When Intimacy Triggers Flashbacks

Editor’s Note: If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

The flashback came on quickly, but it wasn’t unexpected. It was part of my routine experience of being intimate with a man. It’s almost as if there were two couples in the room, at odds with one another. One of them was affectionately kissing, longing for closeness; trust; intimacy. The other was a defenseless child, overtaken by the man — the abuser. On one hand, his fingers intertwined with mine, the safety of his kind words and all our connection leading up to this moment. On the other hand, my racing heart telling me to run or leave my body, to dissociate, because what was about to happen was too awful to witness. The voice in my head telling me that sexuality turns even the best men into monsters. On the one hand, the survivor. On the other, the victim.

As he started to go further, the survivor disappeared under the waves and so did the kind man. I was a helpless victim again, trapped in my abuser’s closet. Worthless without sharing what my body offered, like my mother told me. Like he showed me. I was only safe in my numbness, and the only peace I had was to focus on the faint glow of the moon, the way it glinted off the turquoise cloth that had fallen from my body.

But wait — that was nearly two decades ago. I was here, connecting with a kind man who I’d asked to come into my home and whose kiss had given me butterflies moments before. Would he rape me if I asked him to stop? Maybe I should just go through with it, then at least I wouldn’t risk being put in physical danger. But the confusion was too much. If he really was the kind man that half of me thought he was, he deserved to know. If we were going to be together, we would have to work through this together. “I’m sorry, I’m feeling really nervous,” I blurted out, pulling myself away. “It’s OK,” he said, wrapping his arms around me reassuringly. “I’m feeling nervous too.” Of course, he didn’t know what I was talking about, but I breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe he wasn’t going to hurt me after all. Still, I felt like a disappointment. “Don’t ever apologize to me,” he said. “You don’t ever have to do something you don’t want to do, OK?”

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.

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