Afraid Of Men: The Reality For A Sexual Assault Survivor
No one tells you how triggering motherhood can be.
Knowing you have to protect a defenseless, small being who is completely dependant on you rings a bell when you are a trauma survivor. We spend our lives wanting to be safe, then suddenly we become protectors.
It’s not always the case, but usually, a child who has experienced trauma and abuse did not have anyone to protect them. So when they become protectors as adults, it can be extremely triggering – something that most survivors of childhood abuse are not warned about. I certainly wasn’t.
What it’s like to be afraid of an attack
Ever since men started to sexualize me during my teen years, and a relative sexually abused me, I have been frightened of men. I know not all men are the same – my father, my son and my fiancé are some of the best people I know and I am grateful to have these three wonderful guys in my life – but if I am alone with a man I don’t know, my PTSD kicks into overdrive and I am ready to defend myself – just in case. When a relative – someone you’re meant to trust – lets you down and hurts you in an unimaginable way, you see everyone else in a different light. If you can’t trust your own relative, then who can you trust?
Suddenly, all men are capable of anything.
I feel guilty for feeling afraid. I know not all men are the same. I know not all men are predators. But predators don’t wear signs saying “I’m dangerous” or “I’m going to hurt you.” Therefore I am on high alert in certain situations and I cannot switch it off.
I understand that this is a difficult read for many – but you have to know what it’s like for us. When we talk about our experiences, we create safe spaces for others to come forward and speak their truth, and we help encourage a better community of understanding supporters. When people catch a glimpse of what life is like for sexual abuse survivors, they are less likely to promote toxic and dangerous ideas that can harm survivors – such as not believing women who come forward.
So even though this is difficult for me to write, I need you to know. I need you to know what life is like for a survivor, years down the line. I need you to know the damage that sexual abuse has on an individual. I need you to know that simple tasks such as going to the shop become a battlefield as we are swamped by emotional flashbacks and unwanted memories.
It doesn’t happen every time – but when I go to the shop alone, especially if it’s late in the day or at a time where the street is quiet, I feel extremely nervous. If I have to walk past a group of men, my heart hammers in my chest and I hold my breath. Holding my breath is something I’ve recently noticed, and I don’t know why I do it. Maybe it’s a bit like a possum playing dead – I am too afraid to make any sudden movements and so I hold my breath. Or perhaps I am saving oxygen in case I need to fight or run. I don’t know. But I hold my breath until I am alone again.
Fear and guilt
I remember one time, only a few months back, walking home from shopping on a quiet street around the corner from my home. A man was walking behind me. I could hear his footsteps and hear his breathing. I told myself that I could use my bag of shopping as a weapon – somehow. I walked quickly, even though it hurt my limbs and chest because I wasn’t breathing. I was acutely aware that I was alone. He was close behind me.
He crossed the road. I watched him leave as I rounded the corner and breathed in the cold evening air. The fear I had felt was replaced by guilt.
I felt so ashamed. I had all sorts of dark thoughts about this man – and he was just waking home. He could have been walking home from work, from the shop, from seeing loved ones – and I was irrationally afraid of him. He could have been a father. Perhaps he was thinking of his kids as he walked, excited to see his family. Maybe if he could have read my mind, he would have felt appalled and hurt by what I was thinking. Imagine someone thinking you’re a rapist or that you want to hurt women when they don’t even know you?
But this isn’t just the reality for survivors of sexual assault — this is the reality for women.
We are not safe. We feel the need to walk along well-lit streets and along busy roads where there are plenty of people. We feel the need to walk with our keys between our fingers as weapons, to walk home in groups, to cover our bottles on a night out with our thumbs to stop people spiking our drinks, and we feel the need to walk in places where there is CCTV.
We live in a world that isn’t safe for women, and that doesn’t support women enough. So whilst I feel guilty, I also think this: is it any wonder women like me are so afraid?
Motherhood — an unexpected trigger
I am twenty-six years old. I have a four-year-old son and I am engaged to a wonderful man. Watching my lovely son grow up and be loved by his family is a wonderful feeling – but there are times where it is bittersweet because I think of my younger self and I see how shockingly different my son’s childhood is to mine.
This isn’t just because he is a boy. My older sister has a beautiful daughter and her life is completely different from what my sisters and I had – thank God. My niece and my son are loved by their parents and extended family, all of which would do anything to make them happy and protect them, and are teaching them lessons I was never taught such as your voice matters, your feelings matter, you are safe, respected and loved.
Motherhood has been triggering for me. As a mother, I couldn’t even begin to imagine ever hurting my child. I look at my son and I just don’t understand. It doesn’t help that my son is the spitting image of me. As I think of him, I think of myself as a child and I wonder why. Why did someone look at me and want to hurt me? Why wasn’t I protected? Why did no one want to keep me safe?
How can anyone look at a child and not want to give them the world? How can anyone look at a child and not want to keep them happy and safe?
I am terrified of the world hurting my son – but I’m fearful and over-cautious because of something that happened sixteen years ago. For my own sanity, and so that I don’t live in fear, I have had to let go of these questions and make peace with myself. I have had to grieve for the childhood I never had.
Where do we go from here?
I still suffer from symptoms of PTSD, depression, anxiety, and symptoms of dissociation because of what happened to me. This is the reality for sexual abuse survivors – and finally, we are having a conversation about what life is like for women in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder.
Right now there is a conversation about what we can do to keep women safe and honestly, when it comes to change and moving forward, I don’t have the answer — because it has been like this for women for so long. But reading other women’s stories has made me feel less alone.
All I can say is this: talking is a start, and I hope we will continue to have more conversations where women feel safe to share their experiences and have those experiences listened to, validated and believed.
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