Dissociating When Triggered by Intimacy: A Guide to Check In, When Checking Out

  Art by Luna Azul

Art by Luna Azul

TRIGGER WARNING:

Throughout April, Rest for Resistance is proud to feature writing by LGBTQ+ people of color for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The following content discusses dissociation, sexual assault, and victim blaming/shaming/socialization.


“I have never had a client who has dissociated. I haven’t heard of that. What is it like?”

– My last therapist (number 3 out of 4)

 

Dissociation:      

 

“Dissociation is a mental process that causes a lack of connection in a person’s thoughts, memory and sense of identity.”

– mentalhealthamerica.net

 

I can’t remember the first time I dissociated, but I remember one of the times that I did clear as day.

I was 15 years old and hanging out with a dude 2 years older than me. I barely knew him. I was sitting next to him on a couch, in his bedroom, talking away about my favorite T.V. shows. Suddenly, he began kissing me and got on top. I was paralyzed. I couldn’t say no. I couldn’t express the strong discomfort I was experiencing. I let him kiss and caress my breasts. I didn’t know it then, but the rapid movement of him kissing me without warning and getting on top of me was a definite trigger. I didn’t know it then, but my body’s response was dissociation. Even though I didn’t have the language I have now, I knew that my mind wasn’t in my body. I had little self-control, but in that moment, my instincts kicked in and I let out a weak cry. Right away he got off, hands up, and said, “I didn’t do anything! You pulled me in.” I wiped my tears and buttoned my shirt.

 

“As avoidance coping usually happens because of a traumatic event. Being powerless to do anything to change or stop a traumatic event may lead people to disconnect from the situation to cope with feelings of helplessness, fear or pain. Dissociation can help people get through to the end of the traumatic experience. People who dissociate during trauma are more likely to develop a pattern of dissociating as a coping strategy.”

– washington.edu

 

Maybe I did pull him in. Maybe I wanted him to feel me up. Maybe I wanted to take it further and fuck. However, despite my wants, it’s not what I needed nor was prepared for.

I asked him to take me home. He was clearly confused, but without question, agreed.

Right before I got out of his car he said, “I didn’t do anything…”

That’s the problem when living in a society where we avoid discussion about intimacy, conflict, triggers, dissociation, and socialization; “We didn’t do anything…”

He didn’t do anything, right? He got off me when I started crying. Nothing happened, right? It’s not like raped me. Nothing happened, right? I didn’t say no, but he stopped. I didn’t do anything, right? It’s not like I asked him to get on top. We didn’t do anything…right?

Well, years later in my life I realized the real answers to these questions, and the answer is the same for these, the answer being…things happened, in “not doing anything.”

The first thing that happened is that consent was not asked for nor was it given, and we were not transparent about our intentions in that situation. The power dynamics in that scenario were real, he had more power; due to me being in his home, on his couch, and in his bedroom.

 

“...how systemic power structures and varied cultural identities affect a person’s self-concept, well-being, and relationships.”

– Sand Chang , “In Love and Struggle: Creating Space
for Difficult Dialogues About Power, Privilege, and
Oppression in Intimate Relationships”

 

He had a responsibility to ask and communicate with me his intentions. He could have asked for consent.

 

Consent:

 

"As important as consent is, we don’t talk about it enough. So it’s understandable if you’re a little unsure about what it is – and what it isn’t.

People typically talk about consent in the context of some kind of sexual or physical activity with a partner. In a healthy relationship, both (or all) partners are able to openly talk about and agree on what kind of activity they want to engage in. Whether it’s holding hands, kissing, touching, intercourse, or anything else, it’s really important for everyone in the relationship to feel comfortable with what’s happening.

You may have heard the phrase 'no means no.' That’s totally true, but it doesn’t really provide a complete picture of consent because it puts the responsibility on one person to resist or accept an activity. It also makes consent about what someone doesn’t want to do, instead of being about openly expressing what they do want to do.”

– What is Consent

 

Here is a FREE zine PDF on consent:

“Learning Good Consent”

 

Consent is not talked about often enough, especially as young brown kids growing up in a mediocre white conservative town (ie Holland, MI). We were two teenagers with hormones, who lacked the emotional intelligence to check in and read the situation all together. However, the reality was that our socialization, intersection of identities, and past experiences influenced our responses in that moment. So, how the fuck could we even navigate or expect to have a sincere conversation about our expectations, feelings, or appropriate touching? In a way, we were kind of predestined to be in that room, at 8 P.M. on a Friday, watching anime, with him on top of me, and my mind somewhere else.


 

Trigger:

 

“In the strictest sense of the term, trigger is used to refer to experiences that 're-trigger' trauma in the form of flashbacks or overwhelming feelings of sadness, anxiety, or panic. The brain forms a connection between a trigger and the feelings with which it is associated, and some triggers are quite innocuous.”

– goodtherapy.org

 

I was triggered, because of my first “sexual encounter” with a man. When I was 13, my 25 year old cousin laid down next to me and began kissing my neck, as I was trying to sleep. I do not believe that was the first time I dissociated, but that sensation caused me to shut down years later when friends, lovers, fuck buddies, partners, and/or strangers would kiss me, especially without warning. I learned to silently cope with distress through dissociation. It’s been years since that experience, and not until recently have I had the tools and language for what happened, and still happens. My cousin, when confronted with his actions said, “But, I didn’t do anything. She was the one who wanted me.”

