An Ode to the Trigger Warning

 


Founder of Attacked Not Defeated, Phoebe Tansley, is a sexual health practitioner, gender-based violence prevention advocate and survivor. Here she revisits a previous blog and reflects on her experiences over the last five years.


 

By Phoebe Tansley

Unbelievably, it’s been over two years since I last wrote about my personal experience of surviving rape. I suppose as time goes by and workload mounts, self-reflection gets pushed to the bottom of the priority list too often.

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I decided to write this as I recently reached the five year milestone since I was attacked; and in particular wanted to focus on something which has cropped up for me recently; triggers.

In the five years I have been doing this, many survivors have approached me and asked me for advice on how to cope; some reassurance that it gets easier. I know that when survivors who are further along in their journeys than me describe where they are at with it, it has at times comforted me.

In particular I remember reading an account written by a woman who – like me – was strangled, but around 20 years ago. She talked about how she couldn’t wear anything too restrictive around her neck for years because it reminded her of the attack, but that over time she started to wear scarves again and now she can do so without even thinking about it.

To me, in the early days of recovery, that was probably the most comforting thing I read. So next time you see me rocking a turtleneck and looking pretty smug about it, you’ll know why.

turtleneck

source: rifemagazine.co.uk

 

***

The word ‘trigger’ suddenly becomes really present in your life after you’ve experienced sexual violence.

I remember in the immediate aftermath, various professionals kept asking me what ‘triggers’ me or if I had been ‘triggered’, and not really knowing what they meant.

As I wrote in a previous blog, my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) arrived with delayed onset so for about six months after I was raped I felt relatively ‘okay’. It was my first trigger which actually then led to the first signs of PTSD; and that trigger was a pretty catastrophic one as it involved me being mugged by two men carrying machetes.

The sight of two violent men, the feeling of vulnerability, and the very real threat to my life took me right back to the night of the rape, and culminated in a total shut down of logic; I remember a feeling of overwhelming fear, and of utter devastation. It was from that moment on that my hyper-arousal kicked in.

There are plenty of definitions of hyper-arousal online; all I can really say with any authority is my own experience of it, which was a feeling of being constantly under threat.

Every situation was a risk, every day was a mission to avoid being raped or attacked. Every unknown person, and some known people, felt threatening. I had adrenaline constantly pumping through my body which translated into night-terrors as I slept; and so it was rare to have a restful and uninterrupted night’s sleep – even with the addition of a hammer that I kept by my bed.

I remained in this exhausting state of existence for around 18 months; but now, I am pleased to report, it has eased off substantially.

These days I walk home from the tube at night with the regular amount of anxiety that any woman experiences (that in itself is still frustrating but I’ll take putting keys between my fingers over screaming ‘HEELLPPPPP’ and running in the opposite direction when a man smiles at me on the street – this actually happened).

I am also, I think, a better friend and family member than I was back then. I’d put this mostly down to the fact that I don’t conduct an impossible-to-pass risk assessment of every social engagement before I attend in the same way I used to; I’m generally more trusting and can devote more brain space to enjoying people’s company now that it’s not being taken up by holding my bladder for hours on end because I’m convinced an attacker is waiting for me in the toilet.

All joking aside – hyper-arousal is totally debilitating and so if you are currently experiencing it, be gentle with yourself. You’re allowed to drop the ball a bit in other areas of your life while you navigate this horrible, relentless sense of impending doom. If a loved one is experiencing this, let them off the hook if they flake on a few meetups or don’t reply to your messages. They will come back to you and they will be so thankful that you continued to love them and gave them time to find their footing again.

So, remember a few paragraphs ago when I said everything was much better? It is – however, as with most difficult things in life, recovering from trauma is not a smooth ride. Rewind to four months ago, there I was living my life, feeling good about not having to barricade myself into rooms anymore, when the mother of all triggers decided to descend.

It had been so long that I had forgotten how it felt. And yet; the length of time I had felt better for, and the confidence I had developed, somehow made it worse: I wasn’t protected by shock like I was back then; the memories were flooding in with ease and clarity, and I was no longer dissociating with the event like I used to.

This wasn’t a scary movie anymore, it was me. It happened to me. It really happened.

