Wednesday Words: Finding your voice after trauma

Each Wednesday, I answer one of your burning questions on the blog. This week Cindy asks:

Hi Dawn,

I’ve been catching up on old episodes and caught sight of the episode of Dylan leaving. (Haven’t heard it yet) I miss her already! I hope you continue on as strong as before.

I wanted to try and get some advice about talking with my partner. He’s been absolutely sweet and understanding about my issues with our relationship. I’ve started to realize how much I’m not okay with some past trauma several years ago. The denial I’ve had up until now is shattered and everything I thought I’m okay with, is changing on me.

To clarify…the trauma I’m dealing with was a violation of consent which ended up in rape. No one close to me really knows this. So, I had no real support. This is the first time I’ve had to deal with issues I thought were okay: kinks, consent, and physical contact.

I’ve found that I’m into kink and experimenting slowly with my partner. He is letting this happen at my pace which is nice. I, however, have a hard time communicating with him about what I want (or my unknown boundaries).

We’ve made it through a few hard conversations. We hit a wall this last weekend.

We were having fun and playing, and he made a comment when I was teasingly giving him oral. I asked, and maybe pressured a little to know, what he was thinking. He responded by saying that, “I want to roll you over, tie your arms to the bed post, stick an anal plug, and then fuck you.” I was turned on immensely but I also panicked and shut down. We’ve discussed that I’m interested in bondage but that I’m not ready to actively to test that boundary.

He saw me shut down, because I wouldn’t talk to him, and he got annoyed with me. I fled to the bathroom, trying to keep myself calm before I reentered the bedroom and it was a tense moment.

I’m not okay with conversations happening during the moment. I would rather wait out the calm. He needs to discuss it now, even though he knows I can’t. I was still shut down while the conversation happened. I have a hard time vocalizing any of my thoughts, vulnerabilities, or cares. I’m still discovering this. He’s been patient with me and knows that he pushed against a barrier, selfishly (he says), I was not okay with.

I don’t feel it was a push on a barrier. I was frozen with fear.

What do I do? How do I have conversations with him about things that I do want but cannot get over the fear. (Even though the fear ebbs after a while, weeks sometimes, before I’m okay.)

Every time we talk I feel forced into the conversation and I hate that feeling. It’s not fair to him when he’s been open with me.

Thank you again. And I love the show.

This question echoes so much of my own experience, Cindy. I’m so glad you wrote in with this important question.

Though, all of us experience trauma in a variety of ways, there tend to be some similarities that emerge when it comes to the ways trauma can impact our bodies and our experiences.

So, let me begin by saying I am so sorry you were raped. I am so sorry you experienced unwanted touch and are now struggling with the after effects. I understand this at a deeply personal level as a survivor, myself.

Trauma can have a lasting effect on the body. In fact, it can feel like a whole new body with a whole new set of feelings and experiences, which can be unnerving and frustrating.

If you haven’t done any reading about trauma, I absolutely adore Bessel Van Der Kolk’s, “The Body Keeps the Score.” This book completely changed how I view my trauma response and made me feel super validated. It also offered loads of practice exercises and techniques for helping to process trauma. Brain Pickings recently did a nice article on the book and trauma, as well.

I would also highly recommend a graphic novel by Steve Haines called “Trauma is Really Strange”. It is beautifully illustrated and takes the very complex science of trauma and makes it easy to understand.

Support groups – both in person and online – can also be an empowering and nurturing place to process and practice, post-trauma. So many people can relate to the experiences you’re having, and sharing with others who truly get it has helped me tremendously.

Let’s take a super high-level look at how trauma impacts the body, just to give the rest of this some context, shall we?

When trauma occurs, it’s typically because something has happened that put our body into fight/flight/freeze mode and then, for whatever reason, we are never able to fully process the event.

Emily Nagoski has a great little description in her blog The Dirty Normal about this very thing:

One of the stressors that actives fight/flight/freeze is sexual assault (though not just sexual assault) and may survivors wonder what went wrong with their bodies; why didn’t they fight back? why couldn’t they run or kick or even scream? Answer: nothing went wrong with your body, everything went right. Your body decided that its best hope for survival was to shut down, freeze. And it worked. You did survive. How do I know you survived? Because here you are, reading this.

A difficulty with freeze, apart from the cultural non-recognition or devaluing of it as a survival mechanism, is that it leaves all this adrenaline-mediated stress to go stale in your CNS. Animals in the wild, as discussed by Peter Levine and Robert Sopolsky, freeze as a last ditch effort to convince a predator they’re already dead; the predator loses interest or goes to get its cubs to feed, and the animal does an extraordinary thing:

It shakes. Trembles. Sighs. And gets up to trot away. It’s finishing the activation process, purging the residue.

Now, freeze in humans is more complex than in gazelles and gorillas, but one of the issues we have is that very often we don’t get the opportunity to complete that process. Our powerful prefrontal cortices are really good at inhibition, keeping the brakes on.

What researchers have found is that trauma actually rewires the brain and makes it more likely that we’ll relive non-trauma events as traumatic down the road. A lot of people call that “being triggered.”

In fact, often times the way we responded in the moment during a traumatic event becomes the default for how we respond to future stressful or overwhelming events.

There is way way more to say about trauma, but the important thing you need to know is that your body holds on to the trauma as a way to try and protect you, and your brain has some new wiring that you’ll need to learn how to work with.

Some of the best work in the world on healing trauma is being done by Peter Levine around somatic experiencing. His institute is all about techniques that help your body process the trauma and that help you reintegrate your brain and body in a way that can release the trauma response.

As a survivor, it’s important to give yourself permission to learn new ways of experiencing your body and using your voice.

