Tag Archives: Anxiety

Trigger

Apparently people are yet again taking a bold and righteous stand against trigger warnings. As usual, the arguments against them show that people opposing them have no idea what a trigger warning actually is, or why they are useful.

So just so we’re on the same page: a trigger warning is a note that a piece of media or discussion contains content that may trigger an episode or lapse in persons with certain mental or neurological illness, or in those likely to develop such an illness such as those who have recently experienced trauma.

The conversation revolves mostly around PTSD, as does my experience, but trigger warnings can also be used to warn people with seizure disorders about strobing lights, people with major depression about discussion of suicide or self harm, people with substance use or eating disorders about drugs, alcohol, or disordered eating.

And apparently this is Awful Censorship and also Coddling and also Bad For People and also an Undue Burden, according to people who do not understand what trigger warnings are.

Trigger warnings are not censorship. They do not alter the content of media or discussion, they simply note what that content is. They are only censorship in the sense that a “warning: contains peanuts” on a package is a ban on the sale and consumption of peanuts. In other words, not at all. I am told that a warning still counts as censorship because people may choose not to engage in media or discussion that might trigger them. If this is true, it is still not censorship. Peanut sales are not banned because some people do not purchase or consume peanut products. Trigger warnings are really the opposite of censorship, in that they provide more information up front, allowing people to make more informed decisions about the things they will be exposed to.

Ah, but that’s coddling, isn’t it.Bad for discussion. After all, if we just let people say they’re triggered every time they get upset–Well. That’s funny, isn’t it? I don’t recall anyone mentioning getting upset. It’s almost like this is an attempt to minimize and trivialize what a trigger is, and its impact. Being triggered is not being offended. It is not being upset. Yes, obviously, it is upsetting to be triggered and offensive when it is done deliberately, those are not the core of the experience. Triggers set off different things for different people. It can be a panic attack. A seizure. A month in a depressive episode. Fugue states. Suicide attempts. Lapses and setbacks to recovery and self-management. The warning might mean choosing not to engage, but not always. Someone may choose to leave rather than risk it. Someone may take a deep breath and mentally prepare. They may make sure to have medication or a coping mechanism available, much like I make sure to bring an Epi-pen to restaurants. This does not stop a discussion. It makes discussion more possible, by giving people the tools needed to participate, or, if they can’t, letting them leave. I promise, someone having vivid flashbacks and hyperventilating in a classroom is far more disruptive than their walking outside would be. (I’ve been there. Not fun for anyone in the room.)

But triggers are Bad For People. Letting people decide what they do or do not want to be exposed to. That’s not how the Real World works. We should expose people to triggers for their own good. If they can’t take it, they can’t take the Real World. I’m going to take a deep breath here for a moment. Because they’re right about one thing: the Real World doesn’t let us escape the things that cause these triggers. That’s a huge part of why many of us have triggers in the first place–if trauma were avoidable, we probably wouldn’t have PTSD. If we have triggers, we are going to have to face them. Similarly we’re all going to experience physical pain over the course of our lives. Shockingly, that doesn’t make it ethical, compassionate, or in any sense of the word right to smash people with a baseball bat at the site of their most recent injury. Seriously. “We all get hurt” should not lead to “therefore it is acceptable to hurt you without your consent in this way that you’ve specifically told me to avoid.” The fact that the harm is psychological does not exempt it from being harm. Exposure therapy is usually mentioned here, and yeah, that’s a thing, but two funny things about exposure therapy: 1) it’s not for all people with trauma and 2) exposure therapy always includes clear, detailed trigger warnings and a controlled, easy to stop environment.

Of course trigger warnings are an Undue Burden. Anything could potentially be a trigger, so what, are people just supposed to warn about every component of content? That’s impossible! Except actually it’s pretty easy. Sure, someone might be triggered by a specific song or sunflowers, and that’s probably unforeseeable, but turns out the most common triggers are really quite obvious and pretty easy to mention briefly beforehand.

