The Mammalian Dive Reflex

I wasn’t supposed to meet him. During the height of the Great Recession, I fly from Seoul to Oakland, which will become my new home. My Craigslist rental is not pedestrian friendly, and the local bus stops running at 7 p.m. every night. Weeks after my arrival, seated in an aisle seat listening to Pema Chodron’s “Getting Unstuck” on an iPod I bought in one of Seoul’s labyrinthine underground malls, a group of people rip the earbuds from my body and take off with my purse at the next stop.

Miles from the nearest BART station and afraid of riding the bus, I use my quickly dwindling funds to buy my first bicycle.

I spend my days with my hand up a horse’s ass, says a tall, bespectacled man chatting at the front of the store with a woman at the counter. It is she who, with a hint of scolding in her voice, instructs him to help me pick out a bicycle helmet.

He’s not a veterinarian. He’s a research scientist. And I’m jocular back. After I’m outfitted with a bicycle, rear and front lights, a u-lock, and a helmet, he offers to bike with me back to Oakland.

I’ll be your wingman, he says. As a first-time road biker, I am glad for the company and wary of the cars’ proximity to my body.

This is my stop, he says, at an intersection leading toward the lake that—by night—is circled by a necklace of lights.

How odd, I think, when he hands me his business card. It seems formal in a way I’m unaccustomed to.

Sure, I say, taking it. I’d like to make new friends.

When he asks me out to dinner, I wonder if it’s a date. Nobody has ever asked me on a date before. I email a queer filmmaker friend on the east coast and asked for her advice.

What should I do? I write, giddy and also confused. He’s a straight dude.

I never turn away from a new friend. Never turn away from someone. Stay open, she wrote back. Okay, I think. Okay. I say yes to the date.

It doesn’t work. The date. He loses my address, forgets his phone, and never meets me at my Oakland home. I forget about him and bicycle to another friend’s place. She tells me I can hang out. She and her partner are home, and so is their new puppy. I talk aloud about the formality of this man, this man in his 30s, which to me is so old. How I just want to meet friends. How nobody has ever asked me on a date, proper. How I had had to clarify if he was asking me on a date to dinner or just a friendly dinner. I could not tell.

He needs to disabuse himself of that notion, I say, talking quickly to my friends, about dating, about being new in town, about being wary of straight men in new places wanting to spend time with me.

We are standing on her balcony when I receive a phone call from an unknown number. It’s him. We reschedule.

I’m the first one to kiss him, under a streetlight, both of us wearing bicycle helmets.

Why did you kiss me? he asks.

I wanted to know what it would feel like, I say.

Do you often spend your free time making out with straight men?

I think about you all the time, he later emails me. I can’t stop thinking about you at work.

He’s in his 40s now. I’m, of course, younger. What a quiet, sweet, sick, quick little thing is date rape. Sexual assault. Rape. A queer indigenous mixed-race friend told me on the phone, If it quacks like a duck, walks like a duck, and looks like a duck … it’s a duck.

Somehow, calling it the four-letter word starting with “r” is devastating. In the aftermath I am calling hotlines and making a flurry of calls to friends and acquaintances. In the heat of the moment, people say. Maybe you misunderstood, another woman acquaintance tells me. This wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t been having sex before marriage, says a RAINN crisis counselor.

I hang up on her. I feel so vulnerable. I was using crutches at the time, nursing contusions after being taken down by a driver’s careless opened door, three full lanes of traffic to my left.

Pieces of glass pierced through my fingers and palms, which had caught my body and broken part of my fall when I tumbled headfirst to the asphalt. A streak of blood covers my damaged bicycle helmet, into which I — seated and doubled over in the ER’s waiting room — cry. I send real-time text messages on my flip phone to friends.

Still waiting, I type out on a QWERTY keyboard. My fingers are sore, but able to type.

In the Highland Hospital ER, where I spend eight hours, I lay in a waiting area behind a curtain, not quite believing my ears as someone announces on the intercom, Transvaginal probe missing. Seconds later: Transvaginal probe found. I thought it was a joke. I remember giggling, the white sheet of paper rustling beneath me on the examination table.

Were you wearing a helmet? an acquaintance asked later, after the ER.

Yes, I said, surprised by her juridical tone. There was a flashing red light on the back of my bicycle, and a solid white beam of light projecting off of my handlebars. Yes, I had done everything to keep myself safe. I had stayed in the bike lane. I had signaled. I had worn my protective equipment. I had not, however, taken the lane. I had not taken the lane. I did not know I could take the lane.

Soon after the rape, I began to fear seeing this person in public. Makes sense. In an area of interconnected cities, I begin to fear places that remind me of him. The free peer counseling offered by a local rape crisis organization was at the same BART station where he dropped me off after a date, after we had walked our bicycles in the dark to his apartment, after we had drunk rice milk in his kitchen and I’d observed his tidy bathroom.

