Everyone’s process through realizing trauma and the impact of trauma is so individualized and yet there are many common threads. I am grateful to add to my blog the writing of a dear friend, Anna, a survivor of childhood abuse and rape. Anna shares with us here her journey from dissociation (our innate, wonderful ability to disconnect ourselves from painful things) into beginning to fully realize the extent to which her childhood was scary, painful, and chaotic. While this is Anna’s story I think her words & emotions will resonate with many of you. Thank you, Anna, for allowing me to share your experiences with other survivors. — Rachel Stanton
by Anna H.
Content Warning: This post contains frank discussion of rape and abuse. It does not contain detailed depictions of either.
Sitting in the ER waiting to complete a rape kit was the last place I had expected to be during Spring semester of my Junior year in college. Sitting there with images flashing through my mind like a silent movie reel: getting to the top of the basement stairs and realizing I had indeed been locked in; seeing the litany of texts from my friends when my phone was returned to me; returning to my dorm room and showering in my underwear. This wasn’t my life. I was miss-goody-two-shoes, virgin in both body and mind. This happened to other people, and I was now other.
As the president of a barbershop-style a cappella group that hosted a yearly fundraiser for a rape crisis center, I knew what you were supposed to do if you were raped. I wasn’t sure if I had been; but just in case, I went through the motions. I went in for a rape kit. I called the university’s trauma counselor. I told my parents. I felt like an imposter, plodding through the motions of doing “the right thing”. The people who had accompanied me to the party I went to (I never went to parties) sat with me that day, listening wide eyed with dawning understanding as I conveyed my experience to the police. Because I wasn’t sure that what had happened to me was really in the category of rape (I still to this day only say sexual assault), I was taking in a lot of information about others’ reactions. I noted the concern from his acquaintances that he didn’t think he had done anything wrong. I listened as my forensic scientist relative berated me for not being certain about prosecution. I thought about my underwear washed clean on the floor of my shower that night and what that meant for proving my case were I to try and make one.
A few days later, I marched myself into the trauma therapist’s office prepared to take this load off and become myself again. I knew what I had been reviewing in my mind, knew the uncertainty I was feeling, felt that I was a broken thing that needed some fixing. I was ready to get down to it. I sat down on her couch, opened my mouth, and talked about my dad. Every time I saw this woman, I talked about my childhood. It surprised me every time, and I couldn’t stop it. It felt like I was rewatching a movie I had seen and liked as a child, but seeing it again I felt deeply disturbed by the content. Why was I revisiting this reel? I was here to talk about my assault – what did my childhood have to do with it?
In the time since my assault, I have come to learn that I had a traumatic childhood. I actually had no idea that it was all that bad until after my assault, as though a thinly painted veneer of what I thought was a fine life had been shattered, and the trauma and abuse I had experienced came crashing down on me in waves over time. This was a strange phenomenon: again, I was periodically watching scenes flash through my mind as though these things had happened to someone else. My dad getting physical with my mom, putting a suitcase in the car, and leaving for two hours (the suitcase was empty). After crawling on hands and knees under the TV (the only way between the kitchen and bedrooms in our home), being beckoned over to the couch to receive a slap across my face for being too disruptive. The time in high school he throttled me with his hands around my neck because I wouldn’t agree with him and he “didn’t know what else to do.” Or my dad telling me that there were evil spirits floating in the house that only he could see, and that it was my and my mom’s fault that they were after him. I guess I knew all of these things had happened, but I didn’t know they were abusive (or even psychotic). All families had problems, right? The strangest moment of realization I had was in a bar, chatting with a friend, and suddenly remembering the time my mom, my brother, and I spent in a shelter for battered women and children. I really liked the raspberry pop tarts there.
A part of the veneer fragilely protecting my view of my childhood was this need to be in control. I had become very adept at being in control, both in protecting myself and my mom as much as I could, and also by controlling my reactions. But outside of my childhood environment, I actually started to fall apart. I had a therapist explain to me that I was suffering from an anxiety disorder. This was in part because I spent so much of my childhood with what was an appropriate level of anxiety to keep myself as safe as possible, and that level of anxiety wasn’t serving me well in an average environment. I was grappling for the feeling of control in a world that didn’t need so much of it, and suffering consequently.
I definitely still had to deal with my assault, and continue to do so 15 years later, but the realizations about my formative trauma have been far more difficult and painful to process and assimilate into my ever-changing sense of self. While in the midst of trying to grapple with what had happened to me at that party in college, it was determined that I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Consequently, I was very disorganized mentally. I didn’t do well in school for a while, and I became very fearful of running into my assaulter around town. I had intrusive visions seeing him on the train, in the coffee shop, etcetera. I spoke with my doctor about this and was referred to a psychiatrist for EMDR therapy to help my brain process the experience more fully. This therapy put a complete stop to the intrusive thoughts and daydreams, almost like magic. The psychiatrist told me I wouldn’t need another appointment, that I was very resilient… and it felt almost anticlimactic. But in the back of my mind I had started to realize that I was hardwired by my childhood to survive as best I could in the face of difficult experiences.
It has not been an easy thing, having to re-edit my internal movie reel to reflect what happened to me more accurately. Particularly in the face of gaslighting by my father, but that’s another story for another day. I gotta say, it’s not a movie I’m interested in rewatching. I feel so angry at times that therapy, processing, and “moving on” doesn’t edit it out. I’d much rather pretend that all of that didn’t happen, but not dealing with it creates these moments where I fall apart when I remember. And so I press on, learning to be present with where I am at now while also being compassionate toward myself about my past, still very much in production.