How My Partner Reacted When I Had a Flashback While We Were Having Sex


Editor’s Note: If you’ve experienced sexual abuse, assault or live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741-741.

Not too long ago, I was curled up on my partner’s bed, trembling in an effort to keep my tears back. My partner lay facing away from me in bed — likely in a trance of oblivious, postcoital bliss.

I didn’t plan to be like this — vulnerable and naked next to someone who knew the nooks and crannies of my body, but not those of my mind. I had resolved never to let him know I was struggling with anything. I wanted to be someone sexy and beguiling, not a girl struggling with an eating disorder, depression and past trauma. But now reality had caught up to me. My past had caught up to me. And I couldn’t hide my true self anymore because the persona had been suddenly and crudely stripped away.

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the idea that I was likely raped three years ago while very drunk. It was at a birthday party for a co-worker. It was the birthday boy who led me up the stairs into a dark bedroom. For most of the two years that I’ve been in therapy, I never brought up this shameful, dark memory because I’d never labeled it as rape. I always thought it was my fault. I tried to put it out of my mind, and for two years I was very successful in doing so. But on the third anniversary of the trauma, the memory came flooding back. I tried in vain to push that memory back into the back of my mind, but like Pandora’s box, the memory had escaped into my consciousness and was wreaking havoc.

I remember the day I walked into my therapist’s office and finally spoke about what happened. I wanted to throw up, my hands were shaking. Yet I opened my mouth and spoke. At several points during the session, my therapist had to remind me to breathe. I shrank into my chair. I stared at the carpet and my therapist’s shoe — anything to avoid looking my therapist in the eye because if I did, I would surely start crying. I don’t remember what my therapist said to guide me along. I just remember shaking in my chair, folding myself as small as possible.

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After that session, the thoughts about the assault became even more malicious and pervasive. I was never fully present at work or while studying. I could barely get through a normal day at work and hid in the break room between clients, because I couldn’t continue to act extroverted while keeping the thoughts at bay. I couldn’t focus on my anatomy textbook because I only saw memories of the assault, instead of words and diagrams. I relapsed into my eating disorder, alternating periods of frantic binging with days of fasting and restriction. I ate and ate to get away from the guilt and shame, until I felt my stomach distend and undigested food burn at the back of my throat. I starved myself and over-exercised to the point of nearly passing out while walking down the subway stairs, so I could punish myself for being drunk three years ago and getting assaulted.

I had days when I couldn’t get out of bed. Not even to shower. Not even to brush my teeth. I lay in bed, sweltering under the covers, staring blankly at the walls. The same thoughts cycled in my head over and over again. Why did you tell your therapist? She’ll never believe you. You’re such a slut and so stupid for getting drunk that night. It’s all your fault. It’s all your fault and no one will believe you. Maybe you deserved it. Given how many men you’ve dated, maybe you deserve it after all. You deserved it. It’s your fault.

There were only a few scenarios when the thoughts stopped hounding me. One of them was being intimate with my partner. I thought even if I was struggling with the trauma, eating disorder and depression, I could pretend to be “normal” with him. I thought maybe I could hide all the shame, disgust and guilt but still remain physically vulnerable and open with him.

For a while, I was able to keep my struggles hidden away while opening myself up to him. But one night while having sex with him, he entered me before I was ready. The searing pain — the dark bedroom — the figure looming over me — it was all too familiar. I couldn’t tell whether the hands on my shoulder were my partner’s or the perpetrator’s. I couldn’t tell whose bedroom I was in, even though I knew I was in my partner’s bedroom. I froze and lay immobile in my partner’s arms. Or was it the perpetrator’s arms?

I must have made some sort of noise or tensed up, because my partner immediately stopped. Out of routine — or maybe because I was somehow scared he would hurt me if I didn’t please him — I performed oral sex on him. All I could think of while tending to my partner was whether he could tell something was wrong, and how I could stop my heart from pounding out of my chest. Somehow I felt that if I didn’t please him, things would go terribly wrong and he would hurt me. I didn’t want to get hurt again.

When we were finished, he rolled away from me to sleep, as he needed space to sprawl out. But I? I slowly inched myself to the other end of the bed, away from my partner. I tried to make myself as small as possible. And despite pinching myself and digging my fingernails into my skin, I began to cry.

Suddenly my partner moved over to my side of the bed and spooned with me. I felt his warmth, the way his breath gently stirred my hair and tickled my ears. He wrapped his arms around me and I knew he could feel me trembling. I tried to stifle my sobs, but they came spilling out anyhow as I took little gasps of air. He reached a hand up to stroke my cheek, and felt the tears trickling down my face, over his hand, onto the pillowcase.

“Hey, are you OK? Is there something wrong?” He sat up and turned the light on.

Instinctively, I shrank even smaller, but he just continued to stroke my shoulder lightly. I couldn’t face him — I couldn’t possibly face him. I hadn’t anticipated that something would trigger a flashback. The persona I cultivated with him had suddenly disappeared.

Yet, I couldn’t run away from this situation. It was too late for me to try and throw up defenses. He had caught me unaware. And I had to face him. Finally, I turned around and choked out, “Could you please get some tissues?” He passed me the tissue box, which I made good use of. It was a while before I could stop crying, but eventually my sobs subsided. He and I got back under the covers. I put my head on his chest and clung to him. We lay together silently, listening to the whispers of the cars outside, the steady rise and fall of our breathing.

“I suppose I should tell you what’s going on,” I said.

“Only if you want to,” was his reply.

I lay there, panicking about whether I would have to tell him what happened, and how much to tell. I didn’t want to tell him anything. But I might as well tell him something. I took a deep breath.

“Well, the short version of it is that something happened to me three years ago,” I whispered. He nodded. “And sometimes when it’s dark or I have sex, I flip out.” There, I had told him.

He didn’t say anything for a while. At last he said, “I’m sorry you had to go through that. Is there anything I can do to help you? To make things better?” I raised my eyebrows. I hadn’t expected this response from him. I knew that yes, this would be the response a truly respectful and considerate partner would give, but I somehow didn’t expect it from him. I didn’t expect it from anybody. “

No, there’s nothing I can think of right now.”

“OK.” I don’t know how long I lay in his arms for. I remember staring very intently at the curtain rod and the pattern on the duvet cover, because I still couldn’t tell whether I was in the past or the present. I remember hearing his heart beat in his chest. I don’t remember when or who decided to turn off the light — I think I did. Most importantly, I remember that he held me in his arms that night and made sure I knew I was safe.

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Thinkstock photo via kieferpix.

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