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Dear Melania, Your Husband's 'Boy Talk' Triggered My Sexual Assault PTSD

Watching Donald Trump, with his egocentric dominance and nonchalant talk of sexual violence, writes Katie Koppel, doesn't resurface conscious memories of my own sexual assault six years ago; it triggers my body to re-experience parts of it. Pictured: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, left, speaks with the media beside wife Melania Trump, right, after the presidential debate between Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at Hofstra University, Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Hempstead, N.Y. (John Locher/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Watching Donald Trump, with his egocentric dominance and nonchalant talk of sexual violence, writes Katie Koppel, doesn't resurface conscious memories of my own sexual assault six years ago; it triggers my body to re-experience parts of it. Pictured: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, left, speaks with the media beside wife Melania Trump, right, after the presidential debate between Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at Hofstra University, Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Hempstead, N.Y. (John Locher/AP)
COMMENTARY

In Melania Trump's interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper on Monday night, she urged Americans to accept her husband's apology for what she called his “boy talk.” I am a sexual assault survivor and have spent the past six years agonizing over whether or not I said one word loudly enough. So I will say it now, again, in answer to Melania's plea: No.

Donald Trump’s leaked conversation with former Access Hollywood host Billy Bush led to an outpouring of sexual assault stories. But watching Trump, with his egocentric dominance and nonchalant talk of sexual violence, doesn't resurface conscious memories of my own sexual assault six years ago; it triggers my body to re-experience parts of it. This experience isn’t emotional, it’s neurobiological.

After four years of intensive cognitive behavioral therapy and recovery from PTSD, listening to Donald Trump throws my body into chaos.

In the past two weeks, I have had full-body convulsions and a spike in my heart rate. I have been hyper-vigilant to the point that my boyfriend now warns me when he is about to enter a room or turn on the shower, because unexpected noise makes my heart lurch.

What’s missing from the too-many memory-centric recollections of sexual assault is the neurobiology behind memory, specifically as it relates to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For me and many others with PTSD, being triggered is more than being reminded of a past trauma, it's adrenaline and cortisol activating a “fight or flight” response. My body reacts physiologically to what it perceives as dangerous, often without my conscious awareness of a threat.

We have two types of memory: explicit and implicit. With each, experience prompts our brains to fire neurons, creating clusters that encode events into our memory. Our explicit memories are encoded through the hippocampus. These memories require conscious attention, and we recall them as discrete past events. For example, I can remember the first time I learned to ride a bike: I was 7-years old, and I can envision the pink tassels on the handlebars. This is an explicit memory. When I ride a bike now, I do not consciously remember how to balance and steer, thanks to implicit memory.

I do not consciously remember my sexual assault, but my body does. A spike in cortisol caused my hippocampus to shut down, which disrupted the encoding of an explicit memory. When I consciously tap into this memory, I remember few details and am floating above the scene. Meanwhile, the surplus of adrenaline in my body reinforced the implicit memory of the experience -- the feelings of terror, helplessness and physical pain.

My brain, then, is an “anticipation machine,” neurologically wired to protect my body from what it deems to be a similar threat. Most times, my body is overreacting or over-perceiving the threat. Still, no amount of willpower or rational thought can stop this encoded neurobiological process.

I heard Trump’s leaked “locker room talk” while playing Scrabble at a friend’s home. Within seconds, my heart began racing, and my body twitched. Minutes later, my body went numb, and I felt disconnected from it. I played my Scrabble word, but I was not consciously aware of placing the tiles on the board. This is known as dissociation. I felt I was inhabiting a dream.

I now avoid news channels replaying Trump’s lewd exchange with Bush. I can cope with the emotions brought on by reading sexual assault stories, but I cannot yet handle the physical toll of hearing the words.

...the man who casually sexualizes me and forces himself on me without my consent? That’s a man I do know, a man who my body remembers.

I still do not fully understand the specific triggers that Trump presents to my body. Is it his voice, full of conceit, that sounds like that of a predator coercing me, his intended victim? Or is it his nonchalance, one of the few qualities I remember in my perpetrator — as he discusses forcibly grabbing women by their genitals, another commonality Trumps shares with my assailant.

But this I do know: After four years of intensive cognitive behavioral therapy and recovery from PTSD, listening to Donald Trump throws my body into chaos.

Melania expressed surprise about the leaked tapes. “That is not the man I know,” she said. Perhaps this is the reason she accepts Trump’s apology while I cannot. I do not know Melania’s husband. But the man who casually sexualizes me and forces himself on me without my consent? That’s a man I do know, a man who my body remembers.

Related:

Katie Koppel Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Katie Koppel is a Boston-based writer and mental health activist. She is writing a memoir, “Plucked: A Memoir of Hiding.”

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