Story by Hannah Neumann | Photo Illustration by Rewon Shimray
“The nightmares were always the worst for me. I think it took me six years to sleep through the night without having a nightmare or without waking up in tears, or waking up screaming,” said Baylor graduate Chelsea Bryant, who has spent years working through her depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder that presented themselves to her at 15 years old as she endured emotional, physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her boyfriend.
The abuse progressed quickly, starting with verbal and emotional abuse and quickly turning into physical wounds. Sometimes she can still feel the pain she left behind nearly eight years ago.
“He would burn the inside of my arm with cigarette butts and I don’t think I could be around the smell of cigarette smoke for maybe two years after that without crying,” she said.
A reaction like this is common for someone who has endured trauma, resulting in PTSD. Mental Health America explains that triggers, such as the cigarette smoke for Bryant, can be painful reminders that cause someone to feel as if they are reliving their trauma. These triggers can include senses such as sight, sound and smell. Survivors of trauma often avoid situations that will remind them of the pain they experienced.
“The cologne he’d wear, sometimes I’ll smell it in Walmart or something, and my brain doesn’t even react. It’s like my body reacts and freezes,” she said. “My hometown I don’t even like going back to. The bad seeps into the happy memories that I had and makes them indistinguishable.”
Bryant was a sophomore in high school when the abuse started at the hands of her first boyfriend. While pieces of her past are missing, in part because of her intentionally blocking them out, she remembers one of the first instances of abuse. As a competitive champion on the debate team at her school, Bryant and her partner found they were advancing to state, and went with their team to a nearby Chili’s to celebrate the victory. Bryant kept the news to herself, knowing her boyfriend would be upset to hear she was out without him. A friend of his saw her out and called him.
“The walls at Chilis are basically windows…and he showed up to the restaurant, physically pulled me out of the booth, dragged me outside, and he took me and body slammed me into his car with an arm-bar across my chest,” she said. “That went on for a few minutes and then he left, and I remember turning around and through the windows everyone was watching us… the worst part then, and what remains the worst part now, is that people knew and didn’t do anything.”
The abuse didn’t stop there. At 16 years old, Bryant told her boyfriend she wasn’t ready to take the next step, at least not so soon. She wanted to keep her virginity. But, as she had experienced time and time again, his wants and desires took precedent. He was going to take it anyway. According to Domestic Violence Statistics, 40-45 percent of women in physically abusive relationships are raped or assaulted by their partners.
“I don’t remember a whole lot about the first time,” she said with a distant stare. “I remember that he slammed my head into the wall and I thought I was going to black out, but instead I was in this half-state between conscious and not.”
Bryant felt her whole life was in his hands. It wasn’t enough for him that he had taken everything from her, or that she was completely dedicated to him. It wasn’t enough that she stopped fighting back and allowed him to abuse her. He could feel her slipping away, and he couldn’t see that he was the one causing it. He wanted her to stay, so he decided he would impregnate her, so she would be forced to stay with him. The next time he took her against her will, he ditched the condom.
“For a while I thought it was going to happen, and I can still say today I can’t believe that it didn’t happen,” she said. “I have memories of sitting in the bathroom stall in between classes crying and taking pregnancy tests he had stolen for me at Walmart. Everything was just a pattern of escalation with him. So eventually it wasn’t just giving me the pregnancy tests to take, it was now I had to take them in front of him.”
Bryant was stuck in this cycle of manipulation, abuse and fear. But she wasn’t really stuck. People who learn her story point that out to her regularly. Why would somebody stay in something like this? Why didn’t she leave on day one? The question is an easy one to ask for somebody who hasn’t endured the same pain. Yet according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States, and a victim of abuse will leave the relationship, on average, seven times before leaving for good, if they leave at all.
“It always does boil down to, ‘Why didn’t you leave?’” Bryant said. “I can’t and won’t speak for every victim, but I know in my situation, I was very young and I just always thought that question was so unfair…I was terrified. I was totally naive at 15. I really do think by the time I realized what was happening, it almost felt like it was too late to get out at that point. I knew he was capable of hurting me, and he threatened my family, and I didn’t want to risk their safety. When you’re in it, it’s so hard to describe, but everything becomes muddled around that. It re-trains the way you think. You get programmed otherwise. Programmed to text that person every time you go out, or not fight back, or lie to people about where those bruises came from.”
Toni McKinley, therapeutic director for The Refuge for DMST, (domestic minor sex trafficking) in Austin, is a child survivor of sex trafficking and a licensed therapist who counsels other survivors. Like Bryant, McKinley is one of many whose fear of leaving their abuser was greater than their fear of staying. McKinley was six years old the first time she was trafficked, by someone her family knew. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 93 percent of juvenile victims like Bryant and McKinley know their perpetrator.
In the area where McKinley lived, being trafficked by a relative or friend of the family was common. Girls were trafficked by their drug-addicted mothers, fathers, uncles and other relatives.
