Trusting After Trauma
Trigger Warning: Contains references to childhood sexual abuse
When one experiences abuse, particularly as a child or adolescent, their growth into adulthood is layered with the emotional and psychological effects of trauma. As someone who experienced sexual abuse as a young girl, my instincts for survival developed coping mechanisms that protected me from the possibility of more pain. Lots of survivors attest to the startling revelation that later on in their lives, when abuse is no longer present, they still latch onto their previous methods of enduring hardship. And this attachment creates negative results.
I first confronted the reality of my childhood sexual abuse when I was 19 as a freshman in college. It was the first year I was living away from home, and this newfound independence helped me understand my adolescence from a different perspective. I’d write dark, heart-wrenching prose to express the layers of rage, sadness, and confusion the experience caused me. But it wasn’t enough to mediate the storm brewing inside. I finally broke down to my best friend and roommate and told her everything.
In retrospect, this moment is five years past. Yet the emotional intensity of that period can still be found in the moments I’m triggered. The expected triggers are obviously depictions and references to sexual assault, but I’ve recently discovered that moments of vulnerability with my girlfriend provokes similar feelings.
My response is always the same: I freeze up, becoming an immovable stone. I disassociate from my body and feelings, refusing to communicate any of my internal processes. This is what kept me safe as a child who sought an escape from the nightmare of abuse. But as an adult in a safe, supportive, and loving environment that I mutually created with my partner, my response to vulnerability is a reaction to the hellscape of my past.
How is this possible? Why do I have a negative association with revealing my truest thoughts, feelings, and desires to those I trust?
The conflicts with my girlfriend were never arguments, but rather a one-sided conversation where she talked at me because I refused to engage. Refused to acknowledge my complacency by avoiding ill-feelings and problems. You let people who hurt you in the past haunt you, people who aren’t even here. She’d say to me. The stone would crack and I’d eventually break down, sobs shaking my body until I admitted she was right.
My cold response to moments of intimacy wasn’t a reflex, where the stimulus of love caused my walls to build distance between us. Was it instinct to protect myself from something I perceived as a threat to my stability? Or was it caused by my intuition, which had been conditioned to fear kindness and respect because of previous, negative experiences?
Instinct is defined as an innate impulse or tendency, a natural pattern written in a species’ biology. Spiders know how to weave webs from the moment of their birth. A bear knows when and where to hibernate for the winter. Instincts are often understood to be animalistic, primitive behavioral patterns that humans distance themselves from. I am reminded of the many ways the Western man has tried to distance himself from the rebellion of the natural world: the creation of fences, borders, machines and inventions that make formerly hostile environments habitable.
It’s not to say that these material things and societal patterns disrupt instinct; but the purpose of modernity has always been to create distance between the present and human’s humble origins. What if this cultural attitude was linked to my perception of human vulnerability? It’s ability to expose and hold someone accountable reflects society’s distrust of open spaces. With no place to hide, how do we protect ourselves?
Intuition can be synonymous with instinct, although it’s most commonly understood as a perception of truth or fact without any reasoning process to back it up. Patriarchal institutions over-value the importance of objectivity, or hard cold facts, which marginalizes intuition as an unreliable and “feminine” method of understanding. This pattern of distrusting innate capacities reveals our culture’s obsession with hiding, and conflating avoidance with protection.
I remember thinking when I was 19 and entering into my first serious relationship: how can I trust my intuition when it’s wrong?
This question hasn’t left me, even as I lean into healing. The conditioning still exists, perhaps indefinitely. At least in this lifetime, in a world that’s structured to stop people from questioning its violence. Trauma is a fickle thing, gone in some moments only to reappear suddenly and unexpectedly.
In Sarah Schulman’s fantastic book Conflict Is Not Abuse, she writes: “We react constantly through life…Most reactions are not really observed because they are commensurate with their stimuli, but a triggered reaction stands out because it is out of sync with what is actually taking place. When we are triggered, we have unresolved pain from the past that is expressed in the present.”
Reminders of trauma are like ghosts. Their invisible, ethereal forms make them impossible to prove. But the feelings are still felt, as if we are haunted by echoes of cruelty. Triggers are often avoided, and rightly so. Experiencing them can be incredibly difficult; why relive painful memories when you don’t have to? Yet if they’re indications of unresolved emotions, shouldn’t triggers be something we embrace rather than actively avoid?
