[Content warning: rape, sexual assault]
Panic grips my chest, an icy dread filling my senses. Each breath struggles to fruition, each labored and weary. Images rush through my mind in a dizzying blur, too quick to make out but slow enough to leave their marks upon my fragile psyche. What was a peaceful day moments ago transforms into desperate fight for control. Fingers itch to leave their marks upon my skin as urges flood through to run and never stop.
This past week has been one of the most challenging weeks I’ve had in a long time. After a weekend of joyous bliss spent with my adoring husband, one small moment flipped the tables and threw me into a whirlwind of pain and panic. Each day has been a struggle to keep my head above the waters as my PTSD has threatened to drag me under at any moment.
It’s kind of funny. Prior to this week, I had been starting to doubt if I still had PTSD. It had been awhile since I had had an episode and I had gotten to a place where I could see pictures of my ex without panicking. I wondered if PTSD still had enough of an effect on my life to still be an accurate label. Then this week happened and wiped all doubt from my mind.
Last Monday, I went on a date with my queerplatonic partner as we explored if maybe there were more amorous feelings between us. Overall, the date went really well. We had a good time together and spent most of the date laughing. However, there was one moment, one small moment, that had a massive impact on me. We were in Ludo’s car kissing, and he respectfully asked if he could touch my chest. Before my brain could process the request, my mouth said yes and it was happening. As soon as I got my wits about me, I stopped it and we moved on with our date, but that small moment started a terrible torrent in my mind.
Due to the trauma I’ve suffered, my mind, in an attempt to protect itself, has blocked out a lot of memories. I have about a two year period of time, the length of time I spent in my last abusive relationship, missing from my memory. Not only are the memories of him blocked from me, but the memories of everything else that happened in that time, including memories of time spent with the man who is now my husband. Occasionally, I’ll get glimpses of moments from that time, sometimes good memories, other times bad.
After that small moment on Monday, my mind began to regale me with memories and images that had long been forgotten. Suddenly, every time I had ever said yes without meaning to, every time I had said yes out of fear, every yes that escaped my lips without my mind’s consent came rushing back to me. Memories of moments that would otherwise clearly be defined as rape flooded my mind with the thoughts that because I said yes, even unwillingly, I couldn’t consider it as such.
Once these memories were back in my mind, my PTSD flared into life. I’ve been constantly on edge, nerves set aflame, never truly resting. I’ve become withdrawn, even pulling back from Husband. I’ve been speaking less than usual, trapped as I am within my mind. Waves of depression lap at the beach of my mind threatening to drag me under at every moment, succeeding from time to time so that I am left a shell of a person devoid of any motivation, passion, or hope, instead replaced with a crushing weight upon my chest. Each night has brought nightmares I can’t remember but feel in my bones as I wake. Intrusive thoughts have become a daily concern; unwanted thoughts and images forcing their way to the forefront of thought, unable to be ignored. I’ve grown more hostile towards others with my temper flaring over the silliest things as I’ve become physically withdrawn and my mood has grown volatile.
In the midst of all of this, I feel as if I’ve lost myself. “What’s wrong with me?” has become a near constant thread of thought along with considerations of how to fix myself. I find myself pulling away from Husband and not understanding why. I struggle to keep up conversation with anyone, even those I spoke to with ease just over a week ago. The panic and dread that fill my being leave my body feeling unfamiliar and foreign. The maelstrom of my mind feels disconnected from who I know myself to be. Most of all, I feel trapped.
As I try to cope with the sudden influx of painful memories, I have spent a lot of time talking with Husband trying to process what’s going on. As I’ve talked with him, certain concerning patterns of thought have become apparent. We realized that one of my biggest struggles right now is that I blame myself for all these instances. I blame myself for not saying no when I didn’t want to engage in things. I blame myself for every unintentional yes, for every coerced yes, for every fearful yes. I feel like I should have been stronger, should have asserted myself more, should have been more vocal.
However, I am disabled and my disabilities come in to play here. I am not always verbal. In times of stress, I often go nonverbal or partially verbal. When I’m partially verbal, I’m not always in control of what words fall out of my mouth. During these times, I struggle to say what I mean and nothing words, words that don’t match up to my internal experience, words that have no true meaning, fall out. This can look like automatic small talk or simple yes/no answers. If this happens during times of normal stress, how can I expect myself to be perfectly verbal in stressful sexual situations, particularly when years of abuse conditioned me to go along with things for the sake of others? How can I blame myself for not saying no when I know that it was beyond my capabilities at the time?
I would never blame someone else for not saying no. I would argue that enthusiastic consent should have been sought and that the absence of a no does not mean yes. I would argue that a yes born of coercion or fear is not a true yes. I would argue that other forms of communication should have been accounted for. Yet, when it comes to myself, I struggle to apply these same arguments. I find myself caught in a cycle of victim blaming and internalized ableism.
Internalized ableism tells me that it’s my fault I didn’t speak up. Internalized ableism says that I should have just tried harder to say no. Internalized ableism says that my disabilities are just excuses to hide my weakness. Internalized ableism is wrong. I’m not weak for acknowledging the ways my disabilities have influenced these situations. I am autistic and part of that, for me, is not always have control of my mouth words and that’s ok. It’s not my fault that I wasn’t able to say no. It’s not my fault that wires crossed and yes came out when I really meant no.
In all of these situations, I was a victim but I’ve been victim blaming myself. While I would never blame a victim for not saying no, I blame myself. I feel like I should have asserted myself more. I should have been able to say no. It’s my fault for not being the perfect victim, for being a messy, imperfect human being. Husband pointed out to me how hypocritical it is of me to blame myself for all of this when I would never do the same to someone else. While his words hurt, I knew he was right.
The hardest thing to deal with has been that sometimes there isn’t someone to blame. Sometimes people get hurt, even very badly, and there’s no clear villain. The moment that started this mess, the moment with Ludo, caused me a great deal of pain, but there’s no one to clearly blame. He did nothing wrong. He asked respectfully and was told yes. Yet, I can’t blame myself for how my autism influenced the situation. It wasn’t my fault either. If we really want to blame someone, it’s the men who abused me years ago, yet that feels so far removed that it’s hard to place the blame there. Sometimes we have to accept that bad things happen and it’s no one’s fault. It’s really hard to accept this as we typically feel better if we have someone we can blame, even if it’s ourselves. Yet we must accept that, sometimes, there really isn’t anyone to blame.
This week has been a very challenging and trying week for me, and my struggles are not yet over. This flare of PTSD has been wide reaching and has left me reeling. I know that I will get better, but I also know that it’s going to be a struggle to get to better. For now, each day I will continue to fight against internalized ableism and victim blaming. For now, I will take care of myself until I find myself at better.