Never before had I been afraid of going to a physical place. I moved easily through life, traveling alone through Europe and East Asia, without my breath catching in my throat. I moved through the world with a fluidity that later became angular and rife with dead ends, places where I learned first-hand that freezing was a possible response in the repertoire of flight and fight. I had believed I could overcome everything. Anything. All things.

Weeks later, still using crutches from my bicycle accident and after the rape, I am hired for a full-time albeit temporary position. I feel elated. Not least because I had $43 in my checking account. I stare hard at the Chase bank representative when I go into a local branch to withdraw some money.

What? I challenge. I could feel his judgment. But I was paying off a $2,000 ambulance transport bill, and had been job-hunting for months. These injuries and accidents will drain a person of all available cash. Previously I had biked everywhere, sometimes 10 and 11 miles a day. In the mornings I ran around the lake, leaping over piles of duck caca and discarded food wrappers.

My legs were strong, the muscles lean and clearly defined and when I fell, when I was injured, when the bruises made it difficult for me to walk, and the glass had yet to work its way out of my hands, it felt as though I had been forced to a grinding halt. My body could not reconcile the rhythm and medicine of physical movement with the terrifying involuntary stupor of stillness that results from physical injury. When I most wanted to run, I could not. When I most wanted to bike for miles and miles and feel the wind on my skin, I could not. When I needed to run and feel the tension in my shoulders loosen and finally disappear with each successive stride, I could not. My body’s tension screamed from the inside. I felt — most of all — helpless, terrorized, trapped, and despondent.

Trapped in a vulnerable, mortal, injured body. Trapped in a house with stairs and no public transportation within easy walking distance. Trapped by the inability to escape when and how I wanted, whenever I wanted. I rented a room with two other women who both had cars. I had my two feet and, as of a month before my move-in, a bicycle. A bicycle that became my second body, a sleek, fleet-wheeled body that carried me and carried the wind and carried the food that I ferried back to my home. Bags of persimmons, a large container of laundry detergent, glass jars of kimchi, bags of broccoli crowns, bulk plastic bags filled with brown rice, rolled oats, candied ginger. It carried and moved my grief from place to place, allowed for movement when staying still meant drowning.

I was new to the city, and new to the place, and new to the people whom I met. People who helped me in immeasurable ways. People who came into my life and just as easily left it. After the rape, I lost people from my life. People who, in their witnessing of my temporary disability and need, were reminded of all the ways in which they hadn’t been cared for in their lives. People who bowed out and turned away. People who did not want to be around a grieving, depressed, inconsolable person whom they did not recognize because all they remembered was the fast, garrulous, open-hearted, laughing young woman. Who was smart, who was focused, who wanted a job, who volunteered and spoke out against injustice and organized in the community.

I changed. I changed and I couldn’t hide it. My voice developed a hard edge. I couldn’t force myself to smile. I became afraid and small and my world was made small with that fear. But it was a gradual process, in the way a forest becomes stone. Petrified forest of a body.

I felt this, bodily—You don’t get to be that person again. You are someone else. Not less. Physics and its laws prevent that. But changed. Transformed. As Lomonosov disproved phlogiston theory and, later, Lavoisier saw the 17th century’s alchemy and raised it chemistry:

All reactions tend towards a state of chemical equilibrium, the point at which both the forward process and the reverse process are taking place at the same rate. Since the forward and reverse rates are equal, the concentrations of the reactants and products are constant at equilibrium. It is important to remember that even though the concentrations are constant at equilibrium, the reaction is still happening! That is why this state is also sometimes referred to as dynamic equilibrium.

Chemical Equilibrium, Khan Academy

There is a clear delta point in the proof of my life after rape. And the poison is this: the greater your trauma, the less willing people are to see into who you are, less patient with the effects of that trauma. Especially as adults. When we are children, perhaps people are more open, even if less skilled at handling a child’s woundedness. But as adults, when we are torn apart and rendered vulnerable as we are, naked and laid bare, there is a hushed stigma and a not knowing, a disappearance, and judgment. In a new city, with a tender new group of friends and their social circles, I became the problem, the outsider, the odd one. And I accepted it. Shame and isolation resulted.

Safety is difficult to define, embody. At night I began sleeping with the lights on. When I still couldn’t sleep, I watched dog rescue videos on YouTube and listened to people wordlessly drawing ink pictures of catfish or describing old clocks. The more mundane the better. When the prospect of experiencing any emotion was terrifying, I took solace in reading the distant, clinical, academic language of research articles. Places where words like rape, trauma, and abuse are not easily found nor readily discussed in the first person. Places where I might find answers. Places where I tried to track my past self, wishing I could get her back, remembering a thought that flashed in my head as I lay on the black pavement with cars driving past my body: I wasn’t supposed to meet him.

