The Reality Of Dating With PTSD

Photographed by Anna Jay
Warning: This article contains descriptions of PTSD and traumatic events, including sexual assault, which some readers might find upsetting.
"Dalmatian. Spaniel. Labrador. Corgi. Retriever." 
I whispered breeds of dog aloud as I sat on Tyler’s* bed in a band T-shirt, stockings and a sheen of sweat while he was in the bathroom, rifling through the cupboards for a condom. When I ran out of dogs, I named what I could see: various band posters, the blue hue Tyler’s fairy lights cast over me. Something I could smell: spiced rum, dust-coated fabric, a general Boy Bedroom scent. Something I could feel: cheap polyester on my skin, bedlinen, fear. 
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These are grounding techniques for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which I had learned in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) six months prior to this hookup. You don’t have to name dogs – it's just the only thing I can personally name lots of. As I approached my penultimate session, my mum pointed out that when I was little I used to sit on the drive and watch dogs, marking off every breed I spotted in a special sticker book. I had completed the whole thing. Inadvertently, I had prepared to fight off PTSD; I had made sure I’d have enough breeds of dog to hand.

My therapist told me that many patients count off street names from their hometown but that causes complications when your hometown is the birthplace of your trauma. So I continued whispering dog names like a canine taxonomist – all in a bid to soothe myself enough for sex. 
I’d met Tyler on Tinder a month and a half earlier and in that time we’d built a Jenga tower of chaotic flirtations. A "hey, you up?" here, a tasteful nude there. Now, as our fourth date had drawn to a close and we’d walked back to his bedroom, clumsily kissing and grasping each other’s clothing, it was finally time for us to have sex. 
I really liked Tyler and had been yearning to sleep with him but now it was actually happening, I felt a familiar constriction in my throat and a cold crept under my skin.
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I tried to focus on how hot I found him, how ready for this I was, but slipping into dissociation (when you feel disconnected from yourself and the world around you) was an inevitability – especially when it came to sex.

I was diagnosed with PTSD after leaving a two-year abusive relationship during which my partner frequently sexually assaulted me, at just 18 years old. For a long time, sex felt like returning to the scene of the crime. I was also prone to very intense, often public scenes of distress. Mundane tasks like commuting or food shopping remained unticked on my to-do lists – doing anything that easy flicked me into autopilot, the perfect breeding ground for dissociative episodes, flashbacks and panic attacks. To keep my symptoms subdued, I needed constant stimulation, to always be thinking. 
Therapy provided me with an arsenal of management tools and I came to the realization that seeking sexual pleasure was a sound form of justice for what I’d endured. In fact, sex was surprisingly helpful for my recovery. There’s little more stimulating than two bodies writhing – an organic escapism without risk of dissociation.

My therapist told me that many patients count off street names from their hometown but that causes complications when your hometown is the birthplace of your trauma.

But post-sex was a problem. I feared what would come when that connection and distraction was over and I'd have to fall asleep beside them. Sleeping (or trying to) exacerbated my symptoms in a way that was difficult to manage. Staying over at a partner's house never felt like a viable option. As you can imagine, waking up screaming and sweating isn't the sexiest vibe.
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Over time I have mastered the technique of subtly reducing a PTSD episode, as I demonstrated so artfully in Tyler’s bedroom. When he re-entered, proudly waving a condom like he’d won the lottery, I thought about telling him. It seemed right to give him a heads-up that I’d been panic-managing and may need to do so again were I to become retriggered. But I didn’t. 
We had sex – the kind that makes your legs quiver and skin vibrate from endorphins – and he asked me to stay. With former partners, I was callous, sharply rejecting and retreating swiftly to my own bed. But I liked Tyler a lot. I couldn’t be cold with him. 
I stayed the night but I fought sleep like an intruder and lay unbearably awake with Tyler wrapped around me, softly snoring into my ear. After six hours of playing sudoku on my phone and forcing myself to stay conscious, I used an early lecture as an excuse to leave, swallowing down nausea.
PTSD is rooted in shame for many women and I never felt that my thoughts were worth airing, let alone discussing in detail. The condition, which for many women – like me – derives from sexual assault, causes sufferers to use the traumatic experiences they have undergone as data for making future decisions. I’d been hurt in a sexually aggressive way before so I knew not to bring confrontation into the bedroom. This meant that I filed even basic sexual communication under 'confrontation' in the messy cabinet that was my post-trauma brain.
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Perhaps I did this because, on the few occasions I had attempted to be upfront and frank about my condition, it hadn’t gone well. A few months prior, I was on a date with Elliot* in a cramped bar when the conversation turned to his campaigning to raise money for a mental health charity. I took this as my cue.

