(c)January 2016 All rights reserved This article is the sole property of the author and CAN NOT be reprinted in any format without express written permission of the author
I write this article as both a submissive and Dominant with Complex PTSD. This is an important topic for me that I speak about at events and conventions. Engaging with anyone with PTSD isn’t easy. There are crucial things to watch out for during kinky play. Complex PTSD is even more difficult to work with because it involves deep-rooted issues that often stem back to childhood.
Coming at this from both Dominant and submissive angles gives me a unique perspective. I’m very aware of my trauma; I know most of my triggers, but sometimes my partner finds one that I wasn’t aware of. This is why patience, knowledge, and education are of utmost importance when you are involved in the BDSM community.
When I first got into BDSM, I observed a lot of unhealthy practices. I saw people playing without respecting safe words and boundaries. I witnessed people that seemed to have a great deal of unaddressed childhood trauma get so spun up and triggered that a consensual play session caused them to feel violated. And all this made the community look terrible to me. While I knew I was kinky as heck, it wasn’t worth the risk.
Thankfully, I was fortunate enough to find a Dom that was not only knowledgeable about PTSD, but was patient as well.
Communication is Required
The first time my Dom and I spoke about our kink, he asked me the simple question, “Do you want to call me Sir?” I was still so new at the time that I didn’t even realize what he was asking. But I didn’t reach that understanding for at least a week, because the moment he said it I jumped back thirty years. I was suddenly five, looking up at abusers, forced to call the men Sir, and it triggered me hard.
I learned a valuable lesson at that moment. First, I didn’t even know the word ‘Sir’ was a trigger for me. I’d forgotten—as often happens with trauma—that I’d had to call abusers that. Second, I hadn’t communicated to the Dom I was speaking with that I had PTSD. I knew I did, but at the time I hadn’t put two and two together to realize that the communication issues that surrounded me in my current BDSM community were the direct effect of not communicating vital information. By not telling him that I had C-PTSD, I put us both at risk for disaster.
I’d been so triggered by this event that I ignored his calls and texts to check up on me. I’d said I think about it (calling him Sir), and get back to him. Except I didn’t. I disappeared on him instead.
I never expected him to care because the people I knew at the time didn’t handle my triggers the way this Dom did. I usually got the, “Sorry you’re triggered,” speech, but no assistance. I’d never been encouraged to discuss the details of it or offered help to work through it. I was often told that the people in my life couldn’t be my therapist. Sometimes I wasn’t aware I’d been triggered, and I was told I was, but then I’d be dismissed.
While I do understand boundaries and did not expect friends or partners to act as my therapist (I had/have a good therapist), I will never understand that mentality. Now I make sure to have people in my life that care enough to allow me to talk through my triggers. It makes a world of difference, and I only know that because this Dom worked me through it.
He wasn’t magic. He didn’t perform some sort of spell to make me talk. He recognized I wasn’t responding to his calls or texts and he told me he was worried. I was at a convention, and sent him a message saying the Sir thing triggered me, and he demanded I call right away. He told me he didn’t care what time of night it was, or who he was with, if something he’d said triggered me I was to call him ASAP.
In that one seemingly small moment, he changed my life. He became my Dom.
Working Through Triggers
There are several ways to get through a trigger once it’s happened, or if you feel it coming. When that Sir trigger happened, my Dom and I talked through it and I also took it to therapy. Because he is a caring Dom, he didn’t want to ditch me just because I’d gotten triggered and didn’t communicate. Instead, he had me discuss it with my therapist, and she and I worked out a fear ladder.
For those of you who don’t know what a fear ladder is, it is a written hierarchical list. You begin with the least triggering fear on the bottom and the most triggering at the top. You can use these for any topic or action that is triggering to you or your partner.
I began small. First I used the word in my fiction writing (bottom of ladder). Later in emails to my Dom (next step up). Then I worked up to calling my husband and strangers Sir (third step, and so on). Once I had that down, then I began calling my husband Sir during sex, until that wasn’t an issue. All of this was desensitizing me, so when I called my Dom, Sir, it wouldn’t be so triggering. It did take some force of will on my part, and I had to call him Sir when I wasn’t in a dropped state first. But eventually I was able to call him Sir without getting triggered. When that happened, the word lost power over me.
