on safewords, flashbacks, and triggers

i've read a lot of debate about safewords. there are those who are of the opinion that having a safeword makes this thing we do emphatically "kink" rather than discipline. i don't agree with that, not in the least. in theory, i believe that safewords are what distinguishes this thing we do from abuse–that i have the power at any point to say, "hey, this is hurting me in the wrong way, i need it to stop or else i will not be safe."

and a lot of the time, i can do that. i don't formally safeword, but i communicate with w and let her know when something is going wrong. that is a major factor in her willingness to do this thing we do. and it's a responsibility that i have, just as much as i have a responsibility to be honest about whether i've followed the rules, just as much as w has a responsibility to be consistent with enforcing the rules.

about a month ago, that fell apart, on both sides.

it started with something kind of silly, but very much about who i am. parts had been out who were testing intensely. as in getting a spanking or more, pretty much every day. they had been breaking the rules, over and over, just to see whether w would follow through. and she was a total champion about it–she was consistent, calm, and really staying on top of things.

then those parts started to calm down, and believe that w would really keep following through. but what was more dangerous, they had finally started to believe–i had finally started to believe–that w was following through solely because she cared about me, and wanted to take care of me. the testing was easing off. w was making it clear that the rules were still there, and would still be enforced, even when no one inside of me was breaking them. i'd push the limits a little, and, yup, there they were. i can remember a small thing–we'd gone to the warehouse store on a friday evening, and as usual, it took longer than we predicted. we hadn't eaten dinner yet, although we'd had a snack on the way there. one of the things we bought was a tub of those mini brownies. the delicious ones that are nearly as good as the kind i make from scratch. so i was going to have some on the ride home. but w insisted that i couldn't, because i still had to eat dinner. she made it clear that if i didn't eat dinner–even though i'd had a reasonable snack at 5 pm–there would be consequences. follow through, even when i wasn't intentionally pushing limits. that feeling that she was on top of things, and was going to take care of me even though i resisted. it was great.

most of the rest of the weekend went like that. i didn't have to break rules in order for w to make it clear the rules were there. it wasn't oppressive, or threatening. the closest i can describe it is to say that it felt like the restraints you strap on when you get on a roller coaster. something you don't need to push up against in order to feel safe. it was good.

and then communication began to break down, and neither of us really saw what was happening. in my attempt to give her positive feedback for how she was making me feel, i kept mentioning it. but being me, i wasn't saying, "this is making me feel so much better." that what i was thinking, but what i was saying was more along the lines of "why are you doing this thing that makes me feel better?" (it's been a while, and i have to admit that, not having been the part asking the question, i can't remember what the question was. the point is, it was a question.)

most of the weekend, w replied that she was doing it to help me to feel safe. that was the "right" answer, or at least, the one that reassured me that it was good to trust her. and then, after answering with the "right" answer at least a dozen times, w said that she had been doing it because she felt that helping me to feel more secure would mean that she could get some things that she wants.

rationally, i know that this is an entirely appropriate thing for w to say, that in relationships, one does things for dozens of reasons. but emotionally, that's not what came across. emotionally, w saying she hoped to get something for herself out of taking care of me confirmed my fears: she was not doing this because i need it, because i'm worth taking care of, because she loves me. she was only giving me discipline because she wanted to get something for herself. and that just ignited fears that were bubbling right below the surface, bringing to mind a lifetime of experience in which love and nurturing were always conditional. growing up, any gift came with a whole mess of strings attached. if i got something, i owed a whole lot to the person who had taken the time to give it.

things just got worse the next day. we were meeting before couples' therapy, and i was not feeling talkative. w asked what was up, and i said i didn't want to talk about it right then. w kept pushing, and i kept not talking (my thought, i suppose, being that we were about to go to couples' therapy, which might be a better space for talking about being upset. or else that i just didn't want to talk right then.) but w kept pushing, and then she used the rules to try to get me to talk. we have a rule that we should try to be open and honest with each other. now, this is good in theory, but i don't think it's something that can be forced. but w was frustrated with the situation, and finally said i would get my mouth washed out with soap if i didn't say what was bothering me. (tip to tops: this is *not* a good way to make someone want to open up with you!)

