I still have post-traumatic stress disorder – PTSD – from being drugged and raped in 2007. I used to just think that the PTSD symptoms were just negative personality traits of mine. I thought I was just irritable, easily provoked, and agitated by nature. I thought I used marijuana habitually because I was too “weak” to give it up, and yet I was aware that I felt more “normal” with it than without it in terms of sleeping, eating, and mood. I’ve never sought an official diagnosis, but since February 2011, when I became consciously aware of the rape, it was suddenly painfully obvious to me that I’d been suffering from PTSD for years.
I’ve always felt shame when expressing my “negative personality traits,” and simply attributing them to PTSD has made no difference in this respect. Perhaps the shame is there because I haven’t taken the time to appreciate the adaptive purpose PTSD can serve? I feel I’ve begun to gain a deeper understanding by reading Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror by Judith Herman, particularly of how PTSD initially affected my life immediately following the rape, even though I was completely unaware that it had happened.
You might be wondering how I could not be aware of being raped – I wondered that too! I can only assume that because I was drugged unconscious, and perhaps also because I was badly injured during the rape, my conscious mind automatically denied the possibility of rape to me, this being an adaptive response so I could remain functional. It wasn’t conscious denial, it’s just the prospect of rape didn’t even cross my mind. As Herman notes, “This voluntary suppression of thoughts related to the traumatic event is characteristic of traumatized people.” I told myself it was just that I had a mystery back injury from drinking. “Did I fall?” I wondered to myself. The point is, after the rape, I was unaware that rape had occurred, and yet my life began to disintegrate before my eyes. At the time it was a mystery to me why I felt compelled to make so many bad choices, but compelled I was and there was no stopping it. This post is an attempt to understand this “bad behaviour” as adaptations for survival instead of simply shameful behaviour.
After the rape, I was suddenly afraid to live alone, so I moved in with Sam, someone I’d just started seeing and barely knew. I couldn’t roll over by myself to get out of bed due to the rape injury, so I told myself that I simply needed Sam to help care for me. My job performance immediately crumbled into shit, and as I watched myself fail I felt powerless to fix it, but also felt uncharacteristically neutral about it. I was more confrontational with bosses, and more antagonistic with peers. I started drinking heavily and blacking out regularly. I just trusted that Sam would take care of me and babysit me when I was drunk, which he usually did. I wasn’t attracted to him, and I was in no emotional state to be dating anybody, but I knew he’d do anything for me, so… in that respect he was perfect! Sam eventually pushed for sex, and I was so numb I let him and honestly didn’t care if he was using me. I broke things off with the attractive Italian architect I’d been seeing because I didn’t want him to know what a mess I was. I now know all of this was a reaction to the rape, but at the time I hated myself for letting everything go to shit and could make no sense of any of it. The only explanation was that I was a terrible person, and that’s what I believed about myself.
In Trauma and Recovery, Herman discusses the three cardinal symptoms of PTSD: (1) Hyperarousal; (2) Intrusion; and (3) Constriction. Having read examples in the book about how these symptoms manifested in others, I was shocked to see how my “bad behaviours” were actually attempts at mastering my own feelings of helplessness and reestablishing a sense of control of my environment.
Hyperarousal is the first cardinal symptom of PTSD. It means constantly being on guard for something bad to happen. For me, this first manifested as insomnia, explosive anger, and aggression, but years later has turned into generalized anxiety and a fear of alcohol, night clubs, and even fear of walking past strange men on the street. I have a strong startle response to loud noises as well, and was recently reminded of this when Hallowe’en fire crackers started going off two weeks ago. The question is, how is any of this helping me?
The adaptive purpose of this chronic arousal of my nervous system is that I “feel ready” should I be faced with any further traumatic events. It’s actually an elaborate illusion of smoke and mirrors though, since there’s really no way to prepare oneself for an unknown future trauma. Rather than offering me any real control, hyperarousal serves to allow me to feel a sense of mastery and control over my environment when in fact no one is capable of that level of control. Complete vulnerability is the fundamental state of humanity, and that’s hard to accept for anyone. Even those who have not been traumatized feel a false sense of control over their environment when in truth, if someone really wanted to hurt them they could find a way to do it. But there’s comfort in this illusion, and therefore it is adaptive.
