Anniversaries are supposed to be happy events. They’re supposed to signal something joyful, are supposed to be a celebration of significant life events. Sometimes, though, anniversaries also remind us of hardship. Sometimes they remind us we’re still living in a cage, locked up by PTSD and memories of trauma.
This month is my “rape anniversary,” and somehow, it feels different from all the others.
I had about ten panic attacks in the month leading up to my anniversary. It was unusual and stressful, but productive. While on the phone with a friend, I mentioned what was going on with me. She said, “I bet you wish they’d just go away.” I said, “No, not really, actually. At the end of them, I feel like I’ve learned something.”
This month, what I’ve learned has surprised me. I learned that I’m not as afraid of intimacy as I used to be. I learned that even though I’m afraid to be hurt again, I’m still willing to be vulnerable. I’m willing to risk opening up to real intimacy, with all its messiness and boring moments. I’m willing to let people see me. That part is new for me.
In the months that followed my rape, I took to new heights of promiscuity, almost daring a rape to happen again. In my mind, the fact that I was drinking before I was raped and the fact that police determined “nothing happened” made the rape my fault. So I had to test the theory that my “loose” behavior was the reason this happened. In practice, my behavior didn’t make a difference in the outcome.
Shortly after I was raped, I moved halfway across the country. I made my move an adventure, stopping in several cities along the way before I settled into my new home. On one stop, I reconnected with an ex-boyfriend. I told him about the rape over the phone before I saw him in person. We hooked up the night I arrived and I cried after it was over. On another stop, I had dinner by the beach with a friend. I drank one too many margaritas, we played footsie under the table, and he teased me about my wantonness. We went back to his apartment and had sex on his couch, where he asked me if I liked it. We might’ve been buzzed, but it wasn’t rape. I did like it, his sweetness and attentiveness. We slept together a few more times, sober. We kept in touch for a while, but our connection eventually fizzled out.
Life went on like this for years, with me meeting a new guy and coming on strong, waiting to see if he’d rape me because I was so “easy.” Mostly, there were one-night stands or brief flings. The guys who were balanced enough to see through the act moved away swiftly, ostensibly to other girls who weren’t as fucked up as I was. Some of them tried to stick with me, but the trauma was too heavy. There was too much muck to wade through, and how could I really blame anyone for running the other direction?
In the near-decade between then and now, I’ve been trying to figure out how to forge a connection with someone that doesn’t end with me being “crazy” because I have (all the symptoms but no official diagnosis of) PTSD. I’ve been trying to figure out how to have sex without crying at the moment of climax. I’ve been trying to find out how to fix what’s broken in me.
This year, I realized that I don't have to stop my flashbacks. I don't have to judge my panic attacks or any other trauma response. I can just let them be. Having so many panic attacks in front of other people showed me something valuable. It's not the panic attack itself that is embarrassing or makes me angry. It's the reactions other people have to these symptoms. I've judged myself in the ways others have judged me for having these symptoms, and I finally realized that I don't need to do that.
This year, I’ve learned that my symptoms were normal signs of healing, instead of signs of weakness. The heavy crying after climax was trauma processing. The flashbacks were my brain and body’s way of making sense of sex post-rape. The irritation and anger my partners experienced at my reactions during sex were about them, not about me or my trauma. Those reactions were about my partners’ inability to give compassion and empathy during my difficult moments. And even though my partners sometimes acted like I was broken, I wasn’t. My body was just doing what it could to help me survive.
Trauma, though we don’t want it to, takes hold of our bodies. In my experience, trauma kept me prisoner inside my own skin. But what made it worse was fear and victim-blaming. For a long time, I was afraid to be labeled. I knew I’d be held responsible for all the ways my trauma would show up. People generally didn’t understand how trauma worked, so generally, I’d be treated as if I were frail or naive because I’d been raped. Sometimes, I’d be treated like a tease because I was suddenly gripped by a flashback and withdrew my consent.
This year, I’ve learned a lot from the people around me. I’ve learned that there are supportive and empathetic people out there who won’t see my trauma as a deal-breaker. I’ve learned those people are worth holding onto, and that I’m not broken. I’ve learned that it’s okay to love myself more than I love my less-than-understanding partners, and that prioritizing my wellness doesn’t make me selfish. I’ve learned that trauma has its grip on most of us, but not all of us want to talk about it, and that’s okay.
I choose to talk about my trauma because I know that it’s still taboo. I know that a lot of us are going through the same thing, and a lot of us think we’re alone in it. I know that we’re not alone, and that’s why I’m here. I also write about all this because I know that a lot of people still don’t “get it,” and I hope that my talking about it helps someone else out there who’s grieving with me.
Trauma, in a way, is kind of like death. You mourn the loss of the person you were before this happened to you. In my case, I mourned the loss of an entire identity, a “self” I was becoming before I was raped. I was becoming someone I really liked, someone who felt whole and complete where before, I was scattered fragments that didn’t fit together, no matter how hard I tried to make them one cohesive picture.
After the rape, I mourned the loss of my budding confidence and creativity, the loss of my trust in others. I mourned my sense of safety in the world. Over time, though, those things have come back. I’ve regained access to my creativity through writing. I’ve regained my trust in others as I’ve opened up to them and felt their support come in droves. This year, I’ve also pushed through other walls I’d put up around me even before I was raped. This year feels different from all the others, in part, because I can see this situation more clearly than I could before.
I’ve realized that for all of the ways being raped hurt me and impacted my life, it never took away who I am at my core. It never took away my kindness, my openness, my creativity, my smarts. My rapist may have buried me under miles of dirt, but I planted seeds and bloomed, regardless.
On this anniversary, it feels like more parts of me have come back, and I can see hope ahead of me. I can celebrate the life I still have in front of me.
Trauma, I now know, isn't linear. It happens in cycles. It constantly shifts and evolves with us. My trauma is a part of me, but it's not all of me. Anyone who comes into my life to stay will see all of those parts and find value in them. What I had to do in my healing was find value in them, too.
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