The long journey after trauma

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Content Warning: sexual and physical assault, victim-blaming, depression, suicidal ideation

When people find out I returned from my year abroad, they naturally ask how it was. I usually enjoy being honest, but here I hesitate to say: “Well, someone did some non-consensual things to me in bed, tried to strangle me, and I ended up in the hospital with a bleeding head. Another time, an unreasonable landlord started being violent towards me, tried to lock me in my room, then locked all the doors in the apartment and screamed that I would never leave there alive. I only escaped by calling the police. No big deal.”

Those last three words epitomised how I’d characterise it; a counsellor later told me that I was minimising my own experiences as a coping mechanism. But I truly did not (want to) believe those incidents were a big deal. In the past 5 years, I have been sexually assaulted twice and had a brief abusive relationship. Since I was 15, I have struggled against depression. Considering my history, I thought to myself: business as usual, bad things just happen. Move on.

However, the scars of this year’s events ran deeper. I nearly turned into an alcoholic. My breath would become erratic in an enclosed space. I had a surge of panic if someone walked closely behind me, or if I heard sudden. Here is the discouraging conclusion I reached after therapy and counselling: it does not always get better. No one knows if and when I will be completely free from those moments of panic, though rare now. Recovery is a crapshoot.

But we can still try. The first step, after the hospital and the sobbing, is to talk to someone. Release any shame, and properly process what happened; to avoid or forget the incident is a temporary solution.

Recovery is a crapshoot.

The more I confront my experiences of being raped, the more I come to terms with them. I accept that they happened, and I become less tormented by my thoughts.

Talking to a specialised professional is even more important; they are far less likely to say something ‘wrong’ or triggering. Someone close to me said it was my fault for being assaulted as I had hooked up with a stranger. On a separate occasion, when mentioning my assault, the GP replied, utterly deadpan: “So what?” Sure, you have people genuinely concerned about you. But they likely haven’t been trained to support you.

The shadow of trauma is long, seemingly inescapable.

Community – meeting people with a similar past – can help. But they bring both comfort and harm. When I disclosed being a survivor of sexual assault, a friend suddenly revealed that they were a survivor too, going into extreme detail which inadvertently triggered my own memories. Workshops about consent and assault are important, but they don’t replace the personal connection. When I talk to another survivor, I know I’m not being pitied: I feel I’m finally being understood.

Yet, our experiences are fundamentally different; the nature of the assault, the circumstances, the level of support and taboo faced, etc. I thought community was the answer to healing, but now I’m not so sure. In the end, I still feel alone: nobody will ever have the exact same experiences as me. I shall have to bear this loneliness for the rest of my life.

Surviving is but the first step, that I had to rebuild my life bit by bit.

That’s one of the long-term consequences of trauma, which I only started considering recently. The “during” and the “immediately after” are easy to account for. As a fresher, I had a toxic sort-of relationship that ended badly. I was so afraid of coming across the man that I didn’t leave my room for three days. As a result, I missed classes (and only could explain why a year later). It’s the same result as being too depressed to leave your room.

Naive was my belief that I would be okay after a few weeks after a depressive episode or traumatic incident. I told myself that the more bad things happen to me, the stronger and more resilient I would become. I didn’t imagine that the bad incidents would interfere with my academic work long-term. My fear of pain, real and imagined, grew – the pain of not writing a brilliant essay, arriving at a lecture 10 minutes late, or disappointing a tutor. I became extremely sensitive to the tiniest amounts of pressure; there’s much medical research on how trauma and depression can change your brain physically, reduce its functionalities, and distort your stress response. The shadow of trauma is long, seemingly inescapable.

I see many parallels between severe depression and the traumas of assault: the uncertainty of relapse or recurrence, the hope of empathy, the fear, and the difficulties of returning to normal. It took me years to learn that surviving is but the first step, that I had to rebuild my life bit by bit.

The only way is forward.

My certainty in the future had long been shattered; once I had seriously contemplated ending my own life, I became a different person with a different perspective on life. It was hard work to resume and sustain simple habits like eating, sleeping, and showering. I had to recover my hobbies and the little things that made me happy. There was no normalcy, no past self I could return to.

Allow me two clichéd ideas: the only way is forward, and I have no panacea to offer. When I began this article, I was so confident in my recovery; for the first time in years, I felt an active will to live. But depression is rearing its ugly head again. Yes, I have learnt a lot, but I am still figuring things out. I don’t aim to be perfectly fine anymore, nor do I pretend the road ahead will be easy. For now, I simply persist. I rely on the optimistic, irrational faith that life is good and can be better. I hold on tightly to the embers of my desire to live, no matter how trivial those reasons are. I plod along, as we all must. This is my mantra: I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive!

If anyone needs support for similar experiences, they can contact the university’s Sexual Harassment and Violence Support Service at supportservice@admin.ox.ac.uk or www.ox.ac.uk/students/welfare/supportservice

Image Credidt: Bjenny Montero