Four Survivors On Living With PTSD In The Wake Of Sexual Violence
By The Establishment Staff
This story is part of The Establishment’s series on PTSD Awareness.
More often than not, when asked to conjure up an image of a person with post-traumatic stress disorder, people imagine someone wearing battle fatigues or bearing the drawn, grizzled features of a youth spent in combat overseas. But while military populations do, in general, experience higher rates of PTSD than civilian ones, the group with one of the highest rates of the disorder is often camouflaged: rape survivors.
Although the reported prevalence of PTSD among veterans ranges, the National Center for PTSD estimates that 15–30% of Vietnam vets have had the disorder in their lifetimes. Rates for veterans of the Gulf War linger around 12% in any given year; for veterans of the Iraq War, it’s between 11–20%.
The lifetime prevalence estimate for women survivors of sexual assault is 50%, with one study showing that 94% of sexual violence survivors show symptoms of the disorder within the first two weeks following the assault. (Sexual assault is also a major cause of PTSD among men, with male survivors of sexual violence facing their own unique challenges. Trans and nonbinary populations, it’s important to note, also face some of the highest rates of sexual violence, and consequently also face high rates of post-traumatic stress.)
This is not, of course, an effort to dismiss or diminish the tremendous challenges facing veterans; there is no winner in a competition for most trauma suffered.
This is, instead, a fleshing out of the portrait of PTSD, an effort to cultivate a more complete understanding of its contours. In a country where one in five woman is raped — and 46% of lesbians, 75% of bisexual women, and 43% of straight women report some kind of sexual violence other than rape — in their lifetimes, it is a sadly crucial conversation. And it is one made all the more pressing by the unique stigma and shame associated with rape, which has been proven to further trigger and exacerbate trauma. A 2004 study showed that the secondary victimization that too often comes in the wake of sexual violence — that is, victim-blaming actions and attitudes on the part of medical and legal personnel and, indeed, society writ large — is “significantly positively correlated with posttraumatic stress symptomatology.”
Put another way: We live in a world where Brock Turner can be convicted of rape and sentenced to a mere six months in prison out of a concern for his future, his swimming accolades still celebrated. And in this world is a massive population of survivors who’ve faced not only their own harrowing run-ins with rapists like Brock Turner, but who read, every single day, news like his father referring to that violent crime as “20 minutes of action.”
The trauma of these sexual assault survivors is real. The re-traumatization of these survivors is real. The post-traumatic stress many of these survivors develop is real.
Not everyone with PTSD has served in the military — but combating the disorder is very much a battle.
Here, four women share what it can look like.
I’ll Never Know Who I Might Have Been
By Jenna Glatzer
It didn’t start in earnest until I was 17, with a freshly-earned junior drivers’ license. Then I was sure he was in my rearview mirror everywhere I went. He was the hitchhiker on the side of the road and the guy on the bike and the one at the street crossing. And he was definitely, definitely hiding in the bushes waiting for me to arrive back home . . . which is why I routinely sat frozen in my parents’ driveway before I worked up the courage to dash from the car to the house. Ten minutes? Thirty? I can’t even say — just that I sat there with a racing heart and darting eyes, scanning for any sign of movement in the leaves.
I was diagnosed with “PTSD with delayed onset,” stemming from being kidnapped and raped by a serial rapist when I was 10. The man was long behind bars by then, but in my mind, he was constantly escaping and coming back for me. I hated his power — that all the little details of that night stayed so etched in my consciousness that any reminder of them might leave me in a blind panic when I encountered them in public. Ski masks, mustaches, a certain damp ground smell that came every fall . . .
Septembers were the hardest. Every year around the start of school, my tension ramped up. I promised myself I’d throw a party the year I managed to overlook the anniversary of when it had happened. Unfortunately, the date was September 11. Now no one will let it go by unnoticed.
Thirty years after it happened, I’m still up until dawn most days, waiting until my nightly watch has ended and it’s safe to sleep. Because it happened when I was so young, I never got to know who I might have been without it — whether I really am a night person, or have just made myself so. Whether or not I would have had such deep battles with depression and anxiety that I’ve laid waste to every well-intentioned platitude; what doesn’t kill you doesn’t always make you stronger. Sometimes it just goddamn screws you up, but you keep fighting anyway, rebuilding yourself with found things and whatever sticks — gluing it all together and screaming when it comes undone again, because you had reinforced it this time and this isn’t supposed to happen anymore.