Warnings for physical violence, sexual violence, death, serious illness or injury, weapons, themes of abuse or suffering, and natural disaster will effectively help most people with PTSD. Add warnings for suicide and self harm, drug and alcohol use, and disordered eating. And flashing lights that could cause seizures. It’s really not a long list. Most people don’t need it. But for those who do, it makes all the difference in the world.

I know people aren’t going to stop lashing out at the idea of trigger warnings. Which means I’m going to have to have this conversation again, and again, and again. And honestly I’m just tired. I’m tired of being told to face the world by people who have not seen its teeth bared. I am tired of being told that I am weak because I ask for a warning before I dive in to fight monsters by people who have only seen them taxidermied and behind glass. I am tired of hearing “I don’t need this so neither do you,” as though the two have any relation to each other at all. If your reaction to trigger warnings is anger and you think they must be stopped, maybe ask yourself why. What makes you so certain that you, and not the person affected, are such an expert in what that person needs. Why you think you know what’s good for them, better than they know themselves. I promise, you don’t.

Need To

I’m a lover of lists, and plans. Every week I open my day planner, draw in the outlines of each day’s schedule–the meetings planned long in advance, the deadlines. I add in errands, reminders. Monday, groceries. Wednesday, make spare keys. Friday, play games. As things come up, the sketch of my day is fleshed out, filled in. Have lunch with this friend. Drop into that colleague’s office. Sew the button back on to these pants.

Crossing items off is soothing. Satisfying. Affirming, even: I said I would do this thing (if only to myself), and I did it. I’ve fulfilled my duties, gotten through what I need to do, earned the blank hours of time my day planner doesn’t presume to chart.

The last month has not, in day planner terms, gone well at all. Items pushed to the next day, and the next, then the next week. I send apologies, trim all but the bones from my projects, but still every line of every day is filled. Still so many lines are going uncrossed. I need to write that paper. Need to stop ignoring this blog. Need to do laundry. Need to sew that button back on to these fucking pants, the ones I’m wearing right now that are driving me up the wall.

The need-to list crowds out the rest. The uncharted hours don’t feel earned. Maybe I’ll try to poke at work or catch up on chores. More likely I’ll sit, text, feel too much guilt over being unproductive to allow myself a book or a night out, knowing that not-relaxing is just going to make tomorrow more stressful. Knowing that if I can not-relax, I will.

So I drove twelve hours and change to fuck a friend for a weekend before turning around and driving back home.

I had a psychiatrist once who suggested I manage anxiety with casual sex. Call a friend with benefits, go to a swinger’s club, be safe of course but unwind. It was a good suggestion: sex is an outlet for all that nervous energy. It was a good suggestion but I’m not taking it much lately. Used to be a week without sex felt like an unbearably long time. (All right, it still feels that way.) Lately six weeks or more isn’t unusual. No partners in the state. It’s something I could change: I’m frequently reminded that there are about a million apps for that, but frankly it feels like just adding another stressor to the need-to list: find a partner.

I don’t have time for that. God, especially after indulging in last weekend. I need to write that paper. Need to do laundry. Need to sew that button back on to these pants.

There’s a chance the burden at work will decrease in a few weeks. (Honestly I’ll probably quit if it doesn’t.) Now I’ve moved and unpacked, things at home are starting to calm down. There’s a hope of getting back to days that are filled with lines I can actually cross off.

Until then, it would be nice if I could fill the prescription for casual sex alongside all my other meds.

Winnowing

There’s an art to hearing input from confidantes, on private things. It’s a challenge to hear past familiar thought patterns and feelings to accept what wisdom they can add. It takes a fair bit of finesse to tease out the words that come from their own histories, experiences no less valid than your own but perhaps not relevant when spun into advice for you. I…won’t pretend to be an expert.

The Chef and Chi have plenty to say. I told them I’ve only had a couple of dates in the last several months. Felt no excitement after either. “I don’t think I’m looking to start any Relationships right now. Something, sex for sure, but the thought of dating exhausts me.” While we’re together, I let conversation flow, save the critical part for later. There’s a winnowing process, which for me takes some time and quiet.