 

Victim Blaming:

 

“Victim blaming is a devaluing act that occurs when the victim(s) of a crime or an accident is held responsible — in whole or in part — for the crimes that have been committed against them.”

– crcv.ca

 

Victim blaming and victim shaming are hella prevalent in our culture.

I was exposed to victim blaming, even before I kissed another person. Victim blaming and shaming is everywhere. I believe due to my Mexican mother’s upbringing and distance from difficult and honest conversation about sex, especially sexual violence, I kind of never thought about it, until it happened to me. However, due to the internalized shame, guilt, and confusion, I was socialized to not speak up or explore dissociation as a part of my person, or the events that would lead me to being triggered. However, I now am taking my lived experiences, healing from them, and shedding the old skin of who I was socialized to be. I read this remarkable piece, “Yeah I’m a Victim What About It?” on The Body is Not an Apology, that perfectly captures how individuals should be the ones defining themselves and their experiences with sexual assault.


 

Socialization:

 

“The social process through which we develop our personalities and human potential and learn about our society and culture.”

– Crash Course Sociology

 

I haven’t officially come out as queer. And it wasn’t until 2 months ago I realized I was a survivor of sexual violence, abuse, and assault. It wasn’t until last week that the word mestiza summed up my identity of race.

However, at a young age I was socialized to be a sexual object for horny boys that only saw me as a brown girl, not even a woman, just a brown girl. Funny enough, I identify as a non-binary femme now. In the years that followed that Friday night at 8 P.M. I continued to be objectified, as I objectified others. I put individuals in a category, based on my past experiences, as other have done to me. I have spoken up, have been silenced, and shut out. To this day, I have not gotten this shit figured out, our society wasn’t created for brown, black, indigenous queer folks with mental and physical disabilities to self-advocate and engage in difficult dialogue about being triggered by sexual intimacy and how partners, lovers, fuck buddies, friends, and strangers can support and assist during those episodes of being triggered and of dissociation.

I am coming to a place where I want to hold these conversations, I am ready to share and listen to others who have their own unique relationship with themselves, their coping mechanisms, defense strategies, and experiences with sexual victimization, abuse, assault, and consented intimacy. I believe it begins with challenging how we are socialized in our society, which relates to everything stated before.

It begins by . . .

 

Asking for consent:

  • Checking in and looking for signs of distress, and if not seeing signs, at least asking how the other person(s) is doing

  • Educating children on deconstructing what a victim/survivor is

  • Educating one another on how not to abuse, assault, or victimize

  • Challenging sexist, homophobic, ableist, racist, xenophobic, and any other oppressive thoughts, statements, or actions

  • Starting the conversation about expectations, boundaries, history, and/or power dynamics in the relationship

  • Empowering community members to empower one another

  • “Confronting Partner Abuse in Activist Communities”

 

 

Active listening:

  • Respecting other people’s agency, autonomy, lived experiences, and current realities in regards to trauma, triggers, defense mechanisms

  • Not taking advantage of, abusing, or perpetuating harm unto other people

  • Healing ourselves, or at least starting that process

  • Giving space for conversations

 

-----------------

 

What is Dissociation for/to You?

Dissociation makes perfect sense when folks have constantly been abused, silenced, socialized a particular way, oppressed, and constantly have had boundaries broken, or don’t even know what their boundaries are.

I have been spending hours looking for an article or zine about signs of dissociation, I keep reading things that say, “it’s when you space out or are on auto-pilot,” but to be honest, I can never know what another individual specifically experiences when dissociating. I know what it means for me, but I can’t say how that is for others, but when a person knows instinctively, they know.

If you are someone who is wondering, shit, do I have dissociative episodes? I recommend getting a psychological evaluation and a (decent) therapist (if you have access to one).

Don’t trust therapy or psychological evaluations? Speak to someone who you trust and can support you. Look into alternative resources that can help you define or give language to what it is you are experiencing and why you are dissociating.

 

Here is a List of Different Forms of Dissociation:

International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation

 

Suppression and Repression:

“Suppression and Repression-Defense Mechanisms”

 

Insight on What to Do if Dissociating During Sex (for partners too):

“No Sex Please, We’re Dissociative?”

 

At The Heart of Dissociation and How to Cope:

How Needs, Communication & Beliefs Impact Dissociation

 

Check Out Helpful Mental Health Workshops Centered on Justice:

Icarus Project
 

Grounding Techniques: How to Reconnect with Your Body

Gain Awareness Of Dissociation:

 

How You Can Help Someone Struggling with Dissociation:

7 Ways to Help Someone Experiencing Dissociation

 

Things You Can Do For Someone Who is Dissociating:

Dissociation Awareness


 

Remember, if you have trauma that has caused you to dissociate, even in moments where you desire to be intimate, it’s not your fault! Your feelings, experiences, and the intersections of your identity are totally valid. You are not alone.

 

– The Brujxs Collective

(for the revolution)


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About Luna Azul & Brujxs Collective:

Luna Azul (they/them) is a queer, light-skinned, ferocious victim/survivor, birth parent, non-binary femme, first-generation brujx Mestiza curandera with a passion for mental health and healing accessibility for QTIBNBIPOC. Azul had been diagnosed with BPD, but recently re-diagnosed with PTSD, depression, and generalized anxiety. They are currently in the process of  becoming a certified doula, volunteering for Saphichay, and also kick-starting Brujxs Collective, an arts decentralized collective prioritizing decolonization and mad brujxs healing. "Have mad pride and don't forget to be gentle with yourself."