I took a Multicultural Literature Class in college, excited to read about non-Western perspectives from people of color. My professor had an unconventional approach to this topic, however, and included work by the famous author Vladimir Nabokov. To my dismay, one of the books on the syllabus was Lolita, a novel I was obsessed with as a teenager because it reflected the sexual abuse I was experiencing.
Seeing the word on the page made my heart flutter and my palms sweat. I felt dizzy, and longed to run out of the room and never come back. I could have dropped the class if I wanted to, but I didn’t. Both the inconvenience of it and the possibility to confront a triggering artifact anchored me in place.
But at first, I objected to the book. I even spoke about it in class and wrote my professor a note. But it didn’t change the fact that I was required to write about it and sit through my weekly three-hour classes to discuss it. The whole experience was a nightmare, as it brought up countless memories I longed to forget. At night, when I’d come home after class, I was so on edge that I relied on smoking weed to calm my nerves.
I was face-to-face with reminders of my sexual abuse, forced to confront my tactic for survival as a child. Lolita simultaneously saved and trapped me. It articulated an experience that was my reality, but also caused me to idealize it. This wasn’t the fault of the book, but of my own lack of self-awareness and inability to grapple with my abuse.
This realization was more painful than having to reread the predatory and horrifying novel. I needed to accept that Lolita helped me navigate something that was messy and confusing. But it also hurt me, because it helped internalize that the abuse was my fault. Instead of a victim, Dolores Haze was a seductress. This fantasy was more appealing than accepting my powerlessness. I never heard Dolores’ perspective, but was forced to glean it through what she does and says in the eyes of her captor. I learned about my exploitation from the mouth of my abuser.
It’s no wonder that I react with fear when a lover offers their support. Why should I trust anyone, when people closest to me were capable of immense cruelty? This struggle is not uniquely mine, and I’m sure all victims of abuse share similar sentiments. Our stories are not identical, but they overlap.
I seem to spin round and round in circles trying to distinguish between instinct and intuition, reality and projection. Even in writing this, I wonder what my point is. Or how I can offer hope or insight about trusting after trauma when I’m still trying to figure it out myself.
This discourse is present in even the most minute and humorous formats. Remember a few years back when the Dark Kermit the Frog meme circulated the internet? There’s one that struck me as revelatory and sad about our culture’s tendency to be self-destructive. I was unable to find it but I’ll summarize the gist: when you realize your toxic impulses are only hurting yourself.
As a member of the generation who uses humor on social media to cope with the devastating reality of our fucked up world, indulging this mindset is often easier than confronting what causes it. But maybe there’s something powerful in revealing our demons. Is Dark Kermit not only a darker version of ourselves but also a reflection of our subconscious desires? Embracing the shadow self can be a healing experience, because allowing it to thrive in darkness only makes it more powerful.
Writing about Lolita was a cataclysmic experience for me. I was almost a decade older than the girl who first experienced sexual abuse. Where there was previously a void of silence and shame, suddenly I had language. My feminist studies helped me articulate the toxic elements of the novel and how they reaffirmed a misogynistic culture. In confronting Lolita, I confronted a part of myself hidden from sight. I spoke it into existence, and then released it.
Speaking out about abuse is cleansing. It doesn’t change what happened, but it’s a step forward in controlling how we deal with it. There’s something powerful in acknowledging the past; it allows us to see ourselves more clearly. Coming to terms with my sexual abuse blessed me with the knowledge that I was right in trying to protect myself. For I was a child with no armor, and I didn’t deserve to be exploited.
I think this is the moment survivors begin to distinguish between instinct and intuition; embracing truth grants us insight into realizing what is and isn’t a conditioned response. When we understand our triggers and how we respond to them, we can create modes of action to confront them. When we’re self-aware, our impulses to self-destruct have less power. There’s more room to honor the quiet knowing of intuition. We began to recognize our real selves, buried underneath the layers of experience, expectation, and the past.
Moving beyond the effects of trauma is not a uniform experience. Everyone copes in different ways, and some methods work better for others. But I think the key in allowing oneself to be open to love and vulnerability is the same across the board. If you trust yourself, you can rely on your intuition to guide you to trustworthy people.
Cassidy Scanlon is a Capricorn poet and witch who uses her artistic gifts as a channel for healing herself and others. She writes poetry and CNF about mental health, astrology, queer love, pop culture representation, and how social structures shape our perceptions of history and mythology. When she’s not writing, she can be found petting the local stray cats, exploring the swamps of Florida, reading 5 books at a time, and unwinding with her Leo girlfriend.