This story explicitly describes an experience of PTSD being triggered while having sex with a guy.
There has been a lot of talk the past two weeks about sexual violence, survivorship, why women hide, and why we sometimes stop hiding. I am struggling to process all that I’ve read and heard as a result of the Walking Human Trigger which is Hillary’s opponent. But, while I’m still processing, I thought it could be helpful to show, in one small, specific anecdote, why so many of us hide. Let’s dive right on in…
Adam was a boy I dated when I thought being 28 meant you were a man. He was everything my little 23-year-old bleeding liberal heart wanted. He was a human rights lawyer from the Deep South, which made his existence seem even more noble. Throughout the duration of our brief courtship we spent our workdays on Spotify sending each other songs, me always trying to impress him with my knowledge of indie R&B and he always one-upping me. When Adam was in college he listened to Lil’ Wayne’s first mixtape and ordered bottles of red wine on our dates, which made him tower over the men of my peer group.
His attention was inconsistent but I gave him the benefit of the doubt because I hadn’t yet learned not to give boys the benefit of the doubt. When I did have his attention, it validated a belief I held about myself, that I was above my fellow young 20 somethings and I required a real man like this one in front of me.
This real man didn’t talk about having sex, or, in my preferred language, banging. No, this man talked about wanting to make love. The first time he said it I laughed. The second time he said it I laughed. The third time I decided I should stop laughing because this is what real adults do. They look deeply into each other’s eyes and without laughing say the way to make love to each other. (As I’m writing this I am fighting back a small but prominent lump of vomit that keeps threatening its way up my throat).
But I pushed back. I always found an excuse not to have sex that made sense to me, and just never quite enough sense to him. It wasn’t the right night, I wanted to wait longer, etc as I faced inquires that quickly escalated to accusations from him. “Remember when were in middle school and you would just make out for hours, innocently but thrilling? Can’t we have that for tonight?” Unamused, he pointed to our adult status to invalidate my request.
The truth was I didn’t know why I didn’t want to sleep with him. He was sexy and the real man I should be with. I had been having meaningless sex with a kid named Greg who was 3 years and 50 pounds my junior; a willing sexual plaything, ready and eager to bang on demand, always on my terms. I stopped sleeping with Greg to make space, literally and figuratively, for Adam, but there was something in my gut that wouldn’t permit me to move forward.
Then I got what I thought was my dream job at Planned Parenthood headquarters and I went out that night to celebrate in a new orange dress, teal blazer and bright yellow bag, which wasn’t as hideous as it could have been, and I felt like I was finally going to fulfill my bossbitch destiny. Adam relished in the attention my dope outfit got from fellow bar-goers, and relished in the idea of me, the young feminist girl on his arm, a real testament to the male-feminist he always had fashioned himself to be.
That night he finally made it into my bed. I wanted him there, but I wanted him to want me less. As we kissed in my bed I made the request again for the middle school innocent make out night, and he was not hearing any of it. “I just don’t think you like me enough. If you were actually into me you wouldn’t feel that way.”
I crouched in the corner of my bed where the mattress met the wall, frustrated that my feelings for him were not being sufficiently communicated. I was adamant that this was all just a misunderstanding. I sat on my knees so that my hands could wrap around his neck, trying to insist that he see in my eyes the truth, that I really did like him. He continued the same lines of not believing me, until I found myself taking off my shirt, kissing him aggressively, determined to demonstrate to him how I felt about him, while trying to silence the voices screaming inaudibly my chest.
And there we were, having sex. I laid on my back while he was busy “making love” I was busy telling myself that it wasn’t so bad, rhetorically asking myself what had I been so afraid of?
And to my utter surprise, it was the best sex I had ever had. I had no idea sex could feel so good. So this is what it must feel like to be with a real man, who actually knows what he’s doing!
The trigger happened too fast for me to see it come, only to watch it go out of me, traveling from my chest, through my arms and out of my hands that pushed his shoulders away, forcing him off of me. I had seen my father’s face as Adam’s on top of me. I had thought that Adam looked differently enough from my father that my brain wouldn’t get confused and think it was my father on top of me, in a useless attempt to rationalize my trauma.
Adam was horrified by my pushing him off of me. He was busy “making love” and here I was, unable to hide my disgust of what I had just seen. My mind snapped back to see the man in front of me, for the first time looking like the boy he really was, as he rushed to put on his shirt, not bothering with the buttons. I begged him not to leave as he shoved his belongings into his messenger bag and b-lined for my front door. There was no keeping him in my apartment.
I cried all night alone, unable to bring myself to call a friend and try to articulate an experience I was completely unprepared to understand. I sent countless texts to Adam, trying to assure him that I wanted to be with him, that if he returned I could make it all better, unsure of what would happen if he actually responded and asked me the question, “Why?”
Quite a mess on my hands
The next day, after a very public ugly cry in a park on my lunch break, I was able to grasp what in the actual fuck had happened the night before and accept that this is what my PTSD looked like. Sure, I had been triggered before, usually while trying to masturbate, which is why I had stopped masturbating entirely, but, before that night with Adam I had always been able to “power through” sex with a guy.
I was sure if I could explain my trauma to Adam that he’d understand. The next night, as we sat on the rooftop of a pizza restaurant in my neighborhood, he became the fourth person to learn about what I was going through, as best as I could explain it.
“So let me make sure I understand what you’re saying,” he led with an arrogant smile of a lawyer who found the error in the opposing counsel’s logic, “You’ve been having dreams that your dad is raping you, but you don’t actually have any memory of him raping you, and so you recently stopped speaking to him, and this is why you aren’t attracted to me enough to have sex with me?”
I was distraught. I had spent the last months terrified of my own mind, fairly confident that I may be crazy, and finally I felt validated enough in my victimhood to actually say something to someone, and he was calling bullshit on the whole thing. And there I sat, on the opposite side of the table from him, repeating lines from my therapist about my PTSD and how this is what childhood trauma can look like in an adult, trying to persuade the judge and jury in front of me.
He had one argument to make, and repeated it over and over again, that I just must not like him enough. And then he laid down his ultimatum, that if that weren’t the issue, then let’s go back to my apartment now and have sex.
In that moment, I knew so little of what I was capable of. I didn’t know if I could ever be able to have sex without fear of being triggered (I have). I didn’t know if I could ever be sure of what happened to me and stand firmly in my survivorship (I am). I didn’t know if I could ever find a man that I could feel safe with (I have). As Adam looked deep in my eyes and implored me to let him make love to me, all I knew then in that moment was that I couldn’t do that.
I never slept with Adam again, I left him that night at the pizza place and called quits on the whole shabang. I did, however, in typical Washington DC fashion, reach out to him several years later to see if he’d help me get a position that was open at his organization. He, being a polite and decent person, agreed to meet me for a cup of coffee to discuss the job.
On my way to meet him, I stepped on a rusty stump from an old parking sign, gashed my foot so badly that I had to go to urgent care and get five stitches in my foot. I texted him to tell him what had happened and explain why I couldn’t make it, and true to form, he didn’t believe me. I sent him the picture below of my stitched up foot, and he told me I was behaving childishly and clearly was looking for excuses not to meet him.
At least some things never change. I never saw him again.
Want me to come speak at your event or facilitate a workshop?
I travel around the country giving talks, facilitate workshops and engaging on panels on the topics of healing from sexual trauma and supporting survivors. I promise, it’s more fun than you’d think. I’d love to speak at your event! Just email me at Alisa (at) HealingHonestly (dot) com and we can talk about working together!