on touch and boundaries after trauma

(cw: sexual assault, PTSD, complex PTSD, trigger responses, dissociation, emotional abuse, relationship violence)

the last couple of weeks have been, to be frank, an absolute mess. the stress at work was beyond wild because of this past Monday’s site visit, the results of which will determine whether we get funding to continue our personalized learning journey—and then I had an interesting conversation with a colleague on Thursday the 30th that left me too shaken to write about until, well, now.

it started out innocently enough. we were discussing something unrelated and I mentioned to my colleague that I missed seeing them around, as we just have not coincided in a while. they breathlessly revealed that they have been taking some time off because they were sexually assaulted and are trying to recover from the experience. they then went on to describe the situation in pretty specific detail—and, as (bad) luck would have it, it was really close to my own experiences with assault.

I expected an immediate trigger reaction, the kind that made me punch someone when I was in college—but it did not come. I stayed focused on them, offered advice, offered support, did everything I could to make sure they knew that I understood and I appreciated the trust they were putting in me by disclosing this difficult experience. we then went our separate ways, and I walked slowly and counted every step in my head and tried to reassure myself. you are not fifteen anymore. or twenty-two. you’re fine. all of that is behind you. you are safe. and you’ve got to get it together—you’re already late for your honors class.

fifteen minutes later, while leading an explanation in said honors class, words literally failed me. I’ve had temporary aphasia before during a migraine episode, but this was different—I felt fine and was explaining something, and then a minute later I could not get words out of my mouth OR the words that came out were not what I was trying to say. and, of course, the more frustrated I became, the harder it was to speak. the terrifying part was that I understood then that I was having a PTSD reaction I had not had before—so I had no idea what to expect.

the rest of the day is a blur. I know I dissociated for a fair amount of it because I have messages with a friend I don’t recall writing in which I described myself as “a cosplaying alien.” everyone who saw me that afternoon at work remarked on how I was absent, even during a meeting I was supposed to be co-facilitating, and I literally cannot remember driving home or even interacting with my husband or my roommate very much at all. I had an assignment due, so I managed to email my professor to explain that I was going to need an extension, and then I went to bed early even though I knew I would not be able to sleep.

that stupor lasted for days. I was all over the place Friday, as several people remarked—and still could not complete that assignment. I sat in the bath and read on Saturday, made myself feel like someone else through the story I was reading—and that was the best I’d felt since Wednesday evening. it wasn’t until Sunday, when I had to go tutor in the morning, that my voice did not sound foreign to my own ears and I finally had a day in which I did not dissociate. I got some chores done—the post on how we figured out the best way to help me do those is coming!—and completed my assignment and did a ton of work, including a fair amount of this post. (so, yes, a bipolar upswing into my almost-comfortable hypomania.)

the hardest part, though, was not even the dissociating or the nightmares—it was having to explain to people I love how much I needed them to stay away from me.

under other circumstances, I am a pretty touchy-feely person; my love language is physical touch and anyone who is remotely close to me knows that. however, I much prefer to give the touch than receive it—and, indeed, I struggle with physical contact that I do not initiate. and yes, I am aware that it can be construed as hypocritical—and perhaps it actually is hypocritical—but, as long as I can control the physical contact, I do find it soothing and it is a very natural way for me to express affection. if my life had been different, if that affection had never been twisted into something ugly for me, maybe I could accept spontaneous hugs without having to close my eyes and hold my breath and count to ten—but that is not the case.

that is just not the life I’ve lived.

and because that contact has been twisted for me, because I have had to be afraid of proximity and the most casual of touches… that is why I, pegajosa as I have always been, have instead become arisca. (that is to say, I’ve gone from clingy to skittish.) it is why my roommate will always ask if I would like a hug, why she telegraphs any movement she makes towards me, why she immediately pulls away if I so much as look like I might wince. she knows I’m not scared of her and that I know she’s safe and that we’re going to be okay—but she also knows that an ill-placed touch or even someone standing too close to me on a bad day could send me into a spiral that will take days to recover from.

I don’t believe my experience is unique, so I’ve decided to share some ways to approach someone you love who has undergone trauma and might have issues with physical contact:

  1. ask for consent explicitly. I cannot overstate how important this is—one of the easiest ways for me to know that I can trust someone is if they’ll ask whether they can give me a hug or if I even want the hug. this also applies to stuff you might not think twice about, like reaching for someone’s hands (like, having my wrists encircled is a huge trigger for me) or touching them to fix their position or even stepping into their personal space to reach past them for something.
  2. telegraph/announce your movements. I know that there’s the Midwest meme about “ope, I’m just gonna sneak past ya to grab the ranch,” but it is seriously so helpful to know that someone’s going to invade my personal space for whatever reason. it also can help me avoid a situation in which I do end up having a trigger response due to proximity. my doctors have been really good about this also, which I think is just best practice; I appreciate the heads-up of “I’m going to listen to your lungs now” or even “I’m going to adjust your position.” this is especially helpful when it comes from someone you are not super close with—it establishes that this person respects you and your bodily autonomy!
  3. do not assume that what is sometimes okay is always okay. this should go without saying because that’s how consent works, but I do think it bears repeating in this context. it is so difficult to explain why there is such a variance in contact that we are willing to receive/engage with, mostly because we don’t always know why the difference is there at any given time. for example, stress is a huge thing for me; the more stressed I am, the less I want people even walking near me. I don’t necessarily have a specific reason other than “I need more space than usual because I’m stressed the hell out,” but it does affect my desire for physical contact and willingness to engage in it. when people respect that I don’t need to have a clear explanation why I want or do not want that contact.
  4. discuss boundaries. you cannot assume that my exact situation is other people’s, so—while I think many of these things are applicable to other people— it’s important to know where your specific person stands. if the person in question is your romantic/sexual partner, this is essential because you want to make sure that you are not associating yourself with any negative memories that person has.
    in my case, I can’t have my back to a wall with someone pressed to my front, not even in crowded situations—I will usually turn so my back is to people and my front to the wall—so my husband is super careful to not crowd me when we pass each other in the narrow hallway and, if we do, he’ll turn so we end up passing each other back-to-back, each facing the wall. it’s a simple change for him but it means the world to me.
  5. don’t take it personally. sometimes, no matter how careful we all are about telegraphing and asking and discussing, we might have an adverse reaction to physical contact. it happens and it feels terrible for everyone involved—but I promise you that we already feel absolutely awful about making you rejected. we will already blame ourselves for a while, so we just need you to be understanding and give us the space we need. one of the most amazing things about my relationship with my closest friends and my husband is that, if I flinch or move away when there’s contact, they’ll give me a casual “oh, sorry” and then ask me if I’m okay and then drop it—they’re not centering their feelings and making me comfort them. they’re also not insisting on comforting me on their terms; they’re trying to follow mine.

after over a week of processing this, and then writing this all out, I once again feel much more settled into my skin. there’s something really therapeutic about reflecting on the progress I’ve made and recognizing all of the little (and not-so-little) ways that the people closest to me have accommodated my needs. I hope that this is helpful to someone, if only to understand my many contradictions. 🙂

until next time!

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