Am I Safe? Are You Harmless?

Yesterday, at urgent care, I had my first trauma-related mini panic attack in a long time. It used to be a disturbingly frequent problem but with therapy, time, and courage, I’ve started regaining trust in men. I’m now able to make a critical distinction: not all men are likely perpetrators of rape or attack. Most men, like most women, are good people trying their best to lead honorable and meaningful lives (or at least not criminal ones). My attacker was the exception to the rule, not the rule itself. After the attack, I feared every man, even ones I knew (except a handful of close friends or relatives). As such, any time I was in close proximity to a man, especially in secluded or isolated environments, I’d panic. My brain would flood with worries: would he touch me, hurt me, have a knife or weapon on his person, hate me for some unknown reason or have some other motive? Was he getting too close to my body? Was there an exit close by? Physical symptoms would mount just as rapidly in tandem with my spiraling thoughts, racing heart, dizziness, a feeling of facial flushing then rapid draining of color, whispers of nausea building to overwhelming sickness. Worse, as if erasing the months passed since the trauma, I’d feel physical reminders of the wounds I had suffered, as if still etched in gaping scabs and swollen bruises on my skin. Even when I’d have flashbacks while doing everyday activities like driving, sitting in class, or grocery shopping, I’d re-feel pain from the injuries I suffered during the attack sort of like when you see a graphic scene in a movie or real life when someone incurs a serious injury and for a fleeting second, you grab that same body part on your own body as if recoiling in reactive pain and verifying your body is fine.

Anyway, for the first year after the attack, any encounter with an unfamiliar man catapulted me into panic or flashbacks. The reaction was so automatic and so dramatic that I found it very limiting. I never wanted to find myself in a situation where I’d be one-in-one with a man or the only woman in a group. So, I stayed home. I avoided asking my male professors in my graduate program any questions during their office hours or while my peers were filing out of class, even if I was clueless about assignments or concepts. Email was my only vehicle of communication. I couldn’t risk it. (Surprisingly, a number of my professors turned out to be instrumental in helping me defeat this crippling anxiety by, of course, being so friendly and harmless.)

Eventually, I got over it by slowly loosening my grasp and gradually letting the fear slip away, by taking small, manageable steps at first, restoring some confidence, amassing successfully safe interactions, and continually trying to expand the “risks” I took to conquer more and more normal situations.

Yesterday, my encounter with the x-ray tech caused all the anxious feelings to flood back in and swell to a critical mass in my brain. With the door shut behind me, I felt mildly nervous, but with all my injuries in the past couple of years, it was certainly not my first time post-attack in a closed room with a male technician; I can think of at least five this year already! Perhaps it was slightly more anxiety-provoking because I had on a gown with no pants or underwear. I don’t know if this is inappropriate to admit or helpful to those with SPD but I can’t wear underwear. I’ve tried every kind imaginable and nothing is comfortable. Like socks, something seamless may first seem tolerable, but then suddenly, it becomes a screaming impossibility to handle. I’ve been known to stop dead in my tracks while out and about and frantically rip my shoes off to peel away my socks when the sensory threshold is surpassed. I rarely see it coming, but even in January, among the icy sidewalks carved into knee-high banks of snow, I’d plop right down and remove my boots to free my feet from a sock: trudging back home with cold, wet feet was still preferable to suffering the offending sock. I imagine this same solution for uncomfortable underwear is beyond socially acceptability, so it’s better to start with nothing! Luckily, the types of pants and shorts I wear and of comfortable fabrics and loosely-fitting designs (though they leave much to be desired in terms of fashion!).

All this is to say that I ended up on the x-ray table with no pants or underwear. A thin, gauzy white gown was my only shield. I lay there, staring up into the machine’s camera arm, my own arms folded over my chest as instructed waiting. Tim, the technician, tinkered on the computer to enter my demographics. With the light out, my heartbeat starting accelerating; first, it was hardly noticeable, but with my hands over my chest, I quickly realized that it was not only beating quickly, it was also pounding, visually displacing my hands up and down with each beat. Relax, I told myself. When Tim emerged from the small closet containing his desk and computer, my ears started ringing and I became dizzy. “Are you OK?” He asked. I nodded yes, unable to speak, but my spooked eyes were a tell that I was lying. “You are very crooked on the table,” he commented. “Can you straighten yourself out?” As I have terrible kinesthetic awareness and body position sense, I am never surprised to hear this and have received similar instructions almost every time I’m at an appointment. I tried my best to align my body on the table. He started gently pushing my shoulders and straightening my neck and then my feet to position me appropriately for the picture. Like a reflex or the pop of a Jack-in-the-box, my limbs recoiled into a tight tuck position over my trunk to avoid his touch. “You’re fine! I’m just getting your spine lined up here. Don’t worry I’ve done this for years!”

I pleaded with my mind to relax. I didn’t want to feel afraid of him, and logically, I knew that he was totally harmless. In fact, I felt guilty even having unintentional anxieties about the situation. We tried again to situate my body as well as possible and then he swung the overhead camera into its designated location. He reached over me to palpate my iliac crests in tandem to verify proper positioning and a level pelvis. This is it, I thought. I squeezed my eyes as if to will myself out of the situation and transport myself to safety. But, I was safe. Just as he should be and just as he should have clearly seemed, Tim was a harmless healthcare worker trying to do his job in providing necessary medical images for my care. He retreated to his computer command station, told me to hold my breath and not move, and snapped an image. As he repositioned me for the next series, I was visibly more relaxed, and a wave of relief came over me, not just because nothing had happened and I knew that I was safe, but because ultimately, I knew the whole time that I was in good hands but my anxious reaction seemed entirely out of my control. I was embarrassed by it the moment it began stewing, and struck by how unfamiliar the reaction had become to me—a testament to the vast improvements I’ve made over the past two years. What was once as natural and automatic as turning my head when someone says my name has gradually become a faint memory, an abandoned instinct like a long-forgotten nickname whose familiarity only resurfaces years later when you hear it again.

It’s easy to feel displeased with my behavior/reaction during the imaging because it feels like I must’ve taken steps back. I’m hoping it makes sense to simply blame it on the stress and frequency of my recent medical appointments. I also choose, in this situation, to recognize the progress I have made. The encounter served as a helpful reminder of how far I’ve come, how unfamiliar and removed I felt from those once-pervasive worries, and how naturally and normally I now face everyday situations without the looming fears of getting victimized by every passing man.