Posts Tagged trauma
** Trigger warning **
One of my friends sent me a link this morning to this article: Why Don’t Cops Believe Rape Victims?
It talks about a phenomenon that’s really well known if you’ve received training in rape counselling, but perhaps is much less understood in the wider world: women who have been raped can very rarely recall their attacks in neat, linear narratives, and frequently they have intense sensory memories that interfere with any ‘story arc’ that we might expect to hear. The above article, and many others beside, can tell you far more about the biological basis for those things than I can. But even if you understand the research, I think it’s still tough to grasp what that non-linear narrative means.
So I thought I’d tell you about mine. I remember pretty well how the situation developed – I remember chatting at the front desk, being invited to the back office. After that, I mostly have short flashes of memory, like those sepia flashbacks that action movies are so fond of using. I remember him coming towards me for the first time, grabbing my neck. I can picture his chest above my head and the precise colour of the mahogony desk in that room. I can describe what the booking system on the computer looked like. Those are the sorts of visual memories I have.
Then there are the sensory ones. I can feel being pushed to my knees, the pain when he reached the back of my throat and, later, his hot breath dampening my scalp. I can hear being called a “sick bitch”, the sound of his trousers against the cheap carpet, the hum of the air-conditioning unit, quiet sobs. I can’t really recall any smells – I suppose there weren’t many, in that office.
But those are the sorts of memories I have. They’re disparate, not in any natural order. And it’s why, when a person has ever asked me to tell them “exactly what happened”, I have refused. Because what could I tell them that would satisfy them?
I don’t know if that’s helped understand what it’s like. But it’s the best representation of what my memories are – a jumbled and incomplete mess. And frankly, I don’t really want to sort through them. I suppose that might seem confusing – why wouldn’t you want to really know what happened to you? But one of the reasons I have steered clear of any counselling that might seek to ‘restore’ my memories is that I’m scared. Those things that I remember are unpleasant enough – I don’t feel the need to add to them. And whilst I can hardly claim to speak for every survivor of rape, I think that’s a fairly common thought.
Anyway, I thought this might be helpful 🙂
Today I stand in front of the mirror of the ladies’ toilet at work, and I stare at the face I see. This week, this month, I don’t recognise it as my own. The hair is the same blonde mess it always is; my face is still carefully painted on. But that hair and face and smile is who I am for eleven months of each year. Now it is the first day of October, and I am the girl I was 6 years ago.
I’m sitting on the toilet having a wee. As I feel the liquid trickle out, I am picturing the fading scars inside me, those pock marks and lines and swells that must linger on my flesh. They will be less obvious than they were last October. But they’re still there.
I’m sitting at my desk thinking about the supermarket. Last week I pushed a trolley down the table sauces aisle, gripping the handle tightly, pleading with myself not to lose it. I closed my eyes, took deep breaths, counted to ten. Rushing past the broccoli and the toothpaste and the liquid detergent, I smiled blandly at the checkout girl and made it to my car, breath ragged. My hands were shaking so much I knew I couldn’t drive home. So I sat outside and tried to calm down by appealing to nicotine. I sat and smoked a rare cigarette, and miraculously it worked. The anxiety attack I had expected to arrive full tilt was held back, and I was pleased about that.
And yet, the panic is still there, threatening me. Six years have gone by and, these days, the trauma of the past is lying just slightly out of reach. I know I should be proud that it does not dominate me any more. But instead I feel it hovering out of sight, threatening this life I have painstakingly built, and I know I have only a slender white and gold cylinder, leaving a foul taste in my mouth, to help keep it at bay.
This is the confirmation I dread every year. It is the first of October, and I’m still not fine.
I thought I might as well include it, so you can see where it all began.
As I look back at my three years at Durham, there are some obvious things that have shaped my time here: DUCK, Palatinate, my course, my housemates. There’s one more too, that stayed hidden from view, but that defined my university experience perhaps more than any other.
It took an awfully long time for me to start talking about this. It wasn’t that I denied it – I knew it had happened. I remembered him raping me. But I didn’t realise for months that I had been raped. I thought of it as I thought of eating fish and chips, or getting off the bus. It was something that happened a while ago, nothing particularly out of the ordinary.
Similarly, my behaviour during the following two years was normal to me – I knew I’d acted unwisely, but I didn’t attribute it to what had happened in Malta, my euphemism for the violation, the only way I ever refer to it. On my gap year, and in first year, I spent my time thinking that I was in control. I was a sexually voracious girl, I decided who I slept with, I was in control of my body. I was refusing to be thought of as a ‘victim’. There was something deeply shameful – not about being raped – but about letting myself be affected by it. I was Strong. I was Resilient. I would not let him take more of myself from me than he already had.
Some of what I’ve just written will seem bizarre. This is not the reaction to rape that we all expect and understand. When we read true life stories in Cosmo, or come across rape information sites online, we hear of rape victims retreating into themselves, withdrawing from their friends and family, becoming terrified of men, in some cases going practically mute. This is the familiar discourse on rape. Mine was rather different.