Intrusion is the second cardinal symptom of PTSD. It is a replaying of the trauma, either in dreams, in actions, or in words. Herman explains that people often feel compelled to “recreate the moment of terror, either in literal or disguised form,” and that “in their attempts to undo the traumatic moment, survivors may even put themselves at risk of further harm.” Since I had no conscious memory of the rape, for me the intrusion manifested more like it would for a child who’s play scenes reenact an early trauma of which the child has no conscious memory. For me, it seems this played out as drinking heavily and blacking out, and also letting Sam “rape” me. Herman further explains that even when voluntarily chosen, there is something about these reenactments which feels involuntary. These behaviours appear maladaptive on the surface, but there is something more subtlety adaptive at work here.
Freud called this reenactment the “death instinct” since he could not understand why a person would voluntarily place themselves in great danger again and again. I certainly could not understand why I was doing these things, only that I was compelled to do them. I can see now that I was unconsciously trying to recreate the scenario so that I might gain mastery over it. I had more control when I made myself lose consciousness then when I was forced unconscious by another. I had more control when I agreed to be “raped” than when I had no choice in the matter. Dreams that replay the trauma are also part of the intrusive symptoms, but I would not experience an intrusive dream until four years later, which was an exact replaying of my memory of leaving the rapist’s apartment, and not really a “dream” at all, a quality shared by the traumatic dreams of other PTSD sufferers. After I had that dream, I indeed found a way to master the situation by reverse engineering and fixing my rape injury.
Constriction is the third cardinal symptom of PTSD. This means going numb, giving up, being the proverbial “deer in the headlights” calmly surrendering to death or danger over which you have no control. This is the response seen in animals caught by a predator, knowing they face certain death. I felt this most in my inability to respond to the fact that my life was disintegrating before my eyes. I also experienced constriction when I cared nothing about letting Sam use my body for sex. It’s like it wasn’t even me, like my body was no longer a part of me. It was a simple trade-off for the protection I needed and was in no way an expression of sexuality on my part. Sex was the furthest thing from my mind. Taking drugs or alcohol in hopes of intensifying the level of dissociation is also part constrictive symptoms, and I was drinking every single day to achieve maximum numbness. Years later I was, until recently, using marijuana on a daily basis to deal with the constant anxiety I felt. One of the unexpected side effects of ceremonial shamanic use of ayahuasca was no longer feeling the urge to numb myself with substances every day, and I truly feel that this was where healing began for me.
Although constriction is a merciful reprieve in the moments before death, or expected death, its continuance is ultimately maladaptive to healing if one survives the attack. Healing only happens when we feel, and numbing my feelings day after day was a huge obstacle to healing. I feel my substance abuse was one of the most shameful aspects of my PTSD because I attributed it to shortcomings in my personality, not understanding its purpose. It was only after I no longer smoked every day that I understood and forgave my reasons for it, so harsh was my judgement of it.
Now that I have a better understanding of how PTSD has affected my life, I hope it will be easier to accept that I’m human and not superhuman, and that I was simply reacting to a trauma in ways that were normal and ultimately adaptive for me following the rape. The shame I feel about these behaviours has been felt for a number of years at this point so it’s now a case of deconstructing false negative beliefs I’ve created about myself, and honestly, I feel better already after simply writing this post. This post focused more on how PTSD initially affected me, and less on how it has morphed as the years when on, but that is definitely something I’ll be writing more about in a future post.
If you have any stories about how PTSD has affected your life, I’d love to hear about it in the comments. Although PTSD looks messy on the outside, it’s all just an instinct for healing and mastery. However, I also feel that in my experience and on the grand scale, PTSD symptoms have been adaptive behaviours to simply feeling powerless. What has made all the difference for me is knowing that I have the power to manifest healing in my life, and that I do not have to be a passive reactor to my environment, using these behaviours as crutches to limp through life. I don’t always remember that I have this power, but I do my best to remind myself of it often. I have the power to heal myself, I have the power to choose change, and I have the power to be happy.