this could have triggered lots of things. what did get triggered was scary for both of us, but probably far scarier for w. a part came out who was basically unresponsive, and certainly couldn't talk. what i remember is feeling immensely detached, as though anything anyone said was coming through layers and layers of nothingness. it was scary, but the fear was also coming through layers of nothingness, so it was dulled. that part was there all the way through therapy, and most of the way home. i was finally able to talk a little bit after we got home, but only enough to let w know that it was important for her not to push, because i didn't want to wind up in that state again.

the rest of that week, things were kind of tense. the parts who had been testing pulled back sharply. on the surface, this might have looked good. they weren't testing any more. i was spending time with w, but with a hidden emotional distance that was pretty much my state growing up–on the surface, it looked like i was connecting with her, but inside, i'd pulled all of my self back. and the lack of testing was, in a way, a kind of aggression, a way of saying "it's not even worth testing you to find out whether you are trustworthy, because i've decided i can't trust you at all, so i will just take care of myself and not ask for anything from you."

it was also a very busy week, at least for w. and since part of that busy-ness was a test she needed to take for teacher certification, i was also trying to keep from distracting her from the things she needed to do. so that was a part of the lack of testing. but i was feeling a little bit ignored, because the time we spent together was focused on w's needs. partly, because of the busy-ness, but also because i'd pulled back. if she didn't reach out to me, i wasn't putting any of myself out. and she wasn't reaching out to me.

her test was saturday morning, and then she had a clothing sale in the afternoon and evening. her phone wasn't working, so it was hard for us to keep in touch with each other. due to a misunderstanding or miscommunication, i'd expected that we were going to eat dinner together when she got home. she called before she came home and asked what i'd like for a treat. i asked for something small, not so much because i actually needed it, but just because it would have felt nice. when w finally got home, along with our friend, who'd been at the sale with her, she hadn't had a chance to get the treat, and wanted me to come get the bags of clothes so she could go to the corner store to get it. i said i didn't need her to go to the store, since i was perfectly capable of going to the corner store myself. so then w and the friend came in with the bags of clothes they'd picked up at the sale, and began to sort through them. i'd asked her to keep an eye out for some things for me–the sale has tons of clothes, on sale really cheaply, and it would've been nice to get some new clothes.

but i realized after about 20 minutes of watching them that they hadn't gotten anything for me. so in addition to still feeling hurt and distant from the previous week, and a little hurt over w having offered to get me a treat and then saying she'd forgotten, and then being pretty much ignore
d as they sorted through the clothes, i pulled away. mostly, it was because i didn't feel like making a fuss over things that i mostly expected to blow over once i'd gotten to a more rational state of mind. and there was also an element of not wanting to get into a discussion in front of the friend. so i quietly went into my room to wait for the friend to leave.

the friend left, and then w came to see how i was doing. i still didn't feel like talking, and said so. w went out, and took her bath. she came back in, and asked whether i'd eaten dinner. i said that i'd expected to eat with her when she came home.

here is where things went seriously awry. w said something along the lines of "you should have known i would be home late, so you're getting a spanking." i protested that i'd fully intended to eat dinner, but i hadn't known when she'd be home, and i'd wanted to eat with her. but w–trying to maintain consistency–was firm about the spanking.

had i had more presence of mind, i would have used a safeword at that point. i could tell it wasn't a good idea to have a spanking then. i was hurt, i felt disconnected from w, i felt angry… none of these were a good state for a spanking. i did try, somewhat, to let w know it wasn't a good time. we had some more back and forth, but w was holding firm.

so the part who was out took on a variation of the aggressive not-testing that had been going on all week. this time, instead of aggressively following the rules, which hadn't kept me from being punished, i was going to aggressively accept the consequences of failing to follow the rules. that is, i would take the spanking, but not allow it to affect me. i hadn't broken the rules deliberately, but i was being punished anyways.

