As the title suggests, this post needs a trigger warning for those who have experienced sexual trauma. This post also contains explicit content.
This post is about to get real, very real. As I browsed back through my blog post history I realize there is one piece of my life that I have not really touched on since I started this blog in 2011. And now it’s time to talk about it.
For anyone who’s suffered abuse in the past there are triggers that can bring you back to the awful moment(s) of the abuse, make you feel waves of emotions you’ve tried to suppress, take away your breath and ability to think clearly.
The worst thing about triggers is that you don’t know when one will happen or what will cause it. In fact, the trigger itself doesn’t have to be frightening or traumatic to make a person recall a traumatic memory.
Take IHOP, for example. I hate IHOP. I hate hearing about it, seeing an advertisement of it, driving past it. There’s nothing wrong with the place itself, in fact, I used to love its chocolate chip pancakes with lots and lots of whipped cream. But IHOP was where we ate the night he raped me. And now, I hate IHOP.
It was Wednesday, October 3rd, 2007, college night at IHOP. A small group of us sat at a booth, mostly friends of his. We left at 2 am and headed back to his place where a group of us were going to watch a movie. There was no group. There was no movie. There was no going back to life as it was before that night.
A person never fully gets over something like that. Please don’t misunderstand me, there is so much healing, beautiful, releasing healing, that can happen. I’ve witnessed it, I’ve experienced it. But, as other survivors know, the memories still linger below the surface, no matter how many years have passed. And that’s why triggers are so scary.
In May of 2010 I went with a group of mostly female students from my university to Morocco. The country, the language, the landscape were beautiful but I was not prepared for the amount of sexual harassment that I would experience. We walked around in pairs, wore loose clothing, and even tried to cover our hair but nothing dissuaded the young harassers.
Sometimes they would stand in groups and yell and whistle at us. Sometimes they would follow us, whispering in our ears. Sometimes they would grab us. Once, I was walking with my roommate and one of the men who was following us grabbed me by the elbow while whispering obscene things to me.
I lost it. “GET THE FUCK OFF ME!” I yelled, jerking my arm out of his grasp. “Don’t fucking touch me!” I let out an exasperated cry as tears of anger flowed from my eyes. The group of men stopped, astonished. Then they dispersed. That type of harassment is hard for any human being to deal with but, for me, every time someone said something explicit to me it took me back to that night in October 2007. The night I felt like the most worthless piece of shit.
“Shut up, bitch, stop talking,” he had said. “You’re talking too much.” So the words “no” and “please stop” were too much? They were too much?!
I think this is also why I have such a visceral reaction to street harassers. I’d had a violation of my being, my body, and my spirit and the notion that someone would try to violate me again in such a public space infuriates me beyond belief. For a while I even had a hard time when men would smile at me on the street and whenever a man would open his mouth I’d assume he was about to harass me.
I also had, and still have, a hard time with crowds of men, especially on the subway. The side seats leave you facing outward toward the throngs of people standing and when many or all of the people surrounding me are men I get nervous. From where I am seated my face is directly in line with their genitalia and I suddenly am petrified that one of them will grab my head and push it to their crotch.
When a trigger hits you it can be debilitating. You can feel your breath restricting, the room spinning, and you just need to get out and find space to breathe. I watched the movie For Colored Girls in college with a friend of mine who is also a survivor. It was a powerful, intense film with a rape scene that nearly made you vomit. We sat in my car afterward and I held her as she shook, the trauma of that trigger taking over.
I was so grateful to the professor of a film class I took who warned us when films may be difficult for certain people to watch. I approached him once after class and told him I could not see the upcoming film or join the discussion because it would trigger too much trauma for me. And he let me miss it, no questions asked.
If you find yourself in a situation where a trigger may arise there is nothing shameful about removing yourself from it. In fact, it is an act of courage and strength. It’s an act of knowing and loving yourself. Triggers will come and they will go but you can’t live life in fear of them. A life lived in fear is not a life lived at all.
Some of the most resilient, beautiful, bold souls I know are survivors and they’ve experienced pain you can’t imagine and you better believe they experience triggers. But they are strong, so strong, even when they don’t feel like they are. They are strong because they push through, they love anyway, they hope, they cry, they strive, they fight, they don’t give in and they don’t give up.
A friend of mine shared with me recently about her experience with sexual assault and how she didn’t want that to be the defining piece of her life story. And I fully empathize with that. It is a risk we take as survivors to tell people our stories.
I have shared so much with you in my blog that I’m sure there are many words you could use to define me: victim, suicidal, depressed, neurotic, pessimistic, hopeless. But I would hope the words survivor, empathizer, lover, dreamer, bold, brave, and open also come to mind. But if I’m being really honest, I don’t really care what your labels are because I know my worth and the worth of my story. And no label or abuser or trigger can undermine that worth.