While she doesn’t remember much, she remembers the words “she’s for sale,” said before the abuse that she blocked out for a long time after. Disassociation was her one escape from the traumas she was enduring. Her first sex trafficking experience lasted three years, and finally, her family moved and the abuse ended. Left with these scars, she could finally start over.
At least that was the hope. But then, at home, the abuse continued in a new form, but with a familiar face. She recalls one time in particular when her father got upset with her for using the phone against his rules. He lost his temper and began beating her.
“He was angry and I was at that point where I didn’t cry anymore, so I just said, ‘Are you finished yet?’ And he stopped and gave me this look like he was, so I just walked back to my room,” she said. “That infuriated him, so he started choking me, and I thought he was going to kill me. I ran out of the house for my life and he chased after me.”
Running away from her troubles at home, she slammed straight into more. McKinley was vulnerable, and men who hurt women prey on vulnerability. She wanted love and acceptance, and it showed. As a hurt, battered and confused child running away from home, she was picked up at 15 years old and trafficked again over a 21-day period. Missing person signs with her face hung on gas station lamp-posts around the town.
She remembers being driven to the top of a hill overlooking the city in a bench-seat pickup truck with another little girl, the city lights dazzling in front of her eyes in the night.
“He got out of the truck and he started raping the girl that was sitting in the middle. Her head was on my lap, he’s starting to rape her and she’s screaming, and I got scared but I didn’t know how to act, so instead of freaking out I just left. I started walking off,” she said. “I didn’t know where I was going or how we got there, but he stopped and was saying ‘no, no, no, I’ll stop, just come back.’ I got back in the truck and he drove us down to this house and he told us everything was going to be OK.
When they arrived, the power had been cut and the house was dark. The girls sat at a table while the man who brought them talked with another man at the end of the hallway, where a dim light illuminated them in the darkness. McKinley knew something was wrong. She heard a voice telling her to run. She took the girl’s hand, and they sprinted for the door. The man began chasing them down in his truck. She let go of the girl’s hand just as the man jumped out of the truck and climbed on top of the girl. McKinley was home free; she could escape now. Yet still, she couldn’t leave.
“When I turned around, I see that he’s caught her and he’s on the ground on top of her and he’s punching her and hitting her, and I just didn’t feel like I could leave her—so I went back and I started hitting him and screaming at her to get out, because he had her pinned down on the ground and now he’s punching me,” she said. “She gets out and I got out of his grip and took off, and he chased us, but we got out to a main road and hitchhiked. A car came and picked us up and took us away.”
Once again, McKinley was home free. But, where was home? And was home better than what she was running from? These thoughts ran through her head as they rode along with a stranger down a road they didn’t know. At the end of these twists and turns, McKinley opted for life with a pimp over the abuse of her father. At least in one of these scenarios, she could feel what she thought at the time was love.
“I tell this story to police officers a lot because they never understand why girls go back after they’ve been beaten or sold,” she said. “But I didn’t trust the police because over and over again they kept taking me back to my abuser at home. They didn’t listen when I would tell them what was going on in my household, and of course I didn’t want to go home where my abusive father lived, and I didn’t know anyone else. So we went back and I don’t remember what happened that night.
McKinley said the things that imitate love can convince someone to stay in these abusive and demoralizing relationships.
“You have your Romeo pimps… They promise you things, they compliment you, they tell you things like, you did a good job, and they know when a girl is just dying for attention and affection and love, and so that’s what they’ll give them, and sometimes that’s enough to get you to do what they want you to do,” she said. “So you just suffer through it and you do it, and it feels like love, when they’re telling you that they’re going to take care of you and they give you a little nickname. You know, this one guy called me baby, so it made me feel like I was his little girl, and I didn’t have that at home, so really for me, that’s what kept me going back was for that attention that he gave me, even though he was selling me to do awful things with other people.”
At 18 years old, McKinley was back on the streets, chained to her third bout of exploitation, and Bryant was being driven in the middle of the night, handcuffed in the back of a squad car to the nearest psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt. She saw no other way out. Both were engaging in self-destructive behaviors and losing a battle to the depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress they were plagued with.
A RAINN study found that sexual violence increases the likelihood that a victim will suffer suicidal or depressive thoughts. 94 percent of women who are raped experience symptoms of PTSD, and 33 percent contemplate suicide. Both Bryant and McKinley are numbers in this horrifying statistic.
Hypervigilance is a common symptom of PTSD, and one that both women know all too well. According to HealthCentral, “hypervigilance is considered a common feature of various anxiety disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder,” and “in some cases, it can be extreme enough for the person to become almost entirely preoccupied with scanning their environment for threats.”
Bryant remembers being on a train in Washington, D.C., for a conference when she started attending law school. Although the subway was mostly empty, a man sat next to her and began inching his leg towards hers. Her eyes filled with tears. As soon as the subway came to the stop, she kicked off her heels and took off running, checking over her shoulder in fear that he was following her. She ran all the way to her car and drove all the way back home, fear-stricken and also relieved.
