By Sophie Olson
(CSA. Suicidal ideation)
As well as men breathing and people eating, the sound of cars on a road are another trigger.
As she was assaulted inside a car that was parked in a lay-by, she could hear the swoosh swoosh swoosh of the cars drive by and as she detached from self, the child pictured the drivers of the cars, in her head. They were of course, oblivious. If only they had slowed. If only the drivers had stopped for a rest and been curious enough to look inside the car. They didn’t and she remained out of sight and invisible, but she was there and she heard each and every one of them. That day, the sound of cars of cars passing burnt into her psyche and became a trigger. She was nine years old.
The swoosh swoosh of traffic has caused me so many problems over the years. Firstly there was the first proper house my husband and I moved into – a beautiful rented cottage made of flint and stone and with a purple flowering Lilac in the garden. As soon as the removal men drove away, leaving us to unpack, I knew I’d made a terrible – the most terrible mistake. The house was within ten feet or so of a busy road and all I could hear were the cars. I walked outside and away from it, down to the end of the long garden, where the noise was quieter, but I could still hear them. I was appalled with myself. How could I have made such a grave error of judgement when I viewed the house? What on earth had I done?
I remember crouching down and putting my hands over my ears trying to block out the sounds but I couldn’t and I was suddenly and overwhelmingly paralysed with fear, wondering if I would survive these immediate and overwhelming body memories and flashbacks. I had no idea what to do next. I was still silent about my abuse. My husband was aware but other than a hurried and ashamed muttering of the words a couple of years earlier, I’d never elaborated and we hadn’t discussed it any further. That was the way I wanted it to stay. From my standpoint I could see the cottage, and I pictured my husband inside unpacking the boxes and I felt guilt and shame. He didn’t know it yet but I’d ruined this for him.
The idyllic life change turned into a desperate panic that continued for the four long months it took us to find a way out of there. My husband was supportive but perplexed by my violent reaction to the road noise and he thought I was having some sort of mental health crisis. The noise was relentless. I couldn’t sleep; I began to experience losses of time – I remember my husband coming home from work and my confusion as he’d only just left. How was it possible to lose an entire eight hours? I had no understanding of dissociation or what was happening to me and I began to think I was going mad too.
With hindsight it makes sense that if a person is bombarded with relentless auditory trigger that they may check out in the end. Sound torture is used as a form of psychological warfare to break the will of prisoners and whilst the noise of cars passing would have little impact on most, when you can understand why and how my brain made connections with physical pain and fear, it makes perfect sense. To me at least.
I just needed to go home, to my old cosy flat tucked in the eaves of a Victorian house, well away from any cars or main roads, but I couldn’t. We asked our old landlord, we begged him but it was too late. There was a new tenant in my safe place. I was trapped in the cottage, with the sounds and the memories. There was no room in the house where I could escape the noise and I was suicidal by the end of that first week in my new home but I couldn’t bring myself to take my baby with me. I was five months pregnant with my first child and just beginning to feel the first fluttering sensations low down in my womb; amphibious twists and tremulous somersaults. Gentle pokes from tiny foetus feet. It was a joyous time ruined by the legacy of child sexual abuse. We broke the tenancy agreement in the end and lost our deposit. This was the first but not the only time we would throw money we didn’t have at surviving.
It would be fair to assume that these responses to sounds would lessen the more I heal from the trauma of abuse but in fact it’s the opposite. I have the tools and support to be able to deal with them (see Body Memories) but I’m more aware of the triggers than I was before. As the gap between what I feel and what I feel able to now voice has narrowed, I have given myself permission to voice it rather than suppress it. In turn, this has made me recognise that I’m triggered a lot of the time, that there’s always something with the potential to have an immediate altering effect on my body.
Today, for example. My son jumped out at me, from behind, in a room I thought was empty. He does it in the most hideous way; he doesn’t shout BOO! – he sidles up, unseen by me, taps me on both shoulders at once and whispers in my ear: boo.
