This post is a submission to the June 2015 Carnival of Aces on the topic of mental health.
Trigger warnings: reference to sexual assault (but no explicit discussion), frank and explicit discussion of PTSD. In general this post is pretty bleak so if you don’t feel like handling that right now, I suggest skipping over it. If you think this needs other warnings let me know and I will be happy to add them.
This probably isn’t news to anyone who follows my blog, but I have PTSD. I’ve had it for a little less than seven years, although I wasn’t formally diagnosed until two years ago.
When I tell people I have PTSD, I think they have a very particular image in their head of what that’s like–PTSD is a (male) veteran waking up from nightmares of the war, drenched in sweat. The problem is, while that might be what PTSD is like for a very particular subset of the population, that’s not what PTSD is like for me at all.
Imagine you’re playing a video game. You have to get through the level, jump over the fire pits, fight off the enemies along the way, and then defeat the boss. It’s not a particularly easy game, but it’s definitely not impossible. The problem is, for some reason you’re stuck on the same level. You defeat the boss, the triumphant level completion music plays, and then you find yourself back at the beginning and have to start all over again. You have to jump over the same fire pits, fight off the same enemies, and then defeat the same boss. No matter how well you do, you always wind up back at the beginning. After a while, you start learning tricks to get through the level faster–if you don’t step on that triangular patch on the ground, you don’t have to fight off the mechanical crocodiles, and if you take a right instead of a left at the fork, you can avoid two of the fire pits. But that doesn’t change the fact that you’re playing the same level over and over and over and over and over.
For me, PTSD is like playing that same level over and over. I have been playing this same level for the past seven years, and, honestly, it’s not getting any more interesting. It’s frustrating and exhausting and boring and if I forget to avoid that triangular patch, I have to fight off mechanical crocodiles. I would really rather do something else–move on to the next level, play a different game, turn off the computer and read a book–but I’m stuck. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to move on to the next level; all I can control is how well I play the game, how well I get through the level, whether I lose half my health to a gout of fire or whether I manage to side-step it entirely. I can learn where the triggers are, and try to avoid them (like that triangular patch I just jump over), but sometimes I slip up and sometimes I don’t know about a trigger and some triggers are just unavoidable.
The good news is that there are these mystery boxes called “therapy” that you can purchase! Some of them have really cool power-ups, like a sword of +20 crocodile slaying or a jetpack that allows you to fly over the flame pits. Some of them have power-ups that are entirely useless, like a cloak that allows you to breathe underwater when there is very clearly no water in this entire level. And some of them you open and, surprise! It’s Heterosexist Joe, who follows you around and suggests that perhaps you’re really straight and just think you’re asexual because of trauma. There’s no real way to tell what the mystery box contains until you buy it, so it might seem like a better idea to avoid them altogether. (That’s assuming you have the money to buy a mystery box and that you have access to them at all, of course.) I mean, I’ve mostly been lucky with them, but one time I got stuck with I’m Pretty Sure You’re Actually Just a Lesbian Sally, who was a real drag, so I can’t blame anyone who might not want to take that risk.
Remember how I said I’ve had PTSD for seven years but wasn’t diagnosed until two years ago? Well, the only reason I was diagnosed was because two years ago I was sexually assaulted again. I wasn’t ready to talk about what happened then, and I’m still not ready to talk about it now. It’s hard to describe what it’s like, when you’ve finally started healing from trauma and then are retraumatized. Besides the hypervigilance and panic attacks and dissociation and nightmares, it felt like since I had been assaulted twice, a third and a fourth and a fifth time was inevitable. It felt like I would spend the rest of my life being assaulted, recovering, and then being assaulted again. To return to my video game metaphor, it felt like someone had gone and switched me from playing on normal mode to HELL MODE. Suddenly, everything was a fire pit, everything was a trigger, all the crocodiles were now armed with flame-throwers. Oh, also, my controller started glitching so I couldn’t control my character properly half the time. It was the worst gaming experience of my life, -5/10, would not recommend.
If you knew me two years ago and you’re only hearing about this now (and there are, I’m afraid, a lot of you), there’s a pretty good chance you didn’t notice anything was wrong. I barely told anyone what was going on. I withdrew and lost contact with a lot of people. I was afraid that people wouldn’t believe me or would blame me or would take the perpetrator’s side or wouldn’t want to deal with someone who was mentally ill. I was very good at pretending that everything was okay even as I couldn’t sleep and dissociated half the day. I got very good at laughing off what I was going through, at hiding behind cute metaphors. I thought that if people knew how much I was struggling, they wouldn’t want anything to do with me; people want friends who are fun and happy, not friends who jump at the slightest sound and break down crying for no discernible reason.
