The first time I was a victim of rape, I didn’t immediately realize I had been raped. I was sixteen, a virgin, and in love. I had no idea that I was still just a child, or that my boyfriend, a man seven years my senior, had been grooming me since I was fourteen years old. Or that he was also doing it to another girl, only thirteen. Later in our relationship, he would rape me in much more obvious ways; under knife point or threat of violence. But that very first time, on a quiet day in June, I thought it was love. It didn’t matter that it was hurried and painful, or that he seemed to lose interest in me just moments later. It didn’t matter that we were in a cluttered garage, or that a thirteen year old homeless girl would soon rap the door demanding to see him. I thought it was sex, I thought he loved me, and I thought everything was okay.
Rape changed me. There’s no way to fully describe this change without experiencing it. I hope it’s something you, dear reader, never understand. But if you already do, if you’ve been raped, then you know what I mean. No matter how young or old you are, it ruins a place of sacred innocence within you. It exposes you.
This month, November, I am dedicating my blog to rape awareness.
We will be hearing from people who have been raped, and from their loved ones, about how the experience has affected them. If you’re interested in being included in this series, there are still a couple spots available; please see my guest post info page for more details and then shoot me an e-mail.
This first post describes how surviving rape has affected my mental health, followed by ways you can help someone in your life if you learn he or she has been raped. Please note that I have chosen to use she/her pronouns to reflect my own experience and also the fact that more women than men are raped; however, please understand that I believe male and gender-fluid rape victims absolutely deserve the same level of care, and that these tips apply across gender.
How To Help A Loved One Who Has Been Raped
With support, rape survivors can recover. Through a combination of therapy, compassion, friendship, familial support, and rest, healing is possible. But not all of us are lucky enough to have rest and support.
I don’t blame my friends for not being there are much as I needed them to be. I was very young when my abuse occurred, which meant my friends were young too. They had their own anxieties and traumas and growing pains to overcome. Plus, my abuser had made me so afraid to spend time with anyone that I dropped many important friendships along the way. Most of the friends I had left were scared off by my anger. For a while, anger was the air I breathed. I was suffocating on my rage. I understand why people didn’t want to be a part of that.
But I needed them. And I needed my family, who blamed me for staying with my abuser. I didn’t want to go to therapy, because I felt betrayed and ashamed that the only person who would listen to me was someone who was paid to do it–sometimes I still feel that way. Long story short, I didn’t get the support that everyone who has undergone rape needs, and because of that, I developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
How Being Raped Changes You
PTSD develops after a person endures a life-threatening or sexual trauma and does not receive sustained, compassionate support directly afterward. It can be treated, but not cured. It is marked by vivid, violent nightmares that force the sufferer to relive her trauma night after night; flashbacks, which force her to relive it during the day; panic attacks, generalized anxiety, depression, dissociation, obsessive thoughts, substance use, and suicidal behavior. I have experienced all of these symptoms.
Every day I am exhausted. My friends are all but gone; I almost never see the few friends I have left. I’m married, but my marriage is strained by depression and mood swings, which we both experience because we both have PTSD. My anxiety and low self-esteem are major barriers to employment. I’ve been homeless, and I always feel on the verge of returning to the streets. Living in a body that has PTSD can be unbearable. The thought of suicide is always on the borders of my mind, even though I am now a mother to three beautiful children. I have to battle hopelessness with intent.
The point of writing this isn’t to incite pity in you, but rather to help you understand how important support is to rape survivors. Not just therapeutic support, though yes: that is important too. I mean the sustained, non-judgmental support of friends and family. Being raped is excruciating; living with PTSD is worse, because it’s like being raped again and again for the rest of your life.
How Can You Help?
It’s difficult to be around someone who has experienced something as sensitive and scary as rape. But she needs you now more than ever. Don’t give up. She shouldn’t have to fight this on her own. Here are some ways you can help.
Talk to her
That may sound simple, but people often have a tendency to avoid others who have gone through a traumatic or deeply emotional experience. You may feel like in order to talk to her, you have to address what happened, and you don’t know what to say. First, if she wants to talk about it, the best thing to do is just let her talk. Second, if she doesn’t bring it up, you can just hang out with her. I bet she’ll feel great to be able to spend time with a friend who doesn’t treat her like a broken doll.