"you should have known" is a major trigger for me. during most of my childhood, and certainly all through adolescence, the rules weren't stated, and they were inconsistent. i was frequently punished for things i "should have known" when, looking back, there was no reasonable way i could have known.

the incident that came up most strongly that saturday was a time when my mother had some friends come from out of town. the friends brought their kids, and then the moms went out to spend the day together, leaving me with the kids. i was probably fifteen or so, and spent the day taking care of my younger siblings plus the friends' kids–a total of eight younger children. the moms left around lunchtime, and by six or six-thirty, the kids were asking for something to eat. at this point, there wasn't much more food in the house, and in that pre-cell phone era, i didn't have a way to get in touch with the moms. so as it got further into the evening, i figured i'd better come up with a meal for the kids, since i had no idea when the moms would get back. i put something together from the food in the kitchen, and doled it out to the kids. and then the moms came home–at seven-thirty or so–with dinner. my mother was furious with me for having fed the kids a meal, and i was punished, because i should have known they would be coming home with dinner.

the incident didn't come up clearly as a memory, but more as a sense that i was in that kind of situation; i had the responses, without knowing where they were coming from right then.

so i bent over for the spanking from w, with the feelings of all the times i was punished for things i "should have known" when i was growing up raging in my head. growing up, what worked was to just steel myself to endure the punishment; that's what i attempted with w. the problem is, i'm not the same person i was then. i'm much less able to steel myself against pain, whether emotional or physical. and so instead of enduring the punishment and keeping myself separate both from w and my emotional response, i found myself saying "i hate you, i hate you." looking back, it was my mother that i was hating right then, but w was the one who was with me.

two strokes into the spanking, if not before that, i clearly should have used a safeword. but i was locked in emotional states from the past, when safewords were not an option, and flipped into a suicidal state. thinking back, it does make sense. i got through my childhood by holding tightly to the knowledge that if i could just hold on long enough, i could be somewhere safe. that was a method that worked well–i could focus my fear and frustration with the things going on at home into doing well at school, and i did get myself out, and far away from home. since leaving home, i haven't been abused.

the problem is, because what i remember most clearly and consistently are the emotional states from childhood, rather than the actual events, i often find myself terrified of those emotional states. i had an analogy for w, talking about this later. it is as though i'd gone to the circus, and right in the middle of watching the clowns, i was stepped on by an elephant. and then i blocked out all memory of the elephant, but associated clowns with the pain and fear of being stepped on by an elephant. clowns aren't actually the problem, but every time i see a clown, it's as though i'm being stepped on by an elephant.

so that fear, sadness, loneliness, distance, added to being punished for something i "should have known" that, in fact, i didn't know… it made me feel like i was back in a situation i only coped with the first time around by knowing that it would be over in a few years. if it was going to happen in my life now, there was no escape, and that was something i just couldn't handle.

obviously, i didn't commit suicide. what's more, i didn't actually do anything harmful to myself. but it was painful, and it was scary. the only way i resisted hurting myself was through sheer force of will, and i'm never entirely certain whether that force of will will remain strong enough to keep me from self-harm. i would keep sending w text messages, expressing how angry i was that she had done something that took me from feeling kind of depressed, but in a manageable way, to feeling actively suicidal. for most of the next two or three hours, i still didn't remember where the intensity of the feelings had originated (ie, in the childhood stuff) but i knew that w's choices that night had shifted the balance. so i was furious and hurt and scared.

i'm ambivalent about one thing i did–telling w it was her actions that made me feel suicidal. on the one hand, it's true, in the sense that she poked a trigger, repeatedly. on the other hand, she certainly isn't the source of the original hurts. and it hurt her feelings when i said that. if i were a nicer person, if i were the person i used to think i am supposed to be, i would have taken it back, apologized for hurting her, soothed her pain over me saying that she'd hurt me. but i've chosen not to do that. i've explained that the intensity of my hurt was from having been triggered, but i've also held onto the fact that yes, her actions did have that effect on me. and whether or not that was what she intended, i kind of hope that the pain of being told that her actions made me feel that bad will serve to keep her aware of how her actions will affect me.

