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I’m Gonna Need You to Fight Me On This: How Violent Sex Helped Ease My PTSD
It was my research editor who told me it was completely nuts to willingly get fucked at gunpoint. That's what she called me when I told her the story. We were drunk and in a karaoke bar, so at the time I came up with only a wounded face and a whiny, "I'm not completely nuuuuts!" Upon further consideration, a more explanative response probably would have been something like: Well. You had to be there.
"There" would be Haiti, where I'd just spent two weeks covering the one-year anniversary of the earthquake that shook the country into ugly chaos. There, a local regular at my hotel restaurant who is not accustomed to taking no for an answer had gotten desperate. After proposing for the 87th time that I have intercourse with him, he was grasping for anything that might change my mind, trying eventually, wildly, "We can do this at gunpoint if that sells it for you." And actually, it did, yeah.
There are a lot of guns in Haiti. Guns on security guards in front of banks and gas stations. Guns on kidnappers who make a living snatching rich people, guns on rich people who are afraid of kidnappers. Guns on the gang-raping monsters who prowl the flimsy encampments of the earthquake homeless. Guns in the hands of the 12,000 United Nations peacekeepers, who sometimes draw them too quickly in civilians' faces and always sling them carelessly across their laps in the back of UN trucks, barrels pointed inadvertently at your face while you drive behind them in traffic. On that reporting trip, I'd been fantasizing about precisely what the local guy proposed, my back against a wall or a mattress with a friendly gun to my throat. But the plan was vetoed about as soon as it was hatched, when I asked him if his firearm had a safety and he said no. Like I say: I am not completely nuts.
Not anymore, anyway. Last September, the first time I went to Haiti, I spent my first day out accompanying a rape victim we'll call Sybille to the hospital. The way her five attackers had maimed her in addition to sexually violating her was unspeakable. The way the surgeon who was going to try to reconstruct the damage yelled at her, telling her she'd got what was coming to her because she was a slut, was unconscionable. And the way Sybille went into a full paroxysm when we were on the way back to the post-quake tarp city she lived in was the worst thing I ever saw in my life. We were sitting in traffic and saw one of her rapists, and she started just SCREEEAMING a few inches away from my face, her eyes wide and rolling in abject terror.
I have coping mechanisms for this sort of thing. As a journalist who covers human rights, I spend a lot of time absorbing other people's trauma. I'd come to Haiti straight from four months on the Gulf Coast, where I'd been reporting on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Huffing crude fumes through long hot days was not made easier by the fact that I'd lived in New Orleans during Katrina and to this day don't own a piece of furniture worth more than $75 because of my weird disaster issues.
"It's okay to cry," said Meredith Broome, a brilliant Bay Area therapist who specializes in trauma, during one of our phone sessions that summer. I was having a weepy little fit because a white oil-spill worker threatened to lynch any black oil-spill worker who hit on me.
"Everyone's going to think I'm not tough enough to do my job."
"You don't know what Anderson Cooper does when he goes home at night."
The coping mechanism most applicable to my situation with Sybille was probably one Meredith taught me after I sat in a house full of fisherman's wives whose newly unemployed husbands were suddenly drunk and yelling at them all the time. It's the one where I try to visualize inhaling the distress, then exhaling compassion. Unfortunately, when Sybille turned around in the front passenger seat and started wailing, flailing and slapping her chair, I lost the ability to locate myself in space and time in the backseat. It's called dissociation, and is a common and quite unsettling response to extreme trauma. She eventually curled into a ball and grew quiet, tears still pouring down her face. But I could sense only a disembodied version of myself hovering somewhere behind me and to my left, outside my window. "Who are those people?" I could hear it asking. "What's that awful thing going on inside that car?"
I kept working. I stayed up late into the night at a displacement camp like the one where Sybille was snatched and then raped at gunpoint for two hours. By my second working day in Haiti, I was finding it alarmingly difficult to get out of bed in the morning, already having rape nightmares and, worse, daymares. And that was before one of the upstanding pillars of the Haitian elite, who insisted he was a gentleman because he loses his erection if a woman starts to fight him off, started to stalk me. On the third day, one of my drivers cornered me in an abandoned building, and I had to talk him out of his threats to touch me. On the third night, I got very drunk. That night, and the next nine nights.
