[Content note: rape, PTSD]
A little while ago, I wrote about how wrestling was a difficult place to be while being a rape survivor, and how I struggled with being in such male-dominated spaces when I went to the Fight Club: Pro Dream Tag Team Invitational. While it’s true that wrestling has a tendency to be full of large men, often making aggressively loud noises or gestures, there’s something to this which has made me adapt and change the way I feel when I’m in these crowds. The way I feel when I get to cuddle my favourite male wrestlers, the way I cope with being drawn close to a body that every instinct tells me I should be lashing out at.
A lot of how I feel about this is going to be shown in pictures, because my body language often has a lot of say about how I really feel. Sure, my face can be happy, and I might tell people at the time that I feel happy, but it’s visible in the way I stand that I’m protecting myself. One of the details I left out of my previous article is that, as I cried no, my first rapist held me down by my throat to keep me quiet and stop me moving. For that reason, asphyxiation is a huge trigger for me, whether it’s my own struggle to breathe or that of someone else, and I don’t like anyone – not even my wife – touching my throat. When I’m stressed, my protective instinct becomes bigger, encompassing not just my throat, but the back of my neck, parts of my chest and sternum, and even my shoulders.
In the picture above, I look like I’m pretty damned happy to be meeting a fave for the first time, and believe me, I was. But looking at where his hand his on my shoulder, you can see where I’ve hunched my shoulder up, protecting my neck, keeping his hand from slipping closer to somewhere I’d be uncomfortable to be touched. My other shoulder is tucked in against his body, keeping my neck in a position where it would be difficult to touch with a hand. Now, Jimmy’s probably the wrestler I feel physically safest being near… so what does it say about my trauma that I couldn’t relax my shoulder and trust him not to touch there?
When we go back to this picture, we can see that, despite the arms near me being down, my shoulders are hunched up, my feet are awkward – so my face isn’t the only part of me that’s letting you know I’m not happy with who’s standing next to me. Both of my arms are deliberately planted with my shoulders slightly broader than I would usually stand, because it gives another few precious inches of space between me and a man I don’t know if I can trust.
This picture’s pretty telling. I’ve spoken before about how Trent Seven just feels safe to me, how he doesn’t seem to set off my radar like so many other men do. But I didn’t think I trusted him enough not to freak out at something like this – his fingers are actually touching my neck in this picture. I realised it when I stepped away, but at the time, it didn’t make me feel unsafe at all. Yes, my shoulder’s still hunched, but that’s because my elbow is placed to drive Pete Dunne away from me if he moved in a way I didn’t like. It might seem counter-intuitive to put my back to someone I don’t trust, but it puts him away from my throat, and when I’m tense like this, that’s all I care about. What it says about Trent that I let him touch my neck? It speaks volumes for how comfortable I felt at Progress, and just how safe I felt there, and particularly how much faith I put in him.
When I hug men I know, I’ll stand on tiptoe to put my arms around their necks, so they have to go for my waist – you can’t do that standing side by side, or with someone you don’t know, which means mark pictures are always going to be a fun adventure in awkwardness for me. A man will put his hand on your shoulder 90% of the time, because it’s an easier reach when you’re 4ft 11, and because it’s seen as less invasive than a hand on the waist. For me, I’d rather have hands at my waist than hands on my shoulders.
But at SSS16, I had a bigger breakthrough than letting someone already designated safe touch my throat. I was feeling so comfortable that, for the first time, I watched Tyler Bate in a match, and I saw him. Not a body wearing my rapist’s face, but him. I saw his expressions, his acting ability, and it was the first time I realised just how good he is. Seriously. So fucking good. And Progress had me feeling so comfortable that I thought – I have to try and do something. So I approached him after, and probably scared the poor boy witless, to tell him that I’d been unable to appreciate him until that moment, and what that meant to me, to see past similarities facially and get past that point of trauma. I’m sure he didn’t give a shit, but I needed to say it. He reached out for a touch, and I shook my head, and went for a hug.
I didn’t flinch. I didn’t scream. I pulled back, and I was a little damp around the eyes, but I’d done something that was, for me, incredibly important. I’d managed to separate this man from someone who hurt me thirteen years ago. I’d taken a step I didn’t know I could. So thank you, Tyler Bate, for putting up with the crazy femme with a stick who wanted a hug. Your puzzled good manners meant a lot.
I’m not saying that wrestling is going to cure my PTSD. I’m not even really seeing that it’s making it better – some days it does, but the day before I hugged Tyler, I had four PTSD-related seizures behind the merch tables at Progress, shaking and flinching away from even the male first aiders, never mind the wrestlers. Some days wrestling feels like it’s shaking out all my fears of men and giving me strong, vibrant, honest men I can trust with my safety. Some days it feels like a cesspool of humanity full of people with all the moral integrity of a particularly dishonest cat. Wrestling isn’t saving my life here, it’s not solving something overnight that needs years of therapy and careful handling.
But it’s helping, some days. And the men I can trust in wrestling? The best men in the world, bar none. I can let Jimmy Havoc help me up steps, I can curl around Jack Sexsmith and not care where my throat is, I can let Chuck Mambo touch my shoulders and the back of my neck, I can avoid freaking out when Trent Seven touches my neck. Wrestling isn’t saving my life… but it’s showing me that some men just might be able to be trusted. And that’s a start.