Why does my brain do this? The difficulty of recognizing first-person experiences of abuse and mental illness

I know this isn’t just my brain. I know it is an absurdly common experience. But still, I can’t believe my brain continues to do stuff like this.

Me, at many points in the past: “I have lots of badfeels about this past relationship and there were issues with having my boundaries respected, but it’s not like I was raped or whatever”

Actual facts: this past relationship involved me being repeatedly bullied into doing things sexually that I had set as hard limits. My ‘no’s were next to meaningless. He did sexual things to me when I explicitly told him I didn’t want to.

For the record, I know I was raped. I just still have trouble with saying it.

Me, very recently: “I don’t think I have PTSD

Actual facts: Although it’s been a while now since this last happened (I may have mostly recovered), I have experienced repeated, vivid, uncontrollable flashbacks to the aforementioned relationship. On more than one occasion during these flashbacks, even though it was years later, I have been momentarily genuinely scared that I was still in that situation, and that the intervening years had all been a weird dream. That’s how real they were.

I don’t have a diagnosis of PTSD. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t get one now – though I do still sometimes have the sorts of trauma-related dissociative symptoms I described in my post on being triggered, I think the diagnosis would be different. But yeah, that was a thing my brain was doing for a while. And yet at the time I never made the connection between that and PTSD.

Why is it so much easier to give credence to and put weight on other people’s experiences of these things? I think it especially applies to all forms of abuse and definitely sexual violence. It also seems to apply to mental illness, though – so often people will describe textbook symptoms and follow up with “but I don’t think I’m really…” or something else that suggests they don’t think they deserve to be taken seriously. People will say “I don’t think I was really abused, but…” and then go on to describe clear-cut, textbook, and/or often outright extreme instances of abuse they have experienced.

Why can’t we be kinder to ourselves? Why can’t we believe our own experiences of these things, and trust in our responses to them? Is it just that the idea of being an abuse survivor, or living with mental illness, is just so othered in popular narratives that it seems impossible it could ever apply to us? I suspect the logic often goes something along the lines of “the way I feel isn’t the way I imagine abuse/rape survivors (or PTSD sufferers etc.) feel, therefore that can’t be what my experience is”.

Or is it something else entirely?

Dysphoria: the other thing I’m talking about when I talk about being triggered

Somehow when I wrote my last post about what it feels like to be triggered around my past trauma, I completely forgot about the other kind of trigger I experience. I sometimes struggle with gender-related dysphoria, and it is an entirely different thing from the other kind of trigger.

The dysphoria I experience around my gender is triggered almost exclusively by moments of realization that other people haven’t just automatically categorized me into a binary gender in their heads, but when their way of interacting with me seems to be coloured more by this misconception than it is by the actual person standing in front of them (namely, me).

These moments are, for me, a weirdly out-of-body experience, almost. I immediately get this very weird sense that what is happening is not real. It feels more like a dream, like something I am watching from a position floating above everything. Like maybe I was accidentally in someone else’s body and that’s why this is happening. Like I am actually invisible, maybe, and this person is literally acting entirely based on a single, incorrect “fact” about me. Like I-don’t-even-know-how-to-describe-it.

It’s definitely an instinctive dissociative response of sorts, and it’s not totally different from the triggering experience I described in my previous post, though I think it is much more genuinely adaptive. It is a weird and sometimes disorienting experience, but it generally functions to keep me from freaking out in the moment, and it usually passes reasonably quickly. Unless it happens with someone I am actually close enough to be vulnerable around, or if it happens repeatedly, it doesn’t amount to a whole lot out of my day.

Of course, I say this not because I think that being misgendered is ok, or somehow a lesser violence than the things that trigger me otherwise. It still upsets me. I am still unhappy about it. These experiences are part and parcel of the cissexist, binarist, and often just plain old misogynist nature of the culture I’m living in. These things are wrong regardless of whether they are triggering to me or to anyone else.

