking at the amazing and glittering marquee announcing another great performance by one of the premier ballet companies, The Pittsburgh Ballet and it's superlative production of the "Beauty and the Beast". I stood outside with my good friend Dante, who like me, was mesmerized by the lights. I was a little down for two reasons: my love is still in the Dominican Republic and not with me on Valentine's Day and knowing what a wonderful performance was to be experienced by those attending that evening. Terrance Orr, the artistic director, has escaladed the level of the ballet into the stratosphere and it was already excellent when he became director. Dante saw me day dreaming and probably looking like I was in a trance and said "Don't worry, your life is gaining momentum again. You'll make the next performance". It is true that up onto this season I had wonderful season tickets for all the performances in directors circle, a seat I coveted and loved. Other than some of the Nutcrackers, not one of my favorites, (sorry- more for the kids!), I had never missed a performance in a number of years.
Dante knows about my 4-5 years of 'secret' ballet lessons when I was in college. I reminded him that my love for ballet had nothing to do with any regret for taking another road. I took the road I wanted and never regretted that. I wanted to experience ballet as a participant, not only a spectator. I have always been competitive, very competitive with myself. I like to think that I use my competitiveness to push myself through self-made boundaries- and boundaries placed by others- to learn and appreciate a new dimension to my life.
I decided to tell Dante my story of my attachment to ballet and the Pittsburgh Ballet in particular... the full reason(s) for that attachment. He was the first I had ever verbalized it to. It is one thing to write about it as I have in my growing book, quite another to verbalize and share it with someone. Now that I experience ballet only as a spectator, and the exercises I do, I wanted to explore my deeper love and a certain attachment to the Pittsburgh Ballet of the past. I thank Dante for giving me the focus I needed to share this story.
I had completed my first degree, chemistry with a minor in art from Muskingum University and went on to the Pharmacy School at the University of Pittsburgh. Life had never felt so good and I mean as close to perfection as I had ever experienced it and probably ever will. My second year in pharmacy school had ended with great grades. I knew that I had picked a profession where I could use my passion to help people in many wonderful ways. Anyone who has seen my style behind the counter will verify I have a fun and distinct way to practice pharmacy. AND yes, I have actually pirouetted and leaped to patients/customers who have asked to see me.
Ballet school was also going extremely well. I no longer had a four hour round trip between Muskingum and ballet class and had more time to focus on getting better and actually taking classes involving the history and terminology of ballet. I should feel embarrassed to say this but I really liked myself for the first time. I was always very active and involved in school but never experienced the self-confidence I craved. I had it now... well it was improving! As I wrote before life was very good and as it was to turn out, too good to be held close to my bosom and protected much longer. My parents were so very happy with my performance in school and the blooming of my personality, especially my father. The change was very evident, especially to me. Yes, before, I was considered good-looking, popular, well-liked, blah blah blah but I had always felt like a shell, a façade. It is hard to express and a bit painful so we will leave it there.
Ballet class largely changed all that. Doing well in pharmacy school was always a given so it had not stretched my persona and psyche as ballet did. Even though I had no desire before or then to pursue it professionally, I was being gently pushed to pursue it on an amateur level. That was beyond my original goal with ballet so I suppose it was icing on the cake- maybe add some whip cream and a cherry! Ballet was and is intoxicating though here there is no hangover and only good after affects.
Dovetailed with this was coming to terms with being gay. The confidence I had developed was not the type of attribute or strength that affected only parts of my life but all parts. It was in ballet school that I was to meet my first true love which is a story onto itself. We were friends first. All I will say is that he was - and still is- amazing. I traipsed down the road to "Gayville" slowly but it felt good and yes...right.
