October 12, 2016

The Aftermath Of Being Raped (Twice) And How I’m Getting By

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tertia van rensburg
tertia van rensburg

2015, Los Angeles.

5am: I wake up, crying. I’ve had an all too realistic dream that’s left me terrified, heart racing. This isn’t the first time I’ve woken up crying, and it probably won’t be the last.

It’s incredible what the mind can do to protect itself after trauma. I had all but forgotten his face entirely–up until recently. On the other hand, it’s horrifying what can be unleashed when you’re most vulnerable, most at ease: when you’re asleep. Truthfully, they shouldn’t even be considered dreams, and yet nightmares doesn’t seem harsh enough a label either. They’re forceful, vivid, and raw.

Most nights I wake up drenched in sweat. Sometimes it’s the same one over and over, like a bad Hulu commercial that plays every break. You know every second of it like a memory–and sometimes they’re just that. I’ve dreamed of bad memories more times than I can count, but I can’t remember a single time when I’ve dreamed of happy memories. Isn’t that interesting? Are the bad dreams easier to remember? Is it a form of punishment I’m subconsciously inflicting upon myself? I wonder every time I wake up.

5:03am: I wake up, for seemingly no real reason. The house is quiet, and I feel inexplicably sad. Let me go back. When I was 18, I was raped by a guy I had just started seeing.

2008, Chicago.

It was my freshman year in college, and he seemed like everything I wanted at the time. I lived in an apartment building, not dorms, and quickly made friends with the two apartments beside mine. He was laid back, funny, with a floppy mess of curly hair on his head. He was a total hippie, and we’d have intellectual conversations over big bowls of cereal at 2am. He wanted to join the Peace Corps, and he thought my compulsive need to crack each finger five times in a row was “cute.”  I thought, Man, is he great

I woke up, pantsless, confused, and uneasy. I left without waking him or his roommates, and hurried next door to my home. Sitting in the shower, I cried. I didn’t even really know what happened until about two weeks later, when the nightmares started.

And then, after that, when I saw the pictures on people’s phones.

I felt angry, betrayed, confused, humiliated, ashamed, scared, depressed, but mostly, broken. To be involved, yet completely uninvolved…Physically present, but unconscious…Violated. It felt like someone had destroyed me, but I couldn’t even remember most of it.

I hadn’t been included in my own destruction; I had had no control or say in the matter. It felt as if something had been stolen from me–and I mean much more than my virginity. Don’t get me wrong, that still bothered me, but I had never cherished my virginity. It was as if an entire chapter of my story had been written by someone else and, like Sharpie on a dry erase board, I could never erase it.

I wanted everyone to know what he’d done, but at the same time, I didn’t want anyone to know anything. In accusing him, I’d be inviting scrutiny on myself. I was well aware that this was the only crime in which people turn on the survivor and not the attacker.

Ask anyone who knows me well and they’ll tell you that I’m a feminist to my very core. I studied Gender Studies in college, and have proudly used “feminist” as an identifier since an early age. I knew deep down that it wasn’t my fault, that I shouldn’t feel ashamed, but I couldn’t shake those feelings. This disappointment in myself, for not being able to shake those feelings, only compounded with them. I, of all people, knew I shouldn’t feel this way, but I couldn’t help it.

I knew all too well what people would say and ask. I knew, because even some of the friends I confided in had asked me the very questions I had been dreading. Why didn’t you go to the police? Why were you drinking so much that night? You’re a feminist, you of all people should want to raise hell! Are you sure that’s what happened? He seems like such a sweet guy.

The fact of the matter is: unless you’ve been through it, you don’t understand.

The overwhelming rollercoaster of emotions was unbearable. I didn’t want to have to fight to prove what happened to me actually happened. That sounded exhausting, and I was already so exhausted. Exhausted from reliving it, exhausted from talking to friends, exhausted with my own crumbling sanity. The way I saw it, I would either be known as the girl who cried rape, or the girl who was raped. Neither sounded appealing.

I got angrier. The piece of me that he took had left a hole, and that hole was rotting inside of me like an infected wound.

We never spoke of that night, he and I. When I saw him, I would lash out. Our mutual friends just thought I was being a bitch to him for no reason, but ultimately, I decided I’d rather be known as a bitch than that girl. I didn’t want to have to explain to them why. I didn’t want to open that door of questioning again, and again, and again. In the end, we had a big blow out, in which he called me an “anorexic bitch” in front of all of our friends. It was a nice cherry on top to the end of my first semester.

I lived next door to my rapist for a whole year.

I dreaded the walk from the elevator to my apartment, abandoned friendships, and decided altogether that my schooling in Chicago had been tainted. The home that was my life in Chicago had asbestos, and if felt like there was no way of saving it.

