How murder and mayhem eased my PTSD.
A few years ago, life came at me in a batshit series of events.
Worn down by a lifetime of suicidal depression, I finally got the guts to hire a therapist to help me confront the sexual abuse and neglect I’d gone through as a kid.
At the same time, I found a site online for dudes with similar childhoods, and I sought solace in my chats with distant strangers. I picked up a bit of their lingo, too; they called their therapists “my T” and their abusers “my perp,” as an indication of their ubiquity. Each of us had one of both.
As if on cue, later that year, my perp cornered me in his two-car garage during a family Thanksgiving to tell me about some stories he’d posted online. He had thousands of new fans and hundreds of emails from people who really “respected” and “connected” with his writing. He figured I might be interested in his success, being that I’m a writer and all.
He must have seen something on my face because he stepped aside and let me go.
Several weeks later and against my better instincts, I poked around online, looking for his posts during a late night at the office.
My mom had died a few years before and I’d spent those years attempting, despite the childhood abuse, to be a “good person” and to bridge the estrangement that had calcified between me and the perp through frequent visits to his house. It had been a challenge, as he’d spent most of those years questioning my life choices (my career, retirement plan, and city). I’d left every visit feeling irritable and defensive.
I found his posts and discovered that during those same years, around the time of my visits, he’d written and posted to the internet dozens of erotic stories about incest. They were all stories of jerk porn with familiar scenes — acts that had seared my nerves for the past 30 years. I knew without reading the ending where each tale ended up: a man, a boy, a bathroom filled with steam, and clothes in a trampled pile. They were lightly fictionalized versions of straight-up nonfictional events that I’d worked for three decades to forget.
My vision blurred and I clicked off the computer with a trembling hand. I left the office and took the train home, my body shuddering so much that the people near me moved away. When the doors opened and I hit the sidewalk, weird animal noises came out of me.
Why the fuck, I thought, did my perp want me to read those stories? I pictured thousands of his fans reading the stories with one hand wrapped around their pricks, jerking off to the things that had been done to me. I wondered if I knew any of those fans in real life. Within me, in a place past reach or reason, fear cracked open.
Later, I let out an hour-long, guttural scream of indictments at my perp as he hid in the privacy of his two-car garage. I pierced him with words, with three decades of pent-up grudge and rage. I screamed and swore and then I hung up for good. My shirt clung to me wetly. The screen of my phone was flecked with spit. My husband sat on the couch beside me, his face streaked in tears. I was a burnt out match.
I wasn’t afraid of my perp. After years at the gym, I’d grown much bigger than him. And anyway, he was an old man now. So I can’t tell you why during this time, my fear spread out past him, out into the world. It was primal, bone-deep terror that couldn’t be talked away. I can’t tell you why, exactly, I bought a combat knife online — delivered to me within two days, free of charge — and carried it with me on the train to work every day.
If a member of my own family could do that to me, then what could a complete stranger do?
I can’t tell you why I’d eke out a half day at work only to lock myself in an empty office, turn out the lights, remove my shoes and belt, lay on the floor, and rock back and forth for an hour. I can’t tell you why I had to take a medical leave of absence and wound up diagnosed with chronic PTSD, or why I shut out everyone in my life, including my friends, because nobody in the world felt safe. I can’t even tell you why I moved out of the bedroom I shared with my husband and slept in the spare room, why I couldn’t trace my steps back into my old life.
I guess the plainest way of putting it is this: If a member of my own family could do that to me, then what could a complete stranger do?
Over time, I became a recluse. I coped with the help of true crime. My mild, lifelong interest in the genre now turned to compulsion. It was the only thing I could tolerate, the one thing that fed me a grain of relief.
I consumed marathon stretches of shows on the Investigative Discovery channel. I watched massive, jaw-dropping amounts of true crime television. I inhaled shows with titles like Sinister Ministers, Southern Fried Homicide, and Fear Thy Neighbor.
Whatever your career, location, or income, these shows promised that you, too, could fall prey to something terrible. Thus, I gorged on crime in my bunker (locked bedroom, shades drawn) while playing Candy Crush on my phone, my dog curled beside me, trying to shut down my brain.
Here’s the thing: It worked. The shows held me back from the threshold of that abandoned amusement park in my head, where perps and knife-wielding clowns crouched in wait.
That year, while everyone was watching Downton Abbey. I’d grown nauseated by the show’s depiction of a family that stayed steadfastly loyal through multiple hardships.
Bullshit, I thought. Utter bullshit. I lost my stomach for comedies, laugh tracks, tearjerkers, and poignant celebrity bios. It was all crap for delusional suckers. The world was full of horrible people doing horrible things to other people, and anyone pretending otherwise was peddling drivel.
You could argue that watching so much crime only reinforced my trauma. Maybe you’re right. But after hundreds of hours of crime shows, I understood that I watched for the victims and their loved ones. I watched for the survivors who’d brushed death. Their tears, I bought. They made me feel less alone. They knew the wolf at the door. And more often than not, the wounds from their crimes dwarfed mine.
