Content Warning: The following post discusses mental illness and may be disturbing for some readers.
I feel my stomach drop.
My body starts shaking; and all of a sudden, I just can’t calm down. I’m finding it hard to breathe; my hands start clenching and unclenching uncontrollably. Inside my chest, my heart is beating faster and faster, my eyes start darting left and right – partly because I can’t seem to focus on anything and partly because my body is now on high-alert – my brain thinks he might be near, and it knows we need to be in fight or flight mode in case he suddenly appears.
While I might physically be at the movies with a friend in my new home town, in my brain I’m in our old flat, in our old bedroom, with him on top of me, holding me down…
This specific, one-of-a-kind, tailored-to-me panic attack can be brought on by any number of things – my very own set of triggers – and even after three years, I still can’t avoid them all the time, no matter how hard I try.
A ‘trigger’, as its coined in psychology, is something that sets off a mental flashback which transports someone back to the event of a past trauma. My own triggers include things as common and seemingly innocent as the mention of his name (why is that name so damn popular?) or seeing the wine he used to drink in a store, or as obvious as descriptions or depictions of sexual assault.
As well as the crushing feeling of dread I feel when I’m exposed to a trigger, sometimes I’ll just suddenly check out while someone is talking to me, even when nothing has happened to set me off. I might be standing in front of you, maybe even be engaging with you, but behind my eyes, my rape is playing out like some kind of 3D movie I can’t switch off.
This ‘blanking out’ is more formally known as ‘disassociating‘. and is something countless of victims of sexual assault will experience. One of these episodes is just like a nightmare, except one in which I’m wide awake, and no-one can tell I’m reliving the worst moment of my life over again.
And then there are the actual nightmares.
If they aren’t a direct play-by-play of the event, they’re horrifying exaggerations – sometimes he kills me afterward, sometimes I call the police and they laugh at me, sometimes the rape never ends. I’m usually restless, tossing and turning in bed, terrified cries of “No!” or “Help!” coming from my still-asleep lips. If I wake up, I usually end up in a full-blown anxiety attack until I can reason with myself; “Don’t worry, you’re safe, he isn’t here”.
In the three years since my abusive ex raped me, I’ve been in and out of therapy and on and off anti-depressants and anti-anxiety meds in an effort to treat my diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD; a form of anxiety disorder typically experienced by people who’ve undergone traumatic events like serious accidents or sexual assault. It’s estimated that around 25 per cent of people who experience severe emotional or physical trauma during their lives will develop PTSD.