When I moved away, I thought I had closed the door to that chapter of my life. However, I was just navigating the beginning of a new (ever-present) chapter: PTSD.

I moved somewhere new; somewhere where I didn’t know a single person. Although I had removed myself from Chicago, I soon realized that Chicago hadn’t removed itself from me. I tried dating, but every time a guy touched me, I felt him. I got back together with my high school boyfriend. He was one of the few people I had confided in about the previous year. I cared deeply for him, but he was also familiar; safe. That was what I needed.

I still struggle with feelings of guilt for that relationship. I was a sailboat with no sail, and he was navigating uncharted waters all alone. I couldn’t understand how someone would want to be with me, when I didn’t even want to be with me. But he did, and I took it for granted. One day I depended on him, the next I would shut down altogether. By my senior year in college, he decided he couldn’t be in my life anymore. He helped me so much, but I had to try and finish what he started. It was smart for him to move on.

I still think of him often, and hope some day we’ll run into each other and be able to say hello. He kept me going, and I will forever be grateful to him.

When I graduated, I was finally beginning to feel in control of my life again. I was starting fresh, and moving to Los Angeles. Once again, I felt like I had closed a door to that painful chapter, but for good this time. And I had, until 2 years later, when I went to dinner with someone I met on OkCupid.

5:07am: I wake up again, for no reason. Empty is the only way to describe it. I’m not sure why I keep waking up in the middle of the night, but it’s becoming routine lately.

2015, Coachella.

It was my third year going, and I had been looking forward to it since I got my ticket the previous June. 2014 had been a rough year, for myself, and just about everyone else I knew, and I needed the break. Most of my friends would be there and, despite some drama, it’s always a good time camping and seeing live music.

After a few hiccups, a bunch of new friends, and tons of amazing shows, it was almost over. It was Sunday, and we were heading in for the last time. It was around 5pm, and we were dancing at Sahara Tent when I saw it. Just up ahead I could see him. I knew it was him before even seeing his face because of the tattoo on his back. The tattoo I had seen so many times in my nightmares was as real as could be, and was right in front of me.  It’s unique in size, content, placement, and about 10 other ways. It was him, and it felt like every ounce of joy had been sucked out of me.

Nauseated, it seemed as though someone had turned all of the surrounding sound off, like some cheesy moment in a movie. I could still see all of my friends, dancing and having a great time, but I couldn’t move. I could feel my eyes filling with tears. I kept blinking, thinking it was all my imagination; thinking the picture would change, like a Viewfinder, each click a new image. But it just stayed the same. And that tattoo just stared me in the face like it knew; like it was daring me.

I had spent the last 5 months trying to erase him from my memory. After all, this wasn’t freshman year; I wasn’t going to see him every day, like when I was 18. I could forget; put it behind me. And that’s what I had intended on doing, but there it was, taunting me. I was supposed to be on my break, but now I know we have the same taste in music.

The rest of the day I was in a kind of fog. I did drugs, lots of them, in hopes that I could force myself to forget; to enjoy those last shows of the weekend. For better or worse, nothing I took worked.

Fortunately for most of my friends, they didn’t even know he existed.

Fortunately for me, two of my friends did.

At the time, neither knew why I was upset. He had already tainted my weekend, and I didn’t want to taint theirs. So, unknowingly, they both made it their goal to help make the most of our last night. She dragged me to an incredible performance by Florence Welch, and he sat with me in the Turn Down Tent.

They are the only two reasons I didn’t go back to camp right then and cry the rest of the night.

5 months earlier, Los Angeles.

5:05am: I wake up, confused. I’m in bed, but it’s not mine.

I’m naked, and laying in my own urine. He’s angrily getting a towel. What was his name?

I was so confused. I try to retrace the footsteps of my night. I had just gone to dinner with a guy I met on OkCupid, but I couldn’t think of his name. The dinner had been great…but why couldn’t I think of his name? I was so embarrassed.

I had had a couple of glasses of wine at dinner, but I hadn’t been drunk. Why did I wake up in urine? I got up and hugged him from behind, his tattoo touching my forehead. I said, “Sorry.”

I was so confused.

I felt weird. He didn’t even acknowledge me. Not a touch, not a word, not a glance. I got dressed in silence, still trying to piece together the night. He was so good at ignoring me that I wondered if I was dreaming. I left his apartment like a ghost passing through a wall, unnoticed. It was cold. I didn’t know where I was, so I called a Lyft.

I was so confused, but this other feeling was too familiar.

I got home and did everything you’re not supposed to do. I deleted his number. I deleted my OkCupid. I sat in the shower and cried, just like I had 6 years earlier.

