All I really want in my life is someone who likes me for who I am precisely at this moment. Someone who values my friendship in spite of, or maybe even because of, these quirks and eccentricities I have developed thanks to my struggles and life experience. However, all too often, the people in my life accept me based on the person I used to be, you know, before that unfortunate incident (extreme sarcasm used here to convey the all-too-common hush-hush tones with which rape is mentioned.) There are also certain people in my life who care about me with hope about the person I’ll become, once my issues have gone away. Perhaps if they understood the very real ways in which sexual assault has shaped my life, they would be more empathic. With that in mind, here are just a few ways in which this event has changed my behaviors, thoughts, and attitudes about my daily life.
- I constantly fear for my safety.
When I first moved into an apartment by myself, I had recurring dreams about someone breaking into my place. I dreamt that a large man could so easily attack me, as my bed faces the front door of my abode. The dreams went away as soon as I started keeping my pocket knife readily available on my nightstand. I lock both the bolt and the knob of the door as soon as I walk into my apartment. I often double-check that the door is locked, in case I had forgotten. Even if I am expecting company, I will not open the door until I either hear their voice or see them through the peephole of my locked door. In my purse, I carry both pepper spray affixed to my keys and a stun gun. I use the flashlight app on my phone while walking down dark streets at night…if I walk down those streets at all.
- I am extra cautious about everything.
Now more than ever, I am wary of walking my dog late at night, even just for a few minutes. I choose not to attend social functions if it means going home late without a ride or a friend to escort me home. If I am walking past someone creepy on the street, I will change my direction or route, just to avoid the person entirely. I envy those who walk freely down the street, night or day, feeling safe and confident in their ability to protect themselves.
- I still have nightmares.
Even over a year and a half after my life-changing incident, I still have nightmares. Frequently, these dreams cause me to awaken suddenly, and with a blood-curdling scream. I would apologize to my ex-boyfriend and former roommates for this, but it’s really not my fault. Trauma makes you want to escape your reality by excessively sleeping, while also making you fear your sub-conscious. If these dreams seem disturbing to hear about, just think about how it must have felt while I was dreaming them.
- Loud noises often startle me.
Known as hyper-vigilance, the increased startle response to stimuli is a common symptom of PTSD. While my condition has improved, I am still prone to jumping out of my skin at a sudden noise or touch. I’ve encountered a lot of impatience with this symptom, as if it was something I could control, or perhaps they thought I was just being dramatic. Post-traumatic stress disorder, and its more long-term cousin, Rape Trauma Syndrome, are very real conditions that deserve to be understood.
- I have “triggers.”
There are certain things that remind of my assault, or otherwise intensify the internal fear and anxiety I have about personal violence. These can include things as seemingly random as certain songs that I heard at the time of the trauma, specific conversation topics, pictures depicting real-life violence, graphic and explicit news stories, crime shows involving plots similar to my incident, even men who resemble my assailant. I can usually pinpoint these triggers and avoid them, but I’m not always successful.
- Large crowds make me anxious.
Actually, a lot more things make me anxious than I used to be. One of these is supermarkets. There’s something about the dim fluorescent lighting, the gathering of many people, unruly and loud children running amuck, and shoppers who walk too slowly and block you in with their carts…just thinking about it makes me nervous. Sometimes the over-abundance of city noises in my neighborhood make it difficult to catch my breath. Despite having the ability to think on my feet in a crisis, a stressful situation leaves me unable to calm back down.
- I’m a clean freak.
It’s not just a soap opera cliche. Now, way more than ever before, I am compulsive about personal cleanliness. I shower twice a day, every day. I always have disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer around. I am overly concerned about keeping my apartment clean. Now even the idea of certain gross things makes me nauseated.
- I’m afraid to trust.
75% – 80% of all sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. That aspect of my incident plays a big role in my ability to trust others. I always assume the worst in others, even when I know the person well. It’s an instinctive reaction, and it’s one based out of fear. I’m afraid to go to someone else’s house or apartment, especially alone. I’m afraid to have someone over to my apartment if I don’t know them very well. I almost always have a plan in the back of my mind in case something goes wrong. Nothing personal, my subconscious just wants to make sure that this never happens again.
- I hate rape prevention tips.
While it’s obvious that the list of things that upset and frustrate me has increased, none anger me more than the ubiquitous sexual assault prevention lists of tips. These lists give men and women an acceptable range of behaviors for avoiding being victimized, the implication being that deviation from this plan will mean that the inevitable assault will be your fault. The onus for preventing violence is always on the victim (predominantly women.) The truth is, the only thing that can stop rape is rapists. It doesn’t matter how I was dressed, what or how much I drank, or if I was on a date with the guy in question. It can be very disheartening to have to explain that to a friend or significant other who is supposed to be supportive of me during such a trying period. It’s difficult to heal while having to be on the defensive about what happened even being painful.
While the list of triggers and fears, as well as coping mechanism behaviors, are almost as numerous as survivors, I can only hope that I have helped someone in writing this blog post. I often feel that my activism is a losing effort since patriarchal beliefs, so deeply ingrained in American culture, are hard to change. I’ve faced opposition from many of those in my life who equate happiness with the ability to return to the way I used to be. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can undo the changes that this incident caused in my life. I can only help others feel more understood, as well as help non-survivors to better understand the struggles facing many of us in our everyday lives.