People who have gone through rape or other traumas that threaten their basic bodily autonomy may feel anger. Justifiably so, in my opinion. Sometimes that anger gets directed inappropriately, or erupts at slight triggers. It’s okay to tell her that you don’t think she’s being fair to you, but if she blows up on you, show some compassion. She’s expressing anger at a situation that made her feel violated and helpless, and she’ll need time to come to terms with it. If you can forgive her the episode and remain her friend, it will go a long, long way toward helping her heal. Even if it happens more than once, which it probably will.
Don’t judge or blame her
This one may seem obvious, but people do it more often than you might think. Don’t blame her for being raped. That means don’t ask her what she was wearing, how much she had to drink, if she was flirting with the rapist, why she invited him to her apartment, or anything else along those lines. Rape is always the fault of the rapist. Judging or shaming a rape survivor in this way will cause her to distrust you at a time when she needs to be able to trust you most.
If she’s undergoing a legal case, support her through it
Pressing charges against a rapist is difficult. Those awful questions I told you not to ask her? The defense will ask them. And a lot more invasive, unfair questions that prove our legal system is failing trauma survivors in a big way. You can’t protect her from all of that, but you can hold her hand, listen to her complain or cry about the (very real) unfairness of it all, and go to court with her even if what you hear there is disturbing.
Remind her that she is valuable
Invite her to go out. If she won’t go out, stay in with her. Keep inviting her, even if she always says no. Just knowing that you care enough to think of her will mean a lot. Compliment her–even when she reacts awkwardly or not at all. Remind her that what happened isn’t her fault, doesn’t define her, and that nobody knows without being told. This last one is important because rape survivors often feel that people somehow know what happened to them, which is a pretty miserable, paranoid feeling.
Encourage her to get professional support
Keep reminding her that therapy can help. Tell her that it’s not shameful to go to therapy. Find some local resources for her. Trauma therapy is really, really hard and she may use barriers as excuses. If you can help remove some of those barriers, such as locating a provider that accepts her insurance and fits her schedule, she will be more likely to attend.
You can also find support groups in her area, and encourage her to take a martial arts or yoga class. This isn’t because she needs to “be prepared” in case it happens again, and it definitely isn’t because women should take it upon themselves to stop predators; it’s because it’s incredibly freeing for assault survivors to feel the strength and power within their bodies that fitness classes develop. The exercise and mindfulness involved in both martial arts and yoga also promote the production of neurochemicals that help counter the brain changes that lead to PTSD. Even running or home work outs can help if there are financial barriers to taking classes.
Look out for signs of substance use
Take it from someone who knows: using drugs to mask painful rape memories is really damn effective. Despite Trump’s assertion that there is nothing attractive about drugs, drugs and alcohol are very attractive to sexual assault survivors. Even though they work in the short term, however, that kind of substance use can very easily develop into a problematic disorder that will cause more problems than it helps reduce.
Look out for the signs of a developing substance use disorder, things like taking a lot of drugs or alcohol (I know, it sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how much problem drinking goes by unchecked), being sick a lot, being inebriated during work or school or skipping responsibilities due to hang overs or inebriation, spending far more money than usual without any apparent cause, receding from regular social activities, losing interest in previously pleasurable activities.
If you suspect she’s using drugs or alcohol to mask her symptoms, don’t shame her. Instead, try sitting her down, telling her you love her and are concerned, and gently describe to her the behaviors that have worried you. If she’s not ready to stop, the best thing you can do, in my opinion, is continue to show compassion without enabling her. Remain her friend–don’t try “tough love”–but you don’t necessarily have to loan her that cash she desperately needs all of a sudden either.
Don’t blame yourself
If she does develop PTSD, don’t blame yourself. You can do everything right and sometimes the trauma will have been so intense that she develops a mental health disorder anyway. If that happens, please remember that PTSD is incurable. It can be treated; the symptoms can be lessened–but it will never go away. She will never “get over it.” So please don’t expect her to, and don’t stop being in her life just because she is still angry, sad, or traumatized years later.
Living with PTSD is incredibly sad. I fight for my life every day. It is a debilitating disorder that takes an incredible amount of work to overcome. Surviving rape can lead to the development of PTSD, but it doesn’t have to. Statistics unfortunately tell us that we all likely know or will meet at least one sexual assault survivor. I encourage those of you reading this to make a pledge, today, to support sexual assault survivors. Help us have the best chance at life.