“You’re Reacting Proportionally To What It Feels Like Is Happening…”

August 30, 2017

Oooooh, I talked about something today in therapy that was really helpful.

[This may not be applicable to everyone, but if you’re interested, feel free to move on!]

One of the many things we chip away at on the road to recovery is kinda the piece about feeling so weird about how I reacted during the 30 days of silence. It’s not like I’ve never been sort of iced by someone before, or that someone has needed space before. But it felt so much more urgent for this to be resolved.

It was all part of the cycle of abuse – which I am very familiar with living. And the time between “incident” and “reconciliation” can be gut-wrenching.

I was very distracted all the time, basically just waiting for my permission to breathe.

And then, once we finally started talking again, he would always kind of twist the knife a little at every meeting we had – try to blame me for what had happened, or deflect, or do anything to make it so no apology was really real, no breathing was really deep, no nothing was anything. It was just the constant anxiety until some sort of resolution – even if it meant we never slept together again and things didn’t go back to our “normal,” just if he would’ve just been a normal person and not made me feel so terrible… just, the closing of the abuse circle would’ve been really great.

And none of my friends had really seemed to understand it.

Granted, I’m never super good at any personal relationship of any type not ending on a nice calm good note. (I think a lot of that does have to do with being a victim of the cycle of abuse for such a giant portion of my life.) But I’m also never quite as distracted/cry-y/feeling-like-I-literally-can’t-breathe-until-he-gives-me-permission as I was with this guy…

And as I was talking about it with my therapist, I was comparing it to some other relationship that just sort of ended – no giant bad thing, but no cute goodbye either. And I was like, “that doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t make me super happy. But I don’t think about it all the time. It doesn’t feel like I’m gonna die if I ever talk to that guy again.”

And she asked, ‘I can’t help but notice you said it was like you were gonna die. Does it really feel that way – that intense?’ And we talked about how it kind of did. Because when I was a child who seemingly had no outs in a cycle of abuse, there were times where I literally thought I would die. (For real, yo.) And she talked about how it was in those reconciliation/calm phases where I finally got a respite from that… It literally feels like life and death. I know it’s not. But it feels that way, and sort of rightfully so, based on my life.

And she told me, “it was a proportional response to what it felt like for you.”

Now, as with so many things in this sexual assault series, I feel like this gets a big asterisk too.

For one thing, I feel like in a weird perversion of this helpful tidbit to make survivors feel less crazy, it could be used against them, like, “Well, did it only feel like your rapist was as threatening? What about your brain? Your past? Your neurons?”

And I know he was actually very threatening. I very much know it, aside from anything about my brain.

I also want to be clear that again, I’m not saying survivors of any trauma should be able to go around having disproportionate reactions to things around them, and everyone just always writing it off because it now “makes sense.”

But, I also think “making sense” (to me, at least) feels like a gigantic step in getting better – to stop feeling crazy about your feelings, see where they’re coming from, and be able to better recognize them and deal with them when they come up.

Another example of this that really helped put it in perspective for me, is that I once heard a story of a survivor who had been assaulted on a night that had started like any other night, and she expected it to go like any other night.

And it didn’t…

And while she was receiving, there was a morning she really wanted this one breakfast sandwich(?) or something from Starbucks. She went; they didn’t have it. And she ran outside and had a panic attack.

Is that what you’d usually expect of someone at a Starbucks? No. But it was another situation for her where she was expecting something, and that something didn’t happen, and she was still struggling with expectations not matching what actually happened. And so, that set off a reaction for her.

What does this mean for all of us? To me, I think it means we can be a little more empathetic with ourselves if we have a reaction outside of the norm. Maybe we’re just “reacting totally proportionally to how it feels for us.” And I also think it means we can be a little empathetic toward others. If someone is doing something that isn’t hurting anyone, we don’t have to be like, “Ugh. Why is that person so [nervous, flighty, etc.] Maybe you try to help. And if you can’t help, maybe you just try to have some at least even a little level of understanding (or at least, that’s what I’m gonna try to do).

[Important side note: I do want to make it clear that I don’t think our past experiences get to alter actual reality. It doesn’t mean we boycott Starbucks or we make places/things out to be the victim when they’re not. But I think we can keep perspective and keep a real reality while being a little forgiving of our brains when we need it. And the best part (to me) is that when we start to understand it, we can change it! If we react to certain things in ways we don’t like, and we learn why we do that, it’s much easier (in my opinion) to take active steps to start reacting differently! Look at how much possibility there is in the future.]

I'd love to hear from you! So whaddya say?