One of my jobs in New York City was with StoryCorps. I remembered a lone participant who entered the recording booth to talk about an injury to their lower body, how their mobility was indefinitely impeded. They were around my age, and I remember feeling bewildered by their searing anger at their own body.

How could they be so angry at their body? I wondered. Their body had done nothing wrong. At the time, I didn’t understand their response. But when I lived in Oakland, when my legs were so bruised and sore that I could not flex or bend them without wincing, a rush of recognition flooded my body—the same impatience, the same lowing sense of betrayal. Whereas the person in the recording booth reacted with anger, I froze and felt a deep sense of loss. That I had, in some fundamental way, failed to protect myself as an adult.

More evenings than I could count were spent with my body inert in front of my glowing laptop screen, the black line of a cursor blinking back at me. What is wrong with me, I typed into DuckDuckGo’s search bar. How to heal from PTSD. What is date rape. How to heal from rape. Don’t want to go outside. Why am I a hermit. I found the clarity and assertiveness of advice columns calming, and clicked on videos compiled on SootheTube. Once I even discovered an article on a woman around my age who after much trial and error found companionate help in a small Lhasa apso dog named Dexter.

For a few months after college I was homeless. I was 18 when I came out to my friends, and in my last year of college when I told my mother that I was queer.

I don’t care about you, my mother had said, when my friend drove me to get a copy of my video documentary—accepted into a film festival—from my childhood home.

When I could not make sense of what was happening to me and what I was experiencing, I found validation and explanation in systemic, macro views of human-to-human wounding. The internet became a place where I could safely read at a distance about common responses to trauma, hold them up like two strips of photo negatives against the light—what I read online and what I observed in myself—and compare. Not for normal but for likeness.

It didn’t make sense to me, why the experiences had so upended me. I didn’t know why resolving them felt so intractable. “Doing all of the right things” didn’t help.

You can’t push the river, I told my friend after I tried to bicycle again for the first time in months and found myself too scared and shaking afterwards. I needed, simply, to slow down. Almost as though I was re-teaching my body how to move through the substance called air, remind it that it was not treacle. Dr. Kali Tal is a researcher whose work came to me during a diving expedition of endless internet queries. Right away, I admired her work, its focus, and most importantly had never before read someone articulate so concisely what I knew to be true based on personal experience—there is no “quick fix” for rape and trauma:

Much human-caused trauma is systemic, rather than exceptional. Those of us who want to treat PTSD in the U.S. need to ask ourselves how best to treat PTSD in community under siege, where we’re attempting to help patients who were probably traumatized before, and are quite likely to be traumatized again.

PTSD: The Futile Search for the “Quick Fix”, Kali Tal, PhD

What is unhooked in the body is skin from musculature, sensation from nerves. What is lost is the connection to my body. I worked long hours, biking from the BART train exit to work, where—when I arrived—the rain soaked through my coat and dress, my toes wet inside knee-high black boots. My job began at the height of the Bay Area’s rainy season, and I brought a change of clothing, wrapped in a plastic bag in my pannier bag. Some nights I worked until 10 or 11 p.m.

Work saved, distracted me. I loved work for the way it consumed me. And, although my coworkers were the kind of people who didn’t leave me behind, who stayed with me after hours, although I even felt a sense of safety and calm in their presence, I didn’t trust it. I didn’t trust them to catch me. And I wouldn’t tell them why. And I didn’t know them so well. And the job was temporary. Although I remembered for a little while the sensation of people seated all around me, comforting in their proximity, in a restaurant booth after I’d led a successful hour-long training, after carpooling and noticing what it was to move in a group, it was in the end far too alien to me and I ejected myself from their company.

It is human to want to gather close when afraid. Yet I do not allow myself that kind of company.

But when the job required that I stay out past midnight, past the time when BART stops running, past when I can safely get myself home, I quit my job. I was terrified. If I did not have a safe place to sleep, and no means to get myself to that safe sleeping place, then I was by definition unsafe. A reasonable person might ask, “Where will I sleep when I have to work past the time BART stops running? How will I get home without a car?” A person severed from body and unsure of a new place forgets to ask these questions, or doesn’t know they can.

Lost work. What previously came without thought, autonomously, became taxing and exhausting. Navigating the brusque public transit system. Facing down another car honking its horn while swerving inches from my body perched atop a bicycle. Creeper men calling out and, when ignored, responding with verbal volleys of “Bitch,” and “Fuck you.” The loud noises of motorcycles backfiring down the street.

You are a body, young, small, and sometimes you shake without warning. Outside, there is no skin to cover you, and everything absorbs directly into the portal vein, into your blood.