But yes, that is the other thing I am sometimes talking about when I talk about being triggered. And I do always specify when I’m talking about dysphoria, so my previous post can still stand, I think.

What I’m talking about when I talk about being triggered

For the entire time I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve avoided explicitly referencing my own personal experiences of triggers. I do this because I don’t have any diagnoses pertaining to the things I experience as triggers, which means I don’t have a name for what is being triggered. I can’t say that my PTSD was triggered, because I don’t think I have PTSD, for instance. And to some extent, I think it is rhetorically important to be able to what is being triggered when we talk about triggers, so that people stop hearing “I felt uncomfortable” when someone says “this triggered me”.

When I say I was triggered by something, I don’t mean I felt uncomfortable. I don’t mean it made me unhappy. I mean it caused a psychological and bodily reaction that made it impossible for me to function in the ways I normally do, to be effective in my life, and to experience positive emotions for hours or days afterward. And I want to take a minute today to talk about exactly what it feels like to be in my head and my body when something happens that triggers me around my own trauma.

So, here are some of the phrases I have been writing down to describe my experience to myself at times I have been triggered:
– In the moment, (when I first read or hear a triggering phrase – it is usually words with me), it feels like an electric shock running through my entire body. Everything freezes, and the rest of the world kind of just goes away. My body responds as if I am being attacked, as if I am under threat, and I freeze. Because that is what I do.
– Then I just shut down. The world stops seeming real. I am no longer inhabiting most of my body; I’ve just sort of taken up shop somewhere behind my eyes where I can keep an eye on things without having to actually feel any of it. I am watching the world through a window, on a screen.
– When things are particularly bad, my disconnection from my body can extend to the point where I feel like the parts of my body aren’t even connected to each other any more. I can’t integrate them into a whole, and it seems like a kind of miracle that I can coordinate all of these foreign parts to do something as complicated as walk across a room. It feels like at any moment the whole thing could just fall apart.
– It can be very hard to talk. I can’t find words at all some of the time, unless I am following a routine script. I can handle simple work conversations that I have every day. I can talk about the weather or whatever. But my voice sounds like a robot inside my head, and I can’t shake the feeling that it is only by sheer luck that the sounds coming out of the mouth that I am monitoring but don’t really feel in control of are approximately what I wanted them to be.
– Often, I feel mild vertigo, or like I am about to faint. I know that I’m not going to faint, but the ways in which I feel not-quite-in-control of my body, and the way that thoughts start coming through my head slowly (One. Word. At. A. Time.) feels a lot like the moment before passing out. Except it just goes on, and on.
– I feel like I might forget to breathe. Or forget how to breathe. Or simply that all of the sensory data that is inundating me will suffocate me.
– Throughout all of this, I find it very hard to actually keep paying attention to the world around me. Literally everything in the whole world seems like too much. Too much light, too much sound, too many people, too many demands. If I am lucky enough to be at home, I just won’t bother. A huge proportion of my mental energy during this entire process is trying to force me to look at the memories that have been brought up by the trigger, and I will have to do it eventually. What this looks like from the outside is me completely zoning out, staring into the middle distance, and not moving at all for an indeterminate period of time. It could be minutes, or it could be hours. I can’t even tell you what my brain is doing when this happens, and I am always surprised by how much time has passed when I snap out of it.

I have gotten better, over the years, at making these episodes shorter than they used to be. I know what things help to get me out of the loops I get caught in, and I have ways of getting myself to re-inhabit my own body. But I still get triggered on a reasonably regular basis. And I am more vulnerable to being re-triggered in the days following a recent trigger episode. And even when I am not re-triggered, the experience of having been triggered creates extra vigilance around the people, spaces, and communities where I have been triggered before.|

Also, I am very, *very* good at hiding most of this from the people around me. They will notice that I am not quite myself, maybe, if they are people I generally feel safe with.

It is so fucking exhausting. And it is absolutely real. And it is not about my fucking ‘discomfort’.