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Vicki Hellerick

Banishing the bad ghost

vickie_hellerick

Vikki Hellerick kept the trauma of sexual abuse by a relative a secret for decades.

This story contains content that could be upsetting or triggering for some individuals. Please exercise your best judgment and self care in choosing whether or not to read it. If you need help, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text Crisis Text Line at 741741.

Listen to Vikki’s Story

Digging into the farthest corners of reminiscence, Vikki Hellerick can summon up a handful of happy memories from the earliest years of her rural Pennsylvania childhood: Assuming the role of a canine named “Red” while playing “cats and dogs” with a younger brother. Visiting the always-welcoming next-door neighbors, Millie and Mr. Bill. Examining with fascination the collection of rocks and geodes in the yard of an uncle.

But about the time Hellerick (who is non-binary and uses they and them pronouns) entered the third grade, the good was quickly overshadowed by the bad. Unable to focus or stay on task at school, Hellerick was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, initiating a “life long journey with medications and feeling different than my peers.” Placed in remedial classes, forced to visit the nurse’s office every day at lunch to take medication and ostracized by other students, there was little that brought joy or anticipation.

While Hellerick was still in elementary school, the family moved to the suburbs of Philadelphia to be closer to their paternal grandfather’s farm. Not long thereafter, the sexual abuse began. Unable to accept a grandfather could do such a thing to a beloved grandchild, Hellerick assigned him an alternate identity and name – “The Bad Ghost” – and disassociated from his increasingly aggressive assaults.

The Bad Ghost said, “in no uncertain terms that if I told anyone I would go to foster care, it would break up our family and I would be to blame. It was to be ‘our’ little secret,” they recall. So the abuse was revealed to no one and the memory of it buried so deeply that “there are huge chunks of years of my childhood where I remember almost nothing at all,” they said.

The internalized trauma, as it often does, found other outlets. Hellerick turned to cutting and other methods of self-harm. A promising athlete who excelled at volleyball became, by middle school, a rail-thin waif with anorexia whose weight fell dangerously below 100 pounds. The mental anguish was compounded when Vikki and her brother wandered over one day to play in their uncle’s yard and, when he didn’t answer their calls, discovered him sitting in a chair inside the house, dead.

As the abuse got worse, a new agony was added to the mix: voices that said Hellerick was a horrible person no one cared about and who didn’t deserve to live. The depression and self-harm escalated, but because Vikki had gotten so good at submerging emotions, no one helped to stop the downward spiral. It wasn’t until 11th grade, when a psychologist monitoring a test noticed the deep scratches on their arms and persisted in asking about them that Hellerick finally broke down and trusted someone enough to reveal that “the voices wouldn’t leave me alone and I was suicidal.” They were immediately sent to a crisis center.

A psychiatrist there took one look at the scars on Hellerick’s arms and said, “Why do you do that to yourself? It’s disgusting.” With which the cutting resumed with a vengeance. That initiated a stay in a youth mental health facility where they encountered scenes that produced “nightmares for a very long time.”

“My roommate was a pyrotechnic, the girl across the hall was severely schizophrenic and smearing her feces on the walls and in the common area, a girl told me she had cooked her baby in the oven,” Hellerick says. “As someone who had never been in a place like this, it was very traumatizing. So I did whatever I had to do to get out. I lied. I took my medication even though I hated it. I went to therapy. And I learned even better how to disassociate. And then I got out and went back to my life.”

A sexual assault by a friend’s uncle at a party when they were not yet 18 led to a year-long relationship (“If you could call it that”). At the time, Hellerick thought it was love “because, in a weird way, he cared about me,” but in hindsight realized it was abuse. When he used blackmail to try to keep the sexual relationship going, it became “just torture.”

Hellerick broke free of the relationship by moving to attend a university a few hours away, but rejected a position on the volleyball team that had been offered. Instead, doctors layered medication on top of medication as their anxiety and depression spiraled out of control. That eventually included benzodiazepines —which worked “way too well,” quickly turning into an addiction that eventually escalated to a 10 mg a day habit.

As life at school began to fall apart, Hellerick took a medical withdrawal, moved home and re-enrolled at a local community college. But the self harm, drug use and anxiety continued to grow and the anorexia evolved into binge eating and purging. The next six years were a rotating cycle of hospital stays and medication additions, to the point where functioning in any normal sort of way became impossible.

“I didn’t realize how sick I was,” Hellerick says. “This had been my life for 20-some years. I thought it was just normal.”

When Vikki was 23, her grandfather died as the result of a farming accident, crushed by a tractor. Hellerick, who by this time had deeply submerged all memory of his years of assaults, barely reacted to the news of his death, which came in a phone call from their father.

“I said, OK, OK” and then I turned over and went back to sleep,” they recalled. It was only later that it struck Vikki that such a facile acceptance of his death was “a pretty callous way to react.” Pressured by their parents to attend his funeral, Hellerick seethed through the service each time someone who considered the deceased a “pillar of the community” heaped more accolades on his memory. But at least his death felt — in some obscure way as yet unripe for examination — liberating.