Now for the "then" Pittsburgh Ballet. At that time I worked at a restaurant downtown where many of the Pittsburgh ballet dancers would come for lunch. Naturally they felt the admiration I had for them. I became close to some of them. There was a particular couple, engaged to be married, who always asked for me and would wait until I had a table available. Their names were in my journals but unfortunately, those were all destroyed by Chase Bank and their assigned property manager, James Watson. I probably would not use their real names anyway. I will name them Thomas and Patricia. Once when I was taking their order, I noticed that Thomas was distant for me. I looked at Patricia with a look of 'What did I do wrong?'. They were always so nice and fun with me. I was hurt. I wracked my brains trying to think how I could have hurt my dear friends. Patricia saw the look of dismay on my face and looked at me in a way that said 'Just wait'. Later, I returned to the table and sheepishly and quite tongue tied, probably ready to cry, attempted to ask and see how they were. Thomas reached up and grabbed me aggressively around the waist and said, "Why the hell didn't you tell us?" My mind raced and all I could stammer out was, "Tell you what?" He said, "We always thought and assumed you were a ballet student. We recently found out you are in PHARMACY SCHOOL!" He said it like I was a leper or worse. There was such hurt and distain in his voice. Even Patricia looked hurt and sad. I had never told them as I had not known them that long. I was so self-programmed into keeping quiet about it, it rarely crept into my conversation. Plus, they were professionals and my school was rather small and I thought it would be silly to them. I finally said, half-laughing, that I had been taking ballet classes for over four years and that should count for something! I will never forget how he exclaimed, "We knew it, we knew it!" They both stood up and gave me hugs and pecks on the cheek. Of course, all the patrons of the restaurant were amused and entertained. I added, rather smugly, "... and you know what? I'm pretty good." I tear up now when I remember him saying, quietly..." We always assumed you would be." Talk about a rush. Unforgettable. In the next few weeks, we became closer. They continued to invite me to parties and social gatherings where there were other dancers and artists of all types. I will say it again... Life was good.... very good.
Now I need to fast forward. As I have touched upon in other articles and in great detail in my book, I decided one night not to listen to that "internal voice/guardian angel" and take a short-cut through a neighborhood I only knew as a bicycler during the day. This neighborhood is known as East Liberty and the road this happened on was Ellsworth Ave, a street I actually lived on but further down in a nicer part- Shadyside. This decision to go against better advise I was getting by that "internal voice", to save a stinking 30 minutes would cost me dearly. Long story short, I got jumped, beaten, knifed and raped by five 'gentlemen'. As they were dragging my body over to the bus way or railroad tracks to make it look like some kind of accident, a car drove towards us making them back away. This resulted in God and adrenalin that gave me the energy I needed to break away and escape.
When my father came to pick me up in the morning to take me on a family trip to Phipps Conservatory, he had to detour, once we stopped home to see my mother, to the Emergency Room. Even though my all white outfit was almost all red from blood the knife wounds were not deep. I had a concussion and my spine was knocked out of place. Though a nurse tried to coax the full story out, I did what I do best: compartmentalize. There was no way in God's good heaven I was going to admit to anyone that I was raped along with all the other pseudo-sexual things they tried. A huge mistake I made was giving a damn what other people thought, blaming myself. Enough of that. I dealt with it by not dealing with it : stupid, stupid, stupid.
It was the summer between my 2nd and 3rd years in pharmacy school. I spent two weeks at home being fussed over and I focused on trying to be normal, whatever normal was at that point. My mother and Tanta Klara, who was visiting from Germany along with my Oncle Günter, fussed and worked hard to make me feel better. My mother knew that the outfit I had on the night of the attack was my favorite, particularly the pants. Never before or after had pants ever fit so well. I may have been humble but I knew I was in good shape and my motto has always been that if you have it, show it. The current styles of baggy pants hanging off of the posterior would never have suited me. My German cheering squad thoroughly repaired and reconditioned my pants so they looked like new. No small feat indeed. The only other "pants" that fit so well and put my derrière to good advantage were my ballet tights and I certainly was not going to wear those socially! Egotistical but gaining confidence in my self resulted in conceding that I looked good.
My father at first, was not going to let me move back to Pittsburgh. I gently reminded him that to runaway would concede to my attackers that they had won. He approved my return based on that. He respected that. Commuting to ballet school and pharmacy school and my jobs would have made my life monumentally difficult PLUS I enjoyed the freedom of living on my own. If he had known about the rape, no argument in the world would have convinced him to allow me to return.
