The bringer of joy and the bane of my life. I couldn’t live without music. I have extensive and eclectic playlists. I love the sounds of my children’s laughter, or the birdsong at dusk that floats through my attic window on a warm summer’s evening. I like the comforting drone of a distant lawn mower, or the fat crooning of the content pigeon, who rests in my cherry tree. Other than laughter, human noises such as the shout of man or the tap of shoe on the pavement make me deeply uneasy. The noise a human mouth makes when it chews, slurps, sips or swallows pains me. I can’t bear it. I simply cannot BEAR it. It’s an everyday painful occurrence as everyday someone eats in front of me. Not their fault of course as they need to eat, but it’s not mine either, so I’ve stopped apologising for my reaction.
For years and years I put up with it and said nothing even though it was torturous. Different food types cause different levels of pain. Kettle chips are the worst, closely followed by a cup of tea – why must you gulp it? Can’t you just sip it normally? The chomp of a Digestive biscuit; the sucking of soup from a spoon; the distinctive crunch of beansprouts assault my auditory sense in a particularly unpleasant way. For God’s sake. Why can’t you do it more QUIETLY? Masticating mouths make me want to run away, or commit murder or stab my own eyes with a fork. It’s a legacy of course. My irrational hatred of sounds are a legacy of child sexual abuse.
CSA isn’t just about touch. It is the assault of all senses. It is violation of the soul. Sounds were inescapable during the abuse. I could detach from self whilst he did what he did and not feel it in quite the same way, but I would never escape the sounds. Or smells. I became skilled at detaching – I had methods that worked but sounds and smells were pervasive. I was alert to everything. The wet sounds, which to me sounded like the sounds of someone eating, were connected to the discomfort and pain felt in my own body. They were made in part by my own body. And his.
As a child I connected what was happening, that made no sense, to things that did make sense. I didn’t understand the sexual act. I was not supposed to. I was a child. Our brains and bodies are yet to develop in this respect and we just don’t comprehend it. So we connect it to things that do make sense. Eating made sense. Abuse didn’t.
Sounds would indicate how safe, or not I was. I became hypervigilant; I was alert to the whereabouts of others in my house and kept up an internal dialogue documenting sounds. She’s just opened the kitchen cupboard. That’s the back door. He’s turned on the bathroom light. Now she’s turned on the tap. I listened out for his car, his voice, his heavy tread on the stair or the clearing of his throat, the creak of my door. Sounds indicated what was likely to happen, what was happening and how long there was left to endure it.
I don’t like to hear men breathe. Breathing. The breathing, his, was wrong. It was uneven and jagged. It would catch in his throat like freshly cut fingernails on a cashmere jumper. It was panting like my dog sitting in the hot sun. Stop! I wanted to say as a child. Stop. Stop breathing. But I never did. I never said a word. I stayed silent and listened for his breath to settle and quieten as this would indicate that it was nearly over.
Stop breathing, I’ve been known to say to my husband in desperation and the tension is immediate and palpable. We both hold our breath.
Of course I can’t stop breathing, he says and we both laugh but his is hollow and mine masks the panic I feel rising from the tips of my toes. It shoots up my legs, and surges through my body and I tense. I’m consumed with a sudden and visceral rage that throbs and thrums through artery and vein. I want to run. I want to sob. I really want to SCREAM. But I can’t because he’s only breathing so I say quietly instead:
But do you have to breathe quite like that? and immediately regret it. He gets up.
I’ll go somewhere else. he says, and I can see I’ve pissed him off. Understandably. He’s only staying alive after all.
I’m sorry. I say. I’ll go. It’s my fault, not yours.
Sometimes I wish I could turn off my hearing. It’s far too sensitive and still on high-alert. I can only sleep if I stifle all sound with wax earplugs. There’s a good chance I’ll hit the person who wakes me from deep soundless slumber as it sends me straight into a defensive fight mode. Strangely (luckily) I don’t react like this if woken by my children. A mother’s instinct is stronger than the fear. It’s also stronger than the earplugs. It happens rarely now they’re out of babyhood but I would always hear my children when they woke up in the night, despite being a floor above.
This isn’t a blog to demoralise. On the contrary. Our reactions are normal. NORMAL. We were only children who were forced into making these connections with pain and hurt, and sights, sounds or smells. I accept that I am the way I am and that is because of what I went through in childhood. In an earlier blog – Body Memories, I discuss how I overcame the most distressing aspect to flashback and recall -and life is so much easier than it was before, but it seems like I will always be triggered by certain things. That’s ok. Being triggered doesn’t tip me into a state of suicidal ideation. I don’t feel the need to self-harm in response, as long as I acknowledge and communicate my unease or distress. I must do this because staying silent does not work for me. It never did.
Not my fault.
I am not ashamed of my responses to triggers.
Not my fault.
I’m not sorry anymore. I’m no longer saying sorry because it’s not my fault. That doesn’t give me the excuse to direct my anger at the person triggering me but I’ve found that acceptance means there’s less yelling or blaming because I can say it. I name it – and then my responses are understood in context. Child sexual abuse is the reason. It’s why I can’t cope in that moment.
Rather than: for God’s sake, why? Why do you have to chew so bloody LOUDLY!?
I say: Would you mind eating those crisps in the other room? It triggers me.
See how much easier it is? Much better than my clenched stomach, tensed muscles, hands curled into fists and horrible, uneasy, messy, complicated blame – him blaming me for being unreasonable. Me blaming him for not understanding. Not my husband’s fault, or my adult son’s. Not my fault either. The abuser’s fault – then, and now. Always his fault.