Of course, there’s a problem with true crime: Exploitation is inherent in the genre. Strangers’ tragedies broadcast for our entertainment. Some shows were shameless, with clumsy reenactments and pun-heavy, oily narration that made roadkill out of victims, deified the killer, and inspired the urge to shower.
Still, I watched.
I watched so much Investigative Discovery that I knew every commercial by heart. After watching constant ads for treatment centers, feminine hygiene, and adult undergarments, I wondered what that said about me, demographically speaking.
But watching live cable tied me tenuously to the world; other people watched those same shows and those same ads for rehabs, at the exact same moment. I wasn’t utterly alone. I was an astronaut tethered with one thin cord, oxygen depleting and deep space pulling me out to where, according to the tagline of my favorite movie, “no one could hear you scream.”
I left the house only for therapy. For weeks I arrived at my therapist’s office certain that this time, my T would have me committed for my own good. But he didn’t, I lived, and I kept watching true crime.
I chatted with more dudes on the abuse recovery site and read books on trauma, enough to see how much we had in common. Many of the dudes with our kind of childhoods had built elaborately constructed, impressively defended fortresses that could stand for decades. But those fortresses fell apart in our thirties and forties. We worked (if we worked) in stockrooms and empty warehouses. Some of us cashed our disability checks on the third of the month, budgeting for an Uber to our T and for smokes, booze, and Netflix.
And still, life kept coming. I suffered a divorce, poverty, and an unwilling exit from San Francisco, my home for 18 years that I could no longer afford. But as I bounced around the country in the coming months, my rocks were true crime and a chihuahua. I kept close to both, and I built new bunkers wherever I landed. I found new Ts, shut out my perp, and took jobs that kept me out of reach of the general public.
The one thing that would save me — human connection — was the one thing I couldn’t sustain.
I listened to Serial while trimming trees at a cousin’s house in Oregon. I bonded with My Favorite Murder on my three-train commute through Boston. I even smiled once or twice while driving home in western Massachusetts, as the dudes from Last Podcast on the Left broke down the tale of the Hillside Strangler.
I liked the solved cases. I craved the mysteries unknotted, the perps collared and convicted. I wanted a shot of a prison yard wreathed in razor wire, detective offering a hard-won grin, and someone saying “closure” without much faith. True crime was a fairy tale I wanted to believe.
After hundreds (thousands?) of hours, I grew familiar with the patterns of psychopaths and narcissists. Now I’d see them coming, strewing charm and butchery in their wakes. Now I’d steer clear.
I consumed so much true crime that I saw the full spectrum of people who’d lost loved ones to murder. I saw those who’d gotten stuck at the death, those who still looked like ghosts — like they were just existing, gutted by the loss of their only kid, sitting with open bottles at gray kitchen tables in the fading light of dusk. And who could fucking blame them?
True crime was a fairytale I wanted to believe.
But there were others, broken in places that would never heal but still limping forward. They wore scars and shed tears but the inner light hadn’t been snuffed out. They’d found a way. I wasn’t sure how but I doubted it involved slumping on a couch after work, gazing at crime every night. It was like they’d made a decision.
Eventually, I snuck out into the world for an hour or two at a time. I let my dog take me on longer walks. I ordered takeout from across the street. I slipped into the back row of meetings where fellow whiskey-thirsty folks gathered in blackly comic camaraderie. I made one friend in my new, strange town and he took me to the top of a nearby mountain.
I got better. Dating, in my small town, was an insurmountable challenge. So with the help of some iPhone apps I tried it long-distance, which kept dudes at a safe distance. I met a couple guys in what is called “real life.” I made mistakes, and I hurt some feelings. I mishandled my own anger — an emotion I’d squelched my whole life, which now came out of me sideways and bigger than any situation required.
Though nothing romantic lasted, I ended up with some good friends. I’d drive to Providence to visit one and we’d watch Friday night episodes of Dateline, with Keith Morrison gravely narrating how the husband did it but — through hubris and the dogged determination of gumshoes — didn’t get away with it.
Another friend in NYC would FaceTime me and we’d trash-talk certain loathsome and moronic serial killers (BTK), roll our eyes when people gushed over the “handsome” and “charming” Ted Bundy, tip each other off via texts about Dahmer documentaries, and scan our family trees to recall the narcissists who’d raised us. Within the rigid boundaries of the true crime genre, our childhood demons could be exorcised — or at any rate, diminished.
Through crime I made human connections, for the first time in years.
These days, I’m tethered to the world again. I’m bold — at times — online. I work in an office where the treacherous political waters require skillful navigation. I lift weights at a large, boisterous national gym chain. I see my T every Tuesday. I chat with my neighbors while walking the dog, no knife in my pocket.
I still love true crime. I play the podcasts during my commute. I binge old seasons of Investigative Discovery shows on Hulu. But for a couple of years, I’ve inched into crime’s close cousins of horror and mystery. Now I can even sip comedy in small doses.
I’m grateful for the company of true crime. It kept me, one hour at a time, one crime at a time, from wandering the amusement park in my head where the perps and the clowns lurked. They’re still there, now, but they’re smaller, gaunt from hunger, and hiding from the lights of the Midway, with their charms faded and their greasepaint melting in the rain.