Having an avowed sexual creeper as the president-elect makes me feel triggered over and over.
Content Note: This essay discusses sexual assault, harassment, trauma and triggering language, as well as (in general terms) racism and other hate.
America’s incipient regime has made me a survivor.
I never used to define myself as a sexual assault survivor. I knew about the concept of triggering, but I hadn’t felt it myself. Now, having an avowed sexual creeper as the president-elect makes me feel triggered over and over. I suspect that I am not the only one having to reexamine this aspect of my past and my psyche.
Though I didn’t describe myself as a survivor, I have been groped, grabbed, and threatened sexually, on multiple occasions from age 8 to adulthood. In other words, only a “normal” amount of sexual assault for a female-bodied person in our society.
Since the election, I have been sick and furious every day. I walk in a fog. I delay eating, and then all my food options seem gross to me. I just want to sleep. Old intrusive thoughts of self-harm have begun to recur.
When I was 8, a man followed me on the sidewalk and felt my ass through my clothes.
When I was a young teenager, I had a stepbrother who spied on me sunbathing and exposed himself to me when no one else was home. He once grabbed my vulva, and I was too shocked and afraid to cry out.
Donald Trump liked to walk in on pageant contestants, including underage girls, while they were changing. He described himself as treating women “like shit” and bragged that he can do anything he wants to women because he is famous and powerful. And then he was elected, by many millions of Americans for whom this behavior was apparently not a dealbreaker.
Triggers are warning signals. Our bodies evolved to be excellent at detecting possible danger. Any current stimulus that reminds us of a past calamity might trigger a physiological response, because our bodies want to protect us from it happening again.
Men who swagger, who lurk behind women or seek to intimidate them physically, and obviously (obviously!) men who joke and brag about harassing or abusing women—those men are threats. My body reacts to them as threats. I’m not having literal flashbacks, but my body remembers how it felt to be grabbed and threatened. Seeing a photo of the incipient regime leader makes my pulse pound and my neck muscles tighten up. All my joy and lightness retreat into the storm cellar.
I have felt this way off and on throughout the campaign, but more often since “11/8,” as my friends call it. We have always lived under siege, but now the vandals have stormed the capital.
At 48, I am well outside the septuagenarian creeper president-elect’s ogle-category. And I am unlikely to suffer personally from anti-choice extremism—my current IUD might last me till menopause. I am cisgender, pass for straight, and have a loving and protective male partner. I am not at high risk. But we are all at risk. We are together on this shrinking ice floe. The belief system that says women are decorative objects, disposable, and debauchable, and their wombs not their own but public property, now has a mandate. The bullies have the bully-pulpit. The creeps are back in charge.
Imposter syndrome has kept me from taking my own history seriously. I was not raped. Others have survived much worse. And others face much worse dangers from the Trump administration than I do. But pretending to be bulletproof has not served me.
Everything is at risk now—our bodies, our neighbors, our planet. They’ve already inspired punitive anti-choice state restrictions. They’ve made racist, anti-immigrant, anti-gay whites feel gleefully empowered to shove and scrawl and bash.
We all have to live through this. To survive and thrive however we can, and to fight for one another’s freedoms.
My feelings feel trivial, but these post-traumatic reactions are blunting my edge. I do need to take care of myself. Walking around foggy, exhausted, and clenched is no way to help anyone. I need to own up to my vulnerability and still protect myself.
My straight, male partner is supportive, but he can’t feel how deep it cuts. No one is denying his personhood, reducing him repeatedly to a set of more-or-less useful parts. My draft of this essay upset him—he didn’t know I was having recurrent thoughts of self-harm. I can reassure him that my dark thoughts do not tend to escalate to the point of actual self-endangerment.
I am writing a memoir about sex, sobriety, and honesty. That work is still important to me, to stay as brave and out as I can. I also need to fight, to be an ally. I can’t be effective while I’m zoning out, skipping meals, and brooding.
People always recommend an “internet fast” to combat stress, but ignoring the news feels like looking away from the centipede on the wall (now it could be anywhere). And the internet is how I connect with Women’s March attendees. It’s where I find letter-writing campaigns and other concrete actions I can join. It helps me to immerse myself in badass queer and activist energy.
Online forums for PTSD survivors suggest ways to ground oneself when feeling triggered: soft furry blankets, aroma oils, and holding a smooth stone or even a piece of ice to help reconnect to the physical and sensory. David Lynch described depression as “a suffocating rubber clown suit of negativity,” which he dissolves using meditation. I am too internally chattery for most meditation, but I get meditative benefits from taking a brisk walk or a vinyasa yoga class. Doing crafty tasks helps me too—protest signs are my adult coloring book.
What’s happening is not normal; we cannot normalize it, but we cannot stay in chronic fight-or-flight mode either. I need to be the kindest version of myself, and that includes to myself. I need to know my triggers and symptoms. I need to prioritize nourishment, rest, and self-care.
When I was first getting sober, I described my cravings as hard work. Sometimes when they hit, it would be like lifting a heavy weight that no one else could see. This is like that. I am engaged in an invisible struggle. But this time, I know I am not alone.
Dorothy J. Hickson lives in Washington, D.C., where she will be happily hosting a houseful of guests for the Women’s March. She is currently writing a memoir about sex and sobriety. Her first novel is seeking representation, and she can be found Instagramming and mostly retweeting at @dorothyjhickson.