The most important lesson learned here is that communication enabled me to be honest about the trigger. Then, in the company of a caring Dom and supportive therapist and husband, I got to push my limits and face that triggery word. Doing this worked me through it. I may not care for the word now, but I can say it with ease, and it doesn’t trigger me anymore.
We’ve also applied this same method to kissing. When I was young, I was hit on the side of the head for kissing. I don’t remember a lot of details, just being told that kissing gets us caught, and then I was hit so hard on the side of my head that I now suspect that’s what broke my jaw. I brought this information to my therapist and Dom because I wanted to kiss my girlfriend without feeling extreme fear and stabbing pain down the side of my face and neck.
We created another fear ladder, and worked our way up the ladder.
My Dom and I have used this method for many issues of mine, even the tougher ones. It took seven months of talking and working over the phone before I was able to submit to him in person and get the beating I’d been wanting for so long. What made it work was my Dom not pushing me to skip steps or by expecting me to just get over it. Because he’s always patient and uses my therapist’s guidelines to make the experience safe and enjoyable, I get to heal with each scene.
It took me a while to even see that he was making plans and creating scenes to align with my fear ladder. He was so creative that I often didn’t understand what he was doing until after I worked through something and could see it from the other side. Then it was, “Ah! I see what you did!” It was fantastic that he made my healing and trauma fun to work through and overcome.
This method of working through trauma and fear has also helped me in my Domme space. I, of course, always communicate that I have Complex PTSD to my subs, and I share what my triggers are. I’m a strict Domme, and that is in part because I can’t have a submissive do something without my consent that might trigger me. That is very unsafe. Not because I’m afraid of what I’ll do, but because I withdraw. When someone is in subspace, and I’m responsible for them, I can’t risk checking out and not caring properly for them.
My Dom used to tell me, “Doms have safe words too.” Mine as a Domme is the same as my sub’s. So there’s no confusion by using different words. Red will always mean stop.
I also make sure my submissive has contact numbers for my husband and Dom, in case of an emergency. Both of them know how to pull me back, as well as calm the submissive in the moment. This isn’t an optional thing for me. This is a hard boundary.
This isn’t to say I can’t use a fear ladder as well if I want to do something for a submissive and know it might trigger me. I can have one of my Dominant partners there with me, watching over in case something goes wrong. Again, the key is communication, and having all parties in the know is vital to success.
I also use fear ladders for my subs. I haven’t had many under me… yet, but as time goes on and I fully embrace my Dominant side, I know this number will grow. I’ve had a great mentor when it comes to being Dominant, and I know what can be accomplished when things are done safely. Therefore, I encourage subs to be open to their trauma. To talk about it even if they don’t know where it’s coming from.
This isn’t an option. It’s required.
I also (just as was done with me) require that any submissive dealing with complex issues see a therapist. This isn’t a judgment. I have one too. And I know my husband goes to therapy, and my Dom did as well. These things aren’t shameful, but encouraged and positively rewarded. Growth and accountability, and taking responsibility for oneself, is hot.
No matter what position you’re in or how bad you think the PTSD is, you can overcome complex behaviors that have prevented growth in the past. Getting your therapist’s input is a vital step in this. It’s also important to realize that one person’s needs cannot supersede another’s. If at any time my Dom suddenly required me to do things that caused me harm, whether emotional, physical or mental, then it stops being healthy and becomes dangerous. I trust him to put my health first. This goes for my expectations of subs as well.
As a Dom/Domme, our job is to make sure we are taking care of ourselves as well as those under us who depend on us to be supportive, encouraging, safe, and to push where we know it’s safe to push. As a sub, our job includes communicating where we’re at mentally, emotionally, and physically so we don’t leave a triggering bomb for our partner. No matter which side of the D/s relationship you’re on, we are all responsible for healthy communication, for making sure we are working through our issues and being the best we can for our partners, saying no and/or asking for help when needed, and for making the experiences as delightful as possible while we work through trauma.
The Unexpected Trigger
One of the hardest things to work through is the unexpected trigger. Whether it’s with a new partner, something that comes as a surprise to established partners, or is a case where someone didn’t communicate properly, we need to be prepared.