And you remind yourself that it DOES get better, and it HAS gotten better, but a piece of you has never left that night. It’s that remnant causing all the trouble, keeping you pinned in an abandoned lot next to your bus stop, always waiting for two bicycles.
My Personal War With PTSD
By Jonita Davis
It took about four years after the rapist was arrested for my PTSD to send me running for help. I was in my mid-20s, with no clue what the hell was going on.
My life after the rape investigation and trial was a rural existence. I was a wife and a mother of three little girls. I cooked meals, cleaned up after little bodies, and made love to my husband like I was expected to. I should have been happy. I had survived and created a life that most people could only dream of.
However, sometime after baby number three began to toddle, my mind began to crack. The darkness and memories seeped in. Somewhere inside me, the clocks were winding backward and the cuckoo birds were leaping from their perches. Something so vital to making me had been stolen by a rapist years ago, and the effects were finally showing.
The first of my PTSD signs were not what I thought PTSD would be like. I didn’t cower at my husband’s touch or scream out in a sudden panic during sex. In fact, we had created a family before any symptoms began to appear. Actually, the thing that triggered my PTSD from the bowels of my psyche was normalcy.
It was a Saturday afternoon. Hubby had put the girls down for a nap. He conked out beside them. I tried to lay down but couldn’t. I remember getting the idea to get the grocery shopping done while I had some time alone. I grabbed my purse and coat, and walked out the door.
I remember nothing else for the next three hours.
My next memory was of sitting in our old minivan in the driveway. My husband was yelling at me from the front door of the house. The back seats of the van were hidden under paper and plastic bags of miscellaneous food, clothing, shoes, and more. My watch registered the three-hour time lapse. I turned the van off with no memory of first turning it on or acquiring any of the stuff in the back.
Meanwhile, hubby was stuck in a loop of questions I couldn’t answer.
“Where the hell have you been?”
“Why is the bank calling about recent charges on our card?”
“Where were you?”
Instead of answering him, I got out of the van. The only way I can explain this is that my surroundings were “drowned out” by the feeling of “wrong” and brokenness I felt. I moved away from the the van and passed my screaming husband on my way to the living room, where I collapsed, hyperventilating, on the floor.
We ended up digging out and calling the number of a psychiatrist I saw for a short time after the rape trial. The doctor evaluated me and we talked for a while. I was officially diagnosed with PTSD that day. The depression and anxiety were just along for the ride.
It would take over a decade for me to understand how burying my emotions and trying to deny my fears only made my situation worse after the trial. I was broken. Still am. And, that’s okay. It’s a scar. Denying the healing process only makes a wound fester until it could no longer contain the infection. I am free of the infection today.
I can live with the scars.
The Challenge Of Navigating Trauma Anniversaries
By Elizabeth DeHoff
If you’ve ever lost a loved one, you know that anniversaries are tough — but they can be particularly difficult for trauma survivors.
I learned this the hard way.
Five years ago, while I was on a business trip, a stranger drugged and raped me. As the anniversary approaches each year, my PTSD symptoms gradually worsen. My startle response goes into overdrive; insomnia and vivid nightmares chip away at my sleep; I get so anxious that I can’t leave my home for days.
The first time the symptoms returned, I had no idea what was triggering them. It wasn’t until a bruise mysteriously appeared at the top of my sternum — exactly where one had been almost a year before, one of the only external signs of the rape — that I finally made the connection to the anniversary. My mind retained only fragments of that night, but my body remembered — and it still does.
Now, at least, I know what to expect. I can reduce personal and professional commitments as the date approaches and ramp up my self-care practices: re-reading my favorite books, playing with my dogs, avoiding alcohol, marathoning Marvel movies. And it helps.
But I’ll never be able to forget that anniversary entirely, because it also happens to be my birthday.
Every year, as soon as the well-intentioned greetings start to fill my social media feeds, I tense up. My chest feels tight. My pulse skyrockets. I don’t blame my friends for wishing me a happy birthday, because that would make me a colossal jerk, but it’s an unfortunate coincidence.
Many people with PTSD find that their symptoms get markedly worse around the anniversaries of their original traumas. PTSD can also be triggered by other significant dates, such as the birthday of someone who hurt you. Worst of all, though, is when those anniversaries coincide with a date most people expect you to celebrate.
