This post is a follow up to The Assault. Featured image is a poem by Rupi Kaur published in Milk and Honey.
It was the morning after my assault: September 1st, 2019. I couldn’t stop shaking and I felt like puking every time I thought of the events of the night before, which was constantly. I felt like Alex in A Clockwork Orange when he’s strapped to the chair and his eyes are clamped open as he’s forced to watch scenes of sex and violence. There was no escaping those memories, and they played in my head over and over in a disconnected jumble. I couldn’t think about anything else. As I sat in the hotel restaurant shaking and trying to force myself to eat something, I looked at the other guests and wondered if they could tell, if they knew somehow that there was something wrong with me.
I arrived at the train station early and sat with my overfilled backpack and giant suitcase placed around me like protection. After a few minutes, a pigeon with a horribly gnarled stump for a foot limped up to me, begging for food. “It’s broken, like me,” I thought. Immediately I was filled with an overwhelming feeling of disgust and kicked at the bird until it went away.
On the train to Oxford, I texted a friend and told him what happened. To protect his identity I will call him Sam. For those of you who have read my previous posts, Sam is the same friend I talk about in Valentine’s Day and Forgiveness who I later realized was toxic and cut out of my life. But at the time, I considered him one of my closest friends, and he was the only close friend I had in the same country and time zone as me.
When I told him what had happened, he was supportive and sympathetic at first, but it was also clear that he was uncomfortable with the subject. “Why don’t you talk to someone else about it, like your mom?” he said. “I don’t know how to help you.”
I’m incredibly close to my mom, I tell her everything, so it was a fair suggestion. But as soon as he said it, I recoiled at the idea. “No, I don’t want to tell my mom, I don’t want anyone to know yet. She would be so disappointed in me,” I told him.
But I had never kept anything from my mom, and she could tell there was something up, so after a couple of days, I took his advice and told her about the rape. It didn’t go well. I don’t blame her for her reaction; I’m sure many mothers would have reacted the same way. She was brought up in a society that tells mothers that they need to teach their daughters to protect themselves. Teach them to be cautious, careful, always on the lookout. Teach them to avoid dangerous situations and walk with their keys in hand at night. So when I told her what had happened, she was angry. Sure she was angry at my rapist, but mostly she was angry with me. How could I have been so reckless? How could I put her only daughter in danger like that? She couldn’t understand why I would choose to go home with a stranger. It wasn’t like me, she said. She thought she had taught me better.
It’s a complicated thing to be told your daughter has been raped. Especially when she is alone in another country where you can’t protect her. So I sympathize with my mom’s reaction. But it was also the last thing I needed at that time. Whether she realized it or not, my mom was slut-shaming and victim-blaming me.
I told Sam how my mom had reacted. “This is why I didn’t want to tell her,” I said. To my surprise, he said he agreed with her. I was stupid to have gone home with a stranger. This, from a guy I knew had only ever had one night stands, with girls he met on Tinder or drunken nights out. When I pointed out how hypocritical he was being, he said he had never gone home with anyone he couldn’t remember the name of. I was dumbfounded. I had never personally encountered these kinds of double standards before. What if I had remembered his name? What if I hadn’t gone back with him that night, but had waited weeks and made him go on several dates with me first? What if I had been married to him? What difference does it make how I ended up in his bed that night? He still raped me.
I insisted to my mom and Sam that they were missing the point. I said they were acting like witnesses to a drunk driving accident who, upon seeing me bleeding out on the pavement, rather than call an ambulance they simply stand there and say, “What were you thinking going out tonight? Don’t you know how many drunk drivers there are on these roads? If you didn’t want to get hit, you should have stayed home.”
But although I defended myself to them, internally I was asking the same questions. Why did I go back with him? Why didn’t I try harder to fight him off? How could I have been so stupid? What was I thinking? How did I not know? In my head, I blamed myself much more harshly than either of them could.
