Trigger warning: descriptions of sexual assault and triggers
Yesterday my boyfriend playfully touched the side of my ribs during a conversation. I jumped involuntarily, my whole body tensing up as if I’d been electrocuted. Immediately, he knew what happened. He’d triggered me. He began apologizing profusely while I just beamed. For the second time, I’d had a purely physical reaction to a trigger – no blinding fear, no flashbacks. I didn’t feel small. I didn’t want to run away. I didn’t feel detached. My mind was clear and serene as it had been a minute ago. While my boyfriend was slow to realize that I was fine, I was relishing my victory.
My triggers began only an hour or so after the first time I was sexually assaulted. It happened in 2011 when I was 18 by a boy I’d been dating for only a week. The flashbacks were relentless. Over the next month, guy #1 assaulted me two more times. We dated for three months before I had the good sense to leave him. I knew that what he was doing was wrong, but it wasn’t until years later that the magnitude of his actions really hit me. For the first year or so after dating him, my triggers consisted of sudden flashbacks accompanied by feeling violated (one of the most deeply disturbing emotions I’ve ever experienced). I’d simply force the memories out of my mind and go on with my merry day.
A year after the first time I was assaulted, the summer of 2012, I was dating another guy who was much kinder to me. However, he was uncomfortable talking about boundaries. I made sure he knew that he wasn’t to touch my breasts until I made it clear that I was ready. I didn’t tell him the reason was that the two of the three times I was assaulted by my ex, he had touched my breasts without my consent. Months passed and I hadn’t said anything more on the subject. Guy #2 was starting to wonder how he would know when the time was right, but as I said, these conversations were difficult for him. Instead of asking, he just went for it one night. And so I was sexually assaulted a second time. We talked things through. The next day I told him what had happened to me. We worked on being clearer about our boundaries and continued dating until I went to college. A month after he assaulted me, I decided I was ready to actually consent to what he’d previously done. Overall I enjoyed it, but I had to focus to keep myself from flinching every time he touched me. My previous boyfriend’s wandering hands were still burned into my memory. After that first time, I no longer got flashbacks when guy #2 touched me.
Fast forward six months to January 2013. I was hanging out in my dorm after an unofficial date with guy #3, who I had a crush on. Everything was going well until… he too touched my breast without my consent. I couldn’t start a relationship on such bad footing even though he was very apologetic and understanding. I’ve hardly talked to him since.
The last time I was assaulted was certainly the least traumatic of all, but after that day something changed. It was my breaking point. The experiences that previously felt almost manageable were suddenly too much to bear. Being violated in nearly the same way by three men left me with a strong association between my chest being touched and fear. April of that year I realized that all those experiences were considered sexual assault.
That summer I got triggered by backrubs and when people would tickle me. Side hugs made me flinch when their hand rested on the side of my ribs. Swing dancing would sometimes cause a moment of discomfort as a lead’s hand momentarily came too close for comfort. I’d just sit there quietly and try to suppress my discomfort and chase off the memories threatening to take over my thoughts.
Matters continued to worsen the next fall. Sure I was dating a man, we’ll call him Sal, who made me feel safe and respected, but my subconscious hadn’t gotten the memo that I have nothing to fear from him. He learned of my triggers early on, but accidents happen. As time went on, it took longer and longer to calm myself down and remind myself I was safe. Eventually a trigger would send me into the same emotional state I was in during the assaults. I was so scared that I couldn’t think. I could barely move. The flashbacks were persistent, one after another. One time I even had a panic attack. Seeing me like this tore my boyfriend up. It was difficult enough to calm myself down, but then I had to help him through it too. I reminded him that it’s not his fault. We were only paying the consequences for what other men have done to me.
Around the same time I started dating Sal, I began going to a therapist. It took a few months, but I eventually figured out how to manage my triggers. I could do little to prevent them, but I learned how to calm myself down. I now have a list of phrases in my phone such as “You are safe” and “You are stronger than your memories” which help me begin the process of relaxing when I’m triggered (assuming I’m not too overwhelmed to remember it’s there). I found that deep, slow breathing has an immediate effect on my heart rate and state of mind. I even enlisted my boyfriend’s help. While watching TV, I would have him rest his hand on the side of my ribs to teach my subconscious that I don’t have to be afraid every time I’m touched there.
A little over a year after my last assault, my triggers were few and far between as well as easier to manage thanks to all my hard work. I would get very nervous and flinch, but a minute later I was practically back to normal. My triggers didn’t always set off flashbacks either. Sometimes I even had no reaction when someone touched me. When I let Sal go to second base, I was completely at ease.
I finally began telling more of my friends about my experiences too. It’s really helpful having friends who know. It makes a big difference not having to pretend everything’s fine. I’m never really sure what to ask from in those moments. I don’t know what they can do to help me, but having people around who know what’s happening is comforting.
Yesterday when we were cuddling, my boyfriend didn’t realize his hand was actually resting on my ribs for a long time. I didn’t even ask him to move it. I certainly didn’t like being touched there, but it was nothing I couldn’t handle. Until that moment it never occurred to me that I could get this far. There was a point in my life when I assumed I’d be put in a catatonic state every time I’m triggered. Now I know some days will be better than others and I won’t always be calm in moments like those. However, the knowledge that it’s possible to have a hand on my side and feel nothing but mild discomfort gives me hope.
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