Of course upon my return to Shadyside, the realities of being alone sank in quickly. With my family around I had had no time to think too much about what had happened and of course being the master of compartmentalization, I found it easier not to think about what I wanted to avoid. In the silence of my apartment, next to the "Harris Bar and Grill" on Ellsworth Ave. I had only the quiet and disturbing memories to keep me company.
I was still wearing my neck brace and severe headaches were a daily event. My landlady, Madge, made me call the police which I loathed to do. He came and asked me point blank if there was a sexual assault. My quick and abrupt "No" caused him to cock his head back and say," I hope you are telling me the truth. You have nothing to be ashamed of or frightened of if the answer is yes". I again said no and indicated I was dizzy and had a headache and excused myself to lie down. He actually looked sad, shook his head and left. Madge, a wonderful, out-spoken and wise-cracking lady said, "You're hiding something. All you are doing is protecting bad people and hurting yourself." I just said "Oh well" and retreated.
Over time, people who were worried as no one had seen me for a while, started to come to my apartment, especially Thomas and Patricia. When Madge was there and knew I was there, she would march any visitor down to my apartment, my hobbit hole as I liked to call it as it was a basement apartment. Thank you Madge as what you did was right... and appreciated.
Thomas and Patricia would invite me to their apartment for small get togethers as I was still looking pretty bad but they refused to allow me to hide in my apartment. Once when Patricia touched me unexpectedly, I jumped and had a major panic attack.... one of many to return in the future. Everyone at the apartment gave each other that "something's going on" look, a look I would see more and more. After that, she and Thomas, never let up, gently, trying to tell them the full story. The day the policeman came to get the report and many times thereafter, I used to stand in front of the mirror and look at myself and study myself to see if I looked raped. Of course it was my actions that gave much away. Over time, I learned to suppress them ... for a while at least. One evening, Patricia surprised me with a visit and a bottle of one of my favorite wines, a bottle from Orvieto, Italy. She was so so so very kind, caring and loving. With Thomas, Patricia and others I was learning to laugh again... for real! I came close to telling her that night but suddenly clammed up when it was about to come out. Never understood why, but it was what it was. She and Thomas never stopped trying to get me to talk about whatever fully happened that night. Once I snapped at Thomas and said, "Look, I was beaten, knifed and almost murdered. Isn't that enough to make me act the way I'm acting?" Thomas very bluntly said, "Not this much. We think we know what happened but regardless of whatever it is, you need to tell us, or someone, or it will eat you alive". Then he gently added, "Always remember that we and all your friends care about you and love you and will be here for you when you are ready to talk". I teared up then and tear up now as I write it. Friends like that are rare indeed.
For the life of me, I do not fully understand my refusal to talk about it let alone blame myself for what they did. I just did not want to and that was that. Maybe I did but was scared of rejection. Go figure. Looking back at that time, I did realize how fortunate I was to have people like them, and others, in my life. What I would not do to have friends like that now! Some friends would even surprise me in the evening with the directive that they came to stay with me. Once, three of them joined me in bed and I joked we looked like "Bob, Carol, Ted and Alice." Funny how I had forgotten that until now. In many ways it was like a tag team of friends!
By the end of August, I had made great strides in feeling better. The slowly boiling pressure cooker I had created by not dealing with what happened would come to a negative fruition much later on but in the beginning avoidance was relatively easy. I had returned to ballet class sometime in July. I do not think I have to identify where I still hurt the most and that affected my classes as it did my daily running which I also had restarted. Madam saw how my movement had changed and how I winced in pain. In her Russian accent, she made no bones she wanted to know the full extent of my injuries. She had come to like me a lot, and I her, but there was no way I was going to truthfully answer her. I walked away saying I hurt all over. She shook her stick at me and said that I would tell her the truth someday and the sooner the better. "Good God", I thought, "Even here I'm to be hounded." Even though Madam and my fellow students told me they saw a change in me, I laughed it off. It felt good to be back to a closer return to life as it used to be.
