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April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. And while the #MeToo movement gets a bad reputation for being “too feminist” (“too feminist” is a load of bullshit, if you ask me), I think that this movement has made it easier for individuals to share their stories… myself included. I’ve *briefly* talked about my rape before in another Vocal post titled, “An Open Letter to My Rapist.” It was more of a poetic “fuck you” than anything else, but it was cathartic nonetheless. However, as I’ve pondered and thought and reread, I realized that there was a big part of the story that was missing. And when I look at other people’s stories, I noticed the same thing. We all talk about the rape or assault, but never what happens afterwards. So I wanted to write on this topic again and do it justice. Tell the full story. After-effects and all. No sugar coating… I’ll start at the beginning.
The Story (Trigger Warning)
For those of you who don’t know, I was raped at the age of 19. He was some guy I went to middle school with but lost contact with once I moved cities. Let’s call him… Asshole. After several years, Asshole found me on social media and claimed he “didn’t remember who I was and wanted to find out” (also a load of bullshit). So we started messaging and talking, which soon evolved to us hanging out on a pretty regular basis. Although I was hesitant to open up to someone after my pretty nasty breakup that was only 3 months prior, it felt nice to have company again. But I was so careful to never use the word “dating” or “date” when talking about Asshole and I hanging out. No reason in particular, really. I just wanted to keep my distance for a while.
“It’s NOT a date, Dad,” I would always say as I was walking out of the house.
“Alrighty”, he would respond, “Have fun on your DATE!”
What can I say? I’m stubborn. Then one night, Asshole kissed me. From that point on I stopped denying the fact that we were dating. It wasn’t too long after that kiss that he raped me.
Asshole was always… particularly rough while having sex. Not the fun kind of rough—but the borderline, you’re-enjoying-this-a-little-too-much kind of rough. And me being kind of new at sex and relationships kind of brushed it off as him being just over-enthusiastic. Then the rape happened. I don’t want to go into too much detail, because at the end of the day, small details don’t matter to me. But what I will say is this: He acted like he was stupid, but he was always aware of what he was doing.
To keep things as brief as possible, here’s the basic rundown: We were in the middle of having sex and Asshole did something very abruptly that caused me a lot of pain. After I yelped, he said, “whoops” and then tried to go back to having sex. I told him to wait because, ya know, it fucking hurt and I needed to catch my breath. His response was to pin me down and continue to have sex with me. At this point, I was crying and couldn’t breathe. He continued to press my shoulders down (and even at one point pinned my throat). When I tried to push him off me, he pinned my hands behind my head so I couldn’t move. I tried to tell him to stop but all he did was say, “Shhh. You’re okay. You’re fine.” And that’s when I blacked out. My memory goes blank after that. The next thing I remember was coming to and realizing where I was and who I was with. It felt like I was in a fog. I knew something felt off, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I had no memory of the events that just took place, and I wouldn’t remember for another month or so.
Asshole ended things pretty soon after that night… and it only took him six months after that to stop messaging me. I asked him to leave me alone again and again, but he was incessant. He would constantly try to see if I wanted to hang out again or if I wanted to at least be his "friend." At one point, I actually told him that he assaulted me. He said he was sorry. That he didn’t know it hurt that much. That I should have said “no.” (To which my response was, “I couldn’t even breathe, you twat” but he just restated that I should have told him to stop.) But you wanna know what the kicker is? I didn’t say a specific night. I didn’t give him a date or say, “Hey remember that time when…” As soon as I said he assaulted me, Asshole KNEW what night I was talking about.
Something that’s pretty common with rape or abuse is called gaslighting. This is when the abuser uses manipulation to make the abused question their own sanity. And this is what Asshole was doing to me with his repeated messaging. He would start a conversation with me like nothing happened. It was as if he never ended things in the first place, and totally brushed off the fact that I had called him out about the rape. And it really made me feel like I was crazy. He would call me a “special girl.” Asshole complimented me but would then turn around and, essentially, blame me for what happened. It was a total manipulation tactic and, for a little while, I even questioned whether or not I was actually raped. Maybe I just didn’t say “stop” loud enough? Maybe he really didn’t know I was crying? It was dark in the room… maybe he’s telling the truth? He would be so nice to me when we were messaging that a part of me wanted to forget the rape even happened. But then I would wake up from the nightmares and realize that I couldn’t forget. No matter how “nice” Asshole seemed to be, he was NOT nice.
