Some years ago:
I sit in the therapist’s office with my mug of peppermint tea. She brings her dog some days, a small, shaggy, docile animal who serves as respite for the constant eye contact and gleaning I feel obligated to give her. “I want to start a new therapy with you,” she offers, “that will help you process this trauma for good. Before we start it, we need to work on finding a safe space where you can return any time you might need.” I close my eyes at her request. “Find the coziest place you can think of. Tell me about it.”
“Hardwood floors. Fireplace and a white shag rug. Crickets, cicadas, and tree frogs in a cacaphony outside. Aquariums full of angelfish flanking the walls. Large windows, a screened in porch, perpetual dusk and warmth. Fireflies just outside.”
“Good, good. Now who else is in this space? Anyone?”
“Elizabet’s there scratching the back of my head. A black labrador on the couch at my feet.”
“Okay, now. Stay with this scene. Feel the warmth of the fireplace, the comfort of your friend’s presence, a soft blanket wrapped around you.”
“He’s just walked through the screen door. I didn’t put a door there, but it’s there, and he’s coming through in his work boots.”
“Go back to the scene. You have a lock on the door. You have as many locks on the door as you need. You have deadbolts, chain locks.”
“The locks keep disappearing. Each time I go to make the locks, make the door, another door appears. He’s here in the doorway, he’s in every doorway. I am a doorway, he’s in me.”
“Okay, stop. Open your eyes. You’re okay. It’s just us. He’s not here.”
“But he is. In my skin, he is.”
I walk home, hands in pockets, shaken. I kick snow off the sidewalks as I go. This is my seventh year of therapy. I’ve gone to outpatient intensives, women’s groups, couple’s therapy, a day program in the basement of the local hospital. Once, for two weeks, I dropped my two children off at school and parked myself at the hospital’s psych ward 9-5, sign in, sign out, like it was my job. Drank coffee from styrofoam cups, made small talk with the other “survivors.” Had conferences with white coats and clipboards. “Do you ever think about hurting yourself? Have you ever?” We painted masks about our feelings and hung them on the group wall. Gave a commitment each day for positive steps toward shining new lives.
Except it’s always the shining new life I’m supposed to be building, always hope I’m supposed to be harvesting. My therapist asks me to go home and write a safe space that he will never be able to penetrate.
I start by writing myself on an asteroid. A door opens through the black space. Him, in the doorway. I grow the asteroid moon-sized. I build a forest full of dinosaurs and biting bats, and a trapdoor in the forest floor that can only be opened by playing Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” on a plastic recorder. He’s still there. Next I realize there’ll be an ocean under the trapdoor, an ocean that can only be traveled through with the blessing of benevolent jellyfish and a special aerated skinsuit that does the work of gills. At the edge of the ocean floor, another door, this time with a fingerprint pad and large iron combination lock. I reach the other side, and he’s beat me there. I build a moat of lava and his ghost lunges across it. He’s not translucent at all. I can still feel his heft.
Today I saw a trigger warning on an article titled “Ten Ways to Talk to Your Child About Sexual Abuse,” and I got thinking on my triggers.
An article about preventative measures is not a trigger for me, though I am, in shorthand, a Survivor, and though I have Complex PTSD, the result of daily sexual trauma at the hands of my stepfather. I was six when it began, sixteen when it ended.
None of the things I’ve seen with the (Trigger Warning) label are actual triggers for my PTSD symptoms.
The following are some (not all) of my true triggers:
The sound of box fans
The way light and shadows play as a ceiling fan turns
Lotion, particularly in a pump bottle
Trojan condom boxes, especially the blue ones
Changing a baby’s diaper
My children’s faces as they grow through the ages I was when it happened to me
The sound of a doorknob turning in a quiet room
Riding in a truck with the windows down
The sound of a train in the distance
Being told I’m good
Being told I did a good job
Being called babygirl
Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream
The smell of steak in a cast iron skillet
The smell of a freshwater creek
The sound of a motorboat
The words “I love you.”
The sound of my name
And anything, anything that leaves me feeling beholden to other people’s needs or desires
I write poems that are full of violation, and for years I have been asking myself why I would do that to my audience. Isn’t doing so, by the (Trigger Warning) standard, potentially throwing survivors like me to the mercy of our old haints? Except, see that trigger list? Tell me again how I can live without haints?
When I read those triggering poems to an audience, survivors pull me privately aside and thank me. If ever I bring it up in conversation, I too often hear, “me too.” I always hold these moments in respect and confidence, because not everyone wants to face the shame our culture still lops on the heads of public Victims, and most people would plain rather not be public, anyway, but know that each time I speak for myself, scores more of you come calling back to me: me too, me too, and thank you.
And each time I go to the haints unalone, I molt out of the man who ghosts in my skin.