I’m luckier than most, because my birthday is just that: MY birthday. Those who experienced trauma around major holidays such as Christmas arguably have it much worse, because everyone around them is rejoicing; the pressure to paste on a smile is far greater than usual. Booze-centric occasions such as St. Patrick’s Day can be particularly difficult for those who were assaulted after having a few drinks. Even holidays that aren’t affixed to a particular Western calendar date can still bring up negative associations.
So what can you do?
If you’re a survivor, awareness is your best defense. Keep track of your physical and emotional state when an anniversary is looming, and be aggressive about self-care. If you feel safe doing so, tell your loved ones why you’re struggling and ask them to be gentle with you. Anniversaries can also be a good time to reassess your healing process and consider your next steps.
Family and friends of trauma survivors often don’t know what to say or how to provide support. If you notice that a loved one has a hard time around a particular date — whether or not you know the reason — ask them what you can do to make things better for them. Accept that they may not feel like celebrating, and shield them as best you can from those who just don’t get it.
And to fellow trauma survivors: No matter how many years have passed, don’t let anyone tell you that you should “just get over it already” or that you’re “doing it wrong.” You survived. Your story isn’t finished. What happens in the next chapter is up to you and you alone. Be well — whatever that means for you.
What If It Never Happened?
By Dorri Olds
I’ve had post-traumatic stress disorder for 40 years.
Doctors say I’m still haunted by the night I was gang raped in junior high. I had been hanging out with a new crowd of classmates. They were nothing like the straight-A, nerdy Jewish kids like me. This group smoked Marlboros and wore leather jackets. The girls wore crop tops to show off their midriffs and tight, low-rise jeans.
One guy set down a brown paper sack on the field of the cemetery. It held bottles of Heineken, Budweiser, and pints of hard liquor. I reached for the Bacardi, tipped it back, and guzzled. I wanted so badly to shed my square image and look devastatingly cool.
A joint was passed around. After three hits, I caught a buzz. My shoulders went down and I relaxed, hoping a boy might notice my low-cut V-neck shirt and ask for my phone number. I yearned to go on a date.
The other girls had boyfriends and walked away to make out with them. I felt like a loser standing there alone. I was relieved when Willie, the class clown I hung out with at lunch, said he needed my advice. When he motioned with his arm for me to “c’mere,” I practically skipped over. But then he clamped his hand over my mouth and threw me onto the grass.
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He pinned me down with his knee digging into my hip bone. Four boys pounced from behind a tree. They laughed as they pushed my shirt and bra up, then pulled my jeans and underwear down. They took turns holding my limbs and covering my face so I couldn’t scream. Fingers shoved into my vagina and penises were forced into my mouth. When it was over, the rapists ran off.
The attack probably only lasted 30 minutes, but it changed my life forever.
Afterwards I told the girl who’d invited me out that night, and was crushed when she stayed friends with the attackers. After that, I kept my secret locked up tight, afraid I wouldn’t be taken seriously because I’d been high. I was scared my parents would be furious. I’d defied my mother by wearing the sexy shirt. I worried that my dad, a macho WWII captain, would kill the boys and go to jail. My biggest fear was being treated like a leper at school.
The only option was to pretend it never happened. I tried, but my adolescent superpowers of magical thinking failed me. I turned to drugs and alcohol, and life careened out of control.
Sometimes I imagine a movie with a split screen. The protagonist chooses one of two paths, the right one, in which she stayed home and studied that night. She focuses on art and meets a handsome, smart boy at a party who asks her out. At their prom, he asks her to marry him. She says yes.
That girl doesn’t become an alcoholic. She never shoots drugs and contracts Hepatitis C. She doesn’t suffer years of low self-esteem that make her chase men who don’t want her, and have sex so they’ll hug her all night. In that storyline, she wants children and has them because the world isn’t such a dark place.
In real life, PTSD girl took the other path. I grew up, graduated art school with honors, worked as a designer, hit bottom, and landed in rehab. Thirteen years post-rape, I finally talked about it, fought my way to sobriety, and started helping other alcoholics. Now I speak publicly about sexual assault, addiction, and recovery. My loving dog, my husband, and facing the past have helped me thrive despite PTSD.
But it’s painful to consider the other path. I try not to think about the woman on the right side of the screen. Her ease. Her happiness. Her children.
What if it never happened?