When I first remembered my rape, it came to me in sudden flashes. I was sitting at my kitchen table eating breakfast and watching YouTube videos. I stumbled across a Buzzfeed video about sexual assault and decided to click on it. Once I started watching, I started to get these memories of Asshole and what had happened that night. Everything was so vivid. How dark and hot his room was. The weight of him pressing against my legs. I remember hearing him tell me, “Shhh. You’re okay. You’re fine” so clearly it was like he was sitting next to me. I felt like someone had pulled the rug out from under my feet.
What comes next? (And yes, that was a Hamilton reference.)
When I started talking to my therapist about my rape and how it was affecting me, she flat out told me I was going through PTSD. And, to be honest, I didn’t understand the severity of what she was telling me. When she said PTSD, I almost thought there must be another acronym she was referencing because when I think of PTSD, the first thing I think of are war veterans who watched their buddies die in front of them. Or citizens of a third world country who had to flee their homes from a dictatorship. The first thing I think of is not a 19-year-old woman who was taken advantage of.
My first hurdle was admitting to myself that I had PTSD. The next hurdle was, and still is, experiencing it in real time. For me, PTSD expresses itself in flashbacks, intrusive memories, and dissociation. Let me explain those in a bit more detail:
Intrusive memories and flashbacks are very similar. They can both be vivid, sudden, and sometimes (usually) anxiety-inducing. The main difference, however, is something called dual awareness. When you are experiencing intrusive memories you have a dual awareness of time. You are aware that what you are thinking about or experiencing happened in the past, while you remain in the present. But with flashbacks, that dual awareness goes away and it feels like you are re-experiencing the past trauma in real time. For me, flashbacks happen less frequently than intrusive memories do. In fact, I think I’ve only experienced a true flashback once, while the intrusive memories tend to happen a couple times a week. And as time has gone on, the frequency has decreased. Now, the only reason they occur is if I’m already feeling anxious or tired, or if something specifically triggers them.
Now, dissociation is… a whole different animal. In fact, when I first experienced it, I thought I was going insane and spiraling into some kind of psychosis. According to VeryWellMind.com, dissociation is, “a psychological experience in which people feel disconnected from their sensory experience, sense of self, or personal history. It is usually experienced as a feeling of intense alienation or unreality, in which the person suddenly loses their sense of where they are, who they are, of what they are doing” (Elizabeth Hartney, PhD, ‘What is Dissociation?’). To put it in layman’s terms, you feel disconnected from yourself, your past, your loved ones, and… anything and everything. I think that dissociation is the scariest thing I have ever experienced. For me, an entire dissociative episode would last a little over a week or so. At first, I just feel a normal level of anxiety, and then the anxiety becomes more intense until it’s the only thing I can think about. Then, I slip into the actual dissociation.
I remember my first major episode. I had had smaller episodes before, but this was the first significant one. To put is as simply as I can, I felt like… I wasn’t real. Nothing did. I would even look at my loved ones and think about their relationship to me and feel… nothing. It was like I was an empty shell. And logically, I knew that I was Rowan. I knew that I had loved ones who cared about me. I knew that the photo hanging in the hallway was me just a few years ago… but when I look at the photo, the girl staring back at me felt like a stranger. On top of all that, my memory wasn’t cohesive, either. Whenever I would look back to remember something, even if it was something I just did, it was like I was watching myself do it in an out-of-body experience. And it was… scary.
But I think the scariest thing about dissociating is that it doesn’t feel like anything you do will have any consequences. If nothing feels real, you also feel like nothing you do feels real. And this can pose an issue for someone who has dealt with things like self harm and suicidal thoughts. Because the consequences of those actions won’t feel relevant to you. The first time I relapsed with self harm in a long while was during my first few harsh episodes of dissociation. It wasn’t even that I wanted to cut. But when I was dissociating, it felt like it wasn’t my body, so it didn’t feel like I was harming myself.
You. Are. Resilient.
PTSD is a hard concept to grasp, let alone deal with. I wanted to write about this because I don’t see the after-effects of rape being talked about a whole lot. Granted, everyone’s experiences are different, so it may be that the people whose stories I’ve read just had a different outcome. But I know there are people out there who have PTSD from rape. Whether it’s all the symptoms I’ve described above, or only some of the symptoms, or even completely different symptoms, I know people need to hear that they are not alone in this. That it’s gonna be okay. That your rapist was an asshole who doesn’t deserve your energy. You need to hear this until it’s so ingrained into your being that you don’t have to question whether or not it was your fault. And you need to hear that you are so much more than a victim. You need to remember that you are resilient. We all need to remember that.