Wheat. “You should keep in mind what you will want, when you are feeling it. Every now and then evaluate whether you still aren’t interested in a relationship, or you’re just avoiding taking any risks.” Anxiety does tell me to keep myself curled up, treat any hint of intimacy as a threat. My gut is unreliable. I have to untangle the thoughts and feelings I’ve generated whole cloth, or out of association with a past that has nothing to do with now, from the ones that match current experience. I’m not always good at it. I don’t always–ever, really–feel that it’s fair to ask someone new to understand. So much easier to spin a cocoon that never admits someone new. I know better than that, but still, it does help to be reminded.

Wheat. “You have some good friends. You sleep with some of them, it works, maybe don’t be afraid to feel out whether that’s an option.” After I’ve known someone a while, if we haven’t had sex, I tend to assume it’s not on the table. I might be down for it but 95% of the time I’ll assume they aren’t. Of course, the most recent exception has become a particularly excellent (if infrequent) source of sexy fun times. There are tiring things about this–friends-with-benefits situations with monogamous people put me in the tenuous position of playing side-chick with people who are single, knowing I’ll be set aside when they find a partner. I accept this at the outset and I’ve chosen it more than once because I’m avoiding risk of intimacy, but it does get hard not to feel disposable at times.

Chaff. “People cheat. They just do, if you don’t keep them interested. You can’t expect that people will tell you who they’re screwing, I don’t care how open the relationship is.” I can. I do. I will. I have no interest in being lied to, and refuse to just accept that this is The Way People Are.

Wheat. “It’s not about what you need. Fuck that, you don’t need anything. What makes you happy?” I can’t answer that. It’s probably the best indicator that I don’t need to be pursuing anything right now, the fact that I can’t answer that. What makes me happy? Fuck, I don’t know, ice cream? Ask me again when I feel like my housing/income/job situation is a little more solid under my feet. It’ll probably be a while.

Chaff. “You can’t tell men what you want. They won’t believe you. Drop hints. Let them think they figured it out. Otherwise they won’t believe it’s real.” This is too often true. I have no patience for it. I say what I mean. I expect to be believed. It’s not a standard I’m willing to lower.

Chaff…I think.  “Jealousy means they care. You always want to work through jealousy, soothe it away, but you should try cultivating it sometime. the right kind. I got jealous as fuck when he made you scream, but it just made me want to do it to you, too.” I don’t trust jealousy to stay in the realm of healthy competition. Maybe she knows how to keep it there, maybe it works for her, but I’ve seen it get ugly too many times. I don’t know. It’s hard, this one. I don’t know.

Wheat. “Date your friends. Date your lovers. We’re not the same people we were three years ago. I still think of you as my girlfriend but that means something different now, doesn’t it?” It does and I’m flattered and she’s right. Relationships, friendships, all of it stays fluid. People stay fluid. We entwine first branches, then roots. Grow closer some places, have to draw back where we damage each other in other. Sometimes we grow apart. The Chef and I have–there’s so much distance, neither of us reaches out often enough to keep us close–but so far we learn each other again and fall into a new pattern that works. I like this. I like that I don’t feel any pressure to expect that it’ll work out again next time.

It was a long evening of talk, most of it simply sweet and fun. We don’t always agree. It’s something I love about them both, that we can feel safe that not-agreeing won’t devolve into fights. Only more to process. I’m still processing some of it.

Wake Up

I wake up badly.

I sleep badly, too: long hours of failing to lose consciousness, interrupted with a start at every sound. But when sleep does come it is a dreamless black, and I am grateful for it.

I do not wake up gradually. There is no softness to it. I wake up gasping, startled, terrified until I can see that there is no threat imminent. No one strange in the room. No sign of fire. Nothing broken. No one hurt.  Or worse, in sleep I feel or hear something that could be a threat, and I wake up screaming.

A friend is coming to visit for the weekend. I’m looking forward to seeing him, and looking forward to the sex. But it’s near enough now that I’m thinking about sleeping, and I’m worried. Last time he was here, I didn’t sleep the first night. Problem solved. The second night I did, and within an hour of drifting off felt movement and warmth next to me. Woke up screaming. Woke up instantly aware of anxiety-brain’s error but unable, for a few moments, to get it to shut up.