Luckily, I did have another friend who was invaluable in those first few days after the assault. He was the first person I told in the Uber on the way back to the hotel the night it happened. He listened to my story and supported me without judgment. He was there for me and encouraged me to get help. I’m not sure what I would have done without him.
It’s not easy to know how to respond when someone tells you they have been sexually assaulted. I’m not sure I would have done any better than my mom or Sam. So as a quick aside, here are some tips from RAINN for talking with survivors of sexual assault:
This article on RAINN’s website goes into even more detail. Additionally, I would add a few more things from my own experience:
- Validate them. The most important thing you can do is validate their experience by saying yes that was rape. What you are feeling is real and painful and a totally normal reaction to what happened.
- Tell them it was not their fault. There was nothing they could have or should have done differently. Nothing they did meant they deserved what happened to them.
- Listen to their story and make sure they know they can tell you anything, but don’t ask too many questions. Let them tell you only what they are comfortable sharing. Digging too much can force them to relive bad memories or make them feel like they are being interrogated.
- Don’t ignore what they are going through, but it also doesn’t have to be the only thing you ever talk about again. Let them lead. If they want to talk, let them talk. If they don’t, don’t force them to. If they’re feeling down or out of it, be sensitive to that. But you can still have fun and act normal around them. It can be nice to have a sense of normalcy and a distraction from the trauma.
It took me a while to accept that I had been raped. The idea of being a rape victim was contradictory to my sense of identity. I’m tall, athletic, not an easy target. I had always thought of myself as strong, a fighter. Someone who isn’t afraid to stand up for herself. There was no room for victimhood in my sense of self. So I simply rejected the idea. I wasn’t a victim, therefore I wasn’t raped.
But I was raped, as my intrusive memories of that night kept confirming. “Okay, fine. So I was raped,” I thought to myself, “but as far as rape goes, it could have been much worse. I’m not hurt. I seem to be doing just fine. Maybe it didn’t really affect me.” I minimized what happened to me.
I had no desire to report my assault. Even once I accepted I was raped, I still had trouble believing the guy who did it was a rapist. It was a long time before I was even angry with him for what he had done to me. Most of the time, I was just angry with myself. Besides, I didn’t know his name or his exact address. I was alone in a foreign country. I wasn’t sure where to turn or what to do. The day after it happened, I was already in another city and busy with the publishing course. It wasn’t easy for me at that point to talk to anyone about the assault, especially after the way my mom and Sam had reacted. I preferred to try and move on a pretend like it hadn’t happened. The idea of contacting the police in London and explaining that I had been raped by someone I didn’t know the name of and didn’t have much info about was too much for me. I had seen how women who speak out about their rape are treated and interrogated after high-profile cases like Christine Blasey Ford and others.
Even if they could find the guy, how could I prove anything? I had consented initially. In those early days, I wasn’t fully convinced that it wasn’t just a misunderstanding on his part. If he pushed back and claimed I was lying, I probably would have broken down. I couldn’t stand the idea of ever having to see him again, much less in some kind of court setting. And what would I get out of it? To see him behind bars? For his name to be on a sex offender registry for the rest of his life? That’s not what I wanted. Even now that I’ve learned to place the blame fully on his shoulders and to be angry with him, all I want is to know somehow that he won’t ever do it again. But I can’t ever be assured of that, and it wouldn’t be worth the trauma of seeing him again, or of re-hashing that night with police. If you want to know why so many sexual assaults go unreported, consider the cost-benefit ratio of speaking out. In many cases, it just doesn’t seem worth it, and there’s very little trust in the system.