It’s been almost 2 years since that night, and it’s been almost a year and a half since I ran into him at Coachella, but the wound still feels fresh. I realized pretty quickly that I had been drugged and raped by my OkCupid date that night. I still can’t remember his name, but I remember bits of what happened, like movie clips that play in my mind.

I remember the outfit he was wearing. I remember the outfit I was wearing. I couldn’t wear it anymore after that night, so I threw it out. I remember what we ate at dinner. I remember how he used my Chapstick, and how I made myself use that Chapstick every day after, until it was empty, like a punishment, or a reminder that he was real and that it really happened.

I remember how angry I felt when I started to forget what his face looked like, and how I created another OkCupid just so I could find him again. I remember he messaged me, “Hello beautiful, how’s your saturday going?” and clearly didn’t remember me, which made me feel even worse. I still have a picture on my phone, so I can always remember what the monster’s face looks like. I remember feeling embarrassed. I remember thinking, Who gets raped twice? I remember feeling the glue that held my pieces together coming undone.

For 4 months, I woke up at 5am every night. Some nights were bad, but mostly it just felt routine. I’m not sure the exact day it happened, but I finally slept through the night. That is, until Coachella. My sleep has gotten better since then, but I still wake up. Sometimes I can even tell when I’m going to have a rough night. But I’ve noticed I sleep best when I spend the night with a close friend. I guess it makes me feel safe; safe to dream. I take pride in being able to take care of myself, but I guess even I can’t control my mind when I’m asleep, so I’ll take all the help I can get in that department.

When I was 18, I was raped by a friend. When I was 24, I was drugged and raped by a stranger.

I’m still hesitant to tell friends about my experiences. It feels like handing someone a grenade with the pin already pulled out. There’s never a “good” time to bring it up, yet every day that passes seems like a missed opportunity. My rapes have both shaped me into the person I am today. In some ways, it feels like the people who don’t know, don’t really know me. But at the same time, I don’t really feel like everyone deserves to know.

I still shudder when guys unknowingly touch me in certain places or ways that take me back to those nights. Sometimes they notice, and I always think to myself really intensely, please don’t ask, please don’t ask…Maybe if I think it three times, Beetlejuice will appear and scare the question out of his head. Wishful thinking, but the last place I want to discuss my rapes is while I’m having sex. Sex and I have a very love/hate relationship, as it is.

I have never felt a greater loss of self than my life after rape.

I still struggle with feelings of shame, with feelings of brokenness, with feelings of guilt. I still find myself blaming myself–for what happened to me, and for not doing more to prevent it from happening to others.

But the truth is, I’m tired of feeling all of these things. I’m tired of feeling every emotion all at once, because that is what it feels like. It shouldn’t be the responsibility of assault survivors to prevent sexual assault. We are not the perpetrators, yet somehow we get prescribed all of the blame and responsibility. When soldiers are wounded in war, we don’t chastise them for getting injured, or for not ending the war single-handedly. We call them brave for surviving.

I’ve had my character, my beliefs, my strength, and even the event of my rapes questioned. I’ve been told they don’t believe me (which is just a nice way of calling me a liar). I’ve been told that I deserved it. I’ve been told I’ve handled my rapes in the wrong way; that I should’ve done more.

When people ask rape survivors why they didn’t go to the police, why they didn’t speak up sooner, it only puts more responsibility on our shoulders. More pain, sadness, guilt, shame. All of the feelings I already have about my rapes are rehashed when my actions after my rapes are questioned. I was raped, twice, and the way I have chosen to deal with my rapes does not make me a bad feminist, woman, daughter, friend or person.

We, as a society, need to stop teaching girls and women how not to get raped. Instead, we need to teach people what consent and assault are, so that people know the definitions of both.

We need to reform our criminal justice system so that survivors feel confident in coming forward. We need to stop passing bandaid-for-a-bullet-wound bills like the one Brock Turner inspired in California, and just convict rapists. We need to stop telling survivors of rape how they should handle their rape, and what they should do.  I’m angry for what happened to me, but I’m angrier for being blamed for it. I admire the survivors that I read about who are standing up to their attackers. I know, one day, I won’t mind telling anyone who is curious. And if you’ve been through something similar, know this: it is okay if you don’t feel brave sometimes, as long as you know that you are.

7:30am: I wake up. My cat is curled up in my arms. I have to get up soon and get ready for work, but I don’t want to wake her. I feel the glue starting to harden in places. I take life one day at a time. Things come up, and some days are harder than others, but I remind myself every morning that I’m still here. I’ve had bad things happen to me, but I’m still here. And I still have so many days ahead. TC mark

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