THE “R” WORD
I couldn’t breathe. I was using my inhaler religiously, but still, I couldn’t breathe. I wasn’t wheezing, but I was short of breath and coughing. It was reminiscent of my bouts of pneumonia. I was using the inhaler more often than I should have been, yet, still, I couldn’t breathe. I was nearing the end of my second round of prednisone and was also on Robitussin with codeine. My lungs were clear. Why was nothing working?
For 19 years I refused to say that I was raped. I just couldn’t say the word. I could say the word if I was referring to someone else’s experience, but never my own. I was sexually assaulted. I was a victim of Military Sexual Trauma (MST). I wasn’t raped. It was the “R” word. I didn’t use it. Not even in therapy. Not for 19 years.
Using the “R” word made it all too real. It was a word that had a life of its own. It was a word I couldn’t take back after it left my lips. It was a word that had too many ramifications. It was a word, that in my head, had more questions than answers. And, at times, in those years, that was ok. I wasn’t ready for answers. It was a word that made me physically ill. Then, something changed.
One day, last April, in group therapy, I used the “R” word to refer to what happened to me. It didn’t go unnoticed. Not by my therapist and not by the others in the group. “….when I was raped….” Then, I used the “R” word in my individual therapy session. “…when I was raped…” It didn’t feel natural to say it. I imagine it doesn’t feel natural for anyone. Why would it? However, the more I used the “R” word, the easier it became. And, by easier, I mean, I didn’t throw up. I think I closed my eyes when I said it. Maybe even covered my eyes with my hands. Like a child, who thinks she can become invisible by doing so. I wanted to be invisible, even in those moments that I was finding my voice.
There’s a rule in group that we don’t discuss details of our trauma. We don’t want to trigger each other, or ourselves, for that matter. We save the details for individual therapy sessions. And yet, I don’t have many details because alcohol and the grace of God has saved me from the details. Sometimes though…sometimes, I want to remember. However, the moments I do remember are enough to make me realize that not remembering, is a gift that I need to be thankful for. And, the bits and pieces I do remember are enough to make my skin crawl. They should make anyone’s skin crawl. So, that’s the story I’ll tell.
IT MIMICS ASTHMA
Now, I couldn’t tell that story because I couldn’t breathe. Unable to choke out a word or two without coughing. No one could understand me in person, much less on the phone. So, I stopped answering the phone and I stopped making calls. I texted everyone…including my children. I was about to finish the second round of prednisone and Robitussin with codeine and I was no better than I was when I started the first round.
Dr. Meyers sat across from me in the exam room, looking at his tablet, reviewing my symptoms and my history. He listened to my lungs again. He scooted his stool back, and said, “I don’t think we’re dealing with asthma. I think you may have vocal cord dysfunction.”
“I have what?”
He explained that VCD mimics asthma.
I was first diagnosed with asthma in the mid 90s when stationed in Rota, Spain. Since then, I’ve had allergy induced asthma, exercise induced asthma, and stress induced asthma. Drinking from a glass with an ice cube could trigger an asthma attack.
I had allergy shots many years ago, and my allergies seem to be under control so it never, for a split second, dawned on me that this was anything, but an infection or allergy induced asthma. After all, it was spring. I truly had asthma, but now it looks like things were going to get complicated.
Dr. Meyers scheduled me for a methacholine challenge test (MCT). While there was a change in baseline and I needed a nebulizer treatment after the MCT, there wasn’t enough of a change for asthma to be determined as what was causing my current breathing problems. I was immediately scheduled to see an ENT…Dr. Tom.
Dr. Tom performed a direct laryngoscopy. The laryngoscope went in my nose and down my throat and he had me make a number of sounds while he watched my vocal cords. It didn’t take, but a few moments, for him to diagnose me with VCD. My vocal cords were closing when they were supposed to be opening. It’s actually a lot more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of it.
LEARNING TO BREATHE AGAIN
Now, I had to get yet another consult – to see a speech pathologist so I could learn how to speak and breathe. Again. Or properly. I’m not sure which.
The first thing, Drew, my speech pathologist, instructed me to do was to set an alarm on my phone for every 15 minutes of my waking hours. When the alarm went off, I needed to “check” to see if I was breathing or holding my breath. I know I tend to hold my breath A LOT, especially when I’m anxious, and that can contribute to VCD. I can’t begin to tell you how quickly 15 minutes seems to roll around or how annoying that alarm was, but I can tell you that I was holding my breath more times than I wasn’t.
I also learned how to interrupt a cough. I first take a sip of water – which means I need to have water with me at all times, and then breathe in for 3 seconds and out for 3 seconds with my lips pursed. And then, another sip of water.
One exercise, when I’m in a full-on coughing fit, involves me breathing through my nose and sticking my tongue all the way out past my teeth and lower lip, down toward my chin and breathing out through my mouth. This relaxes the vocal cords. It doesn’t look pretty…especially when you’re out to dinner with your husband.
One day during a session, I was having severe problems and Drew and I worked through all of the exercises. As much as I tried, I’d get temporary relief – think a few seconds to a minute or two – and then I’d start having problems again. Drew and I had talked previously, albeit briefly, about my trauma history. My rape history. It was during this session that he believed that he had done everything that he could for me and that suggested that I be evaluated by my psych team for conversion disorder. He thought that conversion disorder was causing or at least contributing to the VCD. I had heard of conversion disorder before…people who can’t walk, stuck in wheelchairs with no physical reason as to why. He handed me a piece of paper to give to my psych team, and I walked out of his office, wondering, “How does conversion disorder relate to me?”
A NOT-SO-SIMPLE QUESTION
Later that week, I sat in Emily’s office – my therapist, and explained to her what had happened. She looked at me gently and softly asked me if anyone had ever forced his penis down my throat.
It turns out, when I found my voice, I lost my breath.