It’s a bit hard to believe that it has been a full 10 years. On June 6th, 2009, I walked away from an incredibly abusive situation, though “escaped” is probably a more accurate term. I can still hear the still, small voice inside my head that said, “If you don’t go now, you will die here.” I kept trusting that voice out of survival necessity, not bravery, despite feeling soul crushing shame every time I did. The exact context of the abuse I suffered is rare and hard for people to relate to, which added to the isolation that all survivors naturally feel as a part of the experience of abuse of any kind. The situation I was in I later learned met the criteria for what is called a “one-on-one cult”, whereby the perpetrator uses all of the tactics of cultic abuse but in a one-on-one relationship, which cult experts say can be even more damaging since all of the focus is on one person. After learning about my case, the head of the International Cultic Studies Association told my mother that it was essentially like I was living with Jim Jones (you know, the guy who caused the largest mass suicide our country has ever seen.) This kind of abuse is incredibly damaging because the core part of me that I had counted on my whole life to lead me away from anything negative – my soul – was systematically, insidiously manipulated to the point that I could no longer trust my own beliefs on what was good and what was bad. The shame that had been heaped onto me prevented my internal compass from functioning accurately and freely and by the time I got free physically, my mind, body and spirit were still in shackles.
 
I grew up without any severe trauma, with unconditional love from both parents, wonderful friends, and academic and artistic opportunities at my fingertips. A professionally working actor, singer, voice over artist and model from the time I was a young child, I won the legendary It’s Showtime At The Apollo when I was 12 and was discovered by the woman who discovered Michael Jackson, which opened up many opportunities. I ended up moving to Los Angeles to pursue my career as an actor and singer when I was 15, with my mother, though my parents remained together. I had a top manager and agent, studio meetings set up and had raised $14,000 following “Marissa’s Guide To Financial Independence” which I presented to my parents one night over dinner along with my plea to pursue my career on a national level. I had skipped a grade in school and legally graduated at 15 in order to work on sets longer hours. I remained in classes till the end of my senior year, when I was 17 ½, and I was accepted into my top two schools, NYU and USC. I decided to defer my acceptance for a year in order to keep my representation and try to keep working. At that time, my mom decided to move back to my hometown of Louisville to be with my dad who had just lost his father. We decided it was a good fit for me to live with someone whom I was briefly acquainted with from my hometown, a fellow actor. When we re-met in Los Angeles we became fast friends and by the time we had decided to be roommates, I thought I was living a real life Will & Grace fantasy, having found my new best friend and even soul mate. Everything was heightened and a bit romanticized and I had never felt so close to another human being. Despite having a solid education, I didn’t know what love bombing was. I didn’t realize that I wasn’t experiencing a genuine connection but rather “mirroring” and I certainly didn’t realize that this was all just part of the first signs of an abusive relationship. I didn’t know at the time that my first roommate fresh out of high school was a sociopath.
 
