I saw someone on campus today who looks like the man who raped me my senior spring. FML.
Let's talk about triggers.
A trigger is something that reminds a trauma survivor of the ordeal(s) he or she has endured. Triggers can be external or internal, consciously recognized or unconsciously internalized.
- External: A place, person, object, time of the day/month/year, story, etc. that is somehow related to the ordeal.
- Internal: A feeling, thought, physical memory, etc. that is somehow related to what happened.
- Consciously recognized: The trigger can be identified. You know what it is that is causing your reactions.
- Unconsciously internalized: When you don't know the cause of your physical and/or emotional response, when it seems to be happening for no reason.
All of these are legitimate kinds of triggers. Here are some of my own personal triggers (in no particular order):
- Seeing someone who looks like him: short dark hair, slightly balding, large widow's peak, long oval-shaped face
- Being around someone who is tall, heavyset, and physically intimidating (think football player)
- Friday nights
- Any anniversary of March 25-26
- Being in the room where it happened, especially seeing the bench
- Hearing his name, or even just part of his name
- Mentions of rape/sexual assault in books, online, the news, or by people
- One particular sexual position
- Sharp pain during vaginal or anal intercourse
- Intrusive thoughts and memories of the event, of his face/body/voice
My responses to these triggers tend to be pretty universal. They have gotten better over time, thankfully. In the months following the assault, I had very sudden, intense physical and mental responses. I would abruptly go numb; my heart would start to pound; I would tense up and usually dig my nails into my palm or clutch a part of my shirt; and I would try to find somewhere in the room where I could curl up as small as possible with my back to something and still be able to see most of the room. Sometimes I would have hot flashes or cold flashes. I would be both disoriented and hyper-focused; disoriented because I felt detached, like somehow I wasn't in my own body, and hyper-focused because I was taking in every sound and every movement near me, and every stimulus was amplified, as if all my filters and protections were down.
Sometimes it would be a little different; I would become numb, detached, silent, and depressed. This type of response happened more when I was triggered by a solitary activity where I was already alone and quiet, such as reading. I found myself triggered by everything from academic treatments of sexual assault to fiction about trauma to normal novels that just had to put in references to rape and assault. I could feel myself sliding into that somber glass case, the walls closing in; I would start to shut down, feeling a heavy weight, a darkness, descend on me; I would be compelled to keep reading, thinking, feeling, remembering.
Time does help heal things a little bit. My responses are not quite so extreme anymore. They certainly still occur, but they no longer seize control of my life and force me to stop whatever I was doing to suffer for a surreal time.
I saw someone who looked like him yesterday, too. When my mind made note of him and started to flail, I pursed my lips with grim determination and settled for being a bit detached and depressed for a while. This morning, when I left the house to go to class, I saw someone else who looked like him. No idea if it was the same person or not. I started to panic, and walked a full block while thinking about him and the assault, but then I calmed down and everything got better.
Triggers-- I will probably always have them, but the best thing I can do is to learn to live with them.