It’s national post-traumatic stress disorder awareness day.
While I’m usually very vocal about my struggles with mental illnesses, including anorexia, anxiety, and depression, PTSD is the one that I’m pretty silent on. I thought today, on the day that was named for this very reason, would be the right day to shed just a little light on my experiences, my trauma, and the illness in general.
It’s a common belief that PTSD is the “war-veteran disease”, but that could not be further from the truth. While only 10-20% of war veterans develop the disorder, nearly one third of rape victims will develop it in their lifetimes.
And I am a rape victim.
That is the first time I have said that publicly.
I’ll start with my story.
It was beautiful at the beginning, my first love. It was everything a fairytale was supposed to be. It was a sweet summer spent lying in the grass and whispering about the stars and running wild to the resonation of each other’s’ heartbeats. It was storybook perfection. For the first time in so long, I was happy. He made me really, truly happy.
I believed in myself, when I was with him. I was a different person. I was the life of the party and the star of his show and I felt so alive. I am not one to trust fully, but we had been close for so long that I did trust him.
I trusted him enough that when he said that he loved me, I began to love me, too.
I trusted him when we danced beneath the milky way one night and he told me we were going to make it to forever.
And come that first fall, as autumn kissed the leaves golden, I trusted him when he told me that he only wanted the best for me. For us.
Then came the first slap across the face, the first red hot placement of blame.
And I trusted him, still.
Then came the intermittent strikings of screaming and silence; I never knew who I was getting into the car with.
And I trusted him, still.
Then he began to tell me that I was only really anything because of him. That if he ever left me, I would have no social life because our friends would take his side. That our future together was the only thing that could really motivate me to carry on. That in his care, under his wing, I would not ever have to question my worth, because being his alone was worth something. That he knew exactly what he was doing, exactly what I needed.
And I trusted him, still.
When I began to relapse into my eating disorder, as fall threaded her age-spotted hands through my hair, he noticed the subtle changes in my behavior, my voice, my tendency towards isolation. In he swept, the knight in shining armor who knew me better than anyone knew me, who claimed to love me deeper than anyone loved me.
He began to slowly rip me to pieces with words shrouded in silver and sulfur:
“You’re crazy, so no one else will ever be able to love you.”
“Do you realize how much stress you put me under? How much I worry about you?”
“Honestly, I don’t know if you’re mentally stable enough to make decisions for yourself.”
And I trusted him, still, because I could no longer trust myself. Or so he told me. And he was so, so angry with the fact that he alone wasn’t enough to “fix” me, to make me perfectly content and happy.
He was a tall, muscled athlete, and I, being 5”2’ and oftentimes exhausted, could not physically fight for myself. I tried to use words, every form of “no” and “stop” and “I will scream” and “I will leave you so help me god”, and he always had a way of manipulating me into silence, into still. Some days, he would put me in a chokehold or pin down my wrists and not say a single word. Other days, he would (literally) spit threats at me, saying that if I told anyone, he would contact my cross country coach and tell him that I was struggling again, which, given my history, was grounds for being kept off the team, or call my mom, and get me sent away for treatment (which I was sure, at the time, would absolutely wreck my life). More often than not, he would apologize while towering over me and wipe my tears with my own thumbs, claiming this was all for my own good.
Eventually, after two months, I stopped fighting back, and I allowed him to do whatever he wanted to do. It was more of a physical response than mental; I was exhausted, and my body did not have the energy to continue to thrash, to plead. In the midst of the stillness, I hated myself. I hated my body for freezing and I hated my mouth for not being able to find the right words to make him stop. I hated my hands for not being strong enough to shove him off, and I hated my mind for shutting down, for dissociating entirely.
This self hatred led to a self-punitive attitude that he only reinforced, and I slipped farther and farther into my ED, which only gave him more “reason” to put me into damaging situations. For months on end, I was stuck in this disgusting cycle of rape and restriction. I was either in physical pain, or mental pain, or a state of numb that I found comfort in (but only in the depths of anorexia). He told me, over and over again, that this was my fault. That if I was going to be able to do whatever the hell I wanted and stop eating, then he should be able to do whatever the hell he wanted, too, because that was just fair. That he didn’t want to hurt me, but that someone had to. Someone had to hurt me more than I could hurt myself, and that made no sense at all, but to him it did.
