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Take Back Your Power: Owning and Releasing Trauma and Fear

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TRIGGER WARNING: This post deals with an account of physical and emotional abuse and may be triggering to some people.

“I say I am stronger than fear.” ~Malala Yousafzai

“Don’t be scared.” It’s so easy to say, yet sometimes, for many of us, so hard to accomplish.

When I was about three or four years old, my dad locked me in the chicken coop in our back yard. This was a punishment. I was naked and screaming, literally jumping up and down with terror.

Another punishment consisted of my mother rubbing human waste in my face.

There are other things they did, other things I went through, but I’ll let those two examples stand as confirmation of the physical and emotional abuse I suffered as small child.

Then when I was nineteen, some friends and I were physically assaulted by another group of young men. No reason, no motive. We were ganged up on one at a time and not a single one of us managed any sort of self-defense.

The police told us “not to bother” pressing charges, so we didn’t. Those guys went home free and clear, but a few months later, I unexpectedly found myself almost convulsing on my bedroom floor, unable to breathe or move, absolutely terrified that the next time I left my house, I would die.

It was quite the one-two combination for a kid (and as a dad now, I very much consider nineteen as still being a kid). The events of my childhood coupled with the events of that night left me a changed person for the rest of my life.

Maybe you know what that feels like. Maybe something has happened to you that has impacted your day-to-day existence. Before we go any further, let me just say: I’m sorry. And I understand.

Between the assault and the things done to me at home (and at school), I eventually was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and panic disorder.

My entire life, I had uncontrollable fits of blind rage that led to the destruction of many things around the house—doors, toys, trees, furniture, concrete blocks . . . anything that was handy and would make a good CRASH! when I broke it.

I would utterly lose control, punching myself and anything nearby. I would scream until I couldn’t speak, then spend three days isolated in my room hating the world and debating the merits of staying alive.

Eventually I’d “snap out of it” and resume my normal life, but within a few weeks, the whole cycle would start all over again, trigged by something as innocuous as the garage door not opening all the way on the first press of a button.

I couldn’t handle sudden loud noises; they’d scare me half to death and put in me in a bad mood the rest of the day. If I had a near collision while driving, my entire day would be ruined as the adrenalin pumped through me on a non-stop loop.

The flip side of my outrageous anger was my paralyzing fear that arose after I was assaulted. I could not leave the house after sunset, and could only go to certain “safe” places during the day.

I couldn’t walk to the end of my street in the middle of the day without shaking. I once ditched my own birthday party because it was at another person’s house and I couldn’t make myself get in the car to go there.

I could go on. But if you have ever had an anxiety or panic attack, you know the feeling. And the frequency. Even as I write this, quite safe and secure, my heart is racing and my stomach clenching.

I didn’t get a professional diagnosis until I was almost forty, and the reason I did not get that diagnosis is because I didn’t tell anyone what really happened. Then when the diagnosis came, I fought it. I argued it and resisted it.

I didn’t feel I had earned PTSD. That was a disorder for war veterans and first-responders. I’m an author—my most dangerous work is done on a laptop at a coffee shop. And as for panic attacks, that just meant I was a wimp. (I used a different word, though.)

Here’s what I want you to know, because I want you to have the best life you can. These are the things I wish I had known ten or twenty years ago.

First, I had to name the trauma.

I had been to a raft of professional therapists, counselors, pastors, and friends, and even a psychiatric hospital stay, trying to find a way out of my angry and fearful lifestyle. While many were helpful, none really helped me recover because I didn’t tell them the whole story.

I kept the darkest parts of my past to myself, worried about how I would be perceived. But the more frequently I share my story now, the more validated I feel. It becomes more and more apparent that I’m not some kind of freak or aberration.

These things really happened, and they really were that bad. Which brings me to the next thing you need to know:

I had to accept that I did “earn” my diagnoses.

We mustn’t fall into the trap of comparison. We mustn’t say to ourselves, “Oh, well, Frank was in direct-action combat/had alcoholic parents/got locked in a basement, he had it worse than me.”

No. Frank’s life is Frank’s life. Your life is yours. PTSD and anxiety are not a human being’s natural state of being. Something bad happened to you, and that is not okay. It left a lasting, damaging impression.