It isn’t fair to him and it isn’t fair to my roommates, that I can frighten them all when absolutely nothing’s wrong. When they haven’t done anything wrong. I have meds that help–that work during bad days, anyway, and have worked on nights alone, but I can’t help but worry.

I am afraid of waking up. I am afraid I will wake up badly.

Shadows

[content note: assault]

I don’t want to write this. It’s an ugliness that needs to be acknowledged, but it’s damn uncomfortable.

I am used to seeing threats where there are none. Hypervigilance is constant. It keeps me awake nights, tells me everywhere a danger is, everywhere it might be. I see things in shadows when nothing is there.

One night last week I rolled over in bed and saw a shadow. Just a dark shape in a dark room at three thirty in the morning when there’s nothing else to see.

A shadow. At three thirty in the morning. The familiar split: rational brain saying “hush, it’s nothing.” Anxiety brain saying “That is a man. Hurt him. Hurt him and run.” I held them both, believed them both. A shadow is nothing. A shadow could be anything. I should reach for a weapon, or turn on a light. It’s probably nothing, but just in case.

A shadow covered my face with his hand. I shrieked and kicked. He ran. I kept screaming for my roommate. She let the dog out and came running. Turned on lights. Took a moment to dress, get through a rushed explanation, arm ourselves, and search the house. A door was unlocked (no, there is no possibility that either of us failed to lock it, or failed to check the locks. Hypervigilance means checking, over and over, no matter how sure).

We called the police. Waited. Waited. Waited. Talked to a detective (who took us seriously, thank God), and our landlord (who did not). I didn’t want to wait for an undetermined “later” for an unknown handyman to change our locks. We did it ourselves and added more security.

We’re fine. No one hurt, nothing taken. In daytime, I’m alright. Just tired. At night, there are shapes in shadows and I can’t keep my eyes closed. And I’m angry. Because I know I’m not any less safe now than a week ago, but I feel it. Because how dare anyone or anything make me feel afraid in my own home.

Oblivious male responses have been hurtful, some even panic-inducing. Predictably, they don’t take it well when called out. To them, this incident was anomalous, shocking, damn near unbelievable. I’ve gotten “you don’t know there was any kind of malicious intent.” (Uh. A man invaded a home and put his hands on a naked woman in her sleep. There is no possible intent that isn’t malicious. He’s literally already committed a burglary and assault by getting to that point.) One worst-possible-attempt-at-reassurance “If he’d really wanted to rape you, you wouldn’t have been able to stop him.” (What. The. Fuck. Dear men: stop thinking about how easy or difficult it would be to overpower women. What is wrong with you.)

Everyone else knows it’s not anomalous, not even uncommon. Women aren’t safe, because men do this. We sit in a circle around a collection of weapons, install alarms, set up safe calls for each other, discuss taking martial arts classes or getting a bigger dog. It’s not okay. We shouldn’t have to. And it won’t make us safe, but what else can we do?

So I’m getting back to normal. We all are. But normal is seeing shapes in the shadows. Normal is being told it’s probably nothing (you know, statistically) by people who have not lived in fear. (By men.) Normal is fear, and the worst part is that it’s rational. I’m tired. I haven’t slept substantially for days, but that’s not it. I’m tired of being afraid all the time.

[I’m disabling comments. I realize folks feel the need to provide their insight and commentary, or ask incredibly invasive questions. It’s not wanted, thanks.]

Bluebeard’s Castle

It’s a rare thing for anyone to admit dark fantasies unfiltered. Ferns wrote about sharing them in Darker, and God, it’s beautiful. Not for me the gore but the intimacy. The vulnerability. Above all the oh-thank-fuck moment of seeing that I’m not the only person whose desires veer out to sea.

Sharing fantasies carries risk. We can horrify, alienate, become suddenly sick and dangerous in a lover’s eyes. Here’s a conundrum for you: we’re supposed to be able to open every locked door. Someday, at least, to someone. Can we? Without leaving them lost, trapped, forever changed?