~ “Enjoy where you are or you will never get where you’re going. Enjoy where you are and you will BE where you are going.” – Bashar, channelled by Darryl Anka
In an effort to understand how I could immediately “forget” being raped, only to recover the memories four years later, I started reading a book by Amanda Ripley called The Unthinkable which discusses people’s seemingly irrational responses when threatened by impending danger. What’s interesting is that people are not as rational as we assume they are. Even when the twin towers were hit with planes, people in the floors below (those who survived) hesitated for an average of six minutes before heading for an exit stairwell. One person reported waiting forty-nine minutes before deciding they needed to leave! The first chapter of this book deals with one survivor’s recollection – or lack thereof – of her experience on 9/11. The first impact rocked the building and she says she remembers the sound when it hit eleven floors above her. Her recollection of the events takes her through the stages of disbelief, frantic deliberation, and finally action, but throughout there is a thick fog of denial, along every step of the way.
She reported that when the first plane hit, instead of running for the door, she wanted nothing more than to stay. The theory is that people want so badly to believe that everything is going to be ok, that they simply stay put. Apparently this is especially common in structure fires – we assume everything is going to be okay because it always has been before. This “normalcy bias” occurs because the brain works by identifying patters, and we understand the present and anticipate the future according to past experience. It’s also mentioned that if everything turns out to be okay then we save ourselves the social embarrassment of overreacting as well.
It’s a herd mentality, and after delaying awhile, another painfully long stage of deliberation sets in where people feel the need to check in with each other and see how others are feeling about the situation. Lucky for this woman, a person in her office quickly began to scream at everyone to leave immediately. She still delayed a bit longer, looking for items to take with her. She was circling in her cubicle and said “it was like I was in a trance.” She chose to bring a mystery novel she had been reading.
Once decending down the stairwell, disbelief and deliberation continued to rack her brain. She said she never felt she was in a hurry. She said “it’s weird because the sound, the way the building shook, should have kept me going fast. But is was almost as if I put the sound away in my mind.” Apparently everyone in the stairwell was very, very calm and moving in an orderly fashion. “Crowds generally become very quiet and docile in a true disaster,” Ripley, the book’s author states.
During her descent she began to make up stories to explain the events, first that a pilot must have had a heart attack or stroke, then after being told that a second plane had hit, that two stupid pilots must have been racing. She could not wrap her head around the magnitude of the situation. Her brain was searching its database for a reasonable explanation. Even when a man told that the hits had been intentional during their descent, she simply ignored this new information and put it out of her mind as if he had never said it. More denial.
When the second plane hit, she says she did not even hear the sound. Her senses were switched on and off at certain key points as happens with many people in traumatizing situations. She recalls someone screaming to get away from the windows and running for the center of the building. She was then overcome by intense anger at herself for being in this situation again (she had been in one of the twin towers during a potentially fatal incident in 1993 as well) and she had a moment of clarity and panic saying to herself, “I’m on the forty-fourth floor of a building. Where am I going? I’m still way up high. I can’t go anywhere!”
Then just as quickly everyone stopped running and continued back down the stairwell again in an orderly fashion like mute robots as if nothing had happened. When asked to describe the sound of the second collision she says “ As far as I’m concerned, I’m telling you, it was as if it didn’t happen. It’s not even that I forgot it. It’s just that it was as if it never happened. Never.” Classic dissociation normally used to describe the experiences of children suffering from physical or sexual abuse. Dissociation, the book states, is an “extreme form of denial,” and as the 9/11 survivor put it, “I could not afford to dwell on it. My job was to just take it one step at a time.”
She further explained, “When you’re in trauma, the mind says, this is a very local problem. This is your little world and everything outside is fine. It can’t afford to say that everything outside is horrible. The sound that I heard on the seventy-third floor should have told me, this is bad. The feeling of the building shaking should have told me, this is bad. The explosion when I was on the fourty-fourth floor: bad. The smell of debris is the lower stairways: bad. Yet in every single moment, I made it my little world here. And nothing else exists.”
