My therapist sometimes jokes that I’m like a cat because I hate when people show me attention. I’m shy, but there is more to it than that. When I was a kid, my father and his friends raped me and passed me around to other disgusting men. I learned that I was an object and nothing more. My feelings, boundaries, and needs didn’t matter. Sometimes there were groups of men. They’d verbally abuse me as well as rape me. My self esteem was nonexistent. There were other kids, I don’t want to think about it too much. Sometimes the men would pick from the kids. I tried to not be noticeable. Being noticed was danger. I learned to hide my English accent because it made me stand out. It made it worse for me. I tried to blend in.
I learned that my body wasn’t mine. I had no rights to my privacy or physical safety. My mom even told me when I was a teen that my body was hers because she made me, and I wasn’t allowed to get tattoos and piercings. Since then I have a lot of tattoos, and they’re very healing for me. They’re a way to take back ownership of my body. They’re a grounding tool because I see them and remember I’m in the present. They’re anchors for me, they hold me here. Some of them cover my self harm scars. I haven’t cut in 13 years, and it’s a relief to see pretty artwork instead of the many scars on my arm. It was hard to find a tattoo artist who would work on my extensive scarring, so I drove 8 hours to Canada to an artist who helped women with self harm and mastectomy scars. She did a wonderful job, and now everywhere I go, people admire the art on my arm. I definitely don’t blend in anymore. But it’s good for me to get used to being noticed in a safe and positive way, because hiding my whole life is not helpful. The tattoos make me proud.
That being said, I still have a hard time with people respecting my boundaries. As I’ve mentioned before, I was isolated in my marriage and we were very codependent. I tried to make friends after my divorce because I didn’t feel ready to date. I used an app called Bumble BFF which was supposed to connect you with other people looking for friends only. I made multiple connections, and at first I was happy to have people to hang out with. Otherwise I would isolate at home, so it was helpful to get out of the house. One of the first women I met was a lawyer who was married with a 12 year old son. She was smart and funny, and she liked movies so we went to the theater a lot. Then one day, she told me that if she ever left her husband, she’d never date men again. She told me she had an affair with a woman, but her husband threatened to leave her, so she ended the affair. All of a sudden my safe friend didn’t seem so safe anymore. I stopped hanging out with her and ignored her texts. She got the message and left me alone.
Then there was the powerlifter and artist who I made friends with. Again, I thought she was safe because she had a boyfriend. We went out to dinner once, and I never saw her again. She didn’t seem to want to be friends with me. But we still talked occasionally on Instagram about things like cats and our shared zodiac sign. One day I realized that she was interested in me. I told her I wasn’t looking to date anyone. She seemed to be understanding of that. It made me upset because I met her on an app designed specifically for making friends. There’s also a dating app so if people want to date, use the other one. She now resents me and seems bitter. It doesn’t make any sense because I never showed any interest other than friendship. I gave up trying to make friends, I felt like people were only nice to me for one thing. This is extremely triggering for me, because it’s like I’m being treated like an object again. I don’t understand why adults can’t have friendships without constantly blurring the boundaries. They assume because I’m nice to them or talking to them that I’m interested in more. I don’t think it’s fair, and it hurts when they treat me like shit after I politely friendzone them. They don’t realize that my brain works differently, and I don’t usually look at people as potential romantic partners. I instead look for a connection, and from there it can develop into more. But it takes time for me to establish that.