My Dom had this to say: “PTSD hides. It doesn’t make itself plain, or make its demands clear in advance. No matter the negotiation and consent arrived at before the start of the scene, when a PTSD landmine is accidentally triggered and an unexpected reaction occurs, the scene needs to stop. It may pause just long enough for a deep conversation to follow before continuing, or it may spell the end of that session. Either way, proper care of the wounded party must immediately follow. I find that there are few things more wonderful than hitting a landmine, dealing with its underlying tensions and then enjoying the deepening of trust and beauty of submission that results.”
I’ve thrown my Dom into plenty of, “Oh shit, I’m triggered,” moments. Part of the danger of the type of abuse I suffered is that with sexual abuse, often times I’ll check out. I will completely disassociate and not know anything is even wrong until days later.
In these cases, there isn’t a lot I can do except try to communicate what went wrong and why. Because here’s the reality: things will go wrong. We are human and can’t always foresee the icebergs ahead.
One thing that’s made it easier for me—as a sub, since this hasn’t happened in my Domme space—is my Dom not shaming me when we do hit a roadblock. He is always in charge, always in control, but when he realizes that something has gone wrong, he shifts how he’s doing things. He moves into a more compassionate stance, he’ll lower himself so we are at eye level, and he’ll call me princess or move into Daddy space and comfort me.
His flexibility is what shifts things for me. I don’t have to feel guilty or ashamed that I stumbled into a trigger I wasn’t aware of. Instead, I get to be Daddy’s princess for a bit, take a little break from the heavy D/s play to be cherished and held.
When this happens it’s important that he stays in control. Were he to panic and respond by swapping roles by handing over control to me, that would be a nightmare (I’ve watched such psychically dangerous reversals happen at events and I shudder each time). Another huge danger would be pushing that sub further when they clearly need to stop.
Remaining in control as a Dom/Domme is vital to working through the situation. Part of what makes us feel safe as submissives is the knowledge that we aren’t in control. We can trust that if we are afraid, sad, and/or upset, someone will take care of us.
Taking care of my subs after a scene feels the same for me whether he or she has PTSD or not. Either way, that person needs time to recover from what transpired. When you’re specifically working through a trauma or past a trigger, the aftercare portion might take days.
When I’m in need of aftercare, it doesn’t mean I need my Dom to sit with me for the duration of those days. What it does mean is that while I’m working through my new understandings and acceptance, I might be depressed and need to talk about it. I need understanding and compassion.
This is also a time when I’m encouraged to schedule a therapy session so I can relay my new understandings and accomplishments to my therapist. When I’m in charge, I also ask my sub to schedule an appointment. It’s an important step to include because sometimes it means you get to move up to the next step on the fear ladder, or it might be that you’ve managed to climb the entire thing in one scene. While this last point may seem a stretch, I have witnessed it more than once.
This kind of aftercare extends outward for days, weeks, or whatever is needed after the scene. Making sure that the Dom/Domme in the situation is okay with that level of commitment is important. It’s a lot to ask of someone. It’s worth it when you find people that will help you on that healing journey, but a lot to take on. This is why I’m grateful for my Dom every day.
Making it Fun
Figuring out how to make trauma scenes enjoyable can be difficult at times. It requires the submissive to communicate what he or she needs clearly, and the Dominant to pay even closer attention to words and bodily responses. While I have a long list of examples I could share, recently I had a life-changing experience that I feel best encompasses how to make dealing with trauma pleasurable.
I’d gone to a party with the sole intent of having fun. But when I got there, I knew a suppressed memory was trying to surface. The memory had been trying to come back for a while, but I didn’t want to deal with it. It was a party and I wanted to have fun instead. This is where being a responsible sub comes into play. I knew I needed to tell my Dom for safety reasons, so I did.
To give a bit of backstory, I have a history of protecting abusers and making excuses for their behavior. This pattern of withholding and protecting was negatively affecting my present circumstance. But trying to get to the root of why I was protecting abusers wasn’t easy because I couldn’t remember what had happened to me or what had caused me to behave this way.
As per usual, D insisted my trauma be worked with before free play (scenes where trauma isn’t intentionally being worked through), so that I had no distractions. I told him how I’d not been able to eat for days, my stomach was in knots constantly, and while we were discussing it, I realized my throat was hurting too. As I pointed out where it was hurting in my throat, he observed. Paid close attention. Then reached his right hand up and wrapped it around my neck.
