I was at the EVAWI 2022 conference listening to the final plenary, “A Story Of Triumph Over Tragedy,” presented by Michelle Corrao. She was sharing the story of her abduction, the violent rapes forced upon her, and her subsequent rescue from the trunk of a car. While she shared the 10,000 foot detail view of the violence, it was her recounting of the fog and overwhelmed state she was in when first responders were attending to her physical wounds that cracked my armor, the very armor I had worked so hard to forge and maintain.
That’s what she craved. Not the wide open space of a vast field, but mental space to process everything that she had endured. In order to articulate her state of mind, she played a clip from the Tom Hanks movie, “Captain Phillips” to describe what it was like. She said while watching that movie, the scene (she played in her plenary) best outlined how she was feeling, not feeling, and all that came in between while being bombarded with questions from the EMT and law enforcement when in the ambulance.
I was sitting in the center of the room slightly off to one side of stage right. At first, they could not get the video to play and I could tell she was a bit frustrated. Clearly this clip had a profound impact on her. Finally, the AV team was able to bring up the movie clip and she shared it with us.
If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s a good one – intense. I’ve seen it before, but under the context for which this segment was shown caught me completely off guard.
You see, trauma from sexual assault and domestic violence is a life sentence for the survivor. We build our suit of armor and think it will protect us, but little things creep in from time to time, setting off a trigger that you don’t see coming.
For those of you who don’t know my story, I am a survivor. Most of the sexual assaults I endured were as a child at the hands of my father, but not all. I have suppressed most of my youth and only recall a few snapshots of the horrors I endured. I strongly believe that suppression is what has allowed me to hold on to my sanity.
When my father was arrested, I was a junior in high school. I was pulled out of class and called to the front office. The police met me and my brother there and put us in the back of an unmarked police car. My recollection is fuzzy on the specific details of that afternoon, but I do remember thinking that I would now be placed in foster care if I told the authorities anything. This terrified me because my younger brother and two younger sisters were adopted out of horrific foster homes and told me of the beatings they endured. To me, a familiar horror was better than an unfamiliar one, so I was not a cooperative witness early on.
Deep trauma is like a muscle memory. It just is and you have no real control over some triggers.
I have to believe that what happened to me at the conference had something to do with my own suppressed memories of the incidents that occurred when my father had been arrested. It just keeps popping up in my head and I haven’t thought about that moment in probably 35+ years.
I sat listening to Michelle tell her story in the Grand Ballroom. Once the video began to play, I remember a quickening happening in my chest, like the moment you know a scary scene in a horror movie is coming up. I felt my throat tighten up and tried to talk myself into relaxing my muscles. Then I felt the emotion swell up through my chest, into my throat, and fill my eyes and head. I kept thinking to myself, “This is ridiculous. Calm down,” but then panic set in and I knew I had to get out of the ballroom.
Of course, being at the end of the conference, I had my exhibit table stuff with me – a banner stand, my wooden Supers, the postcard and business card holders, and my bag. It was a lot of stuff, but I had packed it to be able to easily carry it myself. As I stood up and tried to gather my things while not disturbing everyone else around me, the panic grew. I began to walk out of the ballroom but as I got about three tables deep from the back doors, I felt my arms begin to go numb. It was as if I had been leaning on them and cut off all the circulation. I began to jog out of the room and then the absolute sobbing overtook me. I started to loose all feeling and movement from the waist up and thought I might pass out. There was a column in the hall so I placed my back against it and…
The next thing I remember was sitting on the floor with my knees against my chest and by back tightly against the column. I must have slid down it. I was hyperventilating and could not feel my upper body. I was unable to move my arms or my hands and my jaw was loosing feeling too. I remember hearing someone say that they should call 911 and someone else saying, I think she’s having a panic attack.
Two really kind women sat with me and help talk me down, calm my breathing, and made sure the feeling was returning to my body. I don’t know how long I sat there. It felt like an eternity. Then the next wave hit.
I was there at that conference as a speaker, a CEO, and a leader in my space and I completely and utterly lost my shit. I didn’t even know why. I was so embarrassed and just wanted to go back to my hotel room. My friend came and helped me carry everything back. I felt like I had run a 5k race and was wiped out physically and emotionally.
Shame is another by-product of trauma. I don’t usually feel it about my abuse anymore, but in that moment it hit me like an unexpecting wave at the beach. It knocked me to the ground, filled my lungs with salt water, and had me gasping for air. Once I found my footing, I was cautious about revisiting the thoughts around that session. If it could trigger me that hard and that fast, I was in no hurry to revisit the memories.
After the conference, I took a couple of vacation days to spend in San Francisco with family and friends. When I told my Uncle about my trigger experience, I could feel the tingling sensation start to creep up my arms again and the quickening build in my chest. Clearly I touched a nerve, so I decided what was best for me was to leave it alone and focus on vacationing. Clearly I needed it.
I am twenty years out from my last abusive relationship and almost forty years away from that day being called into the high school office. I have intentionally worked really hard in therapy and being in a healthy mental state. I consider myself very stable. Yet something this powerful overtook my ability to feel and move parts of my body. It caused me to go back into a state of sheer panic and anxiety. And it all happened in a matter of seconds.
What’s vastly different now is that I was able to recognize it as a trigger. I was able to call my support system and reach out for help. I was able to articulate what I needed to be okay.
There may be triggers in the future, but I am confident that I will be able to work through them without feeling completely defeated. I may grab hold of the all too familiar feeling of shame, but only for a moment. Then I will remind myself of the strength I have built, the community I have gathered, and the path I am on to support others not as far along in their healing as me. This has been a BIG teaching moment and I will prevail because I am fierce.
Victim by Force. Survivor by Choice. ACTIVIST BY DESIGN