More than that, I thought the ace community wouldn’t want me. The ace community doesn’t have the best history with regards to survivors–there’s a lot of offensive and insensitive discourse about ace survivors that’s thrown around ace spaces willy-nilly. Even now that the predominant rhetoric on tumblr has shifted to “protect ace survivors at all costs,” we’re still mostly used for political means, as rhetorical devices to win arguments, or else to prove how accepting and caring, how invested in justice for survivors the OP really is.
There are also a lot of ways in which ace spaces can be really triggering when my mental health is not doing super great. For example, the double-whammy of the crappy treatment of sex-repulsed aces and the way certain spaces can pressure aces implicitly or explicitly to try sex has done some particularly bad things to my head. There have been periods of time when someone doing something as innocent as coming to my askbox to ask for validation of their sex life has sent me into a tailspin, not because the asker did anything wrong, but because the fact that there are aces out there who have sex reminds me of all the people (both aces and not) who have told me that I should be having sex, that I should just try sex (for real, because of course sexual violence isn’t allowed to count toward my opinions on sex), that I need to try sex (here, let me help you). It makes me feel that I’m somehow Doing Asexuality Wrong, that I’m not allowed to feel the things I feel, that I’m well and truly broken, and that’s a really scary feeling. To be clear, I fully support aces who choose to have sex (for whatever reason), and I have zero desire to restart the debate about whether sex-averse aces or aces who have sex are more oppressed. (Do not restart the debate in the comment section. Do not.) I mention this as an example of the weird and complex ways trauma and PTSD and ace community discourse can mix together to form a particularly toxic cocktail. It can be hard to know how to respond when people come to you for support and encouragement, either unaware of your baggage or expecting you to easily check it at the door. It can be especially hard to reach out for help or take a step back and say, “Look, I can’t deal with these kind of questions right now” when so many people look up to you and come to you for support and validation. I try to treat both myself and those in need of validation with respect and kindness, but, to be honest, I’m often better at the latter than the former. I have a very hard time motivating myself to take care of myself unless I can rationalize that care as being for someone else’s benefit (i.e. “I need to sleep now because maybe someone from RFAS will need my help tomorrow”).
When you’re stuck in HELL MODE of the same level that you’ve been playing for five years and you’re barely managing to clear the boss battle with 1% health, the idea of entering into ace spaces and trying to start a conversation about asexuality and sexual violence is kind of like soldering extra flame-throwers onto the mechanical crocodiles. Yet that is exactly what I did. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think what I did was brave or commendable in any way. I think that I reached a point where I couldn’t see how anything could possibly get worse. So, I figured, if this level is going to finally destroy me, I might as well try to write up a walk-through for whoever else is having to play it right now. If I’m going to die here, I’d at least like to try to help whoever comes after me.
Two years later, I am still here, I am still alive, and I am still playing the same wretched level. Despite having played it for seven years, I still have a lot of trouble with it. I still sometimes step on that triangular patch, I still sometimes mistime my jump and get caught in a gout of flame, and I still struggle with the boss battle. I still have a lot of trouble sleeping. I still get triggered by pretty mundane things. I still struggle with feeling like I am Doing Asexuality Wrong and wondering if the ace community really accepts me or only pretends to accept me when doing so is politically expedient. I may not be playing on HELL MODE anymore, but I’m definitely playing on Slightly Harder Than Entirely Necessary Mode.
But now I know I’m not playing the level alone. Now I have a whole community of people who have had similar experiences. There are more and more of us speaking up, sharing our experiences, supporting each other, reminding each other that we’re not alone. The fact that I managed to contribute toward that community existing, even in a small way? That’s an amazing feeling. That’s +15 invulnerability to fire.
If this post has made you worry about me, please don’t. I am doing okay. Rather than worrying about me or feeling sorry for me, I ask that you support me and the multitude of other ace survivors out there, some of whom are doing significantly less okay than I am. Listen to us when we speak. Recognize that we are not a monolithic group, and our opinions and needs are as varied as our experiences. Recognize that our experiences may be upsetting or horrifying for you to hear about, but your job is to support us, not to turn this into a conversation about how angry and upset you are. Recognize that we are people, not pawns to be used to prove the oppression of aces. Treat us like people, not fragile, broken things to be protected “at all costs.” Check out Resources for Ace Survivors, either on our main site or on tumblr.
Maybe someday I will be able to move on to the next level. Maybe not. Either way, right now, I am doing okay, and that’s significantly better than I was doing two years ago. So even though I know I’m just going to have to start the level over again, I’m going to take a moment to savor that triumphant level completion music.