There are fantasies I don’t talk about. They frighten me. They go dark places I’ve never dared tell a partner about. I get off imagining games I never intend to play (but oh, God, do I want to).

How do I talk about the things I hide?

How far can Judith walk in Bluebeard’s castle?

I’ve been texting someone I knew a long time ago. Intensely. Pulling at each other with so much greed across two thousand miles that insist later, later, patience, later. So what do we have to share but photographs and fantasies? And while we can’t touch, do we have to worry so much about what could be real and reasonable? There’s some caution. It’s hard to hit send without wondering, is this what you want? will you still want me when you’ve seen the torture chamber, the armory, the treasury all shining with blood? But there’s a thrill to it, isn’t there?

I’m greedy. He offers a fantasy: Please select a level of violence from 1 to 10, with 1 being vanilla and 10 being emergency services.

I suggested seven. I know it’s asking to open a door, anything over five, and I wonder if he will. What he told me was hot enough to make me tremble (though I’d have likely ranked it at a four). But he also said this: “seven sounds reasonable. I don’t have any that are ten, I don’t think.”

And here I check the locks. Because I do. I have tens and twelves and maybe a fifteen. Do you think violence stops at EMS? That there’s no want feral enough to raze and ruin until there’s nothing left to save? How many stories do we have where desire ends in death, in war?

Will you still want me when you’ve seen the torture chamber? The armory?

We all have locked rooms. They keep us safe. Time and pain and betrayals make us wary of letting people in. Who has the keys to which of our doors, who may walk where unsupervised, how do we handle it when someone tries a door to a room we aren’t ready to invite them into?

It isn’t just violence that hides. There are fantasies I’d rank an eight on that scale but never voice, one that grazes ten that I have. There are other kinds of darkness, thoughts that dare not be illuminated. And always when they cross my mind there’s that terrified flicker behind them–what if I were to say them aloud? What if I were one day to cross that unspeakable line? What would it take?


 

If you’re interested in fiction that plays on the darkest edge of the erotic, some of the stories in Joel Lane’s The Lost District can take you there.

Bartok’s opera of Bluebeard’s Castle is well worth a listen, if you’re wondering about those doors and keys. It is genuinely chilling, exactly as it should be.

Unwanted

I am setting my feelings outside myself. They are too much to hold inside right now and I don’t have the time, I just don’t have the time.

To be busy–to choose to be busy–is to choose not to be present in oneself. I know this. I understand that it is avoidance and good for no one. But so am I–good for no one, least of all myself. The emotions aren’t good. I don’t want them and I don’t know what to do with them.

Lonelyandsad is quiet, at least. If I stop moving, choose not to be busy, it will lumber over and lie on top of me with a sigh. It might be comfortable if it weren’t so heavy. If I am busy it stares from corners, never quite out of sight. It is patient. Distracting.

Toloveyou is insistent. It paws at me. Check your phone, check your phone, check your phone. I try to be gentle when I push it away. It comes barreling back, nips and pulls. It is naive, unused to change. It is not the only toloveyou I’ve had. It will learn soon enough that sweetness and earnestness and hope don’t change anything, spend more time sleeping out of sight.

Fearandtrembling is never far. It peers and pecks at everything, pulls it apart layer by layer looking for tricks and traps and danger. Whatever is delicate and innocent will end up shredded on the floor with the rest, but I don’t dare take it away.

Unwanted creatures, all. They can’t be part of me, they’re too alien and thoughtless for that, but they’re still mine to care for and control. I don’t know how.

Hurt Me

“Please choke me.”

He will. His hand will close around my throat until my lungs burn, until my eyes water, until my body’s fight to breathe makes me shake. I gasp when he lets go. The air won’t come. I have to peel off each breath like a ragged strip of wallpaper. I recover quickly, hungry for him. He shoves me away with a hand tight around my throat before I can bring my mouth to his.

“Please bite me.”