The only way to begin moving forward, to reclaim our lives, is to let the truth of our story exist in its own authentic way without comparing ourselves to others.

Third, there is a difference between being scared and being afraid.

Being scared is a natural and healthy response to danger. It’s healthy because it can keep you alive when your instincts tell you something is wrong. That’s the whole point of being scared.

Scared is an adrenalin dump, preparing your body to fight, flee, or freeze. If you are scared, there’s probably a very good and sane reason for it.

“Afraid” is something different. Afraid is how you do life. It’s how you process the world around you: family, friends, career, hobbies, pets . . . everything.

The night I was attacked, I was scared. And that was perfectly natural. Every night thereafter, I was afraid.

If you’re afraid, your mind automatically screens every single decision you make through the filter of fear. What happens if I take this job? Go on this date? Travel to this place? Panic sets in, often resulting in complete and total inaction. Afraid is a thief. It steals everything from us.

Finally, and perhaps most difficult: You will have no forward motion in your life without forgiveness.

Author and speaker Rob Bell says that to have really forgiven, we must truly wish the best for those who have hurt us. It’s not enough to say the words, even if it’s face-to-face (and face-to-face might make things worse; the person you’re forgiving may have no honest grasp that what they did was wrong).

What matters is that we truly release them and want the best for their lives. That is how we can know we have forgiven them. When we can do that, their power over us and the power of fear begin to wane.

It’s been many years since I had a real panic attack. I do still have the symptoms of PTSD from time to time; it’s not like chicken pox that will run its course and leave me with the antibodies to prevent it from roaring back.

But I am much less angry than I used to be. I don’t break things anymore. I don’t lose minutes, hours, and days nursing my grudges, time that I could have spent with my wife, my son, my friends, or my job. I still jump at sudden, surprise loud noises. It still takes me a while to recover from a near-miss in traffic.

But the people who hurt me no longer have power over me because I have forgiven them. I want the best for them. It took (and can take) a long time. But it’s essential to becoming whole, to no longer being afraid.

Remember that forgiveness is not condoning or making excuses for the wrong. You may need to remove yourself from people who have a habit of hurting you. And that is all right. You do not deserve to be hurt. No one does.

Don’t be afraid.

Boy silhouette via Shutterstock

Profile photo of Tom Leveen

About Tom Leveen

Tom Leveen is the author of seven novels with imprints of Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Harry Abrams. His most recent novel, Shackled, is about a girl dealing with PTSD and panic disorder as she deals with the kidnapping of her best friend. He is a frequent speaker and instructor at conferences, conventions, and schools. Visit him online at

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  • Sri Purna Widari

    Hi, I am sorry for what you have been through.
    I can imagine how shocked and frightening it must have felt for you.
    I wish you the best in your life and recovery.

  • raychil

    I’m so sorry for all those horrific things that happened to you. It’s sounds like u have done an amazing job of moving on though. And your article will help many people, like it has with me… Thank you. I also know the feeling of the non stop adrenaline loop all too often and its really horrible.. its really liberating to know its not just me and its normal. Thanks so much for telling ur story it has really helped me 🙂

  • Abigail Odiet Wojahn

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. I admire how much you have been through and how you have come so far with dealing with such horrible things as a youth. I definitely can relate and do suffer the same anger and resentment towards others based on past painful and traumatic experiences. I hate that I am angry all the time and that even if someone slights me in the least I want to persecute them the rest of their lives for that. I definitely struggle with the forgiveness aspect as it is hard for me to trust someone to forgive them. I am still working on it but hearing stories like yours gives me the hope and motivation that one day, I can let all these things go that I hold on to as a sort of security blanket so i don’t get hurt again. Thank you. Love and Hugs!

  • Nida

    Thankyou so much for writing your story.I went through some serious emotional verbal abuse in my last 4 years relationship.i had to let go of it because i was so afraid of him and my life .I lost my career, my family trust everything because of him.Now i am trying to start my life again from zero. Rightnow its hard for me to forgive him because he still threatens me .I am just so lost and scared .There is so much anger in me but i cnt do anything abt it .Life isnt as easy as i thought it would be.i just want to survive through it 🙁

  • Bullyinglte

    Tom, boy do I know your story. You are correct that the child abuse you suffered is now known in the psychological areas as Complex PTSD (more than just PTSD). C-PTSD comes from childhood trauma and for me, it was the constant bullying I suffered from ages 7-13. Certainly the displaced aggression (rage) you and I both deal with is tough. But it sounds like you and I are on track to try to put the past behind us. Of course it’s never that easy. We are made up of our experiences. But two steps forward for every one step back is progress for me. I take it a day at a time and that’s the best I can do. Thank you so much for sharing and I am sorry for your suffering. I know what it can feel like.

