By Patrick Chase O'Neil
Trigger Warning: This post contains language about sexual assault that some readers may find disturbing.
After a particular gruesome and sweaty workout over the holidays this year that included way too many burpees and pull ups, I left the hot studio and ventured out into the sub-zero temperatures and whipping winds of Minnesota winter. Like a true born and raised Minnesotan, I didn’t think I need to bring pants to change into or a hat so I shivered most of the way back to my parent’s home waiting for the car to finally warm up. As soon as I got back to the house, I took a long and hot shower washing away the sweat and trying to regain feeling in my ears and toes.
As I got out of the shower, my whole body painfully itched. My skin had already dried out from the weather and the exercising temperature fluxes had irritated my cholinergic urticaria (a term that sounds a lot scarier than it actually is for occasionally getting really itchy after sudden change in temperatures). There was a massive bottle of body lotion on the counter in the bathroom that probably would have relieved the irritation, but I ignored it. It’s been over 10 years and I still can’t stomach the smell of plain lotion.
After I was first raped, the littlest thing could bring me right back to my attack. I tried my hardest to pretend that it didn’t happen right afterwards and try to live an imitation of my former life, but my body refused to let me. One friend always thought it was so funny that whenever he grabbed me from behind, I would jump halfway across the room. “What are you so scared of?” he would always laugh about, but I never responded. A classmate unexpectedly dropping a textbook on their phone would jerk my attention away from the lecture and tense my muscles. Anyone who even looked remotely like him would make me want to run in the other direction. I would try to stay awake all night whenever I had a particularly bad day out of fear that my dreams would be terrorized by the memories.
When I was first beginning to write creatively, my English teachers would always instruct me to paint a full picture of the season by showing and not telling. Don’t just say that a character is walking by the ocean, but describe the feeling of the sand between their toes, the sound of the seagulls calling overhead, the yellows and reds of the sunset clashing with the deep blues of the water, the smells of the saltwater and the seaweed washed up on the shore. These sensory descriptions make the reader feel like they are right there walking besides them the same way that the smell of baking chocolate chip cookies makes you hungry or the sound of a siren alerts you that something is wrong. Our brain needs external stimulation to alert us how how to feel emotionally and then respond accordingly.
In the aftermath, the smell of an unscented lotion has always had the worst impact on me. It was never appealing to me beforehand with its metallic undertones, but it became especially nauseating afterwards. I hate the feel of lotion too. The physical product may have healing remedies inside it, but the gooeyness of the texture always makes my skin crawl. I hate the sound pushing down on the tube makes as it squirts out. I just hate everything about it. But what I hate the most is that it reminds me of what that monster did to me.
Encountering the specific senses not only made my stomach queasy and my heart beat a little faster, it brought back flashes of memories from the attack and reengaged the emotions I felt during it. I would be transported out of the safe location I was in and brought right back to feeling scared, helpless, hurt and lost. This smell of lotion is one that so many people encounter on a daily basis without ever giving it a second thought, but as soon as my brain registered it during a traumatic experience, it forever changed my body’s future interactions with it. The first therapist I saw after I eventually told someone I was raped applied hand lotion in the middle of almost every single one of our sessions (this is the dry Minnesota weather as a reminder) and each time I became paralyzed by fear. I never found the bravery to tell him to stop, because I was so embarrassed by the reaction it had on me.
Over 10 years later, I still remember little details, but the moment by moment memories of the attack have mostly faded. I still jump a bit when someone grabs me from behind, but I leave that mostly up to the body’s natural defense mechanisms now. Due to pressure from my dermatologist, I use a daily moisturizer on my face now, but I found a specific brand that smells different and has a different consistency. I still seek to avoid many of the triggers of the things that used to set me off, but when I do come across them, I take a few deep breaths and remind myself that I am safe. My body will likely never entirely give up that physical reaction, but the emotional reaction is more and more under my control. It used to show me how fragile I was, but now it shows me how strong I have grown and continue to grow.
The National Sexual Assault Hotline is open 24 hours a day. 1-800-656-4673
The Trevor Project Hotline is open 24 hours a day for young LGBTQ people needing crisis intervention or suicide prevention: 1-866-488-7386
Patrick Chase O’Neil has lived in New York for the last 8 years, but will always refer to himself as a Minnesotan. He is a graduate of New York University and currently works in communications. He writes as much as his spare time allows. @patrickconeil