Then there was my physical therapist assistant, which was honestly the most damaging. I was in physical therapy for swimmer’s shoulder and pain in my hip (ITB syndrome). The physical therapist was awesome, and I felt safe with her. She was a mom too, and we often talked about our kids during the appointments. It was a big deal for me to go to physical therapy because I was somewhat afraid of it. Dentist and doctor’s appointment have always been challenging for me. Eventually I had appointments with the physical therapy assistant. She assumed I had a husband when I told her I was going through a divorce, so I corrected her and said no, my ex wife. She looked shocked for a second, and I was worried she was homophobic. But she continued to be nice to me, so I thought she just felt bad for assuming I was straight. After a few weeks, I felt safe with these two women, so I told the assistant that I had severe trauma in my past, which is why I couldn’t do exercises where they tied bands around my wrists or ankles. They were very understanding and adjusted the exercises for me. I felt safe, but one day that all changed. The assistant randomly texted me at 7pm when I was getting my daughter ready for bed. She must have gotten my number from my medical chart. It was a long text about how brave I am for telling them, and that her father also had severe trauma. She said she wanted to help me in any way she could, and that she could tell I was a good parent like her father was. She put a red heart at the end of the text. I was shocked and didn’t want to write back. But I was nervous about ignoring her, so I wrote back the next day something short like thanks, I appreciate you and the PT being trauma informed and taking it seriously. I thought she was just trying to be nice, but when I saw her for my appointment, she was flirting with me. This made me uncomfortable, and I started not letting her massage me. It just seemed too weird. This is when I should’ve walked away, but I was scared to start over with a new PT office. It took a lot of courage to go in the first place. I was angry because I trusted them, and once again someone ignored my boundaries. And what’s worse is these were professional medical boundaries she was violating. She would randomly text me and ask me how my shoulder or hip was feeling. She still sent red hearts. (She also had a boyfriend of 9 years). She made comments about my muscles and my body in appointments. I tried to ignore it, but it was extremely triggering because of all the things nasty men said to me when I was a kid. I would get really tense around her. I never once showed any interest in her, I was just my usual polite self. When she said we should go hiking, I mentioned her boyfriend and said she must go hiking with him a lot. One day she touched me in a weird way, and I left in the middle of the session. I never went back. When she noticed I blocked her, she texted me and sent hearts again. I replied by saying stop sending me creepy hearts, I trusted you. I said I’m blocking your office number too, peace.
I couldn’t believe a PTA had done this, especially because she was in the medical field and had to take an ethics course to get her degree. I wanted to report her like I did to the therapist who crossed my boundaries. But I was concerned she’d lose her license, like the therapist, and then she’d lose her career. Honestly she deserved to lose her license to practice because she took advantage of a trauma survivor. I didn’t want her to do it again to another patient. But the therapist who lost her license didn’t learn anything, even though the government had email evidence and strongly reprimanded her. I could’ve sued that therapist in civil court, but I didn’t. I just want these people to get some help and learn their lesson. They don’t seem to however. They just find a way to victim blame me.
All these experiences in the last year have been really damaging. I already had a hard time trusting medical professionals and strangers, and now it’s even worse. I’m working on it in therapy. I’m trying to remind myself that these were isolated incidents, and that most of the people I deal with, especially in the medical field, respect my boundaries. Sometimes I get mad at myself because I don’t know why I’m a magnet for people who want to hurt me. Sometimes I think it’s because I’m shy and polite. People have told me I’m too nice, but I’m not going to change who I am. I just need to walk away instantly when someone upsets me, instead of being worried about them getting angry or hurting their feelings. I learned to be passive as a kid to survive, because when I fought back, the adults made it a lot worse for me. But I’m free from abuse now, and I need to work on not dissociating around people who make me uncomfortable. It’s slowly getting better. These incidents made me angry, but the anger fuels me to set better boundaries in the future.
Setting boundaries is an ongoing challenge for any trauma survivor. It’s also important to think about the fact that there are emotional boundaries as well as physical ones. It’s helpful to have a therapist you trust so that you can process these issues and learn better ways of coping. It also helps me to remind myself and the other parts that it doesn’t matter if someone gets mad when we set boundaries. We have a right to our boundaries and safety, and someone’s negative reaction is their problem to deal with. Feeling safe is the core to trauma work with chronically abused patients. If a client can’t feel safe, they can’t process the pain that’s necessary to face in order to feel better. The first goal with any trauma survivor is to help them think about what feeling safe means to them, and what they can do to feel safer. Sometimes I still struggle with this because of the people I have to deal with in my life, but it’s getting a lot better. I think I feel safer knowing I can trust myself to assert my boundaries now. These incidents made me mad enough to do this.