"I have PTSD, which means…" I began.
"I didn’t think women could get PTSD! Isn’t it just for veterans?" was Elliot's mediocre reply. 
For several minutes, as I rapidly consumed double whiskeys, I had been revising my monologue about what PTSD meant for me – and what it could mean for a potential 'us' – but I’d been cut short. 
I explained that being a veteran isn’t part of the criteria – that any type of trauma is applicable – but the rest of the date was less than lacklustre. An awkward quietness descended and all Elliot could do was look at me, glancing away when I tried to meet his stare. I could tell he was trying to guess what had happened to me. He removed me on all social media platforms that night.
It’s hard to blame Elliot for misjudging PTSD. The US National Center for PTSD says that women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with the condition yet in many ways we are the invisible victims. Representation in films, on TV and even on medical websites still presents the condition as something experienced by (mostly male) war veterans.
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Focus on what you can do, what's off the table and what you'd like to do more of together. This can make it easier to set limits without emphasizing the bad.

Michael Yates
This lack of representation made it harder when trying to talk to partners about my PTSD. I didn’t have a blueprint for constructing dialogue with a partner, nor an example of a female life unhindered by past trauma. I was unsure what a successful relationship involving someone with PTSD would look like, or if it was even possible. 
Michael Yates, clinical psychologist at The Havelock Clinic, says it can be difficult for people with PTSD to explain to partners what the condition entails because of the "random nature" of the symptoms (flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, nightmares). "We struggle to know what’s happening ourselves, so communicating with others feels daunting," he tells me.  
Yates says that talking to partners about your condition is important but that it doesn’t have to be a heavy conversation about your life story. Important questions for safe sex can be framed in an approachable way. "Focus on what you can do, what’s off the table and what you’d like to do more of together. This can make it easier to set limits without emphasizing the bad," he explains. 
I wasn’t as stealthy in pulling my all-nighter as I’d thought. Tyler messaged me the following day, asking if I was okay because I was visibly ill and tired when I left. Caught in the act, I muttered more dog names as I typed my confession. "I have PTSD and I don’t know if I can stay over. I don’t sleep very well in my own bed," I wrote, attaching an image of my many supermarket sleeping aids. 
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Hours later, Tyler replied with an image. After a quick Sainsbury's run, he had replicated my sleeping kit at his house. "Now you have everything you need here," he messaged. "But you can also leave if you need to – that’s fine." At that moment, he met me exactly where I needed him to. Finding a way to guide Tyler, to tell him what I wanted and needed, what my boundaries were and how to respond if distress did occur, was vital to both our relationship and my health. 
Yates notes that "engaging in activity you don’t want can actually make PTSD symptoms worse." I allowed that to happen to me for too long. I wish I’d had the confidence to be open with Tyler from the beginning. It’s rare that a partner would react badly to an open discussion about mental health and dating boundaries. And if they do, you know to re-download Tinder and find a nicer person instead.
If you are experiencing anxiety and are in need of crisis support, please call Crisis Services Canada at 1-833-456-4566 at any time or text 45645 between 4 p.m. and 12 a.m. ET. Residents of Quebec, please call 1-866-277-3553.
*Names have been changed to protect identities

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