I used to think surviving rape would be about tears and shame and the impulsive wearing of baggy clothes – so when it happened to me at age 20, I had no idea what a bizarre, counterintuitive ride I was in for. It’s been nearly five years since my rape now, and now I know – this is how rape will change your life.
1. Your brain will rebel against you.
Throughout my journey to put my rapist to justice, I met several other recent rape victims. We all had promising careers, intellectual extracurriculars, and diplomas all over our walls. What did we marvel over? How much our brains suddenly felt like mush. After the rape, I found myself stumbling – to recall my words mid-sentence, to pay attention to my favorite TV shows. I locked my keys in my car too many times to count. It was embarrassing, sure. But mostly, it was devastating, because I realized just how much I took for granted the things that had made me me: quick wit, clarity of thought, and the ability to talk in complete sentences.
2. And so will your body.
Trauma hides in the body. We often think of psychological damage in terms of hours of therapy or prescriptions to pick up, but what I didn’t realize was that my body could also change in other ways. A couple years in, I noticed I was always exhausted, my muscles constantly aching. I tried everything – yoga, extra rest- until I went to the doctor. I was examined, prodded, and prescribed a sleep study. (“I sleep just fine,” I had insisted.) The next day, the results came back.
I was shocked. I had developed sleep apnea. I had begun to spontaneously stop breathing in my sleep, the doctor explained and was doing it numerous times per hour. The reason I felt exhausted, she said, was because every time I did this, I was wrenched out of deep sleep and never got to truly rest. It was chilling to me know that my rape could affect me on such a deep and basic level.
I now sleep with a machine that helps me breathe at night, a look complete with tubing and a mask. It was endlessly frustrating to get used to, and I still haven’t found a way to stop the breakouts I get from the silicone face straps. Who would’ve thought that a rape would’ve given me cystic acne?
3. You’ll become afraid of the strangest things…
I used to be fearless. You used to be able to find me doing things like hanging upside-down by my ankles, ziplining over a hundred-foot ravine, or clinging to the crashing bow of my father’s Boston Whaler in a tropical storm.
I certainly wasn’t so fearless after the rape. But what was strange was what I actually became afraid of. I thought rape would mean a fear of sex, or men. But suddenly, I found myself jumpy around horn-rimmed glasses. A certain texture of hair on a waiter or a hand placed too near my calf could send me straight out of the room with the shakes. I suddenly I found myself sleeping soundest with a machete under the bed. Rape turned me into a ball of nerves that jumped at the most mundane things, and part of the scariness came from not knowing what was going to scare me next.
4. …And sometimes, people will become afraid of you.
A few years after my rape, my annual review was handed to me at work, and I felt my heart sink into my stomach. It was filled with paragraphs of comments about how my coworkers had been “concerned” after noticing me acting “tired” or “stressed” on certain days. It was, of course, true that I was stressed – I had to go put my head down in the spare office from the dizziness from poor nights of sleep. I had already explained my PTSD to my managers, but reading the rambling anxieties over my “stress management” made me feel so misunderstood. I never felt more alone than I did that day, now realizing I had been being judged all year despite my hard work (I had an otherwise applauding review). I had become something to be wary of, an inconvenience, and the process of healing soon meant the process of hiding it.
5. You will discover who your friends are.
When you are in the darkest hour of your life and call for help, see who answers. Who does – and who doesn’t – will completely surprise you. I was always relatively vocal about my assault on social media and was always shocked and humbled at how many messages I received from sheer acquaintances pledging to lend a supportive ear whenever I might need it. On the other hand, a couple friends I once considered some of my closest still avoid the topic with me years later. I’ve lost many relationships because my dates didn’t support choices I made in my recovery, including choosing to speak out about the botched police investigation. So while it cost me some friendships, many of my friendships only deepened as a result of my attack, because it revealed the truly gold-hearted people in my circle to me.