The shape of a jawline, the smell of cigarettes and whisky on someone’s breath. The click of a man’s shoes as he walks behind on the street. Being followed up a flight of stairs. A clearing of the throat. A wink. A song on the radio.
When abuse ends, we have to find a way to live with the triggers.
Trigger Warning: (child sexual abuse/trauma)
I am fortunate to have reached a point in my life where I can speak freely about my experiences of Child Sexual Abuse without being retraumatised in the process. I no longer feel the overwhelming shame that kept me silent for decades. But whilst I am at peace with what happened to me, my body doesn’t always feel safe. I still suffer flashbacks. Sometimes I have nightmares and experience night terrors, usually after a triggering event. Maybe I always will but I accept them. I will not let them drown me because I refuse for that to be my path.
We can all experience flashbacks. They are a pull-back in time to a snapshot of our lives. They’re not always bad. The cry of seagull can take us back to a family holiday and sandy ham sandwiches on a beach. The smell of tomatoes can take us back to preparing a salad with a beloved grandmother on a long-forgotten summer’s day.
A flashback for someone who has suffered abuse is different. It’s not a gentle or a comfortable reminiscing. At best it is mildly distasteful and at worst it can feel like a violent assault on the senses. Like a kick in the stomach leaving you doubled over, unable to catch your breath. It results in a heightened awareness of the world around us.
It takes your body hostage and there’s not much you can do about it other than wait for it to pass.
I would describe these as torturous; more than flashbacks, they are full on body memories. These have been the cause of great anguish over my life, at times triggering extreme self-harming behaviour in a desperate attempt to shut them down.
When I found a way to find my voice and tell my story, life was easier, but I was frustrated and disheartened that these appalling body memories remained, in fact when I talked about these events I’d been silent about for so many years, the body memories were stronger than before.
It was the pressure on my wrist from an invisible hand.
It was the feeling of my pulse as the pressure built. It was rubbing at my skin to ease the feeling, that didn’t work because there was nothing there at all, just a memory.
It was feeling mental torment as the most intimate parts of me begin to remember too. It was relentless and felt so real but there was no-one there, no hand, no man. Just a ghost.
Every sense was affected. I had impressions of touch, of smell. I felt pressure and pain. I heard sounds. I saw images in my mind that would play over and over again. I would then relive them in my dreams too. One night I sleepwalked and woke to find myself on the phone, ‘speaking’ to a call handler. I had felt so unsafe that I’d dialled 999 whilst unconscious. My body would react as if it was under attack – my heart would race, I could feel myself ‘leaving’ my body; sounds would become more distant, I would feel like I was the other side of a glass wall, that my body didn’t belong to me. At its worst, I could feel that I wasn’t even there at all. After one particularly triggering event, I felt as if I’d died. That even though my body was still breathing and eating, speaking, moving, I wasn’t in it. It was the most frightening and surreal thing to experience.
Had I spoken to a psychiatrist about this, no doubt I would have been given a label of some-sort. I would probably have been told I needed medication, to fix the part of my brain that was chemically imbalanced.
Luckily I wasn’t under a mental health team anymore. Thankfully I had a specialist therapist to turn to instead, who told me that what I was experiencing was normal. It was a part of the process. Not to fear it but to face it instead.
So that’s what I did. I didn’t really have much choice. It was either ride the wave or drown in it and I didn’t want to drown. I wanted to be free and I wanted to live.
I began to identify each trigger and put them down on paper. Some were easier to list. But each phrase or word was painfully hard to write. Each one would fire body memories that I wanted to cut out of me but I carried on and wrote everything that had ever triggered these body memories, however small, until there was nothing more to write.
Then began the ‘tracing back to source.’ What was the story behind each one?
Some like the one below were straightforward and easier to trace back than others. These ones I could do on my own.
Trigger : the smell of a certain type of alcohol.
Cause: It was on his breath when he abused me.
Body memory: Smell/ taste/pressure on my body. Feeling evoked: depression/ fear / dissociation.
Others were so difficult that I chose to work with my therapist instead, in a place where I felt supported and safe. But in physically writing the words down, the triggers began to lose a bit of their power.
I found myself analysing the body memories rather than going into a blind panic. I would remind myself of the trigger, the cause, the body memory and the feeling. This analysis gave me a focus. It was a way of taking back control. It was like saying to my brain, ‘before you panic, let’s just remember where this comes from. Let’s give this a bit of thought. This is why your body feels like this. This was the event that caused it. This is in the past. This isn’t now. If the body memories want to come, let them and then let them go.’
Something began to shift. The body memories still fired but my suffering lessened. I stopped automatically resorting to old coping mechanisms to shut them down. I gradually started to accept them, to see them for what they were; an automatic nervous system response, nothing more. I was able to ride the wave and not feel sucked under, into the abyss of darkness and despair.
Now I work as an activist and I talk about my experiences often. I am noticing that whilst I still feel them, the body memories are weaker than they have ever been. Some of the smaller triggers don’t affect me anymore. I hope one day that they will disappear entirely but if not, I’ll be ok. They will never send me backwards in quite the destructive way they did.
As a survivor you may find things you’re unable to leave behind and to me this makes sense. Child Sexual Abuse doesn’t necessarily define you as a person but of course it will shape who you become. How could it not? We are all shaped by our experiences in one way or another.
Survivors may feel under pressure to ‘move on’ but in my case it’s about finding a way to live with the aftermath of abuse. I can’t move on from this. Maybe I will one day but in the meantime I’m happy to live alongside it. I feel at peace because I’m in control and I have an understanding and acceptance of myself in a way I never had before.