An article on grief I came across recently pointed out that “the brave thing to do is to let your feelings affect you. Because, in effectively saying, ‘I’ve been stripped by this’, you’re telling the truth.” So I’m going to tell the truth. In November 2006, I was violently raped by the reception clerk of the hotel my mother and I were staying in. It devastated me. It made me feel powerless, and it made me afraid of men. I pretended it didn’t – I purposefully and idiotically strode down dark alleyways at night, and I slept my way around the world, even though it physically hurt every time. I was as outspoken as ever, and I drank like a fish. I cheated on my beloved boyfriend in spectacular fashion, and it took me two years to tell him why it had happened.
In all this, I felt utterly alone. I am a 21st century girl, and when I was dealing with this, my source of information was the Internet. It is appalling what is not online. The familiar discourse of withdrawing, of shying away from life – that was alien to me. The narrow way in which we expect women to deal with sexual abuse stifles further those who have had different experiences. Rape is not an act of sexual satisfaction; it is an act of violence and power. It is an attempt to subordinate women, to terrify them into silence. When we as a society then tell them how they must react – or worse, when we treat rape as a taboo topic that should be kept quiet – we silence them further.
I talked to my friends and my family about whether I should put my name at the top of this piece. I decided anonymity was not the way to go: I, and people who have been through similar experiences, have nothing to be ashamed of. Whilst I am far from proud of everything I have done, I am proud of how I have dealt with this: I sometimes still have physical pain when I have sex, but I am capable of having loving sex with someone I care about; I am capable of talking about my experiences, of acknowledging how they affected me. It is true that I am a victim of rape – but that does not define me. Now, I still don’t talk about it much – not because I am ashamed, but because it is not the sum total of who I am. It will always be with me, but then so will a lot of things. I am a rape victim, a dancer, an avid reader, an editor. I am many things, and that one dark cloud dominates me no more than any other.
Those people who suffer something as humiliating and painful as rape – and those who have gone through other traumas like physical abuse or even the death of a loved one – deserve the respect of being able to talk about their experiences without being shunned or subdued. Women who have been sexually abused are remarkable: yes, they are victims of rape. But far more importantly, they are survivors.
I have friends who blog. Sometimes, like everyone, I feel a desire to rant and put my words somewhere Out There, but mostly I always felt that blogs were pointless unless they dealt with more than the minutiae of daily life. So now I have something to write about, that I hope might help other people. And now I blog.
When I was 18, and working for a human rights charity on my gap year, I kept getting ill. And ill. And ill again. The doctors couldn’t figure it out, except that maybe I was exhausted – so they shipped me off to Malta with my mum to ‘convalesce’. Looking back, the irony strikes with the force of a sledgehammer. While I was out there, I would read in the lobby of the hotel at night so as not to keep my mum awake when I couldn’t sleep. On the first night, the hotel clerk was friendly, brought me a hot chocolate. On the second night, he was friendly again, and I was naive enough to accept his invitation to have my hot chocolate in his office, where he raped me.
That’s the bare bones of the story. But the interesting bit is what follows – the revelatory stuff in life isn’t necessarily the traumas or the achievements themselves, but how we choose to deal with them after the fact. I didn’t think about ‘Malta’ – how I now refer to the rape – for months. Not once. I didn’t tell anyone for about 16 months. Then it started to gradually come out in trickles. And perhaps the proudest achievement of my life was the first time I really got up the courage to discuss it publically, in an article I wrote for the final edition of Palatinate, the Durham University student newspaper, in the year I graduated. That started what this will hopefully continue – talking about different reactions to trauma, and widening common conceptions of how we deal with rape.
“I’ve been stripped by this…”
The title of my blog comes from an excerpt of an article from The Independent that first inspired my article, and that I still think about every day. In a piece about grief, the wise Phillip Hodson was recorded saying “”In fact, the brave thing to do is to let your feelings affect you. Because, in effectively saying, ‘I’ve been stripped by this’, you’re telling the truth.”
The rape stripped me to the core. And it’s taken years, but I’m finally in a place where I can start talking about it. It’s important we talk about it, too. After my article appeared in Palatinate, girls I had never heard of or spoken to humbled me by emailing me and trusting me with their stories. For some, it was the first time they had told anyone what they’d been through. The first time you say the words out loud “I was raped…”, or put them on paper, or on screen, is a turning point in starting to face the experience, and I was so honoured to have been allowed to be a part of that process. My hope is that this blog will help to heal others too.
It won’t be utterly depressing though – I don’t have frequent enough revelations for this to be a totally rape-based blog, plus it’s important that all survivors of rape aren’t just that. There is more to me than what happened four years ago in Malta. So apologies, but the occasional rant about the scarcity of publishing jobs or my excitement over going to the Singalong Sound of Music might slip in occasionally.
And finally – just because I adore it – another quote from Phillip Hodgson: “After all, all tears end with a shudder of relief.”