Since the #metoo campaign went viral, many necessary and important conversations have begun. We dragged the truth about sexual harassment and assault into the light of day, exposing the fact that a disturbing amount of people–especially women–have experienced some form of sexual violence in their lifetimes. Discussions about support and awareness have taken beautiful seed. Rape culture is finally being acknowledged on a wide-spread scale. But there’s one discussion that, while important, has not been able to take place without sounding horribly offensive. That is the conversation about the fact that not all traumatic experiences are the same.
Let me start by saying this: trauma is subjective. The development of post-traumatic stress disorder and other traumatic responses is not only determined by the inciting event. The victim’s biological makeup, personal history, and support system also play a significant role. As do the nuances of the event, which may not appear in the categorizing of the event. It is possible for one person to be more traumatized by having her breasts fondled on a bus than another person who was forcibly raped–really–simply because of all those factors; even though most people would likely say, if made to choose, that they’d rather have their breasts fondled than be forcibly raped. Our anxieties and personal biases create hierarchies of trauma, but that’s not how trauma actually works. There is no way to say that “my trauma was worse than yours,” and even if there was, it would be a silly, disrespectful thing to say. Take it from someone with PTSD: being traumatized is not something to aspire toward.
It’s easy to know what I’m feeling at nearly any given moment, because most of the time what I’m feeling is anger. The intensity of that anger varies, sure, but it’s always there–with few exceptions. Post traumatic stress disorder is often associated with anger; talk to anyone with PTSD who’s willing to be honest about her experiences, and she’ll tell you about her anger. But looking back, the anger inside of me dates back farther than the domestic violence. I wonder if continuing in that relationship was a subconscious way to justify all that rage within.
It took me years to finally realize how much sibling abuse and parental neglect affected me. It took me years to realize I’d experienced those things. Yes, I grew up hearing my brother tell me I was a mistake who should never have been born, and I watched my father spend more time at his typewriter failing to publish than with me. Yes, my teenage years were marred by a mother who refused to hear me, but when I was younger, I thought all of that was normal. You hear that line a lot too, when you talk to people who came from abusive or neglectful households. We all thought that was just the way life was.
The memory that haunts me most is not being strangled until my body gave way to seizure. Nor is it the three days I spent being beaten in a motel by my lover. It’s not the day he raped me on the bed next to our three-month-old son, or the time he punched my head again and again into the cement floor of a garage until I had to prop myself against him, his arms wrapped around my waist, just to get home. These memories hold their share of terror, but the one that haunts me most begins with a bicycle.