The reality of being ‘triggered’: Why rape survival is a process

CW: rape, PTSD, sexual violence

“I don’t know if you can help me. This might not be what you’re set up for.” The other end of the phone is silent, waiting for the next sentence. I pause for a moment. It really hasn’t gotten any easier to say this.

“I was raped eleven years ago. I had counselling then and I’ve been ok. A couple of weeks ago a friend posted this stupid thing on Facebook and now I feel like it happened last week.” I can hear my own voice stumbling over words as I start to cry and it feels so utterly ridiculous. I’m ringing a rape crisis line. The last person this woman spoke to might have still been able to feel their rapist in their body. It was eleven years ago. I dealt with it. I healed. I’m better. I have no right to be calling this number and crying down the phone to a stranger about this.

I don’t think I ever really understood what triggers were before this. I knew the theory, of course. You don’t move in the circles I do without learning that trigger and content warnings are important. I used them when I remembered but, honestly, I probably wasn’t that careful.

It’s not that I’d never been triggered either; at 21, I was diagnosed with PTSD. At the time it was linked to the birth of my daughter and, in retrospect, if I had talked to the psychiatrist about the assault, she probably would have linked them.

I think I just thought it took something that big. I think about the rape all the time. I’m a feminist and an activist – sexual violence and our culture’s terrifying relationship with it are never far away. It’s not possible to surround yourself with passionate political people and never talk about rape culture. It’s not possible to part of the world without being surrounded by it.

I think about that night everytime I see a man in a certain style of coat, or get the 33A from leeds to Otley, or see the light catching a bottle of Jack Daniels. In the intervening years, I’ve backed away from people I cared about because the jokes they made scared me, I’ve admitted what happened to me to people just to make them stop talking and I’ve pretended not to mind things that made me feel sick. I’ve held it together.

Then, one day, out of nowhere, someone who I thought of as an ally said something stupid. It was very stupid – I was far from the only person who was bothered by it – but it wasn’t badly intentioned and ultimately, it was just words on a screen. However, all of a sudden it was 2005 and I was seventeen and a friend from work had told me that he couldn’t choose between my rapist and me. We were both his friends. That was my reality again, not a faded memory that my mind flinches away from like a hot stove, it was real, immediate and totally inescapable. This man, the man on Facebook, is my friend but here he was, publicly dismissing rape survivors. He acted like we didn’t matter. Like the thing that ruined me just wasn’t important. I wasn’t safe anymore. I had never really been safe. It hurt and I couldn’t make it stop. I was scared. I was alone.

“I’m not seventeen anymore. I can’t just drink myself numb for months this time. I have to get better.” The woman on the phone understands. We talk about how scary it is to be a survivor in a world where rapists serve three months sentences and a man can brag about assaulting people and become president of the United States. We talk about how well I had been doing. I forgot the anniversary this year. That’s huge. I make her laugh, because that’s what I do. I’m still me. I don’t know who I’d have been without this; I was so young. It’s been a part of me for my entire adult life.

I can hear my children playing in the next room. The rice has boiled over and I have a meeting in an hour. I don’t have the luxury of a long recovery this time.  The woman gives me the contact details of the counselling coordinator for my area. I’ll call her.

This could be an opportunity to come to terms with the things I never did. I hope I’ll get better at trigger and content warnings. I sure as hell don’t want to do this to anyone else. Maybe it will make me stronger, braver, more empathic.

I think things are OK now with the man who made the silly Facebook post. I won’t have to lose another friend to this. I won’t hide from it; I won’t withdraw from the world. I can’t let my rapist have that much power over me, not after everything I’ve done. I’ll be OK, this time and the next. I’ll do the work. I’ll heal. I’ll fight for other survivors. I’ll enjoy sex again. I’ll never stop reading past trigger warnings, but, maybe, I’ll take a moment to prepare myself for it. I’ll survive, again, because that’s what we do. That’s why we call ourselves survivors. We’ll survive, whether the rest of the world helps us or not.

It would be easier if they did.
Rachel Krengel is an anti-austerity activist and member of Fourth Wave: London Feminist Activists.