When I was in high school there was an innovation in television technology called picture in picture TV. The idea was that there would be the usual picture taking up most of the screen, and then in the upper right corner you could have another smaller picture from a different channel playing. The marketing was mostly to people who wanted to be able to watch two different sporting events at the same time.
I’m not sure it ever really caught on, and then the internet came and changed how we watch TV, but the idea of picture in picture has always been a helpful way for me to describe what it’s like inside my head as a rape survivor.
Please understand that this is MY experience, and every survivor is different.
The present moment – me sitting at my computer surrounded by napping kittens, drinking coffee, thinking about worship things for Sunday, wondering if I should make oatmeal cookies, wishing I hadn’t forgotten to get tater tots at the grocery – that’s all the main picture, the big screen of the TV inside my head.
But there is always that smaller picture playing in the background. It plays on a constant loop, reliving and remembering – the events leading up to my rape, the events of the rape, and the aftermath as well.
On good days (which are most), it works with the memories quietly playing on the side while I go about my life, but there are days…
There are days, and moments, when the screens switch, when the memories are the bigger picture, and the present moment is shoved off to the side. All kinds of things can trigger the switch – stress, the weather, a particular smell or taste, having to go somewhere unfamiliar, certain days and times of the year, a song on the radio, not getting enough sleep or the right foods. And sometimes I’m not even aware of what the trigger is.
I’ve spent lots of time working with my psychiatrist at getting control of the switch, of learning how to navigate the triggers in an unpredictable world, and how to calm myself down and get my brain to bring the present back to the big picture.
It’s a daily practice. Some days it works, and some days it doesn’t. Some days the memories are overwhelming. Overall, I think I do it well, but I know what that kind of mental energy costs me.
Perhaps this will go a bit of the way towards helping people who aren’t survivors understand the kind of internal gymnastics that are required to go out into the world, to get the groceries, go to work, meet people, go out to eat, attend concerts and classes, and all kinds of things that a “normal” (neurotypical) brain takes for granted.