Photo of a park by Gayatri Malhotra

I can’t breathe – survivors triggered by world events

Content advisory: child abuse, racist violence, positive coping strategies



The worst thing that ever happened to me involved my throat being crushed during a sexual assault.  I was in a lot of pain, I was confused and horrified by the previously loved and trusted man who was assaulting me, and after a few minutes (surely less than 8) I lost consciousness. I awoke in shock, numb and depersonalized, and with the logic of a child, believed for several days or weeks that I was literally dead and that no-one had noticed. I don’t (yet) recall much about cleaning up the blood, or what was done about that.

My family seemed to act as if nothing had happened, like they didn’t even notice I’d died. I felt I had died and no-one had come to grieve me. I still cry when I read obituaries – even those of strangers – when I get to the part where the surviving loved ones express their grief. I did this for years before I remembered why.

A few weeks ago, a man named George Floyd was murdered in another country, by someone crushing his neck without anyone seemingly noticing or caring that he was dying in front of him. Like me, he could not breathe. Like me, he wanted his mother to save him. Like what happened to me, it was a huge betrayal, and yet a mundane and common and invisible evil, present for centuries, just now becoming visible.

What is remembered, lives.

His situation was of course different from mine. His murder was due to racism, the attempt at my murder was due to sexism. He died, and I at last discovered that I had not. His murderers may in fact receive some form of justice. My ‘murderer’ has been questioned by police, but was not charged. The he said; she said defence is particularly potent when the ‘she’ was 6 years old, and the crime is covered up, only to be reported 14 years later.  And as women know, the ‘justice’ system does scant justice at best for survivors of sexual assault, even or especially those who are or were children.

Weeks ago, I did not realize at first that I was triggered. I again went numb and depersonalized for about a week. The thing about being numb is that you can’t sense anything that would tip you off that you are numb, until you notice that you are aimless, unable to complete tasks, wandering. You feel ‘fine’. Just fine.

And when you reach out to your feelings, your creativity, your god(s), what feels like your soul,they aren’t there.

Something usually cracks it. When I was married, it was connecting with my partner. Being unable to connect with my partner, being unable to get into being sexual, taking forever to get anywhere, and certainly not getting ‘there’. And if I do connect, finally, then the feelings flow. This all sucks for my partners. I have lost several partners at least in part due to this. Numb and frigid or open and emotional. And then afterward, if I’m lucky, a period of open calm and wholeness.

Now that I’m single, I crack the numbness by trying to reach for the divine. 

I have been doing a walking meditation in a labyrinth outdoors. It is day time, in sunshine, in a park, and enough women walk by randomly that I feel safe enough to sink into the walk, without so many that I have no privacy. I’ve been doing a kind of ‘self-emdr’ where I tap my body – right, left, right, left – with alternating hands as I walk. It allows me to sink into my feelings without the automatic numbness shutoff kicking in. And sometimes, walking, and praying, tapping as rapidly as I can – left right left right left right – I unthaw. And feelings I didn’t know were there surface suddenly. And my behavour for the past week or weeks make sense. And I have lost another part of my life, by not being present for it.

When these rare gifts of opening come I do my best to allow them to flow, and when I can, for some time afterward I feel whole. It may be a short time, or it may be longer. Like a muscle uncramping, it may not all release at once, and certainly not if reinjured.

I have empathy for those who have been murdered or almost murdered. So much so, that I’ve decided to only read the news once a day, the headlines from a few sources I trust as much as anyone can. Digesting a constant stream of the pain of strangers must only be tolerable for those who don’t know that pain is real, that this stuff happens, from experience. When I can act, in the moment, I will and I have, but I am not going to immerse myself in this pain.

I cannot live in freeze all the time. It has cost me too much.


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