The body is a cumulative, absorbent experience. Its physicality always upends and baffles me. I am uncomfortable being in a body, having rarely felt safe in having one, in mine. When I lived in New York City, and commuted the hour-and-a-half ride to work by subway, I read from Lewis Thomas’s The Lives of a Cell:

Theodor, in a series of elegant experiments, has shown that when two individuals of the same species are placed in close contact, the smaller of the two will always begin to disintegrate. It is autodestruction due to lytic mechanisms entirely under the governance of the smaller partner. He is not thrown out, nor outgamed, not outgunned; he simply chooses to bow out. It is not necessarily a comfort to know that such things go on in biology, but it is at least an agreeable surprise.

The oxygen in the atmosphere is the exhalation of the chloroplasts living in plants (also, for our amazement, in the siphons of giant clams and lesser marine animals). It is a natural tendency for genetically unrelated cells in tissue culture to form hybrid cells. Inflammation and immunology must indeed be powerfully designed to keep us apart; without such mechanisms, involving considerable effort, we might have developed as a kind of flowing syncytium over the earth, without the morphogenesis of even a flower.

The Lives of a Cell, from the essay “Thoughts for a Countdown”, Lewis Thomas, MD

Crowded onto buses and into BART trains, I think of immunology and morphogenesis. I think of a body that is separate and distinct.

One November, as a promise to myself, I ran my first 5K. It was by the water and within view of the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s unclear to me how I allowed myself to run, to inhabit my body for so long, long enough to prepare, long enough to oxygenate my body, long enough to remember that I can move and not be in danger.

Freezing is a sort of dive reflex, that curious and life-saving response innate in all mammals when finding themselves in water below suboptimal temperatures. Both involuntary, both in response to hostile environmental insults, both meant to preserve life:

A controlled reflex of onset bradycardia, a parasympathetic response, is foremost and reduces cardiac output dramatically, which by itself would induce a precipitous drop in arterial blood pressure. Thus the sympathetic nervous system counteracts the ensuing pressure drop, and a massive peripheral vasoconstriction commences redistributing circulating blood by reducing blood flow in cutaneous, muscular, and splanchnic circulations, but a maintained or augmented flow to the central nervous system and heart. Since these reflex behaviors, collectively coined the DR, are found in all vertebrates studied, they may be the ultimate weapon organisms posses to maintain life during asphyxia.

Michael Panneton, W. (2013). The Mammalian Diving Response: An Enigmatic Reflex to Preserve Life? Physiology, 28(5), 284–297. http://doi.org/10.1152/physiol.00020.2013

I imagine myself an otter, diving, my favorite rock tucked into a pouch of skin, navigating the brackish water with slick precision. I watch video of dogs maltreated by human hands and action—or inaction—slowly coaxed out of freezing postures, pancaking flat against the ground in kennel runs, with bits of food, gentle, consistent touch, and the absence of abuse. I watch the dogs shake as I shake, avoid as I avoid, and some who slowly begin to trust, again. Sometimes I even catch a glimpse of myself.


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S. Désirée Tiamat Cha is a writer, editor, and artist whose work appears at The Butter (RIP), Autostraddle, The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, and Hamilton Stone Review. She is a Fulbright and VONA/Voices alum who has lived in Europe, East Asia, and North America. Visit her online and support her work here.

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16 Comments

  1. Désirée I woke this morning and found you speaking to me through your raw honest accounting of an event that reverberates through me as well. I am lying in bed frozen in place streaming tears that my Baxter is is happily catching less they soak the pillow.

    I was assaulted and violated after a friendly lunch date, my wholeness stolen that froze me out of my life. I have endured pain of physical trauma that still awakens the night, my excuse for not sharing my body. I feel as if I am the one punished for some unrealized indiscretion.

    You spoke to me this morning and you said to me “I understand what it is to survive these traumas yet no longer thrive.” In ways you can’t know. I want to offer love and understanding you’re not allone in this. May you find your way out of this dense dark forest and shine the sun once again.

    With love and understanding from afar. {{hugs}} too if hugs are ok.
    Thank you for sharing your ordeal.
    Paula

    • Paula, I’m so glad for your Dexter. Thank you for this kind, compassionate sharing and the caring I can feel through your words. Yes, “to survive these traumas yet no longer thrive”. Thriving takes a different appearance, and I’m learning that perhaps thriving is best defined by each individual person. Thank you for reading.

  2. I want to give you a hug. Or if that would feel scary, then a fuzzy blanket, slippers, pillows, hot tea and a good book. Something to give you a space where you feel comfortable and safe and like you can breathe and be listened to.

    You are a powerful, thoughtful writer. I believe in your resilience.

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