Circling back to your specific question, Cindy, it’s common for trauma survivors to struggle with speaking up. From going into freeze mode to simply feeling like using your voice doesn’t matter, it takes gentle practice and retraining yourself that you are worthy and lovable – even more so when you speak up and set boundaries.

One way to turn this situation into something a little more fun is to enlist the help of your partner in playing games that require you to use your voice.

One example is setting aside 5 minutes and the rule is no matter what your partner offers you, you HAVE to say no. Saying no is the goal, but the fun comes in with how creative your partner gets in torturing you – knowing you’ll have to turn it down.

Want a million dollars? No.

How about a lifetime of free massages? No.

What about being teased until you orgasm over and over and over again? No.

Do this game to make saying no something that is less charged and full of playful memories. You can also play that game with the word ‘yes’ if you have trouble granting yourself permission.

Another game that’s perfect for kinky folks is deliberately setting up scenes so you can practice using your safe word (if you use one). So often folks who are submissive are terrified of disappointing their Top/Dominant/Master by using their safe word. Finding ways to use it and take that edge and shame off can go a long way in helping you find your voice.

Monique Darling of Juicy Enlightenment teaches people to respond to “no” with “Thank you for taking care of yourself.” (That might have come from Reid Mihalko, but I first heard it from Monique, so we’ll give them both credit.) Invite your partner to offer you gratitude every time you use your “no”.

It’s also important to practice advocating for yourself and setting boundaries in non-sexual situations.

We put way too much pressure on ourselves to be articulate and bold with our voice in the bedroom without ever giving ourself permission to set better boundaries, unapologetically, in regular social settings.

Another important piece of information for you to learn is where in your body your fear lives.

I’ve found that my fear is a fist in my belly that is hard and twisting. When I feel my belly slowly clenching up and starting to feel like something is taking up a lot of space, I know I’m going into a fear response. Also, my shoulders tend to pull in as my body begins to curl around my tummy.

That’s really helpful information because sometimes my brain and my body have trouble communicating (classic PTSD symptom), so the more I can recognize that my body is sending me messages, the more I can check in with myself before things get way out of control.

This is a somatic practice, or a way of honoring the wisdom of your body. You can also share this with your partner – for instance, if my partner sees me hunched forward and tense, he is more likely to check-in because he knows that’s my fear pose.

Learning breathing exercises and grounding exercises has also been tremendously helpful for me in terms of staying present and relaxed.

Because you enjoy kinky play and want to explore more in that realm, I have a few other suggestions for helping you to get really embodied around your experience while still keeping things playful and exciting:

  1. Identify some lower risk activities that you and your partner can dabble in to help the two of you build up a nice, healthy reserve of trust and resilience. That way, if you do something more edgy and it doesn’t go as planned, you have banked a lot of trust to help you bounce back.
  2. Consider other ways to incorporate your fantasies that are lower stakes. For example, if you like bondage but being immobilized is potentially triggering, try watching bondage porn, looking at bondage gifs on Tumblr, reading erotic stories to each other featuring bondage, attending public bondage workshops, or creating scenes with bondage that you can easily escape from but choose not to for the fun of it. This will give you more context and more confidence around the activity so you can feel more empowered.
  3. Set up a time with your partner to be close with each other and with the agreement that nothing physical will happen, then spend 30 minutes or an hour dirty talking your way through edgy fantasies and scenes. If you can feel totally safe in the knowledge that nothing that gets said will actually happen to you, it may create an invitation for you to get more adventurous and say all the things you might want to try without any of the associated risk.
  4. Create an aftercare plan and have a concrete, pre-determined self-care plan in place, too. How can your partner best support and nurture you as you play with your edges? What do you need to do to take care of yourself if stuff comes up (which is absolutely OK and doesn’t mean you can’t do kink)? Princess Kali has some great blog posts about what to do when things go wrong and how to do aftercare.
  5. Do a Yes-No-Maybe list together.
  6. Make a list of words that are sexy and not triggery, sexy and triggery, not sexy and not triggery, and not sexy and triggery. For instance, maybe in a scene being called a slut is sexy and doesn’t feel edgy but being called a whore takes you into danger/trauma zone. By cultivating a list that both you and your partner can reference, it sets you both up for success. Also, this list can change as you have new experiences and play in new context.

The most important thing I want you to take away from this, Cindy, is that you are not broken and you can have the super sexy, edgy, kinky sex that you want to have AND be a survivor with triggers and challenging feelings.

Try having these conversations about what you want to try outside of the bedroom, first. The safer you feel and the less worried you are that something might happen to you, the more likely you’ll be to open up.

Feel free to write it down if you feel like that would help you get clear, and then read it or email it to your partner and set up a date to talk it through together.

One final suggestion – as a survivor, you will have good days and you will have challenging days. You will have times when exploring your edges and doing scary stuff feels delicious and you will have times when it feels awful and you shut down. That’s normal and OK.

Healing isn’t linear. You get to find your own way through this and you definitely are not alone.

Take the time to start examining your feelings and experiences, your wants and desires, and then get creative in finding ways to start practicing asking for them within frameworks that feel safe.

I am constantly reevaluating my experiences and boundaries. I try to learn as much about trauma as I can. It’s my responsibility to understand my internal landscape and to find ways to communicate that with the people in my life.

So give yourself permission to feel afraid and unsure, to ask for support, and also to grow and change.

I wish you the very best.

Well, readers – what are your thoughts? What are some ways you’ve found your voice? Comment below and let us know.

Have your own question about sex, relationships, kink, or your body? Send it my way (there’s an anonymous option) and I may answer your inquiry on the podcast or in the weekly advice column, Wednesday Words.

  • Dawn
  • August 17, 2016