The Psychological Impact of Sexual Trauma
The Psychological Impact of Sexual Trauma
I struggled a lot with writing this essay. I started and stopped over and over again, unsure of exactly what I wanted to say, or really, how I wanted to say it. There are words on this page that I’ve never said out loud before, never told some of my closest friends and family, let alone permanently written on paper to share with the world. Yet, here we are and, honestly, I’m terrified. I went back and forth with how I wanted this essay to be published – should it be anonymous or should I put my name on the byline, take credit. But now it feels like the right time to share this story, it is something I want to do. So, I decided to put my name on it. I mean isn’t the whole point of writing this to own your story? To start a conversation? To de-stigmatize how we view mental illness and hope that in the process someone might be able to relate? So here it goes— this is what it’s like living with trauma. I guess I’ll just start at the beginning.
The weekend before my senior year of high school I got too drunk at a party at my house. It was one of the first times I had ever blacked out and the first time I had ever thrown up from drinking too much. After getting sick and kicking everyone out of my house I ended up hooking up with a friend who had attended the party and stuck around to help clean up. I have very few memories of that night, a combination of the quantity of alcohol I consumed and the trauma. But I remember being tired, I remember saying “no” when he asked if I was on birth control and “I don’t think I can do this.” I remember putting the large t-shirt I often slept in on over the panties I was wearing and climbing back into bed. The next thing I remember, my clothes were still on but we were having sex. I was a virgin.
Call it whatever you want to— being taken advantage of, sexual assault, rape— because if we are being honest I still struggle with what to call it. Rape is a heavy word. We live in a world that often seems black and white and when something grey happens it can be difficult to figure out where and how you fit in. But it isn’t the label that matters, it’s what came after it. That is the hard thing about trauma, it really isn’t the event that matters but how you process it.
I didn’t tell anyone what happened that night. Instead, I spent weeks trying to convince myself that I was okay with it. I mean, I had wanted to lose my virginity anyway and it had finally happened. But then why did I feel so slutty? So dirty? Why did I find myself crying while driving home from school? Why did I start to dread the sunlight and having to face another day? Why did I only want to sleep and wake up years later when everything was okay again?
"That is the hard thing about trauma, it really isn’t the event that matters but how you process it."
Over time, my behavior became erratic and withdrawn. I had always struggled with mild anxiety but after the episode my anxiety multiplied exponentially, sometimes resulting in insomnia which I still battle today. I stopped participating in conversations with friends at lunch; my self-esteem plummeted; I developed an unhealthy and obsessive relationship with food and my hair began to fall out. I became depressed, fantasizing about what it would be like to have a funeral and wondering who would miss me. I felt completely numb.
I began self-medicating with alcohol, often finding myself throwing up or hysterically crying at a party. A small rejection from a boy, or anyone for that matter, would send me off the deep end, reinstating my belief that I was unlovable and damaged. I mean, why would anyone want me when I didn’t matter? Even to myself. But these uncontrollable emotional outbursts were the only times that I felt anything. The only time any emotions escaped from the box I had so perfectly packed them into, locked, and thrown away the key. And not a single day went by where I didn’t think about that night. It felt as though I was literally being haunted, its presence following me and waiting in the dark shadows at the back of my mind.
Looking back on my symptoms, I was exhibiting clear signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). At the time, however, I thought I was successfully hiding what I was going through from everyone around me. PTSD is a condition characterized by things like flashbacks or frightening thoughts, fear based anxiety, sleep disturbance, difficulty remembering key features of the event, feelings of detachment, guilt or blame, negative thoughts and loss of interest in enjoyable activities. Now I know what you’re thinking, PTSD, isn’t that what soldiers have when they come back from war? Yes, the image of PTSD we get from the media comes from movies like The Hurt Locker or Brothers and it mainly shows combat veterans returning from war and experiencing visions and hallucinations. Cultural norms dictate that unless you’re a veteran that has seen combat or experienced “real” trauma, you cannot get PTSD. But studies show that women are twice as likely to develop the disorder than men, often due to sexual trauma.
Trauma is a tricky thing and like most mental illnesses it isn’t black and white. PTSD can be especially difficult to diagnose because people often develop some of the symptoms, but not necessarily all of them. Additionally, women often present different symptoms than men.
Several years after my traumatic event, after the suggestion of a close friend, I finally got help. I wanted to feel again. My therapist said that I exhibited signs of anxious/insecure attachment from my childhood that coupled with the trauma, it triggered my PTSD. I kept what I was going through a secret, feeling like I needed to solve my own problems and that it wasn’t okay to not “be okay.” I was so lucky and so privileged and what I had experienced was so different from what I had seen portrayed by the media, I didn’t feel like I had a right to complain or a support system that would be there if I did. My emotions were not valued, heard or understood and, in many ways, that was even more traumatic.
"I was so lucky and so privileged and what I had experienced was so different from what I had seen portrayed by the media; I didn’t feel like I had a right to complain or a support system that would be there if I did."
Working with my therapist to try to reprocess the experience in a healthy way I began doing Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EDMR) therapy. By using eye movements or vibrations, EMDR tricks my brain into re-processing the traumatic experiences in a new and less disturbing way. Doctors think that what is going on in the brain is similar to what occurs naturally during dreaming or REM sleep.*
August 2018 will officially mark eight years since that night and I still struggle with my anxiety and trauma. Sometimes it feels like a lifetime ago. Other times I have a moment when all of those feelings of guilt and being damaged creep back in. But I do acknowledge that I’ve come a long way. Now, I’m able to experience my emotions, both good and bad, but I also know this is something I will have to work on for the rest of my life.
Moving on doesn’t mean forgetting and the more I talk about my own struggle with mental health, the more I realize that I am not alone and there are people out there that can relate and empathize with how I feel. If you’re struggling with anxiety, depression, PTSD or any other kind of mental illness, you are not broken and it is okay to get help. I’m here if you need to talk.
*To learn more about EMDR, visit the EMDR International Association.
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