She blocked out a rape for nearly three years…
Remembering was dangerous.
Her boyfriend’s heat on her face was sickly, his weight on top of her unbearable, and, although she usually loved cuddling and intimacy, she had to get away to breathe without panicking. It was the morning after a BBQ with a few other couples at their place. They had all tumbled into bed together at dawn, as they did in their circles. Some people were smoking weed and having sex, but she had been exhausted and ready for sleep. So she went off to sleep in the guest room instead.
But the guest room wasn’t far enough, the balcony wasn’t far enough, the biggest park in the city wasn’t far enough. Tess (not her real name) biked and walked all morning, then all afternoon, and then into the evening and night. She must have been gone twelve hours, and came home tipsy from a few glasses of wine at a few cafés — and still crying from trying to write to figure out what and how she was thinking and feeling. It felt like something was horribly wrong, and she didn’t know what.
She only had fragments, and she wasn’t sure what was going on or how much clearer it would get. Her boyfriend was very worried when she got home, because she’d never taken off suddenly and been out — long, silent, and upset — like that before. But she couldn’t explain herself, because she didn’t know yet herself what was wrong.
Over the next few days, Tess couldn’t sleep in a bed. She needed to be alone and not touched. She remembered more and more from a camping trip nearly three years before, when there had been also the smell of weed, her exhaustion, and this horrible, sickly heat stifling her face and unbearable weight on top of her, crushing her. Then it dawned on her: She had been raped, and not admitted it to anyone, including herself, for nearly three years.
Not normally a heavy drinker, she started drinking a bottle of wine at night to knock herself out. Her boyfriend noticed, and told her that he loved her and to not do that again. So she stopped. But that meant she had to process the pain.
It sounds strange, but Tess really hadn’t known what happened. There are a few possible reasons for this blocking out of traumatic memory that might all apply. First, the camping trip was at a festival where there was lots of alcohol. She was already crying and drunk when a church friend’s husband’s friend — the rapist — gave her a huge quantity of whiskey. She was a thin, petite woman who didn’t normally binge-drink.
The next day, it took a few hours for her to even remember that she had wound up throwing up yellow bile from the alcohol. That must have been after telling people she wanted to die — she had been struggling with severe depression for the better part of a year, and had attempted suicide the previous month — and before blacking out. Alcohol blackouts impair memory, and alcohol and stress hinder fear extinction. In combination, these factors make traumatic memories associated with drunken states harder to recall cognitively and process emotionally. Substance abuse, especially alcohol abuse, is a very common compounding problem of other mental health issues such as depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). And alcohol is by far the most common date rape drug.
When at first she began remembering in pieces, Tess thought she must have been unconscious during the rape. But then she got more and more memories back about it, often in the form of flashbacks that made her wish again that she was dead. This type of blocking of traumatic memories, called psychogenic amnesia (or not remembering key bits of information about trauma for psychological reasons) is typical of PTSD. The way the memories started coming back years later is also in the realm of normal for rape trauma syndrome, with which people usually present for therapy years rather than months later. What may sound like pulp fiction — amnesia as seen on soap operas — is par for the course in this sub-corridor of a sub-corridor.
As unprocessed traumatic memories tend to be, Tess’s were overwhelming and confusing. At first they came in visceral flashbacks, like the smell of weed which melded into the smell of the man, the uncomfortable heat and scratching around her face where he was kissing her when she couldn’t move, and the unbearable weight of him on top of her. But what man, where, when, why, and how, she had to piece together bit by excruciating bit.
So she did. She remembered darkness, heat, and not being able to move. She remembered someone kissing her, and not being able to speak or breathe in response. She remembered someone from outside calling her name to ask if she was ok — probably her church friend’s husband — but that she couldn’t form words to respond. She remembered the rapist putting on a condom and fucking her until they both came. That was normal for her during sex; and even forced sex, or sex with someone who is incapacitated and unable to either stop it or consent, is still sex.
Still, one of the most taboo subjects within the still-taboo subject of sexual assault is victim arousal. Our bodies can respond to sexual stimuli whether our minds like it or not. This phenomenon is called body betrayal. One theory about why it exists postulates that women’s bodies need arousal to protect delicate tissues from damage, especially in cases of attack; thus, sexual response to unwanted sexual contact has been evolutionarily rewarded. But it’s confusing as hell. Tess remembered feeling like he had won, and there would be nothing she could ever do or say now because she had come. No one would believe it was rape.
Then she remembered him getting off of her, and sometime after that being able at last with great effort to open her eyes. She didn’t know where she was or who she was with. She saw him and startled, crying out and jerking back in shock. Then she struggled to get up and ran away as fast as she could.
Outside his tent, where he must have pulled her when she was unconscious from the whiskey he gave her, the sun was bright but she couldn’t get warm. She spent the rest of the camping trip in flannel pajamas and foam ear-plugs, trying to stop shivering, find peace and quiet, and calm down.
When she got home, there was no one to talk to. Her boyfriend had been away the same weekend on a trip to hear his older daughter’s college choir sing. She couldn’t come with him because, although he was by then separated, she remained the decades-younger mistress with whom he’d had a 10-year secret affair. He never brought her into his family, even after divorcing and proposing marriage. A week after the last time they were together, she would spend her 30th birthday that was also Thanksgiving sleeping alone on the floor, because he assumed without asking that his parents wouldn’t give permission for her to join a holiday dinner at their house.