I was working 2 jobs. One was a proof reader at a publishing house and the other the restaurant. It kept me busy and all my co-workers were great. It was easier to hide the full truth from them which added to my joy to go to work. Again, I was laughing more and my sometimes sharp tongue returned to taunt and tease. I was even thinking of going to counseling but that felt wrong. I knew deep down my close friends, like my ballet friends, were better than any counselor would be. Maybe some day.......
School started and I went into it full force. My little group I always sat with in school were happy to see me and I them. They knew I had been jumped but they were much easier to fool as I was able to white-wash the changes that were evident to others. We were not a bad group, but we would make fun of the people who tried to impress the professors with their endless and inane questions. There was a group of heavily made-up girls who sat in the front who Bob named the Revlon Girls. We hurt no one and laughed... laughed a lot. I really started to believe that I would get through all this self-hatred I experienced... all I needed was time and normalcy..... and my friends.
Third year is...or was.. the make or break year in pharmacy school. We actually ended up losing more than 1/3 of our class by the time it was over. I aced all the first round of tests. Confidence began to shine in my life again... slowly but surely. I had started dating, Billy (not real name). He was so patient with me. I had not experienced gay sex... fully... before the attack. Now I felt like spoiled goods. He was so loving and kind and fun with me. We were so much alike. He said he felt he knew why I would freeze up when we started to be intimate but I had to tell him the reason. He said he would wait forever if need be. Billy was a superb dancer. He had started as a child. He went to a more professional school - Point Park - but took a few classes in my little school. At first, I never could figure out why. One day I asked him. He blushed the deepest red. He said, "Well, don't let this go to your head but I came here for some extra classes during the summers to stay in shape and this school has a nice reputation. He said the first week he was there, he saw me and fell in love and continued to take classes there to be near me but was too shy to ever say anything hoping I would notice him. Notice him I had. Billy was, and still is, gorgeous, like out of a Raphael painting. Even with my newly increased confidence, I would look at him and think he was way beyond me and deserved better. Was I ever happy to be proven wrong. We were perfect for each other and I will leave it at that. Needless to say, I did start to see light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.
October 2nd rolled around. I was studying for a biochem test. I remember feeling confident that I would ace it. I loved biochemistry. The only foreshadowing I had of things to come was earlier in the day, as I was returning to my apartment after a lab class, I was walking past St. Patrick's Cathedral in Oakland. I have never been a church attendee but I had this strange pull, almost obsession, to go inside St Patrick's, for the first time. I actually felt rattled as this was strange for me. I said a prayer, felt better and left. Around 10pm that night, with papers all askew and covering my living room floor, the phone rang. It was my younger brother Nicky who told me our father collaped at work and was taken to the hospital. Another unusual aspect to this story is that the Sunday before, I had spent Saturday and Sunday with my father as my mother had gone to Europe to visit relatives and do a tour with a friend. When it was time to leave, he told me to take the car as "You never know if you will need to come home". Plus he said he was lonely and to visit as often as I could. My father was not demonstrative, per say, but be hugged and kissed me on the cheek several times and said he loved me. That was rare. My family was the type that rarely used the love word but you knew it was ingrained into us via actions. I felt uneasy on my drive back. I actually had gone into the car and got again out to hug him again. I promised I would come to visit again next weekend depending on my work and school schedules.
I always thought of my father as invincible. I envisioned him sitting in his hospital bed and demanding to go home. I remember, having studied some preliminary cardiac care classes and how I would impress him with my new language and knowledge.
I arrived and identified myself. They remembered me when I had volunteered there a few years back but they looked somber. No alarms yet but an uneasy feeling. As they took me through a curtained room, the nurse rather abruptly announced that my father was dead. I collapsed to the floor. They had been ready for me and tried to force a sedative on me and I knocked it and the bottle across the room. I snapped at them to allow me to grieve as I wanted with my emotions not compromised.