I realize now that I was undone. Journalists put themselves in threatening situations all the time, but they rarely talk about the emotional impact. It's not easy to complain about the difficulties of being around trauma when you've chosen to be around trauma for a living, and it certainly isn't cool. When CBS correspondent Lara Logan went public that she was raped in Egypt five months after I returned from Haiti, most people reacted with the appropriate amount of horror. Some, though, blamed the reporter for putting herself in a risky situation, and for being reckless enough to enter one when she's so hot. No wonder it's a rarity for correspondents to discuss their pain, and practically unheard of when it regards sexual harassment or assault. The handbook of the Committee to Protect Journalists didn't even mention it—until 20 days ago, when the organization published an "addendum on sexual aggression."
If the handbook had a section detailing "symptoms of a journalist who really needs counseling and should probably go home," I would have fit the description. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't stay sober. When the power went out, I just sweated in the stifling heat because I was too scared to open my windows even though they weren't the kind someone could fit through. When a French UN peacekeeper I'd met went AWOL to knock on my door, wanting to know, when I gladly unlocked it for him, please if he could kiss me, I couldn't feel him. Literally. I watched, confused, as he climbed onto me weightlessly, though he was clearly much bigger than I am. When we met again to say goodbye more than a week later, I grasped for anything concrete: my hands on his muscled, uniformed ass, my pelvis against the gun at his waist. Still, I could feel only something static and empty in the places usually occupied by my limbs. When he walked away—telling me he loved me, god bless 'em—I cried my face off.
I cried on the plane on the way back home to San Francisco, and within 24 hours of landing, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. I cried while I was checking my email before work. I cried when I got to work and one of my coworkers said, "Hey! How are you doing?" I cried in the shower. I cried through most of a 1.5-hour yoga class. The crying was at least better than the gagging, which was similarly unpredictable and sent me running into bathrooms and heaving over the garbage can underneath my desk. Or spitting over the side of a sidewalk table at a bar with my best friend.
"Why don't I get some real problems?" I asked her. The shocking lack of sympathy I got from some industry people I talked to about my breakdown was only compounding my concerns that I didn’t deserve to be this distraught. "Editors are going to think I'm a liability now. What kind of fucking pussy cries and pukes about getting almost hurt or having to watch bad things happen to other people?"
"Dude," she said. "Marines."
For months, anything could trigger the sobbing or the heaving. But two things guaranteed it: One was any smell reminiscent of the raw sewage at the displacement camp, where I'd thrown up in my mouth and swallowed it. The other was masturbating. Having gotten increasingly concerned about my new habit of wincing when I thought about sex, I became determined to touch myself like a normal, wholesome person. One time, I managed to keep the bad thoughts at bay all the way until the end. But then, even with American sunshine flooding the yellow walls of my apartment, Sybille's screaming face burst into my head and I lay there, soft and failed, choking on instant hard sobs.
"All I want is to have incredibly violent sex," I told Meredith. Since I'd left Port-au-Prince, I could not process the thought of sex without violence. And it was easier to picture violence I controlled than the abominable nonconsensual things that had happened to Sybille.
Meredith was wholly unmoved by this.
"One tried but true impact of trauma is people just really shutting themselves down," she says when I interview her about it later for this piece. "Also, stuff comes up for people like the way it came up for you: Folks can have a counterphobic approach, moving toward fear instead of away from it. And sometimes people have fantasies like that after trauma, putting themselves in dangerous situations, almost to try to confirm with themselves that they were not impacted. 'Look, I did it again. It's fine. I'm fine.'"
It's essential, Meredith says, to address what's going on physically when trying to heal the mental stuff. She taught me to recognize that I hunker down and carry my stress and fear tight in my chest—say, when I'm endangered at work. During the Gulf trip, I'd taken a side excursion to Oklahoma for a story about some convicted ex-felons who once beat somebody to death with their bare hands at a party for fun. When they got drunk and handsy one night and suggested that I'd be pretty fun to pass around for lively intercourse, I fled into the rural darkness. One of them later invited me to "church," a sweat lodge on his tribe's reservation, where several hours of suffocating heat forced me to loosen the tension in my chest just so I could breathe. I returned to New Orleans much less anxious, if more harassed, than when I'd left.
