Kate Taylor shares personal stories of coping with disassociation and panic attacks during sex
It started with kisses and butterflies that avoided the walls of my stomach like the game of operation. I was aware of the kisses. Every breath brought us closer until finally I was in that heavenly space where my brain stops talking to me.
That morning I had woke up in a dissociated state. Dissociation is a recognised mental health condition – one way a person’s mind copes with too much stress. There are many recognised types of dissociative disorder – people who dissociate may feel disconnected from themselves, and from the world around them.
If you’ve never dissociated before, it can be like watching yourself in a nightmare. That day’s dissociation was more like stepping through a mirror into a world that has a filter you can’t quite name and people you can’t trust at all.
I had cried a lot. When my boyfriend Danny called, he reminded me of the weighted blanket at the foot of my bed, the anxiety ice pack in the freezer, and the tsum tsums I squeeze and organise as though the proper lineup can open the door back into the real world; my world.
By the time he was home from work I had taken my medicine and gone through my routine for getting back to reality: the weighted blanket with a focus on my breathing; cold – anything cold I can feel and focus on just seconds past where I can stand it; taking my nervous hands and squeezing the life out of those little stuffed animals. Having done all of these things, I thought I was back in control, and was ready for sex.
It was gentle, loving, great sex until everything felt a little off as though the world had scooted everything over an inch. One Mississippi, two Mississippi- I was hit by a wave of panic. I said “pause” and as he moved to be by my side I started to hyperventilate and cry. Worry flooded my brain, both because of the full force of the panic attack, and because now I was worried that I was hurting the person next to me, the person I love.
Danny knew better though. Every sorry I offered up was given back to me along with a deep breath to follow.
“You don’t need to be.”
“I ruined it.”
“You didn’t ruin anything. Listen to my breaths.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Remember our signal for when these things come on?”
I put my finger to my nose. I’d forgotten we had a signal for when I started to feel bad but this had come on so quickly. This wasn’t like the experience months back where we had tried our first shower together. We had stepped in all smiles and as things felt better and better against my body everything felt worse and worse in my head until he had paused.
That was the first time I had experienced post-traumatic stress disorder from the night I had been raped. I had forgotten about what happened in the shower, because I dissociated when it happened. For the next few days I was living in two realities: one where my boyfriend had stopped having sex and one where I had been raped. These were events that happened years apart, but my brain played them like double exposed film. After that Danny and I had a code. If the world started to slip away, I would touch my nose and the sex would stop.
This time, however, the panic attack came on quickly: and after allowing myself to cry, it left quickly. After a short conversation Danny and I both decided to get back to fumbling, and it ended with kisses, cuddles, and calm.
If you or your partner struggles with PTSD or anxiety, Danny and I have the following recommendations:
You must communicate during sex. This is important in any relationship but particularly important when you or your partner may start to have an attack.
Panic attacks and dissociative episodes happen, and it is not your fault. You are not broken. You are not alone. You have nothing to be sorry for and nothing to be embarrassed about.
If you or your partner starts to feel like something is wrong; stop. You can often come back to sex, but you can’t undo an action that goes too far. If your partner becomes distant, or there is a change in their behaviour while having sex, stop and talk to them before continuing.
If you need to cry, cry. If you need to be left alone, ask for space. If you are their partner, know that this is not your fault and it does not reflect on you.
Talk about episodes after they happen. Help your partner navigate that part of your life. Be sure to talk about any triggers and any signs of an attack that they should be aware of. Be sure to ask them how they feel, so you can make sure their needs are being met as well.
Danny often makes a little fist and rubs it against my forehead, telling me he is “scrubbing the old experiences away.” This isn’t going to happen overnight. And living with a PTSD disorder isn’t always comfortable or easy. Sometimes you will be doing well for a really long time, and then you will have an episode – but that doesn’t negate how far you have come. Be patient with yourself, and be kind to each other.