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.