When I was fourteen years old, I was raped by a junior at a New Year’s Eve party. Everybody knew about it. Or they thought they did. Or I thought they did. Whatever the case was, I spent a few days struggling with the emotional fallout, and tried to take my own life.
This was no vain attempt, no call for help. It was my intention to die, and I very nearly succeeded. Only, the body wants to live. It can survive so much.
When I found myself alive, I knew I didn’t have it in me to try again. Not at once, anyway. And so I began to rebuild my life in what I often referred to as “after.” I dropped out of high school and enrolled in community college. I started painting. Writing took a back seat, as for me it represented my pre-attempt identity. Eventually I found my way back to writing, but by then I was new. I was somebody else.
I still had panic attacks. Flashbacks. I didn’t talk about them.
And then I started dating a boy from art school. I say “boy,” but he was four or five years older than me. And he was open about his life. Open about being sexually abused as a child. Open about having been suicidal. About having felt worthless and unloveable and broken.
One night, he interrogated me about my rape. He scoffed at me, told me how much worse it could have been. He was right, of course he was right, and as the night went on he became physically abusive. For hours he tormented me, confused me, shamed me, and when there was nothing left of me but the flat, blank space that had been left when I was fourteen and tried to take my own life, he raped me.
This was my fault, I knew this was my fault. This had to be my fault. Because maybe a dumb teenaged kid doesn’t know better, but I had to. I was a grown woman, wasn’t I? I was a survivor, wasn’t I? So being victimized? In my own home? In my own bed? It had to be my fault. It had to be.
It had to be, because any other option was more than I could bear. If I could blame myself, the world wasn’t such an awful place. It was just me. Alone.
I didn’t know it then, I didn’t know it for years, but what I was experiencing for a second time was something called “Rape Trauma Syndrome,” RTS. It has three standard stages. First, the Acute Stage.
I lay in bed for days, without eating, or even pulling the blanket back onto the bed. I lay on the bare mattress, awake, and stared at the wall for three days. I was too confused and disoriented to move. I was too anxious to reach out to anyone. To call into work. To call my parents, my friends, or the police.
Once I was able to gather myself together enough to stand and eat, I began the second stage of RTS- Outward Adjustment.
I moved. I changed my email address, I changed my phone number, I changed everything. Partially because my now-ex was harassing me without stop, but mostly because I needed to distance myself from before and after.
I needed to cut my life into pieces- into the parts that I could deal with and the parts I couldn’t. That bed, that apartment, that email address and phone number… those were parts of a new “before” that I couldn’t deal with anymore.
I told everyone I was fine. I told myself I was fine. I told myself I was just moving. I told myself I wanted roommates instead of living alone.
I had constant nightmares, from which I woke screaming night after night. Violent, filled with flashbacks. I suffered from agoraphobia, I became nauseated and dizzy whenever anyone mentioned his name, or the chain restaurant where he worked, or the building where I’d met him, or the coffee shop we’d visited together, or the bands he listened to.
It took years. Years of painting nightmares and not really knowing why. Years of nightmares I explained away. Years of anxiety and depression and self loathing and confusion. And finally I reached the last stage- Renormalization.
Part of Renormalization has been coming to terms with what happened to me. Coming to terms with the fact that yes, I may have walked away with all my teeth and no broken bones, but a different kind of scarring. Psychological.
It’s been hard to talk to people about my mental illnesses. Plural. It’s been hard to talk about the depression that’s lingered for more than half my life. It’s been hard to talk about the anxiety that ebbs and flows for no obvious reason. It’s been hard to explain why I never want to eat at certain restaurants, visit certain places, listen to certain music, because it all comes down to mental illness, and I have been afraid of what people will think of me when they know the truth.
Not the truth that I was assaulted, that I’ve learned to talk about. But what it did to my brain. The damage that no amount of self love and supportive partners can entirely un-do.
Rape Trauma Syndrome is a mental illness, and I suffer from it, and I need to keep reminding myself that it’s okay. That it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with me, but that it is always going to be a part of me. That I might not understand what sets me off, what causes panic attacks or nightmares, but I don’t need to. What I do need, is for the sympathy extended to my circumstances to extend to my mental state.
There is no shame in mental illness. And the less shame I and others foist upon me, the healthier I, and all of us who suffer from the invisible diseases of the brain, can be.