Tag Archives: Abuse

Trigger

The Tightrope Walker. Portrait in The Haunted Mansion.

The Tightrope Walker. Portrait in The Haunted Mansion.

Being triggered doesn’t happen to me often anymore. When it does, I often feel like this girl, standing on a frayed tightrope over an alligator that I’d forgotten was there.

A Few Notes:

  1. This post has a trigger warning. I don’t usually use them, but I felt that I should as what I’m writing about is a trigger – my trigger – which got pulled not long ago. I’m going to touch on sexual, psychological and emotional abuse, shame and the lasting damage they cause, so if you feel like it would be better to skip this one, please do and consider yourself hugged.
  2. I neither advocate for trigger warnings nor do I oppose them. It’s a complicated issue that deserves objective consideration. This essay  is not that.
  3. It’s important that I explicitly state that consensual D/s play is not abuse. Unfortunately, my trigger overlaps this territory, which means that I have to take certain things into consideration when I play with power dynamics.
  4. Everything in this post is specific to my experience. Nothing I say is intended as prescriptive. I’m not even sure there’s any general wisdom to be had. I’m just feeling my way through.

On to the post….

A few months ago I had a panic attack. I haven’t had one in nearly eight years. It’s been so long that I didn’t quite realize what was happening until an hour later when I still wanted to throw up. When I realized I’d been triggered, the shame was immediate and intense. There is always shame, but even more so in this case.

There are a few reasons for that. The first has to do with ego—this damage was done so long ago that I should be over it by now…right? Well, while I know, intellectually, that that expectation isn’t fair, my feelings feel differently. Shame and egos aren’t interested in fair.

The second reason is a little more basic—the act of falling apart feels shameful because I never want to be an emotional burden again, and panic attacks level me to such a degree that I fear I’ll become one. And then, there’s the serious, primal reason for the shame—the fact that I have a trigger to begin with. But I’ll get to that.

Shame is not something I enjoy feeling, but I’ve accepted it because I know that, for me, it’s part of the triggering mechanism. Complicating this episode, however, was something I’ve never felt before—a deep, panicked resistance.

I didn’t want to be negatively affected by what I’d read. I don’t mean this in a wow-wish-that-movie-hadn’t-made-me-cry kind of way. What I mean is that I didn’t want this piece, very specifically, to affect me negatively. I didn’t want my history to shadow something that would usually turn me on, particularly given my relationship to, and feelings for, the author.

But that’s the thing with triggers. They are intensely specific. The piece that triggered me could have had warnings all over it, but it wouldn’t have made a difference. I’d have read it anyway because, regardless of the warning, I wouldn’t have seen it coming. Change any number of external factors and I’d probably have been fine. In fact, six months ago, I may not have triggered at all. Six months ago, I hadn’t received an email that I never wanted to get. I was getting more sleep. I hadn’t just finished a difficult piece…. There was just no way to prepare for the very specific, collective effect that all of those factors had on me right then. There’s never any way to prepare. At least, not for me. And it’s for that reason that I stand by the piece that triggered me, because it’s really good and in no way at fault for affecting me in that way. It’s just one of those things….

This is going to seem like a random transition, but bear with me.

I’ve written before about the fact that, while I’m not a Domme, I am sexually dominant, and that my dominance formed, (in part, at least), in response to several traumatic things in my history. That’s where triggers (warning!) come in.

When I was very young, I was sexually abused. As a result, I learned that my will could be supplanted. I learned that I couldn’t rely on my parents and that love doesn’t keep you safe. I learned that I had to protect myself. And I also learned that I couldn’t. In other words, at four years old, I internalized that I was powerless.

This led to all sorts of borderline abusive situations as I grew up. Eventually, I graduated to a genuinely abusive relationship. My ex was charming and intelligent. He made me feel strong. He loved my anger and my hunger and my insatiable sexuality. He wanted me to own the world. And he wanted to own me. He taught me about power and how to use it, and then he flipped the tables and showed me how powerless I was.

That’s my trigger. Powerlessness. Helplessness. That’s where the shame comes from—the uneasy knowledge of what I allowed to happen after a lifetime of trying (and failing) to protect myself. And no, I’m not blaming the victim (although the word doesn’t sit easily with me). What I am doing is acknowledging that I made choices. I chose to stay for longer than I should have, and that decision installed a trigger that was pulled because I read something beautiful, written by someone brilliant, that was too much like something my ex had done to me.

My trigger unmoors me from the strong foundation I’ve built. It reminds me that I can be leveled by things that are out of my control. It makes me feel like I can’t protect myself. It makes me feel like I have to, and it’s that last part that’s especially hard. It’s my vigilance that saddens me most. I feel most like the self I might have been in those rare moments when the vigilance drops…when I am soft and relaxed. Those are the sweetest moments. And to that end, my trigger is also a gift.

What made this episode different, and especially disturbing, is that it didn’t stop. I remained unsettled for weeks, so much so that I finally went to a therapist for what has always been diagnosed as depression. This time, I came away with an additional diagnosis. PTSD. And now, thanks to the awful discomfort of being triggered, I’m doing the work that I wish I’d done years ago.

The only way I know to recover is to get stronger. That used to mean making myself invulnerable. Now, it means the opposite. It means bending. I need to learn to accept the abuses and my vulnerability, and I need to learn to trust my strength. I can’t tell you how sweet it would be to feel that acceptance and trust. To drop the resistance and shame. Vulnerability can be such a beautiful thing. One day, I would like to experience it as such.

