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Being a Best Friend to a Survivor with PTSD

An ode to my best friend, and best friends around the world.
picture of Alisa and Kate
Content Warning

This story may contain descriptions of PTSD symptoms (specifically having nightmares).

Best friends are the best

Best friends can do so many wonderful things. They can teach you how to do a smokey eye, they can get you to stop wearing boot cut jeans, they can introduce you to the joys of fizzy water, they can drink wine with you and play Toto’s greatest hits to calm you when you freak out about your future. And my best friend has done all those things.

But the best thing my best friend has ever done for me was to believe me.

kate and alisa
look at that badass smokey eye

My best friend is a professional

It’s at this point that I should tell you that my *best friend is the best friend in the whole entire world. My best friend is uniquely qualified to support me, as she has worked in the intimate partner violence space for 10 years, so she’s literally professionally trained to know how to support survivors. SHE’S A PROFESSIONAL, YOU GUYS.

But let’s not sell her best friendi-ness short either, because no matter how great your professional training may be, when someone you love is in pain it is real fucking hard.

profesh to death

So I’m sure you have great best friends too, but they aren’t my best friend. It’s like the Chance the Rapper song Sunday Candy where he sings for his grandma: I got a future so I’m singing for my grandma, You singing too, but your grandma ain’t my grandma!

It’s like that. But not about grandmas. About best friends. Get it?

Our friendship is actually what Healing Honestly is all about

My best friend and I met 10 years ago, on the day we moved into our freshman year dorm. Her ringtone was Kelis’ “Bossy” and I immediately wanted her to think I was cool.

alisa and kate
10 years ago. Lil babies.

Over those four years of college, we went through some real shit.  We learned how to worry about term papers and chemo treatments, to worry about buying booze with fake IDs and doomed prognoses from oncologists. We danced to a lot of Justin Timberlake and we also held the hands of the people we loved the most as they died from cancer.

We were the two people we knew who were in our own bubbles of grief surrounded by people telling us that college was supposed to be “the best years of our lives”.

And I say this because it matters. I mean, of course it matters to me, it’s my life and my friend, but I think it matters beyond that. It matters because our friendship is the same thing that this entire Healing Honestly project is about. That pain and strength and beauty can live together in a big vibrant complicated mess.

drinkign wine
wine connoisseurs in South Africa

You can wake up in the morning crying as you remember again that the person you love is gone, and go to bed all sweaty from dancing, still holding your late-night burrito in your arms.  That can be, and is, all the same person.

And I think Kate and I both learned that together. It’s what saw it in the other, and it’s what has permitted us to always see the other so clearly.

How my best friend actually helped me in my survivorship and PTSD

Ok, so like what did she actually DO for me?

Guys, I already told you what she did. She believed me. This is the best thing anyone can do to support another survivor. Just fucking believe us.

It took me over a year from the time my dreams about my dad raping me began to finally tell her about them. This part is real important: when I told her about my nightmares, I was very sure what I was telling her was that I was a sick, broken person. I did not think what I was telling her was that my father had sexually abused me.

laying on the ground together
on the sidewalk. 3am. somewhere in new orleans.

This can be a huge point of misunderstanding. For many of us survivors of child sexual abuse, we have no memory of the abuse. Like, none at all. We will get more into this in other posts, but this is a mad important point: brains can suppress trauma, especially if it occurs in childhood, and we can have zero memory of the traumatic events, only to find in adulthood indications that we have experienced trauma (like nightmares, triggers, problems with sex, PTSD etc).

So I think for most people, they may expect a survivor to be like, “Hey, listen, I was raped as a kid.” But for so many of us, that’s not what coming out looks like. What it looks like is being like, “Hey, I have been having some really awful dreams and it’s affecting me in a real way and I feel kind of sick and perverted, what’s wrong with me?”

And that’s how it went for me and Kate. I thought what I was telling her was that I was sick. But it wasn’t until her arms were around me, and saw in her eyes that she saw me, that, for the first time since the nightmares had began over a year earlier, I felt like maybe this wasn’t all my fault. That I wasn’t the reason I had PTSD.

us sick in bed
Urgent care selfie, when we both got sick and spent all weekend in bed with take-out and tissues

She believed me. She believed what I had endured, even if I never had any memory of it, was bad enough. She believed that I could be both a survivor and still be all the other things, the charismatic, sex-having, tequila-drinking, young, clever, complicated woman I was.

And so, for the next five years, she stuck by my side as I slowly came into my survivorship. I look back on it as flashes of memories:  the first time I felt like I could claim the word “abuse”, the many times she assured me I’d find a healthy relationship even though I thought I had “daddy issues” and was too broken for love, the hundreds of times when I’d ask her if I was normal, late-night phone calls when coming out to my family was so rough, asking her if I get to call myself a survivor now.

Don’t worry guys, the story ends with a tattoo, of course

At this time last year we were together in a small tattoo parlour in Berkeley, she holding my hand as I laid on my side getting my first tattoo, which her sister designed for me as way for me to incorporate my survivorship permanently into my body, and never let myself hide again.

funny tattoo
My tattoo. JK guys. Some shit stays private.

Like a true extrovert, I had to talk through the pain. And boy, was I chatty. Through the pain, I told the artist what the tattoo was about. And, for the first time ever, I was finally able to plainly say it. I am a survivor, my father sexually abused me. As I said the words, I looked over into Kate’s eyes and saw that they were full of tears.

I think so often of that image of her eyes as she heard me say those words. Part of me has wanted to ask her what she was thinking in that moment, whether it was sadness or pride or love.

But I don’t need to ask. Because deep down I know. She could see for herself, after all these years of believing me, that I now believed me too.

* In the wise words of Mindy Kaling, best friend isn’t a person, it’s a tier. To all my other amazing best friends, you know who you are, and you are dope as hell and I adore you.

mindy 'best friend is a tier'