  • Tom Leveen

    Thank you, Abigail. It is hard, no doubt about it. I wish I could say I had it all wrapped up nice and neat, but I don’t. Probably we never do. But I’m glad this post was helpful, it was many decades in the making. 🙂 I totally understand not letting go. You can do it when it’s time. Take care!

  • Tom Leveen

    Thank you! I hadn’t heard of C-PTSD yet, I will be sure to ask about it. I’m glad that I now am in a position thanks to my job that I get to tell as many young people as I can that they can be better and do better when it comes to bullying and violence. I think change is happening. Slow, but happening. (PS I sent you tweet about this.) Thanks again!

  • Tom Leveen

    Nida, you did the right thing in my opinion, and I hope and trust you’ll have or find a group of people to help keep you safe in every possible way. No one deserves to be treated abusively. Starting over must be hard, but you can do it. I know you can. 🙂

  • Tom Leveen

    Absolutely normal and awful. 🙂 Thank you for posting, I really wanted to turn what happened into something good. I wish I could say I was “cured” but I don’t think that happens very often. Improvement, though…totally. Lots of improvement. And *I’m* glad (in a sense) that I’m not alone, either, even though I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. I’m sure you know what I mean. 🙂 Thank you!

  • Tom Leveen

    Thank you very much, Sri. 🙂

  • Sri Purna Widari

    Your welcome.

  • Tom Leveen

    Thank you, Autumn. Hang in there. It feels like forever, I know. I hope you’ll keep working toward being able to communicate what has happened. It really did take years for me, and I’m still learning. But it’s absolutely worth it. I know you can do this, and keep letting your husband know your appreciation – that helps too. 🙂 Take care.

  • raychil

    I totally know what you mean 🙂 I also feel like i have improved so so much. i dont really see a finite ‘cured’ end point for me, just a journey where i keep improving… but im ok with that. Im kind of glad of my experience wierdly because i feel that i am strong enough to deal it, and now i can truly understand what it feels like and help others with similar experiences. well u sharing ur experience helped me far more than u probably realise .. to discover that i am not crazy/sick with something else causing this wierd adrenaline loop thing lol i can finally accept it as part of the process… thats a really big thing for me 🙂

  • LoverofPeace

    I am over 50 and just diagnosed with PTSD. My childhood stories are also full of horror and trauma like yours. It has led to a disbelief that I should feel loved or valued. It has led to acceptance of any ill treatment in order to be accepted. I want the world to see that what happens to children matters. Yes, children are “resilient” and survive; but, emotional damage is for a lifetime. One thought I had- your later trauma- if you had been in a loving family who nurtured you through that trauma, wouldn’t that have made a difference? I think for individuals without the foundation children need to feel valued and loved, later trauma or loss is far more devastating and damaging; which, of course, only compounds the initial trauma and emotional injury. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on the 19-year-old incident if it occurred to you as a child of loving, caring, non-abusive, supportive parents. If you can. If that goes too far, I understand.

  • A Hope

    Yes! And learning to feel the pain release it and let it go by forgiving myself for not knowing how and holding it in for so long that it created its own damage. Accepting that was difficult but better than resisting the truth and I know my future will be better than now but I can still be grateful for now

  • Tom Leveen

    I’m sorry to be getting back to you after so long about your post on Tiny Buddha. In answering your question: YES, absolutely if I’d been in a more supportive family environment, the panic issue would have been dealt with much faster and more effectively. I know this because I married into a family who handled life in a completely different manner than mine did, and I can see now what caring, non-abusive families are capable of dealing with in positive and foward-moving ways. As a dad, I now play scenarios out in my head where my life experience is played out with my own son, and I know the different actions I would take to help him. Yes, there was a definite compounding of the damage. I’m so glad you got a diagnoses, it makes all the difference.