Abuse doesn’t happen overnight. Had he done even one of the things that he did at the end of our relationship when we first met, I would have said he was crazy and run as fast as I could. But that’s never how abuse works. If you put a frog in a boiling pot of hot water, it jumps out. If you put it in a pot of lukewarm water and slowly turn up the temperature, it burns alive. And burning alive is a pretty good description of what it felt like. I didn’t know that when things slowly started to shift away from an idyllic friendship that it was the first sign of “intermittent reward and punishment.” In the beginning, things went back to normal pretty quickly after an abusive episode and I didn’t realize that that simply meant I was part of the cycle of abuse. I subconsciously learned what I needed to do in order to keep my equilibrium so I didn’t realize I was being controlled. And I wasn’t being hit. I didn’t know much about abuse that didn’t involve hitting. I’ll spare you all of the details for now – one day I’ll write a book and make a movie about it – but let’s just say that what started as simple silent treatment that could have been mistaken for a roommate needing their space and what I thought was being in a book club discussing important spiritual and philosophical ideas with my closest confidante, a year and a half later had escalated into him taking my books off the shelf and my paintings off the wall to challenge my “materialism” as well as taking my secular programs off of DVR and passing pamphlets under my door about Satan. What started out as an accountability buddy to point out when I may be acting out of my ego instead of my highest self turned into confession sessions, listening to religious media and reading religious texts for 12 hours a day and dismantling every bit of self esteem, self worth and self love I had ever had. Any time I confronted him with my hurt feelings or, God forbid, my anger, Satan, I was repeatedly told, in the most seemingly loving, innocuous way, was simply attacking me and trying to destroy our relationship. I often joke now that when you give a sociopath a Bible, shit hits the fan, just look at history…and that it did. I went from having a genuine faith that was my own to it being slowly but surely used against me to justify preventing me from consuming secular media, eating nutritious foods, going outside, wearing makeup (though somehow it was okay for him to wear mine as well as my clothing), going to acting class or being around my friends or family. In addition, I believed that the people who were trying to help me the most, my parents and the therapist I agreed to see but bombarded with questions about the salvation of my soul instead of sharing instances of abuse with him for several, painful weeks, were actually temptations from Satan. I had been manipulated financially, emotionally, verbally and psychologically as well and my mental, emotional and physical health were left in shambles.
 
At this point it’s important to note that what many people don’t realize is that being trapped in an abusive situation has little to do with one’s intelligence or even confidence and everything to do with what our brains naturally do when we are in extreme fear to keep us alive. Trauma bonding, agreeing with and defending the abuser and blaming one’s self instead, happens in moments of extreme fear and confusion and if the abuse happens often enough and the brain can’t process it, our brains get stuck in that state out of survival instincts, which happen in a 60th of a second in our amygdala. Because he spent months laying the foundation of a trusted friend and mirroring my beliefs and instincts, when things slowly started to shift, I had no reason to believe he did not have my best interests in mind. I couldn’t wrap my brain around what was happening because I didn’t know about this phenomenon of sociopathic abuse.
 
By the time I left, I was in a state of what’s called 24-hr flashback, which is as horrifying as it sounds, I regularly dissociated and even hallucinated and something as simple as my father kissing me on the cheek goodnight could send me into a 5 hour crying and screaming spell and make me suicidal. While I do not have a lucid memory of sexual abuse (which I learned is not uncommon), I did have body memories, what I refer to as still photos in my mind from a bird’s eye view and after the statute of limitations, a short flashback, though I am still not positive if it occurred. However, having been assaulted later, I feel comfortable saying that what was done to my mind and soul, in my personal instance, was far worse. Apart from all of the symptoms of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which I was diagnosed with, and the dissociative symptoms, I was also nearly unrecognizable physically. I had cystic acne for the first time in my life, my hair was falling out, I was so hunched over I looked 3 inches shorter, my irises even appeared darker, my usually dropped in voice raised to the pitch of someone half my age and I could barely sustain eye contact. I had signs of conditions ranging from chronic fatigue syndrome to fibromyalgia to epilepsy. By the time I had stabilized enough to at least try to live what a portion of the time resembled a normal life, I had a seizure. I was misdiagnosed with epilepsy after a 2 hour EEG and it wasn’t until the doctors overnighted me medication to New York, which they said could cause any future children of mine to have cleft palates and holes in their spine, and my mom begged me to get a second opinion, that I was given a 48 hour ambulatory EEG and told that I was actually suffering from Psychogenic Non-Epileptic Seizures. I learned that this mistake of over-reading the brain waves (which mine had certainly changed and I had the EEG results to prove it) leads to a very common and dangerous misdiagnosis. My mother knew in her heart that epilepsy wasn’t the case already because I had never shown signs of it until the night before I moved in with my next roommate, which goes to show how utterly terrified I was of being hurt like that again.
 