The one bright spot amidst all the darkness was Hellerick’s work at a summer camp for children, where as a counselor, they could vicariously live, through the exuberance of the young campers, the happy adolescent years missed from their own life. Hellerick has fond memories of playing in creeks and river beds, going “frogging,” and playing pranks on the camp director using cicada shells. Coaching the kids and helping them achieve their goals created a contentment that allowed Vikki to back off from cutting, though the eating disorder continued.

Then, just as it seemed a healthier mental state might be a possibility, Hellerick experienced another setback while visiting an aunt’s house in a small town during a vacation. While at a local business that offered the only wifi connection in town, the husband of the business owner (who had taken out a restraining order against him), entered the shop and killed his wife and then himself, all within feet of where Vikki sat. Not realizing the man was dead and certain a mass shooting was going to ensue, they fled in hysteria.

In Hellerick’s world, you didn’t examine such traumas, you swallowed them. Within a day, they were back at their job at Starbucks, where each whoosh of the espresso machine, each clatter of metal on metal, each door slam, brought a frenzied panic. Eventually, a supervisor asked the employee what the hell was going on and, after learning of the murder/suicide, said in shock, “What are you even doing here?”

Yet even after being diagnosed with PTSD, Hellerick resumed life as if nothing had happened, continuing to see a therapist where “we would just talk about the trauma and then – no cool down, no centering – I would go back to my life and be completely flooded and triggered with these memories.”

Living alone in Doylestown, Pennsylvania and enjoying a new-found freedom perhaps a little too much, Hellerick substituted alcohol for drugs and “hit a lot of nevers I’d promised myself I’d never do” – driving drunk, working drunk, using men’s interest to get more alcohol. After developing a seizure disorder – similar to epilepsy but caused by stress within the brain – another medication was added to the drug lineup.

Then the real “love of my life” entered Hellerick’s world, someone it’s still hard for them to talk about because the feelings run so deep. The relationship was “not the best,” Vikki said, though the deep feelings remain. After enduring three agonizing weeks while he was hospitalized for brain surgery in 2019, Hellerick left the relationship and moved to Florida.

The following year, still insisting addiction wasn’t a factor, Hellerick went to a rehab facility in Utah and discovered that withdrawal from alcohol and benzodiazepines was not only exceedingly difficult, but medically dangerous. It wasn’t until six months later – the date, June 13, 2020, is indelibly etched in their mind – that Hellerick got clean while attending an eating disorders clinic in West Palm Beach, Florida. That was also where the memories of “The Bad Ghost” were finally fully recovered and shared with a therapist.

“I was on my phone one night and saw one of those Facebook memories and it said, ‘My grandfather died and two days before was his birthday,’ and something just clicked,” Hellerick recalls. “All these memories just came flooding back and I was a mess, to say the least.”

In that initial moment of angst and upset, Hellerick called their parents, blurting out some memories of incidences long hidden. At a counseling appointment the next day, the therapist got Vikki’s parents on Zoom and said, “They’re threatening to pull you from treatment because they think we’re not helping you. So you need to tell them what’s going on. You need to tell your parents what you’ve been hiding for 32 years.”

Sobbing and fearful of their scorn or disbelief, Hellerick told them of the years of abuse. Their father reacted with silence, digesting the impact of these accusations against his own parent. But Hellerick’s mother felt as if a light had at last been shed on the child whose behaviors she had never been able to understand.

“This makes perfect sense,” she said. “We knew something was going on with you, but we never knew what. And to keep all this secret for 32 years….well, it all makes complete sense now.”

Today Hellerick, who lives with their mother in Sarasota, Florida, continues her journey toward healing and recovery while working on familial relationships. Having “Type A” parents with personalities and perspectives radically different from their own isn’t easy, Hellerick admits. “but they realize I have a past and I have trauma and I need to heal.”

Hellerick also serves as a peer counselor and speaker for the local affiliate of NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness), sharing their experiences and insights with students from middle school to college age. Music, photography and meditation are part of the recovery regimen and while it remains difficult for Hellerick to trust and confide, they do reach out more often and more easily these days to friends and a team of mental health professionals to avoid a relapse.

Hellerick has now been clean of alcohol and drugs for 14 months and has found a balance of medications to even out her depression and anxiety without nullifying emotions and energy. Having insurance – through her work and government assistance – has been an enormous advantage and blessing since the medication and treatment they’ve received would otherwise be unaffordable.

College classes continue, in family and human development (with a minor in women and gender studies) with the goal of becoming a therapist. And, next month a new job begins, as a technician at a local mental health hospital. Hellerick believes her own experience as a patient will inform and enhance her interactions with others who are traumatized and in similar situations.

“To see other people with similar diagnoses be able to function and work and just enjoy life doing what they love has inspired me,” Hellerick said. “Not to say I don’t still struggle, but I look forward to providing that inspiration for others. When I was younger, I just thought, ‘I am this illness. I am such a problem and a burden. Now I believe I can make a difference. Even a year ago, I couldn’t have said that.”