It really only ever mattered what made sense to him.
One day, he sat by and watched as I was attacked and raped, in his own home, by someone else. I’ll never forget the way that he laughed. I have only told my therapist about that day, but it will forever be the day that changed everything. The day that it ultimately clicked in my mind that what was happening here was wrong, and that maybe, just maybe, he was wrong. That it wasn’t all my fault.
Eventually, come February of that awful year, I would have rid myself of the grip around my throat, but not without consequence.
I was, quite literally, traumatized.
I still have the scar on my left hand from the time he pulled a pocket knife.
But worse, I still have the memories. And they just will not let up.
It took me months to be able to say, “I was raped. I was physically abused. I was sexually assaulted. I was emotionally manipulated.” And it will take me many, many more to believe that I didn’t deserve it. That it wasn’t my fault. That I did not do a damn thing wrong.
His words are so deeply entrenched into my head, and his motions are so deeply entrenched into my muscle memory, that I can not forget and I can not move on.
The night I told my friends, just the feeling of his name on the tip of my tongue caused me to projectile vomit. And the night I told my therapist, the physical responses were just as strong. I still did not have control over my body. He did. Our past did. And I hate that.
I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
I am locked in a tightrope dance between the driver’s seat of my own car and the backseat of his, never quite sure which reality I am living in. To be touched by anyone, even my own mother, is to feel violently threatened. I startle easily, and my heart flutters to fight or flight mode at least thirty times a day. I am immersed in sleep paralysis and nightmares so vivid that I can physically feel everything happening to me all over again. I am dropped into flashbacks at random points in the day, so clear and real that I can still sense his breath in my ear. Over and over and over, I am living the worst days of my life, and I just can’t seem to break free.
Having PTSD is like that classic devil on one shoulder, angel on the other scenarios. Except both of them are devils, and they’re both constantly in your ear, screaming play by plays of the most painful experiences you’ve ever had to live. And sometimes, they send little somatic reminders, little daggers in your shoulder where he threw it out of place, little pings in the scar on your hand that was the only real gift he ever gave you.
My bones are still pilastered. And day after day after day, I have to fight to remind myself that he does not own me anymore. That he never did.
I am reclaiming my life by reclaiming my fears.
He always hated my writing, my vulnerability. He made me promise him that I would never write about him, about us, no matter what. That I had to keep some things private, I had to hold some things in.
So here I am, writing about him. Writing about everything under the goddamn sun.
Forgiving him, forgiving them, is becoming easier for me, but forgiving myself is a whole nother ball game. I live in a world where the holiest of books says that fifty pieces of silver and a marriage license are all that is needed to right the wrong of sexual assault. Where “slut” and “whore” and “asking for it” are tied to the names of young girls as easy as ribbons and innocence were once tied in their hair. Where abstinence is preached and the “sex talk” is avoided. Where rape is a curse word. Where virginity is a gift you give your husband, as if without it, there is nothing to give.
I have plenty to give, and I am giving it as words to the universe and giving it as compassion to myself. I am no victim.
I fought for my life beneath his hands, and now, I fight for it back with my own.
Never again will I be silenced.
Every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted.
Only 6 of every 1000 perpetrators will end up in prison.
321,500 Americans aged twelve and older have been raped.
1 in every 6 females will be raped in her lifetime.
1 in 3 women in the United States will experience sexual violence in their lifetime.
55% of rape cases occur at or near the victim’s home.
51.1% of female victims of rape were perpetrated by their romantic partner.
In 8 out of 10 cases of rape, the victim knew the perpetrator.
1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18.
Rape is the most underreported crime, and 63% of sexual assaults go unreported.
13% of female rape survivors will attempt suicide.