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What I Want My New Boyfriend to Know About My PTSD and Intimacy

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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.

“Are you scared? Kala. Are you scared?”

My boyfriend looks up at me, concern crinkling his brow. I lie motionless in bed, gazing off into some other world. I’m a million miles away, lost in the pattern of the tiles on the ceiling, imagining my soul floating safely above a shell of a body. My boyfriend loves me. He is nothing but respectful, kind and engaged in my healing journey as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Still, sometimes the terrified child within me mistakes a touch, a scent, a sound, a texture, for the monsters of my youth – and I am transported back in time, in a flash, before I can even process what’s going on.

• What is PTSD?

This is a telltale symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – the flashback is a protective mechanism, bypassing logical reasoning and triggering the fight-flight-freeze response so that the victim of disaster can act quickly and escape danger.

“Kala. Do you want to stop?” The familiar, comforting sound of my boyfriend’s voice cues me back to the present moment, but the symptoms are lingering. I manage to pull out of the dissociative state enough to nod my head. I’m still quivering from the sickening nausea that overtook my stomach.

If I were to tell you that this is me at my best yet – that I’ve made progress by leaps and bounds with my flashbacks and symptoms of PTSD – it might sound odd. I know my boyfriend worries sometimes, when he sees me huddled with my shoulders hunched over, frozen and unable to speak. Or when, after we’ve had a series of days where intimacy and connection came easily to me, only for me to take ten steps back and explain that I don’t want to be touched or don’t feel safe sleeping next to him.

What I want my new boyfriend to know is just how far I’ve come with my healing journey – that often, it’s one step forward, two steps back – and that, while healing from PTSD is a lifelong journey and I can’t promise we won’t face hurdles, I’m committed to doing everything in my power to keep inching my way towards a more trusting intimacy.
I’ll be the first to admit that on a day to day basis, sometimes I feel like I’m getting nowhere fast. Sometimes, it’s hard not to feel overcome with guilt when I misstep or backtrack, and have to start over again at square one. But each time I fall, it becomes a little easier to get up. On my hardest days, I remember a poem by Portia Nelson that my dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) counselor shared with me when I was 21. To this day, the poem resonates with me as a wise testament to where I began, just how far I’ve come, and where I’m headed:

“Autobiography in Five Short Chapters” — Portia Nelson

Chapter I

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter II

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter III

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit … but,
my eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter IV

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter V

I walk down another street.

Putting my healing path in the context of the past decade, it’s easier to take pride in just how far I’ve come in my healing journey. During the worst of my trauma, I spent much of my childhood in escapism: Dissociation was my best friend, and I began talking to people less and less, more content to live in an imaginary world built out of stories that I dreamed up in my writing and artwork. During my college years, I tried to outrun my demons of my past by attending a college 900 miles from home, only to find that they haunted every crevice of my heart. Flashbacks and unrelenting symptoms of PTSD kept me from letting any lover touch me or even get close emotionally, and I pushed everyone I loved away. Distraught, I turned a dark corner into several years of self-harm and alcohol abuse to evade a pervading sense of hopelessness, eventually culminating in a suicidal ideation that lost me my remaining friends, my job, and landed me in a psychiatric hospital.

That was the rock bottom I needed to turn over a new leaf, and from there things started to get better, bit by bit. It was baby steps. I started putting the skills my DBT counselor taught me to use, replacing self-harm and substance abuse with mindfulness and self-compassion. I started learning to trust others, replacing avoidance and isolation with open communication, and slowly, very slowly, learning how to incorporate physical touch into my relationships, on my terms. When I started seeing my new boyfriend, I told him right off the bat how I am currently learning how to practice healthy boundaries, and made it clear we might not be sleeping in the same bed for awhile. Or that I might feel safe having sex one day, and then I might not be comfortable with more than a hug another, depending on what triggers I’m facing and whether I am needing reassurance that my body is now finally my own.

Sometimes days are challenging, but for a someone living with PTSD from the aftermath of childhood sexual abuse, I’ve learned that time, patience and healthy boundaries are the road to reclaiming a sense of safety and trust. And I’ve realized it’s OK to ask for that, because in the end, that sort of self-compassion and communication is what will bring my boyfriend and me to a place of trust and understanding that builds the foundation to the respectful, intimate connection I’ve been yearning for all these years.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

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.

Getty Images photo via nd3000

Originally published: February 9, 2018
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