we've spent the past month rebuilding trust with each other. it's been a long and cautious road. i've been careful to follow the rules, because neither of us had wanted to disturb the fragile balance we had, and we definitely didn't want to do anything that would lead to me feeling suicidal again. but we've been doing the rules again, and what's most reassuring is that i am much closer than i would have predicted to the state of trusting w that existed right before all of the problems started. there is still some testing of boundaries, but i'm collectively much more willing to believe that w is going to follow through with the rules.

i've al
so thought some about what w gets out of the rules. on the one hand, there are still parts of me who are wary of accepting anything from someone who has any ulterior motives. on the other hand, most of the things she wants are things i–some part of me, anyways–want as well. and perhaps there is a difference between someone wanting things i'm not willing or able to give, and someone wanting things that i want as well.

we still haven't come up with a great solution to the question of how to handle times when i am too triggered to safeword. right now, we're just both being cautious, and taking things slowly. i'm working on actually digging into the memories of stuff that happened, in the hopes that remembering the various elephants will make it easier for me to tolerate the clowns. it's the best i can come up with right now.

4 thoughts on “on safewords, flashbacks, and triggers

  1. Adrian

    (Hi. I left sss around 2002, and was never a very prolific poster, so you might not remember me. I’ve gone through some lifestyle changes, and become quite a bit more submissive, but I don’t want to explain all that in a comment to your post.)
    I don’t think safewords are critical for distinguishing consensual discipline from either kinky play or abuse. In both play and discipline situations, non-abusive tops are trying to cause pain without causing serious damage. I’ve always fantasized about being spanked by somebody who just *knew* exactly how much I could take, and who would push right up against that without actually breaking me. Uncle Stephen is extremely perceptive, but even after spanking me for 14 years he still can’t read my mind. I’m not afraid he will break me on purpose…but sometimes I’m afraid he will break me by accident, at one of those dangerous moments when I suddenly become very fragile. A safeword means both of us are looking out for those problems (which can involve emotional triggers. Also joint problems and migraine/seizure auras.)
    We’re both aware that I might not be able to use a safeword, either because I don’t recognize an oncoming problem before it shuts me down completely. He’s still as perceptive and responsible as he knows how to be, and he’s careful not to throw guilt trips (not to even hint at guilt trips) at me, either for using a safeword or not using it. BTW, it’s quite possible to do abuse with safewords. (My experience used leverage like, “You can call safeword if you need to get out of this punishment, which you know you really deserve,” and “I understand you might not be ready to trust me and submit, even though you know I’m doing this for your own good.” I found it a lot easier to dissociate than to safeword, and that took years to unlearn.)

  2. Adrian

    The sequence you describe, with your partner accidentally making things worse and worse…just makes me cringe. I’m so sorry that happened to you. You wrote:
    >had i had more presence of mind, i would have used a safeword at that point.

