On March 17th, I was sexually assaulted. It was St. Patrick’s Day, so I’ll most likely never forget the exact date.
I wrote a post about my assault only 10 days after it happened. I did so because I was worried I would internalize it like some shameful secret if I didn’t disclose it. So, I channeled my thoughts and feelings into words to free myself a bit from my anxiety and depression. And to an extent, it worked. Sharing my story and receiving support and affirmation from family, friends, and those with shared experiences helped me tremendously.
Since then I’ve only reflected on my assault once or twice. And in those moments, I haven’t felt any real emotional or mental connection to it. Thinking about it didn’t make me feel anxious or depressed. In fact, much to my surprise, it made me feel nothing. It was almost as if my assault had never happened or impacted me. The disconnect was so great that I couldn’t help but wonder if I had just exaggerated or imagined my assault.
But then I was triggered.
Unexpectedly, someone from my past reached out to extend their sympathy for my assault. The moment I read their message, I had a panic attack. Physically, I was safe, but in my mind, I was reliving my assault, overwhelmed by the terror and distress coursing through my system. Frightened and humiliated, I locked myself in my gym’s bathroom stall and hid there until I was composed enough to sneak out.
The episode continued throughout the day. I couldn’t bring myself to act cheery or pretend like nothing was wrong. I couldn’t eat or silence the overwhelming thoughts running through my mind. And I couldn’t calm down. But I kept it mostly to myself because I felt deeply uncomfortable. As someone who considers himself to be a “rock”, I was terrified by how overwhelmed I felt, and I convinced myself to be silent because I didn’t want to relive what happened or make others uncomfortable by bringing it up. In that moment, I felt just as alone and terrified as I had the night I was assaulted.
Later, I spoke to my therapist about what had happened. We did some breathing exercises, I let myself cry for a moment, and I confessed how horrible and uncomfortable the experience made me feel. And while I felt better afterward, the situation made me realize I hadn’t moved past my assault, it made me aware that these feelings will always live inside of me, and that triggers are something I must learn to live with.
Before this experience, I had never experienced any kind of trigger. To be honest, I somewhat doubted their legitimacy, in part because of how often people joke about or downplay them. I knew they were real, but thought that only highly sensitive people or those with PTSD experienced them. But this episode made me realize that triggers are no joking matter nor are they something that should be taken lightly. They’re overwhelming and panic inducing and physically and mentally exhausting. Being triggered is like having a night terror when you’re wide awake. It’s knowing something isn’t based in your current reality but feeling it fully. It’s losing your grip on reality and getting sucked into something truly terrifying without any warning.
We shouldn’t make trigger warning jokes or mock people for having horrific experiences most of us couldn’t even begin to imagine. We should be supportive of people dealing with triggers and do our best to create safe spaces for others. And when that isn’t possible, we should be there for our loved ones and remind them that they are safe and supported and loved.
I know now that you never truly overcome traumatic episodes like sexual assault. I will always carry my assault with me. I’ll never forget how scared and worthless and violated it made me feel. And I know there will be times when I’ll experience a trigger and be brought back to the dark place I’ve worked so hard to climb out of.
I don’t expect people to understand or relate to my experience. But what I expect, no what I deserve, is for people to treat me and those like me with respect and compassion.