Coping with the Aftermath of Sexual Assault
Warning: This post contains a graphic account of sexual assault.
In the early morning hours on February 23rd, I laid on my futon slowly dosing off with my cats next to me. I just finished watching Repo! The Genetic Opera. I even remember texting my friend to try to pull her out her depressed funk.
I heard heavy footfalls echoing off of the concrete balcony from my open window. Then the knocking started.
It wasn’t the first time that month someone had been knocking on my door. This occurrence had started off not long after I quit my job. At first, I brushed it off as one of my neighbors being "funny". But there were times the next morning where I’d find my gas cap ajar and the windshield wipers up on my car. In another instance a few days before, someone had taken the light bulb out off the porch light.
My stomach lurched. The knocking continued more insistently. Eventually, I heard a low voice say urgently, “It’s your neighbor. Somebody is messing with your car.”
I try not to ask myself what would have happened if I didn’t open the door.
I remember frantically running and unlocking the door. I remember a silhouette standing menacingly on my balcony. My attacker rushed towards me so fast I landed on the ground hard. I think he may of slammed my head on the floor.
For a few brief seconds everything in my head was oddly silent. I couldn’t recall in the moment where I was or what had occurred. Not until I found myself in a headlock, screaming and choking for air. He told me to "shut up" and he "didn’t want to hurt me."
One of the thoughts running through my head as he raped me became a repetitious chant: “This can’t be happening.”
My story, while sickening, is unfortunately not uncommon. According to a study conducted by the DFW Hospital Council, the number of hospital cases relating to sexual assault in Denton County was 160 in 2016. In another study from the Texas Department of Public Safety, the total number of Texas Sexual Assault incidents in 2011 was 18,088. These aren’t including cases reported to the authorities.
While the definition varies from state to state, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) defines “sexual violence” as crimes referring to sexual assault, rape, incest, and child abuse. Some of the types of crimes are categorized under the following categories: intimate partner sexual assault, acquaintance rape, and stranger rape. The Texas Penal Code Chapter 22, Section 22.011 gives a detailed account on the definition of sexual assault.
Speaking from personal experience that the attack has taken a direct hit on my emotional and physical health. Some of the mental symptoms compiled by the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs list acute affects as: shame, guilt, denial, isolation just to name a few. The long term affects range from PTSD to flashbacks, depression, anxiety, and dissociation.
For me, from the moment my attacker left me slumped over on my futon half dressed, to sitting down writing this article, I’ve felt a growing sense of disconnect that I can’t shake. The disconnected feeling is usually followed (for me at least) by a fierce, undesirable grief. And anger. I’m angry and sad nowadays, almost on a regularly basis. Unexpected bouts of nausea wash over me at random times. My throat closes when I start to speak. My appetite increases and decreases at unpredictable rates. Concentrating on tasks takes every bit of will power I possess. The hurricane of emotions hits when I least expect it; when I find myself at my most vulnerable place in my mind.
Most of the time though I feel numb.
For sexual assault survivors (I’ve found in various literature provided online the terms "survivor" and "victim" are interchangeable depending on the context) the main resource for support in Denton County is Friends of the Family (DCFOF). DCFOF not only provides free crisis counseling and group therapy sessions, they also help individuals with relocation through the Crime Victim’s Compensation program. Other resources include the counseling centers at TWU and UNT respectively. Denton County MHMR also provides mental health support for individuals by appointment.
The purpose of this article is not to garner sympathy. While I am grateful for the support I’ve received from my friends and family, the fact of the matter is it doesn’t change what happened to me. At first it was impossible for me to acknowledge the attack even happened. I spent the first couple of weeks crying myself sick almost every day in bed, or in the shower where I could pretend no one would hear me. I’ve managed to steer clear of self destructive tendencies in order to cope, but some days are harder to ignore the desire to be reckless.
A lot of people, my counselor included, say I have a lot of strength for trying to create some sense of normalcy for myself. On the outside it may seem that way to observers. I don’t consider myself strong, though. I complete tasks going through the motions, and say I’m "okay" when someone asks. In many ways I do minimize my attack, pushing the experience aside. “I’ll deal with it later,” I tell myself. I know at the rate I’m going I may crash and burn at any moment. It’s only a matter of when.
One of my many reasons for writing this article is to come to terms with the grief and isolation accompanied in the aftermath of my rape. While my story is one of too many, I noticed people become uncomfortable when I mention my attack. They look at me differently. The reality is I’ve learned the hard way which persons in my life are actually willing to understand the gravity of my situation, or at least attempt to fathom it. We as a society condemn victims instead of the perpetrators and the crime that sexual assault is. As nervous as I am to put my story out in the open, the stigma surrounding sexual assault outweighs my reservations to stay silent.
More importantly, too many people experience sexual assault in their lifetime. Some of those people are acquaintances and classmates of mine. A few of them are close friends. Close friends I’ve watched struggle with their trauma in various states of shock, hurt, and anger. Their stories and mine are part of a larger narrative in a symptomatic society not addressing the issue at hand.
My written account only conveys a small fraction of the aftermath I’m experiencing from my sexual assault. I only speak for my own narrative in the hope of maybe offering some kind of solace for individuals experiencing similar traumas. I’m not sure if I believe time heals wounds, but I stand by the words I read once as a teenager: “We fight, we hurt, and we prove to ourselves that we can survive.”
I suppose surviving is a step in the right direction.
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts please contact the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. Or contact the 24 Hour Denton County Friends of the Family Crisis Hotline at 940-382-7273 or 800-572-4031.
Header image design by Christopher Rodgers