    >two strokes into the spanking, if not before that, i clearly should have used a safeword.
    *sputter* If all that had happened to me, I think I’d have needed to safeword a week before the spanking, when you were stunned with hurt and rejection and got your mouth soaped because you couldn’t talk about it before going to couples therapy. (If I’d had sufficient presence of mind, which would have been really hard and maybe not possible.)
    Nevertheless, I disagree with “i clearly should have used a safeword.” It would probably have been useful to safeword then, but that doesn’t imply you did anything wrong in NOT safewording (in not recognizing the problem, or in being too freaked out to say anything about it.) This stuff is really hard to deal with, as I’m sure you know.
    I haven’t found “being a nice person” to be in conflict with telling somebody they’ve hurt you. Even if they didn’t hurt you on purpose. If I had hurt somebody by mistake, especially somebody I loved, I’d want to know about it so I could try to avoid doing it again. (Wouldn’t you?) To use a somewhat less charged example, I have chronic hand pain, and limited use of my right hand. An ordinary businesslike handshake hurts quite a lot. (I’m not talking about the knucklebusting dominance game that’s a discreet form of arm-wrestling, or perhaps of bumping antlers.) After services, my congregation joins hands and sings together, and I have to warn my neighbor not to squeeze that hand. A few weeks ago, a bouncy 4-year-old on my right gripped my hand hard. I told her, “You need to be very gentle with my hand, it hurts a lot.” After a minute or so, she was dancing and swinging, picking up her feet to hang between my hand and her parent’s on the other side. No malice at all. I don’t think she had any idea how much damage she was doing (I managed not to scream.) I told her to stop, I told her why, and I don’t think it was a mistake.

  3. Jigsaw Analogy/Dyke Grrl

    thanks for the comments.
    i do want to clarify that i did *not* get my mouth soaped before couples’ therapy, and i actually addressed that threat pretty quickly: i am *NOT* ok with the rules being used to force me to say things that i’m not ready to say. we hashed that one out pretty thoroughly.
    and it’s true that safewords can be used abusively, just as pretty much anything else can be used abusively. but for me, in my relationship, having the safeword does make a difference. part of what i was talking about was my responsibility to recognize that much as i might want it to happen, w can’t actually read my mind (even if she does sometimes get pretty darned close), and i have as much responsibility as she does to communicate about what’s going on inside my head. i have inside knowledge of that, and she doesn’t.
    in the case of the spanking that went so badly, she was trying to follow through with something i’ve said over and over: “follow through, be consistent. commit to the course you’ve chosen.” she was doing this to the best of her ability.
    in some ways, i think that this post represents half of a conversation. i spent the first month focusing on all the things w had done wrong. this is natural and not entirely unreasonable (perhaps not productive in maintaining marital harmony, but still natural). by the time i’d processed through it enough to write about it here, and processed enough to feel like w and i would be continuing with ttwd, i’d recognized that i shared some of the responsibility for how things had gone.
    just as safewords can be used abusively, i recognize that following the rules and submitting to a punishment can be done aggressively. even though the purpose of the rules is to allow me to feel closer to w, i can also use them to push her away. and i was submitting to that spanking with my mind in a space where i was entirely unwilling to accept it. in the past, that’s put us into a power struggle–she could spank and spank, and it wouldn’t touch me. but because of whichever combination of parts that were out, or triggers i had experienced, rather than enduring a punishment and keeping her away, too much stuff was near the surface, and i freaked out.
    i think that had i been willing to let her close, a great deal of that would have been prevented. more to the point, and more reasonable, had i been willing at some point that week to discuss what had been going on for me emotionally, a great deal of trouble would have been prevented. i have a bad habit of pulling away and not talking when i’ve been hurt. in the past, it served a fairly useful purpose, but it’s not particularly helpful in the present.
    it’s a process, and we’re going through it. and i’m thinking it’s different for everyone.

  4. Vivian

    Hi all,
    This is Vivian over at The Disciplined Feminist blog.
    I wanted to email you, but didn’t I couldn’t get your email link to work! PLEASE forgive me for posting this to comments. Didn’t know how else to reach you and didn’t want to pass you by, either.
    I wanted to let you know that Variant Books is publishing the first-ever Disciplined Feminist spanking/DD book, called “How to Get the Spanking You Want: The Complete Guide to Asking for It, Getting It and Making It Better.” (which by the way, discusses the issue of triggers, flashbacks, spanking and childhood abuse extensively!)
    So that as many women (and men!) have access to this information as possible, I’m reaching to other women in the community for help in spreading the information about this new resource. Would you be interested in sharing this resource with your readers?
    You can get more info at http://www.HowToGetASpanking.com.
    Sincerest apologies again for posting this to comments — No offense intended!
    The Disciplined Feminist


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