I was watching the TV programme Broadchurch, which came with very clear and robust trigger warnings. Confession: I basically ignore trigger warnings. This is because between working in sexual health, studying sexual violence advocacy, and running AND, I have developed the ability to almost completely separate my personal experience and my professional experience. This ability is what has enabled me to do the job I love for the last five years.

I watch documentaries, films and TV programmes as well as read academic texts, personal accounts and fictional descriptions involving sexual violence all the time. Of course – I am human – it still affects me, but what I rarely do is relate it to my own experience.

I think one of the main reasons I have been able to do this is because what happened to me is a less common form of sexual violence – stranger rape. So, when I tuned into Broadchurch, the only thing going through my mind was that it would be interesting to see sexual violence support services depicted in a drama starring Olivia Coleman and David Tennant. It didn’t even occur to me that it might impact me personally.

And then suddenly, a frightened, injured woman was being taken into a clinical room for examinations – and it was me.

She had bruising on her arms and neck and cuts on her legs – just like me. She even had a cut on the back of her head where it hit the ground when she lost consciousness – just like me. And as the timid remains of her voice attempted to answer the policewoman’s questions while tears involuntarily fell out of her eyes, I remembered: that’s me.

This totally blindsided me and it took some time to feel like myself again. My nearest and dearest will tell you I am pretty in touch with my emotions – I regularly cry watching DIY SOS – but before experiencing this trigger, I can count on one hand the number of times that I remember crying about what happened to me. But this trigger acted like a faucet, and the tears were unyielding for a good five days.

***

I am very lucky in that I am currently being supported by a therapist, so I was able to take this into the therapy room within a week of it happening and do some very intense, challenging, but ultimately hugely restorative work around it. My therapist also gave me a talking to around my wilful ignorance of trigger warnings, and encouraged me to take a bit of a time out from anything which could be upsetting to watch.

But the most profound realisation to come out of this trigger has been this: maybe I don’t have to carry around my experience like a heavy burden whilst simultaneously trying to conceal it. Maybe I don’t need to be so anxious that others might view it as an impediment to my work and other areas of my life.

After watching Broadchurch I got into such a state that I felt an overwhelming urge to run away, because I genuinely didn’t know how I would ever be able to act normal and carry on with the life I had created for myself.

Partially due to aforementioned hyper-arousal, and partially due to my tireless indulgence in self-serve guilt, I decided not to do a runner and instead to bite the bullet and talk to a couple of people in my life about what I was going through.

The response I got wasn’t the one I was expecting. The people I chose to share with were my brother (for the comforting honesty that a sibling will reliably deliver) and two co-workers (because I was demonstrably not coping at work).

Both of these conversations resulted in these people fundamentally (and much more sensitively than this) asking me what on earth would possess me to stifle my human feelings and reactions to something which was not my fault in the first place, when those very feelings and reactions grant me an empathic knowledge which could actually be invaluable to my work?

Oops.

I had been so utterly convinced that my experience of sexual violence and the impact it had on my mental health would be at odds with my professional practice that I had neglected it and starved it of oxygen until it eventually clambered up into my consciousness, gasping for air and begging me to accept it as a part of me.

I am coming to realise that the most important thing I can do to aid my work is to take care of myself – and that means all of myself, not just the parts that are convenient.

Sometimes, admitting that something is hard and asking for help is the hardest part.

These blogs are not easy to write; and they’re even harder to share. But I do so in the hope that – just as that article comforted me five years ago – someone might read it and feel a little bit less alone. So to anybody who can relate to some of the things I have described in this blog, consider that sometimes it takes another person to point out the truth that has been glaringly obvious to everyone else the whole time; that the darkest part of yourself that you have demonised and shamed for so long could actually be cultivated into something wonderful, if you’d only shed a little bit of light onto it.

afterlife

“Afterlife” by Chana Bloch

Notes from a survivor

Image source: @thejohnnysmith at Berlin ArtParasites

Image source: @thejohnnysmith at Berlin ArtParasites

 

Image source: Berlin ArtParasites

Image source: Berlin ArtParasites

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Five years ago I was riding my bike 45 miles to the bus station to visit my friend In New York. It was late; but I didn’t have a car, rural America is lacking in robust public transport systems, and it was peak tomato season so I could hardly ask for a day off. A few minutes after 11pm, 43 miles into my journey I was pulled off my bike by a heavy-set man. When I screamed in fear, he strangled me into silence. He ripped off my clothes. After threatening me with a knife, he raped me on the side of the high way wearing a zombie mask.