“It’s hard because I don’t think a normal person would have that reaction and I’ll never truly know if he was just a rude guy or if it was malicious,” she said. “I’ll never be able to know what is my brain anymore and what has been overrun by fear. I don’t trust anybody. I don’t trust anyone or anything, or who people say they are, or their intentions. I don’t trust that people are good-natured and will look out for each other when they’re supposed to. Some people are sh*tty. I just had to learn that lesson kind of brutally, and younger than I would’ve liked.”
This constant state of fight or flight is something incredibly common in sexual abuse victims, and victims of trauma in general, according to McKinley.
“The amygdala hijacks your brain and that’s why you’re always in that flight, fight or freeze mode. Your hippocampus shrinks, you cannot store memory well and the trauma is always in your frontal lobe, just ready to be reactive,” she said. “So when you have that happening to your brain, it doesn’t matter if the trauma was five or 10 years ago. If you’ve never gotten help with it, you’re always going to be reacting all the time based on what your trauma was.”
This, McKinley said, is where therapy comes in. After establishing safety and healthy coping mechanisms, work can begin on healing from the trauma.
“We work on removing that trauma that’s in that frontal lobe and helping the brain file it back to where it belongs, and putting everything in the right place,” she said.
Through this, a victim can help their brain understand that the trauma happened in the past, instead of it feeling like it just happened yesterday. This therapy is especially critical for people who have been through abuse or trafficked, McKinley said, and through this work, these women can turn from victims into survivors, and begin to feel confident and less afraid of the world.
“If you were traumatized at 5 years old, when you don’t take care of it, it feels like it happened just yesterday. It’s just so clear and the emotions are right there, but when you can remove that trauma from your frontal lobe, it makes it feel like it happened when I was 5 years old,” McKinley said. “So then if you think back to what happened when you were 5, it’s very fuzzy, there’s not a whole lot of memory, and if there is, there’s not a whole lot of emotion attached to it because it was so long ago. So you won’t ever forget it, but it won’t feel anymore like it just happened yesterday. That’s what’s really neat about the different therapies that are out there that can help a trauma survivor do that, so that she can function in society.”
Bryant is one of these survivors who attributes her healing to therapy. After years of taking antidepressants, she knew there had to be something more. She said, however, most people aren’t given the resources they need to learn about mental health and aren’t taught that it’s OK to struggle.
“I started going to therapy, and now I wonder all the time what my life would have been like if I had gone to therapy a month after, or a year after, instead of waiting, because the impact is not even describable,” Bryant said.
These were young adults newly entering the world, but with old battle scars. They were fighting these demons, along with depression and multiple suicide attempts and both women knew they needed help. Both women also realized they needed to take back control of their lives. They refused to let their abusers and the mental and emotional damage that was inflicted upon them run their lives anymore.
Bryant finished her undergraduate studies at Baylor and was accepted into University of Virginia Law School, scoring in the 97th percentile on her LSAT. McKinley left the night life and pulled herself up by the bootstraps, slowly yet surely. She relied on nobody but herself, guarding her precious, newfound optimism and buying 99-cent pizzas to survive. She enrolled in community college, and although she was behind and failed multiple classes, she persisted. She re-took those classes and re-took those classes, and eventually earned her credits and transferred to a university. Here, she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Education, got married and had her first child. For her daughter’s sake, she learned healthy coping mechanisms, rather than turning to alcohol and partying. She continued therapy and continued the long journey to healing and recovery. Now, she devotes her time to working as a therapist, helping other girls with similar pasts to her own.
At The Refuge, she works as the in-house trainer for Trust Based Relational Intervention, which is, in her words, the perfect way to love a child, and a crucial aspect of healing for the girls she works with.
“It’s a way of life, and it’s literally just not reacting to what’s going on with the child, but looking at why they are behaving that way,” she said. “So if they’re disrespecting me, I need to look at why they’re disrespecting me. What happened. What triggered them, to cause them to be that way. So you treat that, instead of reacting to the disrespect. You’ll see them start to gain trust in you.”
Bryant, working at College Forward, a non-profit that helps low income and first-generation high school students get accepted into college, also works to help others through sharing her troubled past. She envisions a world in which mental illness is treated as a health issue rather than a character deficit. She shares her story with others in the hopes of opening dialogue and working towards a societal shift in the way mental illness is viewed and addressed.
“Being open with it has helped a lot, and I try to think that it’s not the things that happen to us that shape who we are, but our reactions to those events,” she said. “What I went through will never be rosy or pretty or fun to talk about, but if I can take that sh*tty experience and try to turn it into something a little more positive, or potentially help even one person with something in their life, then it makes it worth it.”
Bryant believes if more people did this, they may be able to learn to accept each other’s stories and change the narrative of sexual abuse, trauma and mental health in general, and encourages those battling mental health issues to understand there is nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about.
“I spent a really long time feeling like I had psycho stamped on my forehead, and I encourage people to try to not feel that way,” she said. “Obviously I’m not saying, you know, to someone who is depressed, just perk up or smile, but to just work on embracing the idea that you don’t have anything to be ashamed about. Nobody should ever feel ashamed about having any illness, physical or mental. We should never feel ashamed about things we don’t get to control in our lives.”