Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

My Boyfriend Keeps Triggering My PTSD

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I have kind of a sensitive issue to talk about. The other day I went out with my boyfriend and his coworkers to a dinner. I like most of his coworkers since I talk to them several times a week when I pick my boyfriend up for lunch and drop him off afterwards. However, at the dinner there was one coworker whom I’ve never really met before whom I guess I’ll just call A for this story. Right from the start A made me feel uncomfortable. I’m a vegetarian, which most of his coworkers know, so when his boss asked me what kind of appetizer I liked, I picked a vegetarian one. A and his girlfriend then criticized the lack of meat in the option and loudly proclaimed that it wasn’t food unless it had meat in it. That made me feel uncomfortable but, then again, I’m used to the “Gasp! That’s horrible! What do you eat?” reaction from everyone and their brothers. It’s rude to harass and berate me for it, especially at a dinner with coworkers, but it seems like that’s still a socially acceptable form of abuse in polite company.

Still, this is really the appetizer (I’m sorry) of this story. Most of my boyfriend’s coworkers are women and, actually, he and A were the only two men at this dinner of seven people. Both A and my boyfriend are ex-wrestlers and at one point the conversation turned towards wrestling. At first that was fine — weight categories and this match they had or that one (whatever) — but then A asked if my boyfriend had ever wrestled a girl before.

What followed was a frankly rather uncomfortable conversation between the two of them that eventually devolved into A telling a sexually charged (and misogynistic) story about a wrestling match with a girl that I, honestly, don’t remember the details of because I was so uncomfortable I spent the whole time staring at my salad with my hand on my boyfriend’s knee trying to think up SOME way to tell him that the topic made me uncomfortable and could we PLEASE go back to discussing his other coworker’s upcoming vacation to Trinidad? If his phone hadn’t been dead, I would have just texted him and told him, explicitly, to stop it and change the topic.

As it was, I didn’t want to speak up and invite more criticism (especially not after being berated for my food choices) and I couldn’t focus enough to see if the other women at the table were as uncomfortable as me. Eventually, A’s girlfriend and the boss-lady both told the men to switch the topic, but not before I was about ready to burst into tears right there at the dinner table.

You see, the truth is I survived being raped as a young teenager. I’m now in my mid-twenties and ten years removed from the experience. Thanks to some frankly fantastic counselors, therapists, family, and friends, I live a pretty awesome life and I’ve been able to overcome androphobia, depression (including several suicide attempts), and PTSD to live like any other loudly, proudly nerdy young woman. I work at my dream job (even though I have 2 female coworkers out of the 20 in my department) and sometimes I deal with idiots who fling around rape jokes like they aren’t stabbing me in the heart with every word out of their mouth. But even that’s just a blip on my RADAR where once upon a time it was the end of my day and I wouldn’t be able to function anymore. I am the picture of “It does get better!” but even I’m not immune from moments like this dinner which cause flair ups of panic attacks to happen.

Thankfully, I kept it together all through the rest of dinner and even though I forced most of my cheerfulness at the end, I did enjoy talking to my boyfriend’s coworkers. I didn’t start crying until it was just my boyfriend and I in the car and I was finally able to let all the pent up emotions come out in a place where I felt safe. Now, my boyfriend knows about my past. He knows that he’s the first person I’ve ever managed to hold down a relationship with, and he knows that even though I go day by day like any other woman, I do sometimes become hyper aware of people around me and get uncomfortable. Despite all this, I’ve never let him see me have a panic attack before — I’ve had two others during the course of our relationship and in both of them I just went back to my place and had them in the privacy of my own home. This is the first one and, aside from doing everything wrong by telling me to just calm down, he said a few things that really upset me. 

First, when I told him in no uncertain terms that I would not ever go to a function if A would be present, he told me not to worry so much about it — that’s just A’s personality. Besides, he said, A’s not my boyfriend so he wasn’t the one I had to worry about. I was so upset — again! — by what he said that I could not even reply. I just dropped him off at his home and went back to mine to cry some more.