Again, I put the details of the long drawn out tortuous aftermath of my fathers passing in my book. It is a time I hate revisiting even more than the rape. I loved my parents equally and we were close. My mother was the more fun parent I went on shopping excursions with and then we would stealthily sneak our purchases into the house to circumvent my fathers reaction. We had serious conversations but it was my father I would talk hours to about serious things such as his past and philosophical topics. Education was important, very important to both my parents, but it was my father who was the real foundation of my desire to learn. He was the one who led me, gently, into pharmacy school. He was the impetuous for the more serious aspect endeavors I had. Now he was gone. My parents had gone through so much as teenagers, surviving WWII in Europe. Knowing the horrors they had survived should have given me the courage to tell them what had happened to me. In a way, it was selfish of me not to though I would tell my mother years later and of course she said she knew it, knew it the first time she saw me after it happened. Can't fool a mother.... not my mother.
As anyone knows who has lost a loved one, the immediate time after the passing is so busy trying to deal with the immediate aftermath. Just getting my mother back from Europe without telling her the full truth and then telling her once we had privacy, was terrible, one of the worst things I ever had to do. Since everything was drawn out, I missed almost three weeks of school and I was summoned to the dean's office and very gently but firmly told they never had anyone miss that much school, in third year, and be able to get caught up. They suggested I drop out and restart third year the following year. I thanked them and said, "I appreciate your concern but just watch." Thanks to my group in school, they had made copies of all their notes. I not only caught up but aced everything. It was difficult and draining but never tell me I cannot do something if it is something I want to do.
Now the full realities of what happened hit me like a ton of bricks. I retreated into a dark and dank well, emotionally and spiritually. I lost interest in everything other than the well being of my mother and little brother. School and ballet meant absolutely nothing. I became, in many ways, cold and impersonal. I was still mannerly and friendly to people but I knew it was all a façade. I was back where I started as far as my self-confidence, except even worse.
The full reality of the importance of my friendships, especially with Patricia and Thomas, is that I very likely would not be here anymore if they had not been steadfast and integral in my life with the first nightmare of my life, the rape, that same year. I have often wondered if I would have had the strength to survive my fathers passing, so important was he in my life. One hates to admit suicide has ever encroached into ones thoughts but it did mine. The things I had hidden away from the night of the attack came back with a vengeance but if I had not come to terms with that, on a certain level because of my friends, well... better not to know. Of course, I quit ballet.
Now, only being a spectator, a delighted one, strangers will often come up to me and ask if I danced or was dancer and then add I look like I'm staring into another world. Actually I am. A past world. I know that far away look I get. What I am looking at is not the surroundings of the magnificent Benedum. That has not changed since my ballet friends used to take me to rehearsals. I can be watching a wonderful pas de deux and my mind will go back to the times they would 'sneak' me onto the stage and allow me to twirl, jump and pirouette across the stage to see what it was like. What a great feeling and memory.
I sometimes think of those dark times and about how I eventually made it through it because of people who loved and cared about me. If I had shared my deep dark... unnecessary... secret to them God only knows how different my life would be today. The best thing about these memories is that they gave me the wisdom to know and believe that all difficult situations can be survived. They were then.. eventually.... they will be again. What a wonderful gift my ballet friends, and others, gave me to cherish the rest of my life. A gift I do my best to give to others.
I sometimes think of those dark times and about how I eventually made it through it because of people who loved and cared about me. I did not know then that I was slipping into PTSD. That became a long painful journey but I feel that I would not have survived long enough to go down that road if not for my friends. If I had shared my deep dark... unnecessary... secret to them God only knows how different my life would be today. The best thing about these memories is that they gave me the wisdom to know and believe that all difficult situations can be survived. They were then.. eventually.... they will be again. A wonderful thing I learned is not to allow negative things in ones life to simmer. By not dealing with negative items in one's life gives them more power than dealing with them in a timely manner. What a wonderful gift my ballet friends, and others, gave me to cherish the rest of my life. A gift I do my best to give to others.
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