Since the attack I’ve unwittingly found myself in a number of coercive, “rapey” situations. Being confronted with a man’s unwanted sexual attention triggers the PTSD I have; despite a year of intensive Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. The idea of consent is fuzzy to me. I’ve almost never experienced consent in practice. What I have instead experienced, is the constant silencing of my voice; denying my right of agency, minimizing my ‘no’s, the prioritising of others’ pleasure before my own.

I’ve been stumbling in and out of various abusive entanglements with men for years. The only criteria that mattered: he wasn’t forcing himself on me. What I failed to see was that not being a rapist doesn’t qualify someone as a good person. I didn’t have any warning systems for pathological liars, abusive, controlling partners. I gave people the benefit of the doubt.

I didn’t understand that when someone starts exhibiting jealousy, or subtly insulting you, that kind of behavior isn’t a one-off. It won’t stop. Or even stay the same. It will only get worse and worse. I’ve made all types of excuses for why I’ve dated shitty men. Last year when I was seeing someone with no long term potential, my friends asked me why I was with him.

I said he wasn’t a psychopath.  He didn’t constantly accuse me of cheating. He didn’t question me about my whereabouts. He didn’t fill me with fear or anxiety. But in the end he didn’t provide an iota of emotional support when I needed it. And that’s when the wispy strands connecting us withered away.

Alone, I was face to face with how flawed my philosophy had been. All along I had been defining him by what he wasn’t. My sole priority had been avoiding an intensely triggering situation.

What I’ve realized is that not being a rapist isn’t enough.

Not calling me a whore isn’t enough.

Not lying constantly isn’t enough.

My standards have been completely warped. I need to learn to be more wary; to recognise the different strands of manipulation that can be used, until I can differentiate between false charm and true kindness. Until I can establish emotional, physical and spiritual safety I need to embrace being by myself and ultimately redefine what I am looking for. I need to have the self-love to stop celebrating mediocrity, and know that just me, for now, is enough.

Rape and PTSD: the long journey to recovery

PTSD

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Phoebe Tansley is a survivor, feminist, activist, and the founder of Attacked Not Defeated. In this blog she talks about her experience of living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

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 Phoebe Tansley

It is predicted that one third of sexual assault survivors will develop post-traumatic stress disorder, usually referred to as PTSD. Like all mental illness, it is often not widely recognised as a medical condition and the effects of it are rarely discussed or understood thoroughly.

Below is an extract from the UK National Health Service website describing PTSD:

PTSD NHS definition

PTSD is one of the only mental illnesses which is not caused by a chemical imbalance, but by a physiological and psychological reaction to an actual event. This makes it difficult to treat and impossible to ‘cure’, until memory-erasing treatment is invented (hurry up scientists.)

That is where my academic knowledge on the subject ends, as I am not a psychiatrist and have never studied PTSD in any depth. I have, however, lived with PTSD for two years. As the founder of AND, I have made no secret of the fact that I am a survivor of rape.

I have always endeavoured to only speak about my personal experience of rape when it can aid another person’s recovery, add value or strength to any research or project, or empower other women.

I see my own experience and the experience of the women who AND is reaching out to as entirely separate.

The reason for that is that I have the privilege, being born in the United Kingdom, to have access to free health care from the NHS and professional support from one of the many rape crisis centres which exist in the UK.

I do know the feeling of helplessness, violation and profound fear. But I do not know what it is like to have to get up the next day and take your wounded body, your shattered spirit back to work and pretend everything is fine. I do not know how it feels to have to hide the ordeal from your family or friends out of fear of not being believed or of being ostracised by the community as a whole.

 To understand PTSD is to understand the experience of the survivor. So this is one of the rare occasions where I shall open up about my own experience, in a bid to illuminate the journey of recovery on a day-to-day basis.

Let’s start with a few simple facts about me which are true of the last two years.