It’s been a few days and I’m still upset. I don’t know what to say to my boyfriend. He really upset me but no matter how many times I try to explain to him about what PTSD is and how even though you can be functionally cured it never actually goes away, and how I’m more sensitive to the things people say to me because of my past, I sometimes feel like I’m hitting a brick wall. Don’t get me wrong — my boyfriend is a great guy. He didn’t run away when I told him my past. He waited over a year for me to be ready to have sex and then walked me through my very first consensual sexual encounter (and it was wonderful). He brings me tea and sweets when I’m working long nights and surprises me with my favorite foods or a new video game when I’m stressed out. He conspires with me to make some rather epic cosplays for con season. He really does make me happy but I am so stuck. I feel like I’ve done everything I can to make him see things the way I do.

If you have any insight on how I should have dealt with dinner or what I can possibly say to help my boyfriend understand why he’s upset me so much, that would be great. As it is, I’m starting to lose hope that he’ll ever get it. Maybe I’m asking too much to expect that from him, but I don’t ever want to go back to that dark time in my life where I kept my mouth shut and didn’t talk about it. I’d rather be single than go back to that, but I don’t want to lose one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.

Thank you,

Bent, not Broken

DEAR BENT, NOT BROKEN: I want to start by saying that it’s clear you’re an incredibly strong and resilient woman, and it’s a testament to your strength that you’ve been able to hold things together. I imagine your boyfriend was caught off guard by your panic attack and, having had no experience with them before, may have had good intentions when he was telling you to calm down. I’m willing to bet that at the time, he didn’t realize that this was precisely the wrong thing to say.

That having been said: your boyfriend’s being kind of an a

hole on this issue. He seems like he’s a pretty good guy under most circumstances, but this is a very serious issue – a legitimate deal breaker – and I can understand why you’re so conflicted over this.

Let’s take things from the top.

I think the only way you could have handled the situation at dinner differently is if you’d gamed things out in advance. From what you’ve said, I don’t think your boyfriend realized that the wrestling story could trigger a panic attack – especially if he didn’t know you had them before, so I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think he was uncaring so much as ignorant. I do think he handled things badly, and could probably have headed off a lot of this early on by telling A and his girlfriend to shut the hell up from the get-go.

Coworker A and his girlfriend on the other hand are colossal d

kbags of the first order and I don’t blame you one bit for not wanting to be around them. Making a production out of somebody’s dietary choices is a dick move. I wonder what they would’ve said if you were keeping kosher or halal, or if you had to stick to gluten-free options: would they have gone on at length about the wonders of bacon or tossed bread rolls your way. It’s profoundly rude, incredibly unprofessional and frankly, you would’ve been well within your rights to call them both a

holes to their smug faces. I understand why you didn’t – socialization is a motherf

ker under the best of circumstances and considering what you’ve gone through, it’s completely understandable why you didn’t feel like confronting him over it.

Of course, it wouldn’t have killed your boyfriend to tell the Moron Twins to stuff it either.

Continuing to tell a sexually charged story about wrestling a woman in front of your boss is… yeah, in most jobs I’ve had, even the more laid back ones, this would’ve gotten a pretty firm smackdown for unprofessional behavior.

Since I’m not THE Doctor, I can’t take you back in time to warn your past self; I can only recommend that you work out a signal that means “Things are about to get bad if you don’t change the subject now.” A gesture, poking his knee in a particular rhythm… something subtle but unmistakable for those times when you don’t feel as though you can say anything.

Now, as for the way he handled the aftermath…

I think your boyfriend is a good guy. I think he clearly cares deeply for you and wants to help you as best as he can.

That doesn’t preclude him from being an a

hole over this.

Your boyfriend may be aware of your past and he clearly seems to willing to go the extra mile to accommodate your needs – being willing to give you all the time you needed to get comfortable enough with him to have sex is a huge sign that he’s a really good guy – but he has blind-spot over the fact that you have PTSD.