When she finally made it to the main floor to exit the building, there were dead bodies all around, this is how her brain processed it: “I’m slowing down because I’m starting to realize that I’m not just looking at debris. My mind says ‘It’s the wrong color.’ That was the first thing. Then I start saying, ‘ It’s the wrong shape.’ Over and over in my mind: ‘It’s the wrong shape.’ It was like I was trying to keep the information out. My eyes were not allowing me to understand. It couldn’t afford it. So I was like, ‘No it can’t be.” Then when I finally realized what it meant to see the wrong color, the wrong shape, that’s when I realized, I’m seeing bodies. That’s when I froze.”
Freezing is apparently also a common response during disasters, but luckily for this women a stranger linked arms with her and said “We’re getting out of here.” She remembers the woman’s dark skin tone, her red sleeve, but then simply stopped seeing altogether. “There was no smoke there. I didn’t see anything at all.” She was not even frightened by this temporary blindness since she was no numb at that point. She was now relying on hearing, but although these two women talked and talked as they walked away, she can’t remember a word she said except when they finally got outside she heard her say, “Look, we made it.” She remembers replying, “Yeah, we’re outside.” But she could still not see anything, and she never even saw the woman in red’s face.
This story really hit home for me. It is a testament to the lengths our brains will go to to protect us from sensory input when a trauma is occurring. Only that which helps us get out alive appears to be consciously processed. It seemed very strange to me at first that something so awful happen to me and that I could completely block it out of my conscious memory. In terms of survival, it doesn’t seem strange at all. It was my own mind protecting me and giving me a chance to overcome my circumstances.
~ “There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds.” – Laurell K. Hamilton, Mistral’s Kiss
I often use the metaphor that my life used to be like a building that was beautiful on the outside, but dark and decrepit and languishing on the inside. Nothing gets spared when you experience sexual abuse as a child or experience being raped. It makes a complete mess of everything and you don’t even know it until you know it.
I was afraid to live because I thought I was a bad person. I was a bad person because of all the things I’d do to cope with feeling bad. I was even bad for wanting love, because bad girls don’t deserve love. People only want them for sex. And women who are good for sex are whores. And whores are bad too. But I was only good at being bad.
I wasn’t brave. I was busy running away from the problems and pain but one day all my demons caught up to me, and it was going to be them or me. I was so sick and tired of being unhappy in this beautiful but languishing building that I finally wanted to see what was hidden inside, so I lit a match to see the horrors for myself. And there they were hiding in the shadows, all of my demons. Everything in my life finally began to make sense, and I could see I wasn’t bad after all, it was the demons, and the demons had to go.
But how does one kill a demon? I tried to chase them out many times before but it was ayahuasca that taught me the only way to kill a demon is with fire. They must be charred into ash and returned to source, and this is how I accidently burned the whole building to the ground.
I watched piece by piece as my life burned up, every piece of what I thought of as “me,” drenched in flame and reduced to ash, crumbled and disappeared, and I saw that the demons I tried to set fire to were just shadows cast by my own structure. I saw that the only thing to fear was myself, and the fire’s transformative alchemy spared me no dust-covered illusions from my attic. It left me naked and nameless and powerful.
Every relationship I had changed, because I had changed, and there was nothing I could do as I watched the old relationships burn, for they were just reflections of me. I was laid off from a job where I was unhappy, I left my showroom perfect apartment, and I began to operate on an unapologetic level where I could just exist and not have to answer to anyone but myself. When I was all that was left, there was no more fear; there was nothing to lose anymore, and that is what set me free. That is what showed me who I am really am and what I’m really made of.
~ “Expose yourself to your deepest fear; after that, fear has no power, and the fear of freedom shrinks and vanishes. You are free.” – Jim Morrison
In researching for another post, I came across some interesting data pertaining to rape culture. Since it’s nearly always an exercise in extreme patience when trying to explain to men why rape culture is a real thing, I was relieved to find some qualitative data to back up the important message I’ve been trying to convey to the men I know. It’s not that all men are offenders, it’s just that our culture socially sanctions certain behaviours, which has a disinhibitory effect on those who choose to offend.
