Learning to trust after trauma
Content warning: this article contains potentially triggering information regarding sexual assault.
When I was young I used to have petit mal seizures, they’re not serious and have only happened twice since beginning my adulthood. But, from my understanding, if I get too stressed my body will shut down. I lose my vision and hearing, then ultimately consciousness. I always called it the possum syndrome, because I was basically playing dead.
I feel like, for the last six years, I’ve been slowly shutting down. I’ve been blocking out memories, praying to just forget what happened. At the same time, in my fear to admit the truth, I’ve blocked off those who care about me most.
This works the same way cauterizing a wound works: it hurts and it’s not pretty, but the bleeding stops. However, now I’m learning that sometimes it’s better to let healing be a slow process.
“Sometimes it’s better to learn to sit in the pain,” is how Sarah Scanlon, sexual violence response coordinator, explained it to me.
I thought that by avoiding it I could be okay and that eventually things would go back to normal. But as I try to grow and move forward with my life, I’m realizing how much worse off I’ve been by not admitting it.
“I think one of the big things I hear from folks I’m supporting is how do they talk to future partners about their experiences of trauma?” Scanlon said.
“And one of the things I always say to people is ‘you don’t owe anyone your story. You have nothing to be ashamed of, you have nothing to hide and you did nothing wrong. But you don’t owe anyone your story’.”
I don’t owe anyone my story, it’s true. But after all these years I think I’m finally ready to share it. It happened when I was fifteen. I keep saying ‘it’, because even now I still can’t even write it, much less say it out loud.
I’ll try again. When I was fifteen I was raped.
We were hanging out after school, messing around the way that teenagers do, but when things started going too far I told him I wanted to stop. He didn’t. He was stronger, a lot stronger, and pinned me down easily.
I’ll save the gory details for the therapist I undoubtedly need, but one thing that has been burned in my mind is the clock. I was watching a clock the whole time, those digital ones with a laser that shines onto the ceiling. It took three minutes, then he pushed me off the bed and ordered me out of his apartment.
There it is, my horrific truth. Now where do I go?
In a search to answer that I came across an article: “The Difference Between Healing and Curing” by Dr. Michael Lerner. Lerner states the following in the article:
“Even if we’re losing ground physically, there’s extra-ordinary emotional, mental and spiritual healing that can go on. One of the most toxic new-age ideas is that we should ‘keep a positive attitude’. What a crazy, crazy idea that is. It is much healthier, much more healing, to allow yourself to feel whatever is coming up in you, and allow yourself to work with that anxiety, depression, grief. Because, underneath that, if you allow those feelings to come up and express themselves, then you can find the truly positive way of living in relationship to those feelings. That’s such an important thing.”
Lerner’s article helped me see the difference between moving on and moving forward. I can’t change what’s been done to me, but I can choose whether it defines me.
“One of the biggest things is figuring out, on your own, what you need before hand. Thinking about your body, thinking about how you’re going to talk about it, think about how you’re going to debrief or process or find support,” Scanlon said when the focus of the discussion shifted towards moving forward.
Inevitably, I will want a romantic partner. Actually, I asked somebody out for the first time since, and despite a rejection I still took it as an enormous victory. Afterwards, the conversation between Scanlon and I shifted; if I have taken that small step, that means that one day intimacy will be on the horizon.
As some who have experienced harm or have been assaulted understand, the thought of being touched in even the smallest way — like a hug — can be terrifying or even revolting.
“There’s different touch and trust exercises you can try. On Wendy Maltz’s online content she has a video on ‘Relearning Touch’. It has different touch exercises that are adaptive to different stages of healing,” Scanlon said.
“[It focuses on] being able to sample intimacy, and not just slam into it, because for some people who try to rush it too fast it can feel like you’re setting yourself back.”
Wendy Maltz is an American sex therapist and an expert on the sexual repercussions of sexual abuse. She has several books centered on recovering from different forms of abuse and harm, as well as educational videos on YouTube, which is where I’ve been consuming the bulk of her knowledge.
“The idea of [intimacy] is hard, but I think there’s a bunch of pre-work that can be helpful. One thing that is a part of the trigger-map is taking time in being intimate with yourself. Which for some folks, particularly those who identify as women, it’s not something we’re normally comfortable with,” Scanlon said.
“We’ve gotten socialized to not see ourselves with a lot of desire or intimacy for ourselves.”
I’ve found, through research and self-exploration, that having that rush of desire can be confusing.
“Nobody tells you that you’ll feel guilty the first time you have a crush on a guy after your rape,” C.J. Hale, author of “12 Things No One Told Me About Sex After Rape”, wrote.
How everyone heals is different. Some find their agency again by going out and having lots of sex, others start with porn to introduce themselves. I’m neither of these people. And if you’re like me – still struggling with the idea of intimacy even on a personal scale — Scanlon suggested this:
“I would start by having a bath, just touching or caressing your body to see how that feels. Then maybe moving toward masturbation, in a way that feels comfortable or safe to you.”
When I told Scanlon why I was writing this article, something so personal and potentially ruinous, I explained that no problem is unique.
What I’ve been through I know others have as well. I know how lonely and painful silence can feel. All my hopes and fears, I’ve seen reflected in others I’ve spoken with and articles that I’ve read.
At the end of the day, despite the pain I’ve expressed, this article is about healing. Because I’ve been thinking about it — struggling to write it — for so long. But it’s only now that I’ve been able to. Maybe it’s because of the #METOO movement and seeing the bravery of other women. Or maybe I’m just finally ready.
There’s no allotted time to how long it will take you to begin healing; there’s no right way.
After I ended my interview with Scanlon she gave me a deck of cards that had inspirational notes on them. At
first, I thought it was kind of kitschy, like those kitten posters that tell you to hang in there, but there’s one I keep coming back to.
“Sometimes clarity comes slowly, sometimes clarity comes all at once. Sometimes clarity doesn’t come at all. All are okay.”
For a long time, I blamed myself for what happened.
If I had just gone home that day. If I had listened to my dad when he said, ‘boys only have one thing on their mind’.
If, if, if.
It runs endlessly through my mind, even now.
My clarity came when I began to understand this isn’t my fault. It came again in a form of trust that when my family reads this, even if they’re angry, they’ll forgive and love me.
But it comes and goes, it’s working in tandem with healing and I don’t think we ever stop healing.
If you or someone you know has experienced any form of sexual assault, you can find various resources in the region, including: Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region (SASC) (519-741-8633) and Waterloo Region Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Treatment Centre (519-749-6994).