I can’t stand it.
My heart seems to miss a beat. I scream. My legs turn to jelly. I feel nauseous and I say through gritted teeth:
I told you. I TOLD you. Please. PLEASE, just don’t.
I hate to admit that I’m triggered by my own children sometimes, but I am and there’s no pretending otherwise, (although they’re too young to hear this). It’s just the way it is. Not their fault, not mine. His. The abuser. I’m triggered by a look, an expression, because they’re male. Because they’re related to him. My daughter, when she was younger would trigger me because she was female. A child. Like me. Like I was. Look how small she is. Look how small I was. How trusting she is. How loving, how innocent I must have been too. So this is how he did it.
I’m triggered by neighbour noise. I need to control the sounds that I hear but I can’t control the ones that have nothing to do with me. I need to feel safe inside the four walls of my own home but I don’t because we have awful (by anyone’s standards) student neighbours. I hear them shout, sing and play loud music. They thump and thunder up the stairs. They yell. They shriek. So close; too close and
I. Can’t. Stand. It.
If I could move, I would. I need to live on a remote Scottish island, in a detached house with no neighbours. Except that would be a trigger too. Isolation. If I lived with silence my head would fill with the sounds of his smooth voice and the breathing. His breathing. I wouldn’t survive the silence. I know what it feels like to be cut off from the rest of the world and I think maybe I’d go mad. See how impossible it is? How relentless the trigger dodging becomes? Is there really no escape?
Male aggression; on the street, in the news, or in my own life; trigger. Raised voices; trigger. Heated debate; trigger. Arguments; trigger.
Trigger. Trigger. Bang bang bang.
Shots to the solar plexus that tilt me off axis and send me reeling. Back to abuse. Back to him…
I. Can’t. Stand.it.
DON’T SHOUT AT ME! I yell. Don’t shout. Stop SHOUTING AT ME! And they do of course, instantly, because they never meant any harm. I’m lucky in that respect. I live with men who choose to protect me, not harm me, but emotion catches up with us all at times. Not their fault. Not mine either. The abuser’s. Only his. Always his fault, then and now.
As I said in part one, this is not meant to demoralise. These feelings – or at least our responses that are noticed by others tend to be misunderstood. This is because they don’t always see the cause. They may only see the reactions – the yelling or distress, the irrationality of wanting to move house within minutes of moving in. They don’t see the abuse. They don’t feel it. They simply cannot grasp the enormity of the pain, the visceral fear. They can’t understand the horror. My psychiatrist certainly misunderstood this. In years to come I was to describe this period of my life, (leaving out the connections between cars and sexual abuse as I was unable and unwilling to talk about that), and it was identified as a ‘manic phase’ which was the basis for misdiagnosing me with bipolar disorder and justification for putting me on mood stabilisers. I couldn’t have been more misunderstood.
I have normal responses to stimuli that takes me back to events in my life that were traumatising. I may live with the impacts of CSA for life. Sounds might always trigger me and it may feel like they have control of me, but I accept that because a huge part of my healing has been accepting who I am today. I was shaped by my abuse but it doesn’t mean I can’t live a happy and productive life. There’s a life-coaching narrative I see on social media that may work for others but it doesn’t work for me. Do I ‘own’ my trauma? Nope, some days are challenging and it feels like trauma owns me. Have ‘I got this?’ Sometimes, yes. Not always. But I’m ok. I don’t need cheerleading out of my trauma. I spent half a lifetime denying what had happened and when I broke my silence I minimised how affected I was. Who says I have to? And why? For me, or for them? Is it because it makes others uncomfortable to hear me talk about it?
Recovery (for me) is not accepting what happened, but it is accepting who I am today as a result of the abuse. It is accepting my responses to triggers and my needs as a survivor. I’m not ashamed of how I may be perceived as a result, because I am clear on one thing. This is not my shame. It is his. It is always his shame.