The five stages of absurdity

Right. Consider this the first of a number of rants which will appear on the blog. I was trying to come up with a list of helpful websites to put up that looked at the long-term consequences of rape. What did I find? Endless, endless pages talking about ‘stages’. Ehow.com even gives you ‘Instructions’ on how to get over rape:

1. Emotional Shock and Disbelief

2. Embarrassment, Shame, Guilt

3. Disorientation

4. Anger, Rage, Revenge Fantasies

Personally, I never felt disoriented, and I certainly never felt guilt. Emotional disbelief perhaps, but only after a a few hours of emotional weeping and definite awareness of what had happened to me. I’m very certain that I felt anger as the rape was going on. These stages seem somewhat out of order. Maybe a different set of stages from another article would be more useful:

1. Depression

2. Fear

3. Flashbacks/Emotional triggering

4. Low self-esteem and dependency on others

5. Despair

6. Sexual dysfunction

7. Forgiveness

Again, I didn’t feel these stages in an ordered, chronological way. A lot of those emotions I did feel, but at random, and often all at once, in a big SMUSH of anguish.So what can we tell from all this? That these stages are total nonsense.  Not because everyone should deal with rape in the order that I did (not that there was an order), but that everyone deals with rape differently. My opinion on this is 90% borrowed from my very good friend Rachel’s dissertation on grief, so I thought I might as well just quote it verbatim:

“We are constrained and controlled by the manner in which we talk about things, living only within our spoken categories, as if the only choices that are open to us are those that we have uttered into existence. Therefore, if we follow Kubler-Ross [and her five stages] and see grief only in terms of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – in that order – then what happens if we feel relieved, or guilty, or if we experience denial after an initial acceptance?

“What tends to happen is that we feel that this is not allowed. Not allowed?! Surely we can see how ridiculous this is? But in the midst of the chaos of grief I dont think we can, and this simply adds to our distress. By spending all of our energy on attempting to follow these strict modern conceptions of grief we are actually restricting our emotions – we are not allowing ourselves to properly and fully grieve, and to do so in a manner that is comfortable and helpful for us. We are all individual and as such, each experience one has one will understand and process in a unique manner. So where could any sense possibly lie in trying to box each individual into the same grieving process? We are all going to experience and react to this differently too. We should expect, and we should be allowed, this freedom.”

I have a massive resonance with this. Whilst some of the stages found online do reference promiscuity, it doesn’t really get talked about in everyday magazines – what women are likely to have read before having been raped – so when I reacted by becoming Britain’s Biggest Slut, all I knew was that I was supposed to be terrified of men and hide in my house for the next three years. I felt like I was dealing with my rape wrongly. How awful to make someone who has already been subjected to sexual assault feel as though they should be ashamed for how they dealt with it. Apologies to male readers, but I am reminded of Meredith’s stinging retort to Derek in Grey’s Anatomy:

 “I make no apologies for how I chose to fix what you broke.”

Of course, my wild days weren’t quite a matter of deliberate choice, but the principle remains the same.

Why do we feel the need to label everything up, to organise and order? I think when we are confronted by something as horrific as rape, when the ground has fallen away from us because our child, wife or sister has told us that they were sexually attacked, we like to pretend that there is still a solid foundation. We dream up these stages, as if humans were all automatons just following a roadmap. As if attempting to cope with a trauma like that could be anything other than, in Rachel’s words, “the chaos of grief”. It is chaotic. We are all over the place. That is how it is supposed to happen.

When I first read Rachel’s dissertation, I disagreed with it. I wrote notes on her pages talking about how, in the chaos of grief, perhaps having a roadmap to follow would be a small comfort to me. But the problem with that idea is that you can’t choose how you grieve. You can’t decide that today will be a bargaining day, or that today I will feel anger. These emotions are triggered by what we experience every day: perhaps we walked past someone who resembled our rapist, or perhaps I had a helpful conversation with a friend and had a breakthrough.

The best thing to do is to allow that any of a whole range of emotions can occur at any time, and that these won’t always make sense. Nor will we experience one emotion, finish it, and then move onto the next. I now like to think of myself as being able to talk about my rape in a sensible manner. But my last post – Who is Mark? – left me shaken for the rest of the evening to the extent that I got out the video player and watched some of my childhood favourites, clinging to the familiar. I am far from whole, far from healed. My emotions, my feelings about the rape, fluctuate on a weekly and sometimes daily basis. But I’m not worried about that. The pain will go in time – my time.

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