We Need to Talk About Sex & Triggers

"Oh no! He's gonna be here in five minutes. I don't have time to put any makeup on! Why didn't I take a shower sooner? Always leaving things to the last minute. What am I going to do - he can't see me like this! I look so...oh shit, he's here!"



Whenever I start a new job, I don't mention anything about my mental illness. I always put my best foot forward and assume that maybe this time, my depression and anxiety will just never show up at work, so mentioning it would be pointless.


This is wishful thinking, of course. Depression and anxiety always show up. It's just a matter of time until I have to have "the conversation" with my boss: I have mental illness, I may need some accommodation when I'm having a tough day, etc.


Whenever I start as a young man's cougar, I don't mention anything about my mental illness. Well, sometimes I do...but what I don't mention is that there's a very good chance I'll get triggered before or during sex. Instead, I put my best cougar paw forward and assume that maybe this time, my complex PTSD will just never show up in the bedroom, so mentioning it would be pointless.


This is also wishful thinking. Complex PTSD loves hanging out in my bedroom. And it's just a matter of time until I have to have "the conversation" with the cub: I've suffered trauma and am highly vulnerable to getting triggered by any number of things. Especially when it comes to intense and vulnerable experiences like sex.


If you've never gotten triggered, I envy you. It's brutal. Partly because it's rare that I even know it's happening until I'm in deep. The fact that I'm robbed of self-awareness at the same time that my nervous system is going berserk has led to countless mortifying moments in my dating life. The whole evening collapses like a house of cards.


One trigger I have is ignoring physical discomfort for the sake of making someone else comfortable. On the evening alluded to in the first paragraph of this blog post, I was feeling nauseous the afternoon of my date and ginger ale hadn't done much. I still felt sick. I should have cancelled and I didn't.


Okay, it wasn't just out of concern for his feelings. Let's be honest, it was also loneliness and horniness. But I also didn't want to disappoint him. And I didn't want to be rejected for cancelling at the last minute, either. Rejection is maybe the most triggering thing of all.


So I ignored my belly, went ahead with my evening plans, and ended up greeting him with no makeup, no confidence, and a huge spike in anxiety.


The thing about dating younger men is you're conscious about how old you look. Makeup helps enhance and conceal. There was no enhancing or concealing. And I panicked. And that was something I couldn't conceal either.


Trigger the trigger mode.


There are about seven stages of getting triggered on a date, in my personal experience:

  1. Something very stressful happens, usually associated with shame or embarrassment.

  2. I get "triggered": my body and/or mind are immediately (and unconsciously) reminded of a stressful thing from the past and I go into fight, flight or freeze mode.

  3. I make some effort to conceal my triggered state, knowing full well that such attempts are futile.

  4. The futility unravels my efforts and I start crying - I'm terrified and I can't make it stop.

  5. After about 15 to 20 minutes, I stop crying and go emotionally numb.

  6. The exhaustion sets in. Like no other exhaustion I can describe. To the depths of my heart and soul.

  7. I either choose to send the guy off to deal with the state I'm in alone, or my mood shifts and the guys makes me comfortable enough to transition to having sex after all. It depends on the night, the guy and the trigger.

I can't tell you how many times I've been on this rollercoaster. Mostly because it would be too mortifying to count them. It makes me wonder how I've found the stamina and optimism to keep dating, when dealing with triggers is so challenging and happens so often.


Reflecting on it now, if I ever have sex again (very big if), I should come right out with it before nudity is even remotely considered. Tell the young man what he could be in for. It's complex PTSD and it loves showing up at the worst times. Meaning at my best times. Back when I was having those best times. Hopefully those times will come again.


I'm willing to deal with the triggers and all they entail if it means I can have emotional and physical intimacy in my life. I just need someone who knows what a trigger is, and knows how to handle them. And me.


- M.B.