Thank you for writing this. I’m sorry that you had to go through such an awful experience two years ago and I’m glad that you’re doing better recently. I hope that you’ll continue to find people and resources that make it easier for you to navigate your situation.
I really appreciate what you’re able to contribute here at TAA and on Tumblr; it almost always makes me think, whatever the topic might be. I suspect that you’ve helped a lot more people by your writing than you realize and in more ways that you realize.
Thank you for your kind words!
I may have said so before, but I’m incredibly grateful for all your efforts. I think I never really “got” the importance of experiences with sexual violence until your repeated writings. And I would never have seen the need for RFAS, but now I see that it’s a force for good and I’m happy it exists. I also very much appreciate its approach to diversity. I’ve been dissatisfied with certain other communities’ approaches to sexual violence, and RFAS has been a grounding to help me understand what’s wrong.
I’m glad to hear that helping others helps you with self-care, rather than hurting you. I would hate to hear that your invaluable contributions came at great cost to yourself.
I’m really glad that my writings have been helpful for you; I’m never quite sure whether they’re reaching anyone, since posting things on the internet can kind of be like screaming into the void and cultural change (even in a community as comparatively small as the ace community) takes forever.
To be honest, I avoided survivor communities before two years ago, because I tended to find them too narrowly focused (and almost always predominantly catering toward heterosexual women who had been assaulted by men). So diversity has always been a big concern for me, with regards to RFAS. I’m really glad to hear that we’re succeeding so far.
This metaphor is very accurate to what my experience has been like as well. But of course, each of us have our own personalized levels of PTSD Hell: The Game to play through, which is what makes writing a walkthrough so difficult. Sometimes reading advice for survivors written without asexuality in mind really just feels like reading a walkthrough of a totally different game, with the assumption that everyone is playing that one. There are a few familiar mechanics and those can help, but I’m playing as some sort of class that doesn’t exist in the original game, and in order to win I have to achieve a different goal, so a lot of the strategies people describe are useless.
I like to think that RFAS gives the game an online mode where we can connect, share strategies, and buff each other, even if we all still have to play different levels over and over. We still fight common enemies, too, and whenever we’re able, we can do that together—I like to think that activism is a bit like playing an MMO. Our allies can and frequently do screw up, because they don’t always understand the mechanics of the fight, and how there’s this curse some of us have been afflicted with that causes us to take damage whenever another player tries to attack the boss in a certain way, and sometimes teleports us out of the raid and forces us to get through the personal level again instead. Getting people to learn that and stop doing [whatever] is a big challenge, especially with a constantly rotating roster of players dropping in and out of the fight all the time.
That was pretty convoluted, I’m probably stretching the metaphor a bit. Hopefully someone who likes games reads this comment and totally understands now, lol.
You’ve done so much for us all. Seriously, coming back online after all of that to find out that this exists now? It’s truly incredible, and has helped me immeasurably. Thank you!
“Sometimes reading advice for survivors written without asexuality in mind really just feels like reading a walkthrough of a totally different game, with the assumption that everyone is playing that one. There are a few familiar mechanics and those can help, but I’m playing as some sort of class that doesn’t exist in the original game, and in order to win I have to achieve a different goal, so a lot of the strategies people describe are useless.”
THIS, exactly. I’ve found that the class most similar to mine is probably bi, but that’s mostly for the “did your perpetrator say any of the following things?” section rather than the recovery section. And bi survivor resources are few and far between, unfortunately.
Haha, I actually thought about including a section about how sometimes it’s like playing and MMORPG and Leroy Jenkins is in your party and is like, “LET’S STEP ON ALL THE TRIGGERS” and you’re like, “BRO, WHY.” But then I realized this post was getting ridiculously long, and it might be better to save that for another time. So I’m glad you brought it up in the comments.
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Thank you so much for writing this post about your experience! I wish I had the courage to write about my own experiences but I guess that will have to wait for when I’ll be ready. I was afraid to ask anyone else about this because whenever I did I would have someone like ”heterosexist Joe”/ Jane tell me otherwise… I finally came out to a friend about my asexuality, and that felt good because they did not judge, especially after struggling for years with my identity. However I was afraid that I would not be accepted by the asexual community because of my past trauma and the effects it had on me… I’m relieved to find that I am not alone in this battle. Thank you so much, you have no idea how reassuring it is to know! You have my support and respect! ; u :
Thanks so much for your kind words! If you haven’t already, do think about checking out Resources for Ace Survivors. I think you’ll find that there are a lot of people with similar fears and worries and struggles.
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