On Sexual Trauma, Relationships, and Moving Forward

The day after I moved to D.C., I attended a community event. I was a little early, having not figured out that Google Maps tends to over-estimate the amount of time it will take on the Metro to get somewhere (!!). Someone else had checked in for the event. I "Salaamed" them, we introduced ourselves, and I wandered into the bookstore section to browse while I waited.

The guy I had introduced myself to told me he needed to use the bathroom and would be back (too much information, I thought to myself). He then approached me and started to chat (something about being on someone's campaign team, blah blah blah), not noticing that I was more interested in the books than what was spewing out of his mouth - which was a lot of self-endorsement. I then tried the "let me grab my phone" tactic to send him another hint since my short answers and flat affect weren't doing the trick. But he still hung around, even looking at my phone and commenting "oh, wow, you're so good at closing your apps when you're done."

That was plain creepy and I started to lose patience with the space invader.

The event opened up and I took a seat at a table across from some women, since their table was full. The dude came and sat at my table. I turned my chair to face the women and introduced myself. We started chatting but it didn't distract me from the fact that this guy was sitting at my table. There was an empty table behind the women, so I switched seats, and continued chatting with them until the event started.

The space invader was sitting by himself until he was joined by a friend. I wondered if he was a space invader too.

When the event was over, I was waiting to speak with the organizer, and the dude was waiting to take a photo with the speaker, a well-known Muslim (geez...). He then hovered close to where I was speaking with someone and when I was done, handed me his business card with his email address scribbled on the back. I forced a smile, said thanks, and he left.

I tore it up and threw it away before I headed out to the Metro station.

I'm sure this has happened to many people - someone is too clingy, resulting in awkward moments and trying to find a subtle way of saying "leave me alone!" before you actually have to say those words. For me, situations like this cause greater anxiety than perhaps for others. While I'm definitely dealing much better with past trauma, there are remnants I'm learning to cope with, and one is the feeling of safety when I perceive that my personal space is being invaded.

The part of the brain that is responsible for "gut" type feelings such as anger and fear is called the amygdala. It's a primitive part of the limbic system (the emotional centre), developed pretty much at birth, and is subconscious in the way it perceives anger and fear. Childhood experiences play a large role in determining the sensitivity level of the amygdala (i.e. as does our time in-utero, genetics, etc). While the amygdala is somewhat under our control, since we can use the frontal lobe to change our thoughts to then change our feelings  (i.e. the prefrontal cortex for all of you brain nerds out there), adverse childhood events (called ACE) such as exposure to forms of violence, abuse, trauma, etc can impact it permanently. So while I'm definitely not triggered by situations as I used to be before EMDR therapy (see here for information), I do feel remnants of anxiety-like feelings in situations where I (i.e. my amygdala) perceive my personal space is being invaded.

Given the high statistics related to sexual assault/abuse (1 in 4 women by the age of 18, and 1 in 6 boys by the age of 18), there are many individuals within all communities who are living their lives with the aftermath of trauma. Within Muslim communities, this statistic holds strong. From my personal experience of running sexual health groups with young Muslim women, I've had approximately 40% of attendees in groups disclose that they have been sexually assaulted/abused. We are dealing with a very serious problem that no one seems to want to speak about. The impacts are numerous, and incredibly individualized at the same time. No two amygdalas are the same, and note that negative events are stored much stronger in our long-term memory than their counterpart positive memories.

The impact of trauma is numerous, but one that I am much more cognizant of (given the stage of life I'm in) is the impact on forming a relationship. While many people looking to get married have numerous qualities they'd be quick to rattle off about their potential spouse (I have a similar "list" as well), for me, safety is number one. If I feel as though my personal boundaries are already being invaded, or there's a chance based on someone's demeanour, behaviour, or how he initially treats me, the amygdala alarm goes off and it's done. It can be as simple as something that was emailed or texted, to an action in person, to observing how someone acts in public around others. That person will either hear from me or see from me that I do not feel safe in his presence. Hence the clingy dude described above. I had to "escape". Him being that close to me, without my permission, was making me feel agitated and restless. The only way to diffuse these feelings was to get out of the situation.

Which leads me to bring up the topic of consent - men don't know enough about this concept, and Muslim men are not excluded. Consent is the notion that explicit permission must be gained from the other party before any sort of physical intimacy is initiated. It works both ways for men and women (note: I realize I'm using heteronormative language, since I'm writing about my own experiences). I believe that consent extends into entering someone's personal space. The dude above didn't ask if he could sit at my table. He didn't attune to the fact that I was browsing books with my back turned towards him, walking away from him, and replying to messages on my phone, since he continued to attempt a conversation. Call this a lack of basic social skills or blatantly ignoring them, but it relates to consent. I don't know who are you and you're entering into my space without my permission.

I am very cognizant of the fact that one of the primary feelings I need to have in a relationship is that of safety. I've rehearsed in my head how to disclose my past trauma to someone when I need to/the time is right, for the sake of them understanding where I'm at and what I need to feel safe. I'm aware that my level of knowledge on trauma and sexual assault/abuse is perhaps higher than the average person, so I've even rehearsed how to break down the whole brain-body-memories connection in order to respond to the potential question of "but it happened so long ago!' My needs around safety are non-negotiable, as they shouldn't be for everyone. I would not waste time on someone who fails to understand that I can't change what I've experienced, and I didn't choose to live with the consequences of someone's assertion of power and control over me.