Being Haunted

View from the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill

View from the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill

This past weekend, James (my husband) and I went into town for our 10th anniversary. We live less than an hour outside of San Francisco, but for much of our twelve year relationship we lived in the city proper. It’s still our favorite place, so rather than take a bigger, going-away type vacation for our 10th, we decided it would be more fun to go into the city, stay in a hotel and enjoy our old haunts.

I don’t write much about my marriage, not because I’m trying to hide it but because I feel very protective of it (as I do with all of my close relationships). The truth is that things have not always been easy for us. In fact, things were pretty hard (though not in the way people might assume for a non-monogamous marriage). Our beginning was complicated and that set the tone for many years.

One of those complications is a former lover. Let’s call him Patrick. I’ve mentioned him in passing before, most recently here. Patrick and James were good friends when James and I started dating. I started seeing Patrick and his partner several months later. James had his own relationship with them, so the four of us made a very happy quad for about six months. Then James asked me to marry him and it all began to deteriorate.

I’m going to skip details here because this relationship has pounds of material in it and not all of it is relevant. Suffice it to stay, my relationship with Patrick became toxic just as my relationship with James was flourishing. The abuse was subtle – Patrick never hit me or left marks. He never did anything that would raise red flags. He was too smart for that.  Everything was intensely reasonable and impossible to argue. He was a lovely steel-trap.

When James and I told him we were engaged, what had been a good secondary relationship took on a different tone. Patrick decided that if James was getting what he later called “an official claim”, he deserved an even bigger one. Apparently, he’d been biding his time, waiting for me to leave my nice, stable primary. When I didn’t, he quietly and systematically went about cutting me off from the portions of my life that didn’t revolve around him – everything from my work and studies to my family and James. Why did I let that happen? Because I didn’t realize what he was doing until much later.

This is incredibly difficult for me to admit. Even now, when I read over that last paragraph I think, what a fucking idiot. Where are your boundaries, girl? All I can say is that I went into this situation distracted by serious, pre-existing problems. By the time it was bad enough for me to notice, I was in quite deep.

So, why didn’t I leave Patrick when I realized how bad it was? For all the regular reasons. I loved him and I didn’t know how. It was like standing at the edge of a cliff, knowing I had to jump but not being able to. Something had to push me. The thing that finally did was realizing how reflexively I’d begun to lie and hide my stress from James, because he and Patrick remained friends after the quad failed. I was weaving excuses because I knew things with Patrick were fucked up. That’s when I finally left.

I broke up with Patrick abruptly, via text, because I knew if I spoke to him he would try to reason me back. I felt immense relief when it was done and a general sense that everything  was okay. A few months later, Patrick and I had tea. The dust had settled by then and it seemed that closure would be good. So I sat across from him at one of my favorite cafes and we had a very civilized conversation in which he told me that he had seriously considered killing me after I left him.

I realize that sounds like a melodramatic threat, but it was not. Not from him. He told me because he meant it. What’s more, he wanted credit for not doing it. The truth is, he could have done anything to me at any time and there was nothing I could have done to protect myself. He was not a “bad boy”. I’ve never liked bad boys. He was, however, a legitimately bad man. Civilized, yes. But only insofar as it suited his ego. He was the sort of man who would put a knife to your throat to prove that you could trust him. I know, because he did that too. And no, that is not the point at which I decided to leave. It took me close to another year. Thankfully, he decided not to follow through on the impulse he had after I left, mostly (he informed me) out of respect for James. He spoke as though my life were a token of his enduring respect for his friend, a fact that still nauseates me. I haven’t seen him since.

That was roughly 10 years ago, very shortly after James and I got married. In a way, our wedding anniversary is the anniversary of my leaving Patrick too and, as with all anniversaries, it ended up being a good time for reflection. This may sound unlikely, but there are things about that relationship that I’m intensely grateful for. Because of Patrick, I know I’m freakishly cool under pressure and that I tend towards anger instead of fear. He was the first person who showed me how to play with my dominant sexual impulses. And because of Patrick, I know that it doesn’t matter how smart you are, you can still get played. As a result, I have a fantastically low tolerance for bullshit and manipulation, balanced by a weirdly tenacious compassion for most of the people who try. They can fuck off forever, but I still can’t hate them. I’ve been gamed by the best. I have no patience for also-ran’s.

I’ve often wondered, in the intervening years, what I would do if I ran into Patrick again. I’d like to think I’d be distant and cordial. I’d like to think I could pull that off. For better or worse, I am not the same woman who was so thoroughly taken in by a charming sociopath that she almost lost herself. But I haven’t been tested. I haven’t seen him, so I can’t really know, which brings me back to this week-end in San Francisco with James.

There are parts of the city where we just don’t go, because they are crowded with the past. A bar here, a restaurant there…. While I don’t fear Patrick anymore, there are still places that feel cold and aversive because of him. He’s a ghost – after ten years, he’s still a ghost. I resent that this relationship still has the power to haunt me.

The fact is that whenever we go into the city, I could see him. But over this week-end, for the first time, that possibility filled me with impatience rather than dread. While I’m not idiot enough to seek him out,  it’s time to undo those last, tiny, persistent hooks – the ones that make my skin crawl whenever I walk down certain streets. I’ll be honest, I would be perfectly happy to never see Patrick again. I fact, I would prefer it. But if I should run into him some day, it would be worth it to snip the final thread and exorcise that ghost.