He will. His teeth close around my nipple, building pressure while I writhe and grind against him, sobbing between tea-kettle shrieks. He almost almost almost breaks skin. The surface will scab over tomorrow though it doesn’t bleed. He’s on the edge of tearing me apart while I try to tear myself away.

“Please hit me.”

He will. His fist will send tremors through my thigh, over and over. He might let me twist some new target into reach, work me over like dough folding under his hands. Or he might pin me down, make a swollen, purple mess of me, reduce me to a few small inches of exploding pain.

“Please don’t lie to me.”

He will. I’m trying not to ask “what’s her name?” Trying not to wonder if she’s young, if she knows she’s not the only one, if she trusts him. If I were a better person, I might even care.

I ask for what I need. I’m not too proud for that. He says yes, always. He follows through, sometimes. I’m grateful every time he does. I can’t get angry when he doesn’t.

There’s plenty to say. Volumes, easily. But I’m tired and I’ve said it all before and nothing’s changed. I’ve run out of words. There’s nothing left but “please,” and pleas don’t mean a damn thing.

Anxiety

I’m socially tapped out. Three social events in five days may not be much for some, but for me it’s almost unheard of. Saturday there was a party. I met new people. Fun, interesting people but new and frightening all the same. I went home with the Techie after, stayed out too late, stumbled through Sunday on no sleep and not enough breakfast. Monday, dinner party. I enjoyed the company, was relieved when they left. Wednesday, the Techie came for dinner, stayed after midnight sleepily chatting at the table.

Today I woke up and something rebelled. I did not make Spouse breakfast (I did pack his lunch). I felt a buzz of anxiety, but it hadn’t found anything to latch onto yet so I ignored it and focused on caffeinating instead. I’m socially exhausted: a day at home alone should have been the most welcome thing in the world but that buzz was getting louder. The apartment was too quiet, I decided. We were out of carrots. I could walk to the store, work off some energy, see evidence of an outside world.

Anxiety hits hard, and it knows how to keep its victims shamed into silence. An employee asked if I was finding everything ok and I froze. Sudden, inexplicable misery at the prospect of having to interact, however minimally, with another human being. I hurried through my shopping and went home.

Anxiety sets up a feedback loop. It takes the smallest thing and zooms in and blows it up to something mad and insurmountable. Was I terse with the employee? Did she think I was rude? She probably hates me. In fact, everyone probably hates me. Always has.

Rational brain steps in at this point, sniffing a fallacy. Wait a second, you’re married. Spouse clearly doesn’t hate you. You have friends, people you’ve known for years, even if they’re far away. The now-long-distance other half of your poly quad. The Techie. Chef and cook and the rest. Family. This is ridiculous, just chill out.

Fine, says anxiety brain. If you’re so sure they don’t hate you, ask them. Make sure.

That’s insulting. Also crazy. But now rational brain is panicky, uncertain. What if they do hate me, if all these relationships are part of an obligate social dance I’m just too awkward know about? What if it’s an elaborate joke? Oh God, if I tell anyone I think like this they will hate me. They should. This is insane.

This is the point where things can break. Panic attack seems imminent. There are options. I can take benzos. They don’t stop anxiety brain from running its mouth, but they make it impossible to give a fuck what it’s saying for a while. I can clean. It would require making a mess first; this place is spotless. I can try to reach out of the anxiety, just a little, just for a moment, and tell someone I need reassurance.

But I’m socially drained. The idea if talking even to my favorite people seems daunting, especially knowing I have nothing to say except “I need reassurance that the entirety of human social interaction exists, is based on genuine feeling, and includes me.” Everyone I know is working except an autistic friend. She cannot help with this problem.

Option D, then. Text spouse something brief and cheerful, wait for an affectionate reply. Lie on the bed reading until Spouse gets home. Demand hugs. Find that speaking still sticks. Wait for that anxious buzz to die down a little bit. Fail, after five nights of insufficient sleep, to get to bed at a decent hour.

It is dying down–a few hours ago writing this even for strangers on the Internet would have been impossible. I just wish it wouldn’t start up in the first place.