But after I got home from Haiti, it felt like stress and fear were the only things holding me together. Relaxing my body, even just a little, shattered my tenuous emotional stability. Which is how I ended up naked and panting out loud to myself in the steam room of a San Francisco spa where people get $155 facials, "It's okay, it's okay, shhhh, you're okay."
"Being aware and understanding what's going on in your system and then literally working it through your body, like retraining your body how to calm down, is really useful," Meredith says. For many of her trauma patients, it's a long and intense process. And if it goes untreated? "A lot of people don't heal, and it manifests in a lot of different ways throughout their lives. There's a study they did with Vietnam vets who'd had—clearly—a lot of trauma during the war. Twenty years later, they measured their levels of pain before and after they showed them intense footage from Vietnam. Pretty much across the board, after they saw this really intense, violent footage from the war, their levels of pain went down. Because when trauma doesn't get to work itself through your system, your system idles at a heightened state, and so getting more really intense input calms your system down." Which is why, she explains, "A lot of folks who've survived trauma end up being really calm in crisis and freaking out in everyday life."
Under the circumstances, violent sex wasn't a matter of recreation for me. It was a way, one way, to help get better.
"Do you have anyone who can do that for you?" Meredith asked simply.
I've got an ex-girlfriend who'd be happy to slap me around for old times' sake, I told her, but I wasn't having rapemares about women. "Isaac," I said. We hadn't slept together in a while, and although we couldn't get along as a couple, we loved and respected each other, blah blah. So here I was making a date to catch up with him over fancy pizza, and then drinking tequila neat. And there I was asking him if this was a sleepover, right?, and being pretty nervous about what my stupid brain was going to do when he got into my bed.
As soon as we were making out, my violent feelings started welling up. "I'm gonna need you to fight me on this," I said.
* * *
We'd done this sort of thing before. But at dinner I'd told him, voice shaking, about my PTSD. This time, the fight would be rougher and the stakes higher. And so he paused. "Okay," he said. "I love you, okay?" I said, I know, okay. And with that he was on me, forcing my arms to my sides, then pinning them over my head, sliding a hand up under my shirt when I couldn't stop him. The control I'd lost made my torso scream with anxiety; I cried out desperately as I kicked myself free. But it didn't matter how many times I managed to knock him over to the other side of the bed. He's got 60 pounds on me, plus the luxuries of patience and fearlessness. When I got out from under him and started to scramble away, he simply caught me by a leg or an upper arm or my hair and dragged me back. By the time he pinned me by my neck with one forearm so I was forced to use both hands to free up space between his elbow and my windpipe, I'd largely exhausted myself.
And just like that, I'd lost. It's what I was looking for, of course. But my body—my hard-fighting, adrenaline-drenched body—reacted by exploding into terrible panic. The comforting but debilitating blanket of tension that'd for weeks been wrapped around my chest solidified into a brick. Then the weight of his body, and of the inevitability of my defeat, descended on my ribcage. My worn-out muscles went so taut that they ached. I stopped breathing.
I did not enjoy it in the way a person getting screwed normally would. But as it became clear that I could endure it, I started to take deeper breaths. And my mind stayed there, stayed present even when it became painful, even when he suddenly smothered me with a pillow, not to asphyxiate me but so that he didn't break my jaw when he drew his elbow back and slammed his fist into my face. Two, three, four times. My body felt devastated but relieved; I'd lost, but survived. After he climbed off me, he gathered me up in his arms. I broke into a thousand pieces on his chest, sobbing so hard that my ribs felt like they were coming loose.
In a few months, I'd feel ready to go back to Haiti. It would become pretty rare for a movie rape scene to trigger immediate, whiplash-inducing weeping. The flashbacks and the gagging fits would, for the most part, have ceased. A few months after that, I would report from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where every interview would be about sexual violence or murder, but I would function just fine. I'd see the French peacekeeper again in another country, where his big weight would feel appropriately weighty as I engaged him in absurdly sweet—like, European-earnest—sex.
But at the moment, Isaac pulled my hair away from my wet face, repeating over and over and over something that he probably believed but that I had to relearn. "You are so strong," he said. "You are so strong. You are so strong."
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