It took my therapist urging me to look up what a sociopath was to even put a crack in the brainwashing. My cognitive dissonance was so severe that I truly believed my mom and therapist had gotten together and created a website describing my former roommate to convince me to stay away from him, as he was fiercely trying to get me back in his grip. When I found about 10 more websites with the same list of traits, all of which my abuser had to a T, I began to believe that what was wrong wasn’t me; what was wrong was that I had indeed been living with a sociopath. That is when my healing began. I was incredibly fortunate to receive trauma-focused treatment like EMDR, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy and Somatic Experiencing which engaged the part of my brain where the fight or flight response occurs as opposed to the more common talk therapy. I also did my own drama therapy, trauma sensitive yoga, worked out, ate clean, meditated and journaled. It took me 5 years, but I lost my diagnoses of C-PTSD and PNES and began reentering my life. Along the way, I learned a lot about the mental health and medical fields and their lack of integration with the trauma field. I learned that the system is simply not set up to recognize trauma underneath issues ranging from depression to ADHD to alcoholism to cancer, despite the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (done on over 17,000 Keiser Permanente patients) and others clearly pointing to trauma as the root cause. I learned that my friend struggling with social anxiety, whose mother berated her throughout childhood, my neighbor struggling with depression, whose boyfriend choked her, my classmate struggling with alcoholism, who was raped, were all told that they had genetic predispositions and got diagnoses based on clusters of symptoms that they were told they would need to medicate and simply learn to cope with their whole lives. I didn’t feel that it was right that I was told a different narrative; that it wasn’t what was wrong with me but rather what had happened to me, and that therefore I was given the chance to process that trauma, to heal and to reclaim my life. I wanted to volunteer with an organization that was doing something about this huge gap in the system but I could only find organizations giving wonderful trauma treatment to a local population or national organizations focused on a single issue or population like war veterans, mental illness, addiction or domestic violence. I believed that the answer was to focus on the common, root issue of trauma regardless of cause or manifestation, and to create such public awareness of what it is and how to heal from it that there would be a supply and demand shift in our society for how we treat the surface symptoms. When I couldn’t find that organization, I started Healing TREE.
 
Healing TREE (Trauma Resources, Education & Empowerment) is dedicated to transforming how society responds to abuse and interpersonal trauma. We connect those who have suffered trauma with resources necessary for healing rather than coping, provide education to professionals across fields and the public at large that promotes awareness, effective intervention and cutting edge treatment and offer empowerment through producing arts projects that encourage a healing movement. Since we were founded 4 ½ years ago, we have partnered with some of the largest names in the trauma field internationally and I have given speaking engagements including keynotes and Continuing Education Units, training medical and mental health professionals, on the topics of abuse and healing trauma, at conferences, medical clinics, social service agencies and universities across the country. Recently, we sponsored training in the evidence-based trauma focused treatment modality, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), which saved my life, to therapists at social service agencies serving children in the foster system, 95% of whom are below the poverty level, bringing this life saving treatment to 1,250 of Kentucky’s most vulnerable children. We are already getting feedback that children are getting off medication for nightmares. Later this year, we will be releasing a short film, to be directed by John Magaro (The Big Short, Carol, The Umbrella Academy), which depicts the hard to spot but incredibly dangerous, abusive tactic of gaslighting and taking it to colleges where we will host workshops around the red flags of abuse and trauma, sharing the signs that I didn’t know about when I was that age. Because I was exposed to the resources that Healing TREE offers others, 10 years later, I am a working actor and advocate, in a healthy, beautiful relationship, and enjoy mental wellness, navigating any new upsets in ways that I never could have before my healing journey. I believe everyone deserves the chance to heal from trauma and that if our society shifts from labeling what is wrong with us to focusing on what has happened to us, neuroplasticity and the fact that our genes are turned off and on by life experiences tell us that we can all move towards healing. Thank you to everyone who has been a part of this journey. It sure is nice to be on the other side.
AUTHOR: Andrew Aebersold
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