Once again, we have a fairly sensitive topic for Ask Dr. NerdLove. I’m going to warn everyone now: I’m going to ride hard on the comments section. The rule is simple: Don’t be an asshole about this. Otherwise I drop the hammer.
Hello Dr. NerdLove!
I have kind of a sensitive issue to talk about. The other day I went out with my boyfriend and his coworkers to a dinner. I like most of his coworkers since I talk to them several times a week when I pick my boyfriend up for lunch and drop him off afterwards. However, at the dinner there was one coworker whom I’ve never really met before whom I guess I’ll just call A for this story. Right from the start A made me feel uncomfortable. I’m a vegetarian, which most of his coworkers know, so when his boss asked me what kind of appetizer I liked, I picked a vegetarian one. A and his girlfriend then criticized the lack of meat in the option and loudly proclaimed that it wasn’t food unless it had meat in it. That made me feel uncomfortable but, then again, I’m used to the “Gasp! That’s horrible! What do you eat?” reaction from everyone and their brothers. It’s rude to harass and berate me for it, especially at a dinner with coworkers, but it seems like that’s still a socially accepta ble form of abuse in polite company.
Still, this is really the appetizer (I’m sorry) of this story. Most of my boyfriend’s coworkers are women and, actually, he and A were the only two men at this dinner of seven people. Both A and my boyfriend are ex-wrestlers and at one point the conversation turned towards wrestling. At first that was fine — weight categories and this match they had or that one (whatever) — but then A asked if my boyfriend had ever wrestled a girl before.
What followed was a frankly rather uncomfortable conversation between the two of them that eventually devolved into A telling a sexually charged (and misogynistic) story about a wrestling match with a girl that I, honestly, don’t remember the details of because I was so uncomfortable I spent the whole time staring at my salad with my hand on my boyfriend’s knee trying to think up SOME way to tell him that the topic made me uncomfortable and could we PLEASE go back to discussing his other coworker’s upcoming vacation to Trinidad? If his phone hadn’t been dead, I would have just texted him and told him, explicitly, to stop it and change the topic. As it was, I didn’t want to speak up and invite more criticism (especially not after being berated for my food choices) and I couldn’t focus enough to see if the other women at the table were as uncomfortable as me. Eventually, A’s girlfriend and the boss-lady both told the men to switch the topic, but not before I was about ready to burst into tears right there at the dinner table.
You see, the truth is I survived being raped as a young teenager. I’m now in my mid-twenties and ten years removed from the experience. Thanks to some frankly fantastic counselors, therapists, family, and friends, I live a pretty awesome life and I’ve been able to overcome androphobia, depression (including several suicide attempts), and PTSD to live like any other loudly, proudly nerdy young woman. I work at my dream job (even though I have 2 female coworkers out of the 20 in my department) and sometimes I deal with idiots who fling around rape jokes like they aren’t stabbing me in the heart with every word out of their mouth. But even that’s just a blip on my RADAR where once upon a time it was the end of my day and I wouldn’t be able to function anymore. I am the picture of “It does get better!” but even I’m not immune from moments like this dinner which cause flair ups of panic attacks to happen.
Thankfully, I kept it together all through the rest of dinner and even though I forced most of my cheerfulness at the end, I did enjoy talking to my boyfriend’s coworkers. I didn’t start crying until it was just my boyfriend and I in the car and I was finally able to let all the pent up emotions come out in a place where I felt safe. Now, my boyfriend knows about my past. He knows that he’s the first person I’ve ever managed to hold down a relationship with, and he knows that even though I go day by day like any other woman, I do sometimes become hyper aware of people around me and get uncomfortable. Despite all this, I’ve never let him see me have a panic attack before — I’ve had two others during the course of our relationship and in both of them I just went back to my place and had them in the privacy of my own home. This is the first one and, aside from doing everything wrong by telling me to just calm down, he said a few things that really upset me.
First, when I told him in no uncertain terms that I would not ever go to a function if A would be present, he told me not to worry so much about it — that’s just A’s personality. Besides, he said, A’s not my boyfriend so he wasn’t the one I had to worry about. I was so upset — again! — by what he said that I could not even reply. I just dropped him off at his home and went back to mine to cry some more.
It’s been a few days and I’m still upset. I don’t know what to say to my boyfriend. He really upset me but no matter how many times I try to explain to him about what PTSD is and how even though you can be functionally cured it never actually goes away, and how I’m more sensitive to the things people say to me because of my past, I sometimes feel like I’m hitting a brick wall. Don’t get me wrong — my boyfriend is a great guy. He didn’t run away when I told him my past. He waited over a year for me to be ready to have sex and then walked me through my very first consensual sexual encounter (and it was wonderful). He brings me tea and sweets when I’m working long nights and surprises me with my favorite foods or a new video game when I’m stressed out. He conspires with me to make some rather epic cosplays for con season. He really does make me happy but I am so stuck. I feel like I’ve done everything I can to make him see things the way I do.
If you have any insight on how I should have dealt with dinner or what I can possibly say to help my boyfriend understand why he’s upset me so much, that would be great. As it is, I’m starting to lose hope that he’ll ever get it. Maybe I’m asking too much to expect that from him, but I don’t ever want to go back to that dark time in my life where I kept my mouth shut and didn’t talk about it. I’d rather be single than go back to that, but I don’t want to lose one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.
Bent, not Broken