I won’t go too deeply into my past traumas except to say that I have been at the receiving end of sexual abuse on more than one occasion. As a 13 year old I was molested by a friend of the family of people I stayed with whilst my parents cared for my hospitalised sister. As a pregnant 21 year old I was sexually assaulted by my sister’s friend. As a 26 year old I was raped by my friend. These are not the only times I have experienced sexual violence.
I don’t want to cause anyone harm by recounting the details of these experiences, and to be honest, I couldn’t if I wanted to. I keep these memories locked in a box, and I do my best to keep the lid on. Sometimes I don’t succeed, and at those times I’m knocked down in a violent onslaught. On one such occasion my husband came up to me and tried to gently place his arms around me to hug me. That lead to the lid bursting off. I don’t remember all that happened. It was as if I blacked out. All I really know is that, when it was over, I was sat on the floor, rocking and shaking, with my face swollen by tears and mucus in my hair. On the ground, all around me, were shards of smashed pottery. I had broken every plate. The kitchen looked as if a bomb had hit it.
On another occasion, my husband and I had a conversation that strayed too far towards triggering conversation. I overdosed that weekend, and tried to ‘run away’ (wheel away). The police came, and I was admitted to hospital. On another occasion I became overwhelmed and decided to wheel off down the street. It was after dark and a car drove slowly beside me. They were probably simply looking for a specific house, but the fear that arose inside of me made the images (the ones I keep in the box) begin attacking me. I started to wheel myself home, it was only 20 yards away, but the images came quicker and quicker, and I began to hyperventilate. I don’t know how I got back into the house, but when I slowly regained an understanding of where I was, I was on my bed in my husband’s arms, and listening to my wails and at first not processing that they were coming from me.
Another time my husband and I had a falling out, again after dark, and I left the house in my power chair. I was only halfway down my road. A group of teenagers walked in my direction and I fell apart. I headed home but my wheelchair got stuck on the kerb. I was across the road from my house and desperately trying to get the attention of my family but no one heard me. The next time I was compos mentis I was in my room and screaming, and choking, and screaming more. The noise of the images in my head was so loud, and so fast, and I couldn’t make it stop.
This is what my PTSD does to me. It destroys me. It makes me self-harm, take overdoses, have asthma attacks, provokes my latent anorexia, and makes me generally breakdown. It completely takes over my mind and there is nothing I can do to win against it. I have had therapy, both as an inpatient and an outpatient, and nothing has worked. The other day, when I spoke out against what Stephen Fry had said a fellow survivor suggested that she chose not to be a victim, to not focus on it and to move on, and that others should do so too. I don’t think about what happened to me all of the time. It is not the focus of my life. I do my best to move on, to think of other things, to use mindfulness, but not having PTSD is not a choice I get to make. If it was, I would not have it for all the world.
Stephen Fry suggested it was “infantile” to avoid triggers. To him, trigger warnings were a means of oppression, of focusing on and pitying the self. To me, the avoidance of triggers is the opposite. Avoiding triggers reduces my need to think about what has happened to me. It is a means to keeping the lid tightly on that box. It is not allowing myself to be a victim; it is a necessary part of my journey as a survivor. Every time I see a depiction of rape I fall apart. Once, when watching a comedian, there was a date rape joke. I don’t know how I left the show, but I was next aware of my surroundings when I was throwing up mucus in an alleyway. having a severe panic attack. That was not empowering for me, that was the opposite. Had I known there would be rape jokes I wouldn’t have gone. I wouldn’t have had a panic attack. I would have been at home, happy. It wasn’t an act of self-pity which provoked my panic attack. I wasn’t conscious of an ‘I’ at all. There were just the images in my head, taking me back to times I was desperately trying to forget. And when I say taking me back, I need you to understand that in my head I was there, it was happening- or at least the full force of the emotion and fear was there as if it was happening precisely at that moment. Had the audience been warned there would be references to rape would it have ruined their enjoyment of the gig? I highly doubt it. Trigger warnings do no harm, but they can prevent it.
I had hoped that someone like Stephen Fry, who had their own experiences of mental illness, would understand and have sympathy for the need of self-care. Just as he may need therapy and medications, I need to avoid triggers. It is nothing but the sensible management of mental illness. I am glad he has apologised. He may have been unwell himself when he made those comments, but there will be those who heard what he said and who nodded their heads in agreement. Certain websites have made the argument that rape does not cause PTSD, but that people are told they will have PTSD and as such, they do. There are people out there who think their need to hear rape jokes, or witness scenes of CSA within a film, sans warning, is more important than not re-traumatising survivors. When Fry spoke, it was to those people. When an audience watches a gig, a play, or a film, then the statistics would state that a large proportion of them are survivors, many of whom will have PTSD. This isn’t the odd handful. There are MANY survivors out there. Why is it so offensive for them to be offered a token of protection?