My heart sank in that moment.
My Dom is left-handed, so when he puts his hand around my throat, it’s never triggered me. It’s simply hot. But with his right hand, his thumb touched where my stabbing pain resided. Even though he wasn’t pressing, it hurt so badly that I could hardly take it. Tears ran down my cheeks, and he reminded me I could use my safe word. He always reminds me of that, especially when we are working through such a traumatic memory.
I assured him I knew, but wanted to let my memory surface.
He kept his hand there for a long time, and I sat through the pain. The worse it got, the more I cried.
After the pain began to subside, he told me to come for him. Reward is a tactic he uses often. I came for him, with him at my right side and his hand still around my neck. And as I came, his hand transformed that pain into pleasure, which then allowed the memory of what happened to surface.
I’d been strangled and kicked for telling on an abuser. While there was much more to the trauma, the most important part to share is how I worked through it. Now all my Dom has to do is hold up his right hand and mimic squeezing my throat, and I come instantly. A right hand around my neck no longer means I’m dying, but “I’m coming!” instead.
There was energy work (Tantra) and talking involved as well, and the ultimate healing took two days to work through completely, including scenes off and on as more memories surfaced. At times my Dom told me it was like watching an exorcism, though he didn’t mean it in a religious sense. He’d asked me questions, made sure I was being present with him when I showed signs of checking out. He’d ask what I was feeling, what position I was in, and was careful not to lead me by telling me anything. He asked and made me answer. He also assured me I was safe, and kept telling me I was with him.
This was the most difficult memory I’ve had to work through, because the man who I’d told on in my youth wanted to kill me. I saw it in his eyes. He couldn’t, and I can only assume it’s because it would have left too many questions. But I knew even back then that telling is dangerous for my health.
When we’re working through any memory, trauma, fear, trigger, no matter what it is, we have to be patient. Take our time. Not lead, but support instead. Make our submissives feel safe and able to talk about what’s going on. By creating a safe environment for the submissive to work on whatever is haunting him or her, we leave that area open for healing. I’m fortunate to have such a wonderful Dom that doesn’t just work me through my trauma, but also leaves me better on the other side. Often with many orgasms, lots of, “Good, girl,” moments, and he always makes sure to tell me how proud he is of my progress.
With his comments and actions, he rewires my neural pathways. Rather than feel pain in my neck when I think about telling on an abuser, I feel D’s hand around my throat, making me come for him. It’s changed everything and allowed me to deal with and acknowledge this very dark experience that has affected me since childhood.
There are many ways to make the experience delightful. The key for me—whether I’m in the submissive or Dominant position—is to make sure that all parties are prepared. This happens by having good communication, by being open if an action or commentary isn’t working, and if things go wrong, having the time to comfort the person in need. The more the submissive shares about what he or she is feeling, the more successful and enjoyable the scene can be.
There is much to say about being in the kink scene and having PTSD. It is also possible to get PTSD from an abusive D/s relationship. While I have experience with having a good Dom who understands my Complex PTSD, as well as being a good Domme with Complex PTSD, I have no experience with bad Doms/Dommes. I’ve seen them coming a mile away, and I run. I’ve seen far too many friends be traumatized or re-traumatized because of irresponsible and criminal acts.
The most important thing to remember is that if you have PTSD, communicate clearly. If you know your triggers, tell your Dominant or submissive. Make sure you have backup plans for when a scene goes wrong.
Being in a D/s relationship can be very beneficial and healing for those with fears, trauma, or anxiety. Responsible partners can push us past our limits and build confidence. Use fear ladders if you need them, and have the necessary talks with one another and your therapist. D/s can open doors to great opportunities for change. My growth wouldn’t have been possible without my submission to a caring—yet firm—Dom.
* Disclaimer: I’ve written this as an author with personal experience. I am not a therapist and am not giving medical advice with this post. Please see your therapist and discuss these options before jumping into intense trauma scenes.
Sienna Saint-Cyr writes erotica and blogs about kink, poly, body image, and most things relating. Follow her at siennasaintcyr.wordpress.com or on Twitter @siennasaintcyr.