Every month, Motley publishes a spill-your-guts confession. This month, our second confession is a painful exploration of the bumpy road to recovery from sexual trauma.

 

TW: contains themes of assault and abuse.

 

I cried—like, sobbed—the first time I had sex with my boyfriend; big, streaky tears as the playlist resorted to some disparate Ellie Goulding song and he grabbed me in a hug, asking if he had hurt me. He hadn’t, not even close. The overhead lamp flicked on and I felt embarrassed, betrayed by my body in her performance. My reaction had felt instinctive, tears coming before I was even able to think about it. I was in his bedroom with the badly-painted blue walls and messy windowsill—a place I had been before, countless times in the six months we had been together—yet it felt claustrophobic now, the shade of blue morphing into the heat-holding canvas of a festival tent in August. He eased a jumper over my head and whispered in shaky repetitions as my body shook off the panic: “It’s me… you’re okay, you’re safe, I promise.” 

 

It was a flashback, I later learned. And a feature of how the body responds to trauma. 

 

When you experience something traumatic, it gets stored in the brain and body. In order to protect itself, your mind might fragment the memory, erasing certain parts while preserving—seemingly needlessly—others. In this moment, the body may have entered a state of flight, fright or freeze, a primal reaction which overrides the part of your brain which processes and retrieves memory (the hippocampus) and over activates the emotional centre (the amygdala). It is a mechanism of evolution; to signal a threat that must be avoided, a method of self-preservation which may scramble the memory while keeping the sensory warning signs (such as sights, smells and sounds) as vivid, emotional reminders. These act like trip switches that, when triggered, can drag the body back to the initial moment of trauma, unable to discern what is past and present; there are no concrete memories for it to refer back to, to distinguish between then and now.

 

Sitting on my boyfriend’s bed, in tears on Valentine’s Day because the blinds cast the same shadow as figures swaying outside a tent and his hands on me felt too familiar to surmount, I realised my body was not healed yet, no matter how much I convinced my brain it was. Second-hand smoke in the summer; the sound of inflatable mattresses; dimly-lit spaces; the sickly-sweet smell of cider; the dizzy drunkenness of day-drinking and walking through a crowd; my mind gathered a collection of triggers and lined them up like glass bottles waiting to fracture, rattling as worked out how to let them go. 

 

The hardest part of healing was finding out where to begin, and I kept making false starts. 

 

I went to a well-meaning counsellor first, who teared up when I told her I had been sexually assaulted. She recommended mindfulness as I comforted her and commented on how calm I seemed “despite everything.” I cancelled the rest of my appointments, deterred from seeking help again for fear of replicating the awkwardness. 

 

A year on, I was having regular sex with my boyfriend (and enjoying it) but I was restless and angry that my first year of college had been blurred and distorted by flashbacks, panic attacks and dissociation while the person who caused it lived life normally. I gave counselling another try, walking through the purple door of the Sexual Violence Centre with the aim to put it all to rest, pull each finger from the trigger. I accessed support for working through post-traumatic stress disorder—or PTSD, a word I had to turn over on my tongue until it fit—and finally gained the language to articulate what was going on in my body.

 

The professional help did not fix me, or magically make me whole, or remove the burden of the trauma. What it has done, is gotten me to a place where I can take all these jagged parts – and start to put myself together again. These past two years have felt like a series of first dates and heartbreaks, a freeing mess of learning my body like it’s someone else’s and a first time. My body is not an apology or battleground, ‘broken’ or ‘damaged’ – it’s mine, it belongs to me, but it is not all of me. Neither is what happened to it while drunk and unconsenting.

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