Photo: flickr / U.S. Pacific Air Forces
Like many survivors of sexual violence – or any violence for that matter – I have triggers. And they’re sometimes hard to avoid. For the most part, I’m fine. I am almost impossible to trigger. It takes intense situational accuracy to trigger me, you basically have to reenact core elements of my rape to do it, so I don’t trigger often. But when I do. It’s deep. And it is one of the things that has kept me out of the dentist chair for, well, WAY TOO LONG. (Which is why I was in it for nearly 4 hours today.)
I’ve written about my rape and PTSD before, but, short version, I was raped in my own bed, by a stranger who broke in and held a gun at my head. He wore surgical gloves, and that was all that I saw of him. Black hands in surgical gloves. And the knowledge – feeling – of a gun at my head. I have spent years debating with myself whether or not I actually saw the gun. The truth, at this point, is irrelevant, as years of rendering it with the brushes of fear and time have developed breathtaking accuracy and detail. (Memory stains are indelible, while the impact of events is often nascent at imprint, ripening and growing with time.)
For whatever reason, I have been able to process my rape precisely enough that I have never generalized the specific. I manifested no mistrust of hands, or black hands, or surgical gloves, as I have only encountered those things in positive ways, except the one time I didn’t.
I have also always said that in some ways I was very lucky when I was raped because I was asked to choose either life or death. Life, of course, meant rape. And death meant being shot in the head. It was not a hard choice for me to make, at all. Life. Duh. And in that moment, I chose life in a powerful way. I chose it forever, and I chose to live it, and to make it mine.
I didn’t choose to die. I didn’t choose to be mere aftermath.
I was also lucky that my attacker wore condoms. And even gloves. This was the late 80’s. AIDS was the great global scare, it was not well understood, but we were all living in the fear that unprotected sex was, itself, a death sentence. While he was surely just hiding his DNA, I was grateful that he protected me from what many of us thought was a phallic firing squad at the time.
Years later, I consider myself remarkably recovered. It happened, I have found amazing love and life since. But trauma like that imprints in you, deep inside you, and no matter how rarely it is seen, the moment it appears it is huge. It can feel like it’s happening again.
This time, it was a black hand in surgical gloves that held my hand and reminded me I was okay.
But still, there I was, held down by equipment, procedures, unable to move, to speak, with all these hands in surgical gloves coming at me.
My heart was racing. I was sweating. My brain kept telling me these are kind people, helping me, this is good. But my heart raced open and raw, the full throttle gallop of a stampede thundering through my addled brain. Each memorial hit, a phrase “you’ll be okay,” “it’ll be over soon,” ” I’ve got you,” uttered with concern. But were the same, exact, things my attacker said to me.
My rapist told me not to talk, not to make a sound. He held me down.
The dentist was the epitome of kind and considerate, but I was just as pinned down. Unable to speak with a dental dam, and jaw-spreader, and tools in my mouth. I made small sounds, on purpose. Just because I could. But they sounded like wimpering. Like suffering.
The assistant again reached for my hand. Without asking, she held my hand like a mother holds a child. So sweet, so tender. I wanted to curl all up in her hand, small and tiny. I wanted to be a kitten, I thought.
I remembered my rapist telling me he’d kill my cats if I made a sound.
I rubbed her fingers. I have never been so grateful for a hand to hold in my life. A black hand. In a surgical glove.
They could all tell I was suffering. Strangely, extremely. They asked if they were hurting me. “No,” I assured them. It’s in my head. I’m okay.
I wanted to tell her. I wanted to tell the woman with the black hand in the surgical glove what she was doing for me, but I knew it would sound bad. And it wasn’t.
Here’s the thing about deep wounds. They only heal in daylight and air, and they are so rarely touched that they rarely get those deep healing opportunities. That’s what they were giving me.
I see the tool head towards my mouth, again, held in a hand with a surgical glove, I am sure it looks like the gun that I am not even sure I saw. The cross-hatched engraving where the fingers grip looks like that on a gun, and I feel it hit my tooth with the dull thud of a tooth that is numb and a memory that is innervated.
I panic. “Are you okay?” they ask.
I have to tell them. “I have a history of violence,” I explain. I think they have a right to know. “And the only thing I saw of my attacker were his hands, in surgical gloves. So you are hitting all my triggers, hard. And it’s okay.”
They ask if I need a break. No, I don’t. I just need you to hold my hand and get me through this.
And they did.
They also asked if getting different gloves would help. I wanted to cry when they did that. I can count on one hand the number of people who instinctively ask a question that is as right as that. No, it won’t make any difference. But thank you so much for asking, that, in and of itself, made a difference.
The woman who has been holding my hand is the same one who brought me a down comforter so that I could stay warm the whole time, and she tucked me in. Eventually, she swaddled me. I kid you not. She asked if I wanted to wear the lead blanket, which is what they do with autistic kids, and dogs who are afraid of thunder.
Yes, please. And she lovingly tucked me in. All around.
For three hours, I existed in this place that was my rape. I was effectively pinned, prodded, vulnerable. But this time, I was cared for.
When I was raped, I remembered being grateful that I was alive. The fear was equaled with amazement, breath for breath. I was seeing, feeling, smelling, noticing things that I had been blind to when I was taking my life for granted. But as I was being raped, I saw cracks in the paint, threads in the sheets, heard tiny sounds I had never noticed. It was similar this time, I was hyper aware of everything.
That some of the smells were the same – the gloves, the metal instruments. So many of the words were exactly the same, “this’ll be over soon,” “you’re doing great,” “you’ll be okay.”
I left so broken and shaken. I still am. As I write this, tears are flowing. It is as real to me as the night it happened. But it’s different this time.
My triggers, this time, were handholds that I could use to pull through it. They let me dangle into the darkest parts of the memory and heal them. They didn’t so much hold me down, as hold me steady as I explored these places that are still dangerous to me, and tidied them up, cleaned out some clutter.
And they let me make jokes. I needed that. Somewhere in there, trying to work my lips around the clamps and dental dam, she said, “I’ve never seen anyone able to do that with their lips and tongue.” And I smiled, I told her I didn’t know her well enough to make the dirty joke that was in my mind. But in my own mind, I was thinking, “that’s right!” And reveling in how much I love my sexy mind and wildly sexy ways.
Even after it all.
My rape took place in 1987. And I just lived it, for three times longer than the original event, in minute detail. It is still a part of me.
But as I drove home, crawled into bed, hung out with my daughter, went to the gym, and now sit in the big red chair in my bedroom, it is fading back into the past. The foundation of who I am. And nothing that I know or appreciate as my life now would be the same without that. I am hyper aware. I am aware of the jokes, the love, the sex, the bravery, the survival. The love. The caring.
I am in such good hands now.
I should probably mention, in case you’re in Seattle and afraid of the dentist, that if the folks at Fidler On The Tooth can get me through this, they’ll probably be able to work with your dental anxiety too.