I'm A Rape Survivor and Sometimes I Want to Be Triggered

When I was raped, I felt nothing.

Jan 27, 2014 at 6:00pm | Leave a comment

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It's really hard for me not to smile in pictures.

You know that thing where you learn a new word you've never heard before and all of a sudden you start hearing it everywhere? That what it's like trying to engage in popular culture as a rape survivor.

Rape is seriously everywhere on TV and in movies especially. It's one of the basic human experiences that gets replicated often onscreen, like weddings and births. One season, four television shows I was watching had rape scenes in quick succession -- "Mad Men," "Game of Thrones," "Treme," and "The Killing."

"The Killing" one had me so instantly upset that my boyfriend had his hand on the "power" button in 2.3 seconds, but I didn't blink an eye at "Game of Thrones." I can't predict which scenes will make my heart jump cartoon-like against my skin and which I'll blandly chomp dinner through like a rerun of "Sex and the City."

Seeing a beautiful, nuanced portrait of rape might do it, or seeing a schlocky exploitative one might. The whole Steubenville rape case was triggering as hell for me, providing a mirror to my 14-year-old gang rape. The news didn't come with a trigger warning. 

The only way for me to avoid being triggered by TV and movies would be to avoid any depiction of rape in any medium ever. And frankly, I'm not prepared to do that. I love TV, it's one of my closest friends. And I like consuming media and being a part of the cultural conversation.

Someone else might choose differently. There are lots of different ways to manage this experience and I won't begrudge any of them. Do what you gotta do to get by, sister. Make a joke, get pissed at the jokes, whatever you need.

So I'm not against "trigger warnings" as a concept -- in the case of television and movies, in the form of a clear warning that "sexual violence" will be a part of the subject matter so that men and women can decide for themselves if they want to engage with the feelings that may result.

For the record, I don't think that articles with headlines like "Rape Rape Rape Eating Disorder Rape" require trigger warnings -- if it's obviously an article about rape, it may be triggering and you should know that going in. I also don't expect commercial businesses, like websites, to be "safe spaces" for me. My safe space is my therapist's office or a recovery meeting, not a for-profit publication.

But what I am really against is when the conversation starts to include the assumption that all women who have experienced sexual violence need to be protected from triggers at all costs. Because sometimes I need to be triggered.

When I was raped, I felt nothing. I remember waking up the next morning and gingerly looking myself over as after a fall on the ice. 10 fingers, 10 toes, nothing broken, I'm fine!

"How strange," I remember thinking to myself. "Getting raped feels like nothing at all."

What had actually happened, 10,000 miles under my conscious mind, was that I had looked at the trauma I had just experienced and made a choice to turn my emotions off like a water faucet. Nope, can't handle that.

And for all the problems it caused later, that was what I had to do to survive at the time. My adolescent brain and body simply couldn't handle the shock.

Trauma, especially at a young age, can literally kill you, snap your brain in half with a shock too great to handle. That's also why we black out during traumatic experiences, why my rape still comes at me in flashes and why I gratefully can't remember what I assume are the worst parts. 

So I just brushed my skirt off and moved on, blaming myself, which was easier than trying to comprehend the true meaningless horror of my experience. Why would anyone do what they did to me? I can't wrap my mind around it because there is no rhyme or reason to violence and why some inflict it on others. So the brain makes up reasons to fill the void: I was drunk, or I was out too late, or I was wearing the wrong thing.

When I finally started therapy a decade later, I smiled while describing my rape to the therapist. I smiled when I talked about everything, as a well-trained Southern girl, but my therapist labeled this particular smiling a "lack of affect." My words, my experience, weren't connected to any emotion. 

I had to work to access those feelings. As I got sober and started to talk about what had happened to me, I began to feel as if my feelings were like fish darting deep beneath a frozen lake. Sometimes I could make out a blurry shape going by, could squint at a flash of orange and say "That's a fish." But what fish? What was the fish doing? Where was it going? What did it mean? I couldn't tell.

Being "triggered," whether in my therapist's office or by something I see on TV, is often what it takes for me to melt the ice.

"You have a lot of anger lurking in there," a later therapist told me, and I'd wonder Where? WHERE? Is it in my elbow? My knee? How do I get to it?

I got to it, over years, through triggers large and small -- by being in the elevator alone with a man with a certain body shape, or reading a news story about a rape similar to mine, or finding an old journal from the time of my rape or yes, finding myself suddenly upset by something graphic I saw on television or in a movie. 

It happened slowly, in its own time. New feelings came up when, I believe, my body and brain were capable of handling them. Sometimes those feelings were so intense I wished I were dead. I remember taking a vacation to Puerto Rico during the years in which I was working hardest on these issues and being afraid to climb to the top of an old tourist attraction tower we'd hiked to in the jungle for fear that I would fling myself from the top involuntarily. 

I think I've now accessed and felt most of those feelings I shut down so long ago, but little things, whether a news story or an upsetting movie scene, can still dislodge more. There are still additional layers of emotion to be discovered.

Unleashing those feelings is not something to be taken lightly -- being triggered could mean experiencing a panic attack or a full-blown PTSD flashback, could cause the person being triggered to want to self-harm or be otherwise destructive. But I'm of the fundamental belief that the feelings have to be felt eventually, and that sometimes it takes a trigger to access them.

Again, I'm not against trigger warnings -- experiencing feelings this strong can be dangerous and it's up to the survivor when and if he or she ever wants to feel them.

But it's not the "triggers" that are evil, it's the sexual assault. And this survivor at least is going to get triggered, even if we plastered trigger warning all over every book, movie, television show, Internet article and newspaper. It would be nice to never have to feel anything connected to my sexual assault again but that's not how it works unfortunately. That bell can't be unrung. 

And with discussion of trigger warnings, as with discussion of most things that relate to women, I'm wary of a one-solution-fits-all approach to how women are supposed to be dealing with our experiences. Trigger warnings don't exist to shield all survivors from reading about or seeing rape-related content; they exist to allow us to choose for ourselves.

 
 

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