Douglas W. Pryor, author of Unspeakable Acts: Why Men Sexually Abuse Children, conducted a pioneering study of thirty convicted sex offenders, and gathered data on the thoughts, experiences, and behaviours of these men. It is the first in-depth, qualitative, and narrative-based study of its kind, and Pryor found some general patterns which explained why some men choose to sexually abuse children, which will be further explored in an upcoming post, Why Men Rape – Part II.
Unfortunately, it did not really come as a surprise to me when Pryor also noted that his data unequivocally state that the only difference between the sexual behaviours of child molesters and pedophiles, and that of the general population of men, is simply that the molesters and pedophiles engaged in certain manipulative and coercive behaviours with children, rather than with adult women. Otherwise the two groups are virtually indistinguishable.
This is quite a bold and unnerving statement, so why would I find it relieving instead of nauseating? Because the idea that we live in a culture that condones rape is simply denied by most men – at least that’s been my experience – so I welcome all the supporting evidence I can find. A man who is willing to let his guard down and really listen to a woman share her experiences of how she is routinely objectified, harassed and violated in society is a rare kind of man. Heated arguments often arise during such conversations, with the men claiming that they have never thought about a child in a sexual way, or have ever entertained the thought of raping a woman. It’s not that I don’t believe them, it’s just that their personalized take of it is meant to be proof that because offending has not been their experience, that rape culture simply does not exist by extension. Pryor noted that, “Interestingly, nearly all the men I interviewed said the same things before they became offenders. It is difficult for men to accept that they might be participants in a culture of rape or sexual abuse.”
Pryor’s thoughtful response to rape culture deniers has been to have the men simply answer a specific set of questions, namely: “Have you ever asked or tried to talk a girlfriend or your wife into having sex when she did not want to? Have you ever looked at a child and thought or commented strongly about his or her looks? Have you ever looked at a group of young females and noticed that some were attractive even though you did not know their ages?”
In answering these questions Pryor hopes to show men that although not all men are going to commit sexual violations, that there is still an existing and very much accepted cultural framework that facilitates offending for those who chose to offend.
So the predominant viewpoint that sex offenders are extremely “odd” or “different” from other adult men is simply not true, and only serves to absolve the entire male gender from all responsibility in facilitating a culture of rape and abuse.
So is it a crapshoot which men end up choosing to sexually victimize children? Not exactly. Pryor further notes that in comparing offenders with the general population of men, “one exception is the data on the early childhood histories of the [offenders], in particular their reports of a greater incidence of childhood sexual contact with adults than is commonly found in the general population.” So there are other factors influencing who offends and who doesn’t, and certainly not all men who are sexually abused as children grow up to be offenders, but the taboo nature of child sexual abuse keeps our perception of sexual offenders and the average man completely separate when there are actually more similarities than differences. By putting all the blame on offenders, by dehumanizing and stigmatizing them, men (and women) in general choose not to take responsibility for their contribution to the ease with which some men can and do sexually offend against women and children.
~ “I don’t believe rape is inevitable or natural. If I did, I would have no reason to be here. If I did, my political practice would be different than it is. Have you ever wondered why we [women] are not just in armed combat against you? It’s not because there’s a shortage of kitchen knives in this country. It is because we believe in your humanity, against all the evidence.” – Andrea Dworkin
After I was raped by an American guy in Shanghai in February 2007, I had a terrible back injury, but no memory of actually injuring myself. I couldn’t even roll over in bed by myself, and you’d think that would be enough to make me clue in that something fishy had happened. Nope! There was literally a dent in my spine and I still did not suspect that the nice American guy I’d met was actually a sicko rapist. Since I had been drinking the night it happened, I figured it was simply from some obscure event that I couldn’t recall, like… maybe I fell on some stairs or something? Denial is serious business! I think the main reason I didn’t put it all together right away was that I was in a foreign country by myself and was already dealing with too much other stress at the time, like trying to figure out how to speak Mandarin Chinese. My subsequent figuring out that I had actually been raped came at a time of relatively low stress, so this is my best guess as to why it surfaced years later. Either way, I understand that it was my unconscious mind – which was completely aware of the events that had transpired – that was protecting me from being overwhelmed.