Some time before parting ways for his choir and her camping trip, he had told her that he “just couldn’t deal with other men,” grabbing, squeezing, and twisting her face for emphasis with such force that she worried he might break her neck. It wasn’t the first time they’d fought about his changing rules for her and his jealousy, and it wouldn’t be the last time he would hurt her. She couldn’t exactly welcome him home with a story about an acquaintance fucking her when she couldn’t move, see, speak, or breathe, and didn’t know who she was with or where — and expect sympathy. To the contrary, she was worried he would kill her if he found out she’d been with another man. Whether or not she wanted it would be moot.
Little wonder, then, that she didn’t tell him. But why not tell herself? Even when her church friend Facebook messaged her about a year and a half after the rape, clearly referencing it, she couldn’t bring herself to admit to her friend — or to herself — what had happened. It took over a year more for Tess to realize that the friend’s message meant that there might have been witnesses to the rape, certainly to its context — and that the rapist seemed to have a pattern of serial predation. The friend said “I wanted to let you know that there is some legal action being taken against [the rapist], and [our mutual friend] asked me to reach out to you to see if you wanted to be involved in that. I didn’t know about what happened at [the camping festival] — I’m so sorry to hear about it. I know it’s been awhile, but if there’s any support you want/need, let me know.” Re-reading the note a year and a half later, Tess’s mind bubbled with questions.
If other people at the festival knew what was going on, then why didn’t they act at the time? Or did she telegraph to someone what had happened after the fact, shivering in her flannel pajamas in the sunshine and ear-plugs in any space away from people she could find? Or maybe she told someone right after and she just didn’t remember doing it now? She knew she hadn’t given a play-by-play, but maybe just a brief description? Was there an ethical or social duty to report what happened to police, even though perhaps it would be a weak case with so much time elapsed, because apparently there were other victims? Would anyone believe her if she said everything that happened? Would they believe her more — or less — knowing that she had attempted suicide not long before? Having blocked out so much for so long, she didn’t even begin to ask these questions until almost three years after the rape.
Upon reflection, Tess knew that she herself was the biggest reason of all that she had blocked it all out. She had still been struggling with depression and PTSD — still in an abusive relationship that seemed better than not being in it — still feeling hopeless, socially isolated, and struggling to heal. She had even promised herself, in trying to treat her PTSD, that if she were sexually assaulted again, then she could kill herself — no permissions needed, no more fighting, no self-doubt or discussion. So dealing with that rape when it had happened — even at the level of acknowledging it, even as much as a year or two later — would have killed her. It took about three years to remember, and four to understand: Her mind was smart to hide this trauma from her until she could process it safely. Blocking the assault from her accessible memory was adaptive.
But was it right to call this rape? Some people would say it wasn’t “rape-rape,” she knew. Two friends she told at last, years later, immediately called it rape. Her new partner didn’t — although he didn’t think it was ok, either. She didn’t say no, but she couldn’t say yes. She was incapacitated, as a result of the friend-of-a-friend’s own whiskey pouring — and he and others knew it, because she was subsequently violently ill and openly suicidal before blacking out. She wouldn’t have had sex with this man of her own free will, but she didn’t have a choice. She didn’t cry during the assault, like she had during a previous one. In that way at least it was less traumatic to be only partly conscious, rather than having to watch someone get off on her pain and distress. But it was still traumatic enough that remembering it, in combination with other associated stresses, caused her to relapse briefly into problem drinking as self-medication — and into buying pills with which she could have re-attempted suicide.
I threw the pills away after a few weeks. For most of my twenties, I measured the CDC-recommended 5 ounces of wine a night — so frightened of developing my father’s alcoholism that a therapist once advised me to try driving after a glass just to show myself it was safe. (She was a terrible therapist.) Now I understand alcohol to be a hard drug. It has the strongest associations of any common recreational substance with violence and mental health problems, and evidence increasingly shows that even small amounts raise cancer risks and damage the brain. That’s why now I only very occasionally have a glass or two of wine, and then I usually wonder why I bothered.
It was easy to stop self-medicating that way even when processing the pain, because I have such a good life for me now. I have a partner who loves me for who I am. With his help, my treatment-resistant PTSD has healed. We go on camping adventures and host all-night BBQs. He introduced me to his family immediately, and I feel part of it. He asks me all the time what I want, because he likes it when I’m in charge. So do I.
There are no easy lifelines to throw people who are drowning in the tides of trauma. Only easier places from which to begin to hear again the signal of your own desires when they have been too many times or too violently ignored or thwarted — by others, as much as by yourself. But gradually as you go more to these places to listen, you find others listening, too — to you as much as to themselves. Then it becomes easier to know without so much work what you think and feel, because listening to yourself and being listened to have changed from exception into rule. Kindness has grown where there was desolation, within and without, like a forest overtaking an abandoned outpost of a failed civilization. Because where civilization fails, nature comes in to make beauty, order, and chaos. All you have to do — all you really can do — is get to a place desolate enough for weeds, quiet enough for listening, and yet together enough with others to feel the sunshine and let it in. And when you try and fail because bad things can happen—and happen again — then you try again.
RAINN — Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network — maintains a list of U.S. national sexual violence survivor resources. See also Rape Crisis England & Wales, Hilfe Telefon (Germany), Rape Crisis Network Europe, and these lists of lists of resources for other places (1, 2, 3).