The lasting trauma of rape

I have lived for years with this memory; it colors everything I do

By Cary Tennis

Published February 18, 2013 1:00AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I have written this letter to you many times … although almost exclusively in my imagination. I am continuously waiting for someone else to write a letter to you that speaks to this specific moment in my life; and although there has been some overlap over the years, I continuously come up with general similarities rather than meaningful personal guidance. I am not the sort of person who asks for help. And I am not the sort of person who solicits advice without acknowledging that I am exposing myself to a peculiar (and scary) brand of naked vulnerability. But here goes …

I am a 28-year-old woman. I currently live in a big, although continuously struggling, metropolitan area that I love for its bizarre complexity. I grew up in a rather small community that I ached to get out of even as I found myself repeatedly returning to it throughout my life. I was sexually assaulted when I was 18 years old (and far away from home) during my freshman year of college. He was a rather popular and extremely successful athlete on my college campus. This event occurred two weeks after I lost my virginity to a different man whom I wholly adored and who quite suddenly left me for an ex-girlfriend. I was quite naive and extraordinarily heartbroken. Without this precipitating circumstance, I would not have been selected, not have been vetted out, by the man who would change the course of my life. I was, and this is hard to admit, selected as a target by someone who felt the need to take from me what I wasn't willing to give at a moment when he knew I was the most vulnerable.

The rape set in motion a sequence of events that resounded throughout my late teens and early 20s. The school set me up for an in-house prosecution where he was ultimately sentenced to a slap on the wrist for underage drinking (this story is so common as to be a cliché). In the hearing, I was dragged through the mud. I cycled through five schools in four states in three years trying desperately to find the youth I had lost, to revive the experiences I would never have. Honestly, it's all very bourgeois, and I'm not un-self-conscious about this.

The result was feeling, for years, as though I was precariously balancing a tenuous march along a tightrope between some hazy future and the abyss of obscurity. I endured (and enabled in some cases) a horrendous sequence of events that sent waves throughout my young life and those most intimately involved in it. There was the girl friend who abandoned me, the boyfriend who choked me out and who I thought might kill me, the nights of random liaisons that left me feeling hollow and alone (this is not because of prudish attitudes toward sex, but rather the paradoxical need to address personal insecurities through the body of another). I remain very ashamed of some of my actions. There are things that I don't talk about, moments that I cannot relive without my stomach seizing up.

I continuously used to plan my suicide. I know this sounds quite dramatic, and it was not because I was always suicidal. It was because suicide offered me a last respite of control — no matter how bad things got, I always had a way out. There were some halfhearted attempts, but nothing ultimately severe. It was more the feeling of wresting control from fate, from the fear and panic that often consumed my everyday life. But I was, at my core, optimistic in my powers of endurance, and I marched along, although the vision of "where to" took a long while to materialize.

I am so much better now. I am a PhD fellow and I have worked so very hard to get here. Perhaps, and I've found that you profit from this method of disclosure, I should mention that I am an INFJ personality type. And from what I understand, this is a quite rare. But I have finally managed to find friends. True friends. Female friends. I grew up with brothers and have always longed for female connections. These connections are finally starting to build, although not without considerable failures along the way. I was with a man from 23 to 27, and he helped me to grow out of the vortex of trauma and its reciprocal effects. I thought I was going to marry this man, but this turned out to not be the case. I changed quite a bit between 23 and 27, and the relationship proved to not have the legs to transect this distance. We miss each other. I moved to this new place with him before ending the relationship and we see each other from time to time. I look him in the eyes and sometimes cannot believe that we are apart. There is, obviously, four years worth of events to explain, and we do not have the space here. I can only say that I had to grow, and I outgrew the relationship.

I have had some other relationships in the year or so since him. The subsequent one was tumultuous — hot and heavy, charged, emotionally exhausting. This current one is more distant, marred by insecurities on his end (although he has been vocal at times about his affection for me) and words unsaid on my part. I am extremely sensitive to the people around me; quite easily hurt and emotionally manipulated by men in my life. I ask too little from the people I care for and am continuously surprised when my gestures of love and affection go unnoticed or unreciprocated. I've learned a lot from one relationship to the next. And although there is no way to say this without sounding vain, I will risk the potential alienating effects: I have come to realize that men find me very attractive. There is no shortage of male attention, no shortage of romantic potential. But here comes the crux of what I am asking you ...