He, like many guys, probably has never realized just how much things affect you – the casual flinging around of rape jokes or the way a graphic depiction of sexualized violence, for example – because it doesn’t bother him. He blew off your concerns about A because you’re with him and since he (that is, your boyfriend) would never assault you,  you shouldn’t feel threatened.

Guys tend to assume that because they’re not bothered by something, it’s only reasonable to assume that nobody else would either. This is one of those areas where male privilege rears it’s ugly head – these issues aren’t part of their day-to-day world, so they don’t realize that it’s even a thing.

You’ve already stated that he doesn’t quite process that PTSD stays with you, even when you’re “over” the traumatizing event… I imagine that part of this is because he’s never seen you have a panic attack like this before. After all, you’ve gone through therapy, you’ve conquered your fears and clearly you’re not a delicate wilting flower, so why should this be a thing now?  I’m also willing to bet that at least some of his stubbornness is because he feels helpless. Guys are socialized to be “doers”. When someone we care about has a problem, we want to help solve it; it’s part of how we show we care. Feeling helpless to do something, anything for someone we love is incredibly frustrating, and sometimes we express that frustration by trying to make the problem not be a problem any more.

No, it doesn’t make much sense, but guys aren’t as logical as society likes to portray us as being.

Furthermore,  he probably doesn’t really understand just how much this affects you; this isn’t just being upset about a topic you find distasteful, this is you reliving your assault, the way that soldiers with PTSD relive the war. It’s important that he realizes you’re not just getting a case of the vapors and when he tells you to “calm down” or “just relax” he’s minimizing things rather than helping.

People hear “panic attack” and think of things like stage fright or approach anxiety – butterflies in the stomach, dry mouth and clammy palms. They don’t realize just how incredibly intense a panic attack really is – you can’t breathe, your vision narrows, you feel spasms of pain in your chest. Many people who have a panic attack honestly feel as though they’re about to die.

I think what he needs more than anything else is some way of understanding what you’re going through. And I have a suggestion, but it’s going to be kind of weird but stick with me here.

You two should watch Iron Man 3.

I’m totally serious.

Part of the plot of the movie is that Tony Stark has PTSD from nearly dying during the Chitauri invasion of New York; he has several panic attacks over the course of the movie. They’re treated very seriously – you never think that Tony’s overreacting and you can understand just how traumatizing they are for him. His trying to deal with them – first by avoiding any triggers, then by working through them – is a major portion of his character arc. Tony Stark’s story may give your boyfriend a frame of reference to understand how you’re feeling when these attacks come on. Afterwards, sit down with him and have a long, detailed discussion. Explain to him how it feels, how intense the physical symptoms are, the dread and fear that they provoke in you and why they come on. The more he can wrap his brain around what happens to you during a panic attack, the less of an ass he’ll be. If he’s aware of what women go through on a day-to-day basis like you say, he’ll understand why A’s story was so triggering to you.

I’d also recommend teaching him how to help you when these happen. Finding something he can do – even if it’s just getting you to a calm, safe space where you can concentrate on breathing and slowing your heart rate – will alleviate that frustrating sense of helplessness.

Beyond that, set some clear boundaries, and demand that he respect them. Your boyfriend needs to understand that “It’s just his personality” doesn’t magically wipe away the fact that A is a giant bag of dicks. If A acts like that because “that’s who he is”, then that is a really goddamn good reason to avoid him. Why should you be willing to say “Oh, that’s just Coworker A” when his behavior literally sends you fleeing from the room?

Like I said: I think your boyfriend means well. I think he’s a good guy in general; he’s being an a

hole out of ignorance and frustration. It sucks, but it is curable. He needs to understand that his behavior over this is bothering you and that he needs to understand what you’re going through. If he cares about you – and from what you’ve said, I think he does – then he’ll be willing to listen and to learn.

Good luck.

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