So after living with a mangled back for four years, how was it that I finally Sherlock Homles’d the case? Three things:
1. I created a safe space. For me this meant time away from my family.
I took a 6-month hiatus away from my parents from September 2010 to March 2011, at the urging of IAM Center co-founder, Joseph Maldonaldo. At the time it was not a question of recovering any memories of rape. That question was not even a consideration since I had repressed, suppressed, blocked out – whatever you want to call it – my knowledge that I’d been raped immediately after it happened. My concern at that time was overcoming other life challenges, and Joseph explained that spending time away from my family would allow me to develop a newfound strength to do so. And you know what else was “weird”? I didn’t miss my parents one bit! It was the beginning of the end of my contact with them.
2. I listened to my dreams, and emotions.
It was in February 2011 (exactly four years after the rape) that I awoke one morning, still watching a dream fade away, only it wasn’t a “dream,” it was a memory of walking out of the rapist’s apartment in a foggy haze thinking it should be 3:00 am and dark outside, but seeing the sun blazing in the sky instead. I was crying as I awoke, and perhaps there was more of this “dream” that I didn’t consciously recall upon awakening, but either way, it had a deep emotional effect on me.
3. I listened to my intuition, and trusted my inspiration.
Now awake and crying, an idea came to me suddenly. My boyfriend was already awake, asking me what the matter is. I asked him to do something for me. I moved to the end of the bed and lay on my back with my knees up. I extended my right arm out. I asked him to hold my arm firmly with both hands and first gently pull on it as if he were going to drag my body, then quickly and firmly push my straightened arm back towards my body. He did and I heard a loud crunching noise! My bones went back into place and my back felt normal again for the first time in four years. The tears came like a flood at that point – the immediate implication was that the injury has been caused a very violent dragging of my body by my arm. It hit me like a lightening bolt – rape. It was rape.
So what did I do about it? I didn’t seek counseling at the time. I was just so grateful that my back felt normal again! I spent that day crying a lot and just doing my best to take care of myself. My boyfriend thought I was mistaken and kept referring to the rape as “that thing you think happened.” It would take eight months for him to get over his own denial. He just couldn’t believe that such a thing could happen and that I would be unaware of it. Ultimately I was happy to not consciously remember the experience, and was just happy I survived it. Life goes on I thought… hoping that was the end of my ordeal. Not even close.
By the following September I was struggling with depression and major anxiety. Everything in my life was suffering, but I hoped it would simply pass. Then February came again, and I was beginning to see a full blown case of PTSD develop. Even simple activities like leaving the house to buy groceries resulted in an adrenaline rush, and not the fun kind. I finally understood the appeal of burkas. It was like being stuck in a state fight or flight with no escape. Since the rape, February had always be a hard month for me since it’s the anniversary of the incident. It was hard even when I was unaware of the rape.
It was that same month of February in 2012 when the fire alarm rang one morning, which got me out of my apartment and into a coffee shop down the street. I ordered a coffee and tried to read a newspaper, but I ended up having a complete emotional breakdown instead. With tears in my eyes I searched for “Vancouver rape relief” on my iPhone. I had to talk to someone immediately and had an appointment at the Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter later that afternoon. It was a good move talking to the counsellors there. They helped me find courage to dig a little deeper and heal. Funny how it took a fire alarm to get me there.
~ “I just want to sleep. A coma would be nice. Or amnesia. Anything, just to get rid of this, these thoughts, whispers in my mind. Did he rape my head, too?” – Laurie Halse Anderson, Speak
~ “I’d still thought that everything I thought about that night-the shame, the fear-would fade in time. But that hadn’t happened. Instead, the things that I remembered, these little details, seemed to grow stronger, to the point where I could feel their weight in my chest. Nothing, however stuck with me more than the memory of stepping into that dark room and what I found there, and how the light then took that nightmare and made it real.” – Sarah Dessen, Just Listen