Cary, I have worked hard to get here. Sometimes the challenges have seemed insurmountable. I am not fragile. I work so hard to be successful in school and have side-gigged as a bartender throughout the last six years of my education, and as a waitress before that, so that I can be self-sufficient, so that I can balance the reality of my intellectual life (where people often take themselves so seriously) with the frivolity of nightlife and socialization with a broad swath of people, so that I can live my life without the need for financial help from a man. But I have a penchant for vanity and a need for validation from men around me. And while I get enough attention, it is ultimately unsatisfying. There is a void. And I know this. So where do I go from here?

I am busy. I constantly surround myself with busy. And I work so hard that there is constant noise — as though silence in itself is some sort of poison that I avoid to keep the pain at bay. I know I should "deal" with the past (and the various men in my life have belabored this point with me), but it is quarantined inside the depths of my mind and I function in my day-to-day life much better this way. I don't feel the need to sit down with a therapist — or my significant other — and discuss my inner-most self as it manifested in years past. I have done that route with a woman therapist whom I loved and admired, but it was exhausting and unproductive. Perhaps this sounds naive to you, but I would rather find a way on my own. And that is what I am asking for. I know myself quite well. But Cary, this is what I don't know: Where do I go from here? Because I am marred by ambivalence about the future that I want. I am almost 29 (which I know is "young," relatively-speaking), but this ambivalence about where I want to go in my personal life with men and romance and children and the stuff that really matters beyond my career baffles me. Within me I know there is great potential. Within me I know there are giant scars. So where do I go from here?

Yours truly,

From the Heart of the Labyrinth

Dear Heart of the Labyrinth,

You may believe that this rape is behind you, but it is still with you. It may be something that you think of as an "issue," something in the past that you manage. But it is not. It is a present phenomenon. It is in your body and your consciousness.

I suggest that, before you do any more planning or thinking about the future, you set out to fully heal from the trauma of rape. In my opinion that is the single most important thing you can do right now. The rape of young a woman is still treated by some powerful institutions as not being a serious crime. This circumstance compounds the trauma. So please, contact a rape trauma center and begin the hard work of undoing some of this damage.

It was not an intellectual rape. There will not be an intellectual solution.

Say you had a broken arm. Say the arm was broken a long time ago. Now it has already fused crooked. So, painful as it is, it must be re-broken before it can heal in the proper shape. This may be like what happened after your rape: You sort of got over it, but you got over it by growing scar tissue around it and continuing in a somewhat distorted way. Your path was altered by its impact, and ever since you have been a little off-course. You still carry that rape within you; like a tree that has grown around a stone in its crotch you still contain it. Unfortunately, some painful tearing away of scars must occur to get at that original trauma, that stone that is lodged in your body.

Once that stone is gone, however, you will be lighter. It will be easier to walk. Then, when walking is easier, it will not be so much a problem of where to go next. You will be able to go anywhere with ease.

But please: First seek healing for your rape trauma. Take as long as it takes.

Next, as to your question, "So where do I go from here?" I suggest that you think less in terms of setting a goal to attain and more in terms of attaining a daily practice.

Those of us who are extraordinarily sensitive, have been affected by trauma or both need more than the ordinary share of life-affirming, calming daily activities. Take me, for instance. Generally speaking, everything is OK as long as I am walking by myself along the ocean or meditating. Everything is OK as long as I am doing that. But if I don't do those things, I come unhinged. I start to say and do things that don't add up. My unconscious, or my shadow self, begins to assert itself and bring me down in many small ways.

In other words, I need a certain kind of life. You probably do, too. I suggest that you think of your life in similar terms: What daily practice will sustain you? What do you need to do in the morning, at noon, in the afternoons, in the evenings?

Do the things that most make you feel whole.

Time is going to rush by. If there are things you dream of doing then work toward them. But have a practice.

Perhaps it will turn out that you need a meditative and spiritual practice. Do not scorn such a thing. Many thinkers need spiritual relief. There is far too much terror in the world to think that the mind alone can withstand it. We are not hard. We are soft. We are not gods. We are more like children. We need to be calmed, to be held, to be reassured. Sometimes the only thing that can reassure us is some kind of worship. So do not cast aside such possibilities easily. If you find yourself drawn to churches or synagogues or mosques or sweat lodges, enter them. See what reassurance the world has to offer you.

Cary Tennis

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