I have an experience. Regularly.
When I feel triggered it is a deeply horrible, bodily feeling. I feel thoroughly unsafe and threatened, as if I might die. It feels real. It doesn’t matter how much my rational brain knows that it’s not happening any more and that I’m safe, my traumatized brain insists on dissociating.
The first time it happened, I was about 25 yrs old. Actually, it might have happened once when I was about 12, but I have no earlier reference point so that may have been the initial trauma or the first time I was triggered from the original trauma.
At 25, I worked in a treatment facility for adolescent girls. Most of the staff were women, and it was a wonderfully supportive environment. One of my mentors there was surprised to learn in casual conversation that I’d never had a PAP and told me that I really needed to make that happen.
Shortly after, I scheduled an appointment with the Dr. that came highly recommended by many of the staff there.
I don’t really remember the exam, except that I was terrified. I was brought up to respect authority and so I just followed directions, allowed the exam to happen and answered questions. I believe that it was a regular exam and that nothing out of the ordinary happened. Looking back on it, I realize that I dissociated during the visit.
After that exam, I cried for several days and could only stop when my partner told me that I didn’t ever have to go back and do that again. I felt ashamed, wrecked, violated and terrified for my physical safety/integrity. I felt as though I had been assaulted, though my brain knows logically that nothing ‘wrong’ happened in that exam.
Fast forward about 10 years ~ I felt a bump on my cervix and worried that something might be wrong. There’s only one way to find out about that, so I did indeed have to go back and have another exam. This time, I was in a different state and found a wonderful midwife (who later went on to deliver my baby). She was amazing. The first time I went to see her, I carried a note saying what I knew I wouldn’t be able to say – that I am scared to death of this but recognize that it’s important. I handed the note to the receptionist and sat down and cried while I waited to be called back. The midwife called me back and we just talked. She asked about my needs and previous experiences and we set some ground rules for an exam that we scheduled a week later. She did everything right.
I still dissociated during the exam and left feeling traumatized, violated and wrecked for a week.
The week following exams like this are full of intense anxiety, tunnel vision, aversion to physical contact, dulled senses, sleeplessness and feelings of being in possibly lethal danger.
That first exam with the midwife came back normal, but she recommended annual exams. I thought that it would get easier, but every time I have to lie on that table I’m triggered. I’m triggered just being in the room with one of those tables.
When I was 12, I was having a regular checkup with my mom in the room. I’d been to see this pediatrician for a couple of years but this is the only visit I remember. The Dr. did the part of the exam where they check out your genitals. I felt violated and looked to my mom. She had no reaction, so I thought I shouldn’t have any reaction either. I quietly allowed the Dr to do whatever he did (which I don’t think was anything outside regular exam protocol). I felt wrecked and violated for a week or so after that one too.
I’m 45 now and having some of the issues that occasionally come with a 45 yr old uterus. I have a different Dr who was willing to do some of the necessary procedures while I was under general anesthesia, but I still get triggered.
I tried therapy to figure this out, but it didn’t work for me. When I was getting checked annually, it was manageable because I knew I’d be wrecked for a week but then I’d mostly be able to get back to life as normal for the rest of the year. In the last couple of months, I’ve been triggered a handful of times.
Sometimes I think that if I could process some of this while I’m triggered, I might get somewhere. But while I’m triggered, I’m also unable to talk, tho I am able to process info that I hear and answer yes/no questions by shaking my head. In the days that come after an exam (when I feel wrecked and violated) I can talk but language feels jumbled and confusing if I try to talk about any of this.
I just want to understand where this is coming from so I can process it and loosen its grip on my sanity. I often wonder if it would help to know what happened (if there indeed was an initial triggering event). But maybe there isn’t an original triggering event and I’m just overreacting. I’m writing all this down and sharing it here in the hopes that the act of doing so will help me figure some of it out.
Also, I see the t-shirts in the sidebar that say “Ask me why I’m Brave”. I’d love to get one but just the thought of someone asking me that question sets off anxiety of having to talk about it. Maybe some day I’ll feel brave enough to wear such a shirt in public.