The devil in the deep
by Danielle Navarro, 08 Nov 2019
[content warnings: rape, panic attacks, triggers]
It has become customary on the internet to use the term “triggered” as a joke. Sometimes the joke is self-deprecating: on twitter you might pretend to be deeply upset over something trivial that you aren’t actually bothered by, perhaps adding the “#triggered” hashtag to signal that it’s a joke. More often the usage is overtly malicious, with the speaker attempting to bait their target into getting distressed over something then laughing at their victim for being “triggered”. In some academic circles it has become popular to mock “social justice warriors” – itself a term that is used almost exclusively as an insult – for coddling people who would prefer to be warned in advance of potentially “triggering” content in talks, lectures, etc. It would appear that triggers have become one more battleground in a very tiresome culture war.
One thing that strikes me as strange is that people talk about triggers a lot, but don’t talk much about the experience of being triggered: what it is, what it feels like, and so on. I’ll make an attempt to do that here.
I’ve written about the experience of being raped and my attempts to come to terms with it before (e.g., here, here and here), and I have little desire to talk about it again. Being raped was the worst thing that ever happened to me and it is viscerally painful to revisit it. Yet revisit it I do. Sometimes the reliving is voluntary, a part of my therapy. But often it is involuntary, when some other event triggers a flashback.
How do I describe what it feels like to be triggered? I’ve never quite managed to find a way to capture the subjective experience in words, but the text messages I sent at the time leave behind quite the trail of breadcrumbs. I told my partner I was having a bad day. When asked why, here’s how my reply started:
The speaker made a cheap sex joke…
My experience with trauma flashbacks is that the trigger itself is often something very small. Triggers can be absurdly, stupidly small. A man was giving a talk and made a joke about sex. It wasn’t an especially risque joke, it wasn’t an offensive joke. It was just a joke. People make jokes all the time.
But it was a joke about sex. It was a joke about sex in a context where I wasn’t expecting it and in which it wasn’t really socially appropriate. It was an unexpected sexual joke in a room where I had reasons to feel unwelcome. Perhaps worst of all, it was an unexpected sexual joke at a time when I was already tired and scared.
Triggers themselves are small things. The feelings of distress they evoke in me, unfortunately, are not. In my experience the ramp up to the panic attack is fast but not instantaneous. At first my reaction was no more than the “ugh, gross” kind of feeling a lot of us have when we believe a joke is in poor taste. But it quickly got worse for me, setting off a chain of very dark associations. In quick succession my emotional response ramped up very quickly from a simple “ugh” to “I feel uncomfortable and want to bail on the conference” and in no time at all we’re at this…
fuck me I can feel that FUCKING CHAIN LINK FENCE against my back again holy fuck this is another fucking flashback are you kidding me I cannot afford this shit right now. I need to get the fuck out of here. right. the. fuck. now.
With my cognitive science hat on I sometimes think that what is happening is that it’s a “spreading activation” phenomenon, where the initial cue (the sex joke) doesn’t have an especially strong valence, but the automatic process of activating adjacent concepts in the semantic network is hard to stop. One of the many terrible things about rape is that it warps and distorts the entire semantic network. I suspect that over time I have developed so many associations between other concepts and the rape that – for me – if left to its own devices every random walk on that semantic network will eventually lead to thinking about rape
What makes me so angry at myself is that I was caught unprepared. I was not expecting a sex joke in this context, and my defences were down. Under normal circumstances I can stay guarded, guide my train of thought down different paths, avoid any line of reasoning that ends up with me thinking about rape. But this kind of hypervigilance is hard to sustain and I don’t have the cognitive resources to remain on guard every moment of my life. I wasn’t prepared and things went badly for me.
How badly did it go? Well, here’s how my reply to my partner continued:
The speaker made a cheap sex joke that set off a really bad episode of flashbacks. It was so bad I unconsciously dug my nails into my skin bad enough to raise welts and I had to leave the conference and hide in my hotel room.
I’m not kidding about the welts. I’d made the – probably unwise – attempt to return to the conference room because I was still hoping I’d recover enough to help out run one of the sessions, and my attempts to self-soothe weren’t quite working. The breathing exercises helped a bit, the attempt to attend to immediate sensory experiences helped a bit but I was still getting intrusive thoughts unpredictably. One of them was severe enough that I started digging my nails into my skin as hard as I could – quite unconsciously, I should add – and the pain didn’t really register until a friend who was keeping an eye on me intervened.
So anyway I have a whole series of inflamed welts along the back of my right hand at the moment. Rape flashbacks aren’t small experiences; they’re sufficiently intense and realistic-feeling that they can be traumatic in their own right. Which, of course, is precisely the mechanism by which the rape has warped my semantic network the way it has. A rape flashback is a powerful conditioner. Indeed, one of the most bitter things I’ve realised about how badly rape has damaged me – there are a many, many things that I have learned to fear in a purely associative fashion. I was at the AIMOS conference when a man triggered a rape flashback, and so I now associate AIMOS with rape. It is one shot learning based on nothing but the recollection of the rape.