After a couple of days, I realized I should probably get an STD check. I found an NHS hospital in Oxford with a sexual health clinic where I could be seen for free. But it was 20 minutes away by bus and only open for a few hours each day. My course schedule had awkward hour-long breaks between lectures, which meant I had to be in and out of the place in 20 minutes flat to get back in time. I didn’t know anyone in the program well enough yet to ask them to go with me, so one day I made my way to the clinic by myself. I wasted a long time wandering around the hospital searching for the sexual health wing before I finally found it. I poked my head in and saw the waiting room was packed. It would probably take hours before they would call me. I doubted I would be seen before the clinic closed, much less before I had to be back for my course. I gave up and headed back to Exeter College, telling myself I would try again another day. But I never did, it was too hard to make the timing work. And as I eased into life at Oxford, I didn’t want to be reminded of what had happened. I pushed it down and ignored it.
I did eventually get the STD check, but it wasn’t until months later when I finally felt able to tell a doctor what had happened to me. Luckily, I was clean.
It wasn’t hard to ignore the rape during that first month after it happened. I had the publishing course to focus on, Oxford to explore, new friends to hang out with, and I even started seeing a boy who was so kind and so gentle. He asked my permission before he kissed me on our second date. He held me and told me everything was going to be alright. Already the assault seemed like something distant and far away, like a story I was told that happened to someone else. I was dissociating.
“Trauma can cause our memory processing system to malfunction: the declarative explicit memory system fails, so the traumatic memory isn’t logged and stored properly,” writes biobeats in the article on Medium, “How unprocessed trauma is stored in the body.”
“Instead, our supercomputer subverts to a simpler method of recording signals and encodes traumatic memories as pictures or body sensations. This is called dissociation: memories are split into fragments. These remain embedded in the mind like shrapnel, impeding the brain’s natural recovery process. Malicious fragments can manifest as symptoms commonly associated with post-traumatic stress and increase our risk of becoming seriously physically ill.”
I avoided movies and books and TV shows that involved rape, and any time it was mentioned in conversation I spaced out. It was like my mind was trying to block out those memories. But the memories kept coming, they intrusively butted their way in and I couldn’t stop them. Occasionally, when I slept with my new boyfriend, my body would shut down. I couldn’t speak, but he would know immediately something was wrong and stop what he was doing. I would curl up in a ball and cry, unable to move or explain what I was feeling.
Despite all this, I actually functioned pretty well until I returned to the United States. Once I got home, I no longer had the publishing course or a boyfriend to distract me, and I suddenly had a lot of free time. I was unemployed, living at home, and spending my time applying for jobs. I had no money, was getting no offers, and was constantly under pressure from my parents to get a job and move out.
The intrusive thoughts came more and more often, and I was riddled with feelings of shame, guilt, and regret. If I wasn’t busy blaming myself, then I was blaming society in general and found myself hating all men. Things slowly got worse through October and November, and I hit my lowest point in early December. This is the time period I described in my first post, Valentine’s Day, when I was so depressed I couldn’t get out of bed or eat and I had thoughts about cutting myself. I attempted to tell Sam about some of these feelings, but a fight with him led to him saying that he “could never tell when I was being serious or just looking for attention and that he couldn’t be bothered to figure it out.” That was the last straw in our relationship and the reason why I finally cut him out. Two days later, I lashed out at the friend who had actually been there for me and was so supportive in the days after my rape and I lost him too. I had hit rock bottom, but the nice thing about rock bottom is that there is nowhere to go but up.
I started attending therapy. My first therapist wasn’t a great match, but she did still provide some critical support in those early days. I told some more friends what had happened, several of whom responded with overwhelming love and support and helped me feel that I wasn’t alone in this. And my progress leaped forward when I started seeing my second therapist, who was specifically trained to work with sexual abuse survivors.
I am by no means fully healed from my trauma. There are still times when it affects my sex life with my current boyfriend. I still cry when I talk about what happened to me. I’m still dealing with depression. But I know now that what happened to me wasn’t my fault. I no longer have intrusive thoughts or memories. And particularly now that I’ve shared my story, I feel that a weight has been lifted from me, and I can fully move on. It’s just one thing that happened to me; it’s not my whole life.