  1. I see almost every person as a potential threat.
  2. I can’t turn my light off and close my eyes at night until I am so tired I am barely conscious, because lying in the dark induces flashbacks.
  3. My highest daily priority is to not be raped again.
  4. When I am walking alone I raise my shoulders and lower my head. When I feel threatened my hands automatically shield my throat to protect myself from being strangled.
  5. Sometimes I physically can’t leave the house.
  6. When I am alone on the street and someone appears behind me or takes me by surprise, my whole body paralyses and an explosion of utter dread and terror overcomes me, often wiping me out for the rest of the day.
  7. I used to want to travel the world on my own. Now all I want is to feel safe. That’s it.

This might come as a surprise to those of you who have only witnessed me as the founder of AND, and not on a personal level. That’s because I have managed to compartmentalise my own recovery. I see it as self-preservation; the only way that I can actually do my job effectively. I have been splitting myself in two for two years.

But when I close my computer down and become Phoebe the survivor, my life is still very much plagued by this rotten condition. One of the toughest things about PTSD is the lack of a time limit on it. I was raped two and a half years ago, but for the first six months following my attack, my mind did not process it.

I would roll off the story of what happened to me like I was reading out the synopsis of a scary movie. My brain was essentially protecting itself and the rest of me from the horror of what I had just been through.

I have huge respect for the brain’s capacity to know what to do when the conscious self cannot. Equally huge respect for the body’s ability to survive and keep itself alive and to alleviate pain when the conscious self cannot. I would not be alive, let alone sane today, were it not for my body and brain taking the reins and looking after me.

A few months after my attack I returned to Uganda and my brain started spilling out small details to my conscious self. I started to register images, sounds, smells and muscle memory. My brain seeped the information out drop by drop, so that it didn’t overwhelm me.

What it did do, though, was eventually make me lock myself in a room for 90% of the time for about eight months. I did go out, when I had to, after securing pre-arranged transport and an itinerary that I was comfortable with. But I lost my social life completely, stopped speaking to my family, and had approximately three people who I trusted enough to be alone with (Eddy, Shay, Sabia – thank you). It was a very, very horrible and hard time.

After about six months of this I went back to the UK to see the doctor because I was so miserable. They sent me for an urgent psychiatric assessment and the diagnosis came back as post-traumatic stress disorder with delayed onset. I was put on a hideously high dosage of Prozac which made my entire body vibrate and my vision impaired, and swiftly decided that meds were not for me. Instead I use a beta blocker called propranolol for when I can feel a panic attack coming along.

Over the next year, I returned to Uganda several times. Each time I tried to live my life as a fully functioning member of society in the country where my job, my home and my partner all were. But I realised that to stay there would be to ruin my personal view of the country that I had once loved so deeply and would have a negative effect on the work I was trying to do with AND.

So I moved back to the UK, left my entire life behind me and tried to figure out a way of starting again. I now travel to Uganda twice a year or so to work on AND matters, and I use these trips as opportunities to try and rekindle that love and rediscover the delights and beauty of Uganda. It’s a process, and I will get there.

I went through 16 weeks of rape crisis counselling in 2014. At the end of my stint, the counsellor noted how much I had improved. They congratulated me for having the confidence to walk to the bus stop at the end of my road as late as 9 o’clock at night. I felt absolutely ridiculous. But that is the reality.

I left counselling feeling positive, knowing that I had overcome a set of important hurdles and feeling that my PSTD symptoms had slightly alleviated. A week later, I found myself sprawled across the floor of the landing in my childhood home; full face of makeup, top half of me dressed and the bottom half wearing only knickers, hyperventilating and wailing with fear at the prospect of going to meet a few people at the local pub. I mean, it’s hard to not view that as a step in the wrong direction. I guess with all the trust I place in my own brain and body, it does occasionally malfunction.

And so that brings me to the present day in January 2015, and I am starting again. I haven’t found my happy place yet so I am jacking it all in and starting again -again.

With PTSD, you are trying to find a constant level of contentment and stability in a world which spins at 1675 km/h, and in a life where circumstances are completely unpredictable. I know I am in this for the long haul, because I will never forget what happened that night.

I suppose what I am trying to say is that there is no quick fix or easy route to recovering from rape. There are millions of people who are living with this, walking with this, breathing with this, sleeping with this, surviving with this. We cannot go back to how it used to be and so we must search until we find a way to co-exist with our darkest memories.

As Mark Twain once wrote: ‘Courage is the mastery of fear’.