I still don’t quite know how to describe how terrifying a flashback feels. It has a dissociative flavour to it – when I have a rape flashback it feels like I’m completely losing all grip on sanity and self-control. Once the floodgates are opened, the emotional response is so utterly overwhelming and incoherent. Rage, terror, shame, disgust… my emotions swing wildly from one to the next on a moment to moment basis. I can’t control the emotions in the slightest, I can’t settle, I can’t make it stop. The best I can ever manage is to control my behaviour, to shut down completely so that I don’t actually do anything, don’t say anything, don’t lash out at whoever is nearest to me. My chat logs have a lot of comments (in several parallel conversations) along these lines:
Everything just kind of dissolves. One moment I’m a perfectly competent adult and a member of an academic community and the next I’m a completely incoherent, terrified wreck of a person … I haven’t stopped crying all day … I’m still crying uncontrollably and I can’t bring myself to leave the hotel froom because I feel so disappointed in myself … I lost the whole afternoon in panic and flashbacks. I got so distressed I locked and wiped my twitter account to try to hide from the world and now I’m hold up in the hotel room and I can’t stop crying … I don’t want to leave the room. I know it sounds ridiculous but I’m scared and ashamed. I just want to sit here until tomorrow and my flight leaves.
This is all pretty incoherent, I suppose – and these passages are jumbled together from different frantic conversations I was having with several different people through the day which adds to the confusion – but honestly that kind of incoherence is a pretty good reflection of how it feels when it is happening.
Rape, it turns out, is a hell of an unconditioned stimulus.
Run, hide, freeze
In a strange way, the most terrifying stage for me arrives at the end. After a time my self-control starts to finally return and I regain the ability to make sensible decisions once more. At this point in the saga I find that I can look back at the actions I’ve taken and evaluate them calmly, and I’m very rarely happy with what I see. Luckily for me I’ve never had a flashback cause me to turn violent although I have heard that some people do respond that way. As it turns out I don’t seem to have much of a fight response to threat. At most, I find that I do sometimes lash out verbally in ways that I think are ill advised. But for the most part my reaction is either flight or freeze.
My actions when the flashback arrives aren’t always crazy. On the contrary, most of the time they actually make total sense. For example, when I realised what was happening to me in that lecture theory I fled the scene and then froze. I walked as calmly as I could out of the lecture theatre and then sat myself down in a dark corner, frozen in place until my friends could come and get me out of there. That’s pretty sensible really. Okay, I probably looked a bit silly sitting there alone staring blankly, but whatever. No big deal.
On the other hand, some of my responses to flashback are utterly absurd. In a sudden wave of panic I wiped my twitter account. I deleted all my tweets, removed my photo and my name and deleted my bio. I closed my DMs, and unfollowed a lot of people so they couldn’t DM me. I locked my account for a time. Of course, none of this makes any sense whatsoever. I have close to 8000 followers, and so locking my account achieves very little. Similarly, the internet tends to remember everything, so wiping my account history doesn’t make a lot of sense either. This serves no purpose. Intellectually I know this, but that’s not how it feels at the time. When a flashback arrives my responses aren’t reasoned and as a consequence they are not always reasonable.
At the time the urge to flee and to hide is so utterly overwhelming that I can’t bear the thought that anyone can see me – wiping my twitter account is the online equivalent of hiding under the blankets. It doesn’t accomplish anything practical, but it does provide a moment’s feeling of relief and safety. When reliving a rape, even cold comforts are better than none.
Aftermath, and the devil in the deep
What makes me viscerally angry and ashamed at the same time is the feeling of violation I have about the flashbacks. Try as I might I cannot suppress them entirely, and I can’t control how I react. It’s humiliating to realise that at any moment anyone who wants to can strip me of all self-control and cause me to fall to pieces whenever they feel like it, and there’s really nothing that I can do to stop them. In the long run I hope that trauma counselling will help minimise my vulnerability to these kinds of things, but here and now I have almost no psychological defence against it.
The realisation makes me feel exposed, unsafe. I’m so utterly dependent on other people choosing to refrain from making sex jokes, so dependent on the kindness of strangers, and so often reduced to a shattered wreck because some people choose unkindness:
No matter how absurd it is I can’t control it. Walking around with the knowledge that at any moment someone can cause you to completely lose all self control and fall apart so completely is demoralising.
I despise this about myself.
I sometimes refer to this sensation as “the devil in the deep”. It’s a variation on the saying “betwixt the devil and the deep blue sea” that I’m very fond of (as those who follow my research would probably be aware). In the original saying the idea is that you are caught between two bad options, the “devil” and the “deep blue sea”, hoping to chart a safe course between the two. In my private, darker version, all your choices are false choices and there are no safe paths. The ending is a foregone conclusion. You will be dragged into the maelstrom no matter what, and the devil awaits. Each and every time you come face to face with your worst nightmare. Sometimes you might escape with minor injuries. Sometimes you barely make it out at all. And every time you wonder if the next time will be the time you drown.
I wrote this essay during the aftermath of a panic attack, and it shows. Reading the piece a couple of days later, I’m struck by how poorly constructed it is, at least by my standards. There are numerous spelling errors and grammatical mistakes. The progression of ideas from one to the next is not as tight as I would normally aim for. I’ve considered revisiting the piece, smoothing the rough edges and giving it the structure it perhaps deserves.
Ultimately, I decided not to edit the essay, because I think the flaws in the piece are themselves quite telling. The fallout from a rape flashback is long lasting: even 24 hours after it happened, my writing skills were impaired, the clarity of my expression diminished, and my decision-making less than ideal. This is itself part of what I would like a reader to take away from the essay. If you are a person who thinks that content warnings serve no purpose other than to “coddle” an overly sensitive mind – and so refuse to use them when asked – I’d encourage you to consider whether you are doing so out of genuine concern for PTSD sufferers (which I doubt) or whether you are using our suffering as a weapon to push a political agenda. If the latter describes you, I’d ask that you stop treating PTSD as a game. For far too many of us, what you are doing is deliberately eliciting trauma for your own personal gain.
That is not the behaviour of an ethical person.