Given the statistics of sexual abuse and assault I mentioned above, I know that there are many other Muslim women and men who are living with the aftermath of trauma. No two people respond the same to traumatic events, and thus I cannot extrapolate and generalize my experiences. However, I do hope to offer some tidbits of advice to anyone out there who is a survivor of trauma and is attempting to form a relationship or is currently in one and struggling:

1. Know what trigger points you have, if possible, think about the thoughts you're having and how you feel as a result. 

For example, I'd be triggered when I was running a child sexual abuse education program at my previous job. I'd also be triggered when I'd be standing in line at the grocery store or a cafe, and would perceive that someone was standing too close to me. I started to write down trigger points and the feelings (and thoughts) I'd have as a result. Cognitive awareness is incredibly important. Don't analyze the triggers quite yet or judge how you feel - it's all about writing down the facts. Trigger -> Feelings and Thoughts.

2. Explore if seeing a counsellor is something you'd benefit from outside of the support network of friends you have (if you've disclosed your trauma). 

I knew I had to seek professional help a year and a half ago when being triggered was preventing me from doing my job without breaking down at home. The event would play itself in my head over and over again, and I could feel my muscles tensing up. I started seeing a counsellor who used a cognitive-behavioural approach. After six months, I didn't feel as though it was making a difference. I then heard about EMDR through a colleague. Three sessions later and I can't tell you the world of difference it made, I'm incredibly blessed. EMDR (Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is worth looking into, it is very well researched and has great outcomes.

3. Know what you need from someone before getting into a relationship, or if you're in one, how you plan to communicate your needs with your partner. 

This can be incredibly challenging given that we're all at different stages of dealing with our trauma (it's not the same linear process for all survivors), with talking about it, and with being vulnerable in disclosing it. There's no set way of doing this, it's based on your comfort level, the point in the relationship that you feel it's important to disclose your situation, your read of the relationship with the other person, etc. If you need support with this step, consider speaking with a close friend you trust about it, or call a hotline that specializes in supporting survivors. There are people out there who are willing to support you - including myself. Although I'm not a counsellor, just so you know!

4. Plan to communicate on a regular basis with your partner, as needed, to check in. 

A healthy relationship requires constant and consistent communication - and how you're feeling in the process of coping with trauma could be one of these topics. Of course, these conversations should only happen about aspects that are relevant to the current situation at hand, and based on your comfort level. Most of the time, they could be initiated by you, but if your partner checks in with you about what you've spoken about and your needs, that's even better. If your relationship is at a point where professional help is needed, for any reason, definitely consider both attending counselling.

5. Take care of yourself! 

I know this sounds cliche in every sense of the word, but I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to do what you want and need to do. Being triggered sends a cascade of the stress hormone cortisol flowing through your bloodstream. The effects of cortisol include increased heart-rate, agitation, tenseness, and so forth. Think about what would help you diffuse these feelings. Research indicates that the best way to deal with increased cortisol levels is physical activity. So whether you prefer a slow and meditative yoga class or a lactic-acid inducing HIIT session - do something movement related to help you in the moment. Then think about what other self-care strategies could help - including journaling (there's a lot of research on writing and healing from trauma), speaking with a friend, expressive arts, going for a walk and getting fresh air, prayer, meditation, etc. Think of these activities as a toolkit to be used for both intervention and prevention purposes.

Having blogged before about sexual assault/abuse within the Muslim community, we're not doing enough to educate children, youth and families; we lack spaces where survivors can feel safe getting the support they need; we don't speak with young adults about consent and gender roles; and so much more. I am certain that there are couples out there in many different stages of their relationship where at least one party has been sexually assaulted/abused. I really hope that these individuals have the support they need. If you're one of these individuals and you're struggling, please reach out to me here or check out www.heartwomenandgirls.org, a non-profit I'm contracted to work with. They offer a plethora of resources including "Ask a Question", where trained experts in sexual health will answer or direct to resources anyone who has a question. It's completely anonymous and free. The link is as follows: http://heartwomenandgirls.org/ask-a-question/

I pray that no one has to endure any form of trauma. Unfortunately though, sexual violence is rampant, and Muslims are not excluded. The least we can do is educate ourselves, and communities play a role in ensuring that members receive credible information - not only about sexual violence, but any and all forms of abuse. Just as communities focus on religious education, so too should they focus on social and health related education.

If anyone is interested in hosting an event in the DMV area (D.C., Maryland, and Virginia) for Muslims around sexual violence (i.e. across the lifespan and for any audience), please contact HEART at the web address above or comment on this post.

Thank you for taking the time to read this.

Comments

  1. Salaam sister!
    My name is Anam, and I found you through the heart women and girls site. I'm a family medicine resident here in DC and am looking for opportunities to create better sex education for Muslim adolescents and sexual violence education. If you have the time, I'd to help with anything you are already starting and might need help in, or get advice on how to start things up.

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    Replies
    1. Salaam Anam! Thank you for reaching out! I would love to chat with you, HEART definitely has many resources we can share with you and we're always looking to collaborate with passionate professionals such as yourself! Would you be able to email me at calgarywep@gmail.com? Once I receive an email from you, I'll send you my personal address - I just don't want to publish it on my blog site! The one I've provided is an informal work email account I use. Inshallah I'll hear from you soon, talk soon!

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