Recognizing and Recovering from Trauma: Lessons I’ve Learned from Sexual Assault and Rape Survivors

By: Keith Sena, essay originally published on February 17, 2016

Two nights ago I received an email from someone with whom I seldom communicate.  I’ll call her Bayonet, since it sounds almost like bane would with a feminine ending (“bane-ette”).  For almost my whole life until recently, Bayonet was a major part of my life.  Now she wants to know, “How are you?  I have been wondering.  How are you feeling about your classes?”  The questions are simple, and so are the answers, yet I can hardly bring myself to respond.  How do I answer those questions from a person who has caused me immense suffering?  How do I communicate with her, when I know the only reason she is no longer hurting me is that I have distanced myself from her so she is no longer able to hurt me?  How can I tell her I am still recovering from what she did to me, when I know she would take it personally and berate me for saying so?

Bayonet is one of the main two people who have caused me trauma.  The other one I will call Grizzly. They have both been extremely abusive to me.  All the trauma Grizzly has caused me is from my time as a toddler to when I was 16 years old.  (I am 23 years old now.)  Since he has changed for the better, and I have taken great strides to forgive him, he and I pleasantly communicate often.  Two nights ago he and I shared an inside joke over the phone.

Even though Grizzly and I have a good relationship now, I am still affected by what the person he used to be did to me.  While coming off fluoxetine (generic Prozac) a few weeks ago, I had three nightmares about Grizzly.  In one of those nightmares, I slashed my throat in a suicide attempt.  Upon waking, I had to run my fingers down my neck to be sure I had not cut myself; then I got out of bed with a renewed appreciation for life.

Most of my childhood was being hit and yelled at.  I experienced my parents’ divorce when I was four years old, and then the divorce of my father and stepmother when I was 12 years old.  The happiest time of my childhood was my 72 hours in a mental hospital, since nobody hit me or yelled at me in the mental hospital.  I was there on a “5150 involuntary psychiatric hold,” but it felt voluntary since I was eager to go there to escape my terrible domestic situation.  I am only scratching the surface of how these experiences have formed me as a whole person.

I have not always recognized my trauma when I have experienced it.  When a person has been accustomed to living with trauma for almost their entire life, how can they see trauma for what it is?  I suppose the answer may be different in each case.

In my case, the answer was listening to a speech when I was 21 years old.  The speaker said humans enter the world afraid of only two things—darkness, and death.  I do not remember being afraid of darkness or death in my childhood, but I remember being afraid of Grizzly.  The fact that Grizzly terrified me in my childhood so much that I forgot about fearing darkness and death put into perspective for me the trauma he caused me.

In the weeks before that speech, I had been experiencing what I would later look back on as the beginnings of recognizing my trauma.  During those weeks, whenever I thought about what Grizzly did to me, I would start shaking and taking rapid, shallow breaths.  (Later I learned to call these occurrences panic attacks.)  I did not understand why those memories affected me that way; it made no sense to me that something from the past would cause me such distress.

After the speech, my experience gradually made more sense to me.  While I could not stop the panic attacks, I finally understood them.  For years, I had largely hidden the memories of the abuse from my consciousness; but they were being dragged onto the showroom floor of my mind against my will.  I stopped trying to fight it, and resigned myself to letting the panic attacks run their course; they are mostly done now.  From this experience I derive my working definition of trauma: lasting distress from past unpleasant experiences.

While I was coming to recognize the trauma Grizzly caused me, I was being terribly mistreated by Bayonet; it was further injury inflicted upon longstanding injury.  However, the abuse she inflicted on me in my adulthood was never physical; thus it was harder to recognize as abuse.  She often manipulated me into thinking I was responsible for her misbehavior.  She is an expert at taking things personally and assuming the worst.  She is not big on consideration for others.  Many of the ways she abused me pertain to my autism spectrum disorder, and are not easily understood by neurotypicals.  She repeatedly suggested—in all seriousness—that I am autistic because of a demon, and that I need this autism demon cast out of me; she even gave detailed, deductive reasoning for why she considered me possessed.  She is not a difficult person; she is an impossible person.

While she was abusing me, I recognized a little of it; but much of it eluded my recognition for years.  The biggest help in recognizing it has been living in Baylor University’s Honors Residential College (HRC).  The people here tend to be kind, caring, respectful, friendly, and plenty of other synonyms one could mine from a thesaurus.  The picture accompanying this note is from our most recent community dinner.  Living in community with them and consistently experiencing how they behave has put into perspective for me how terrible of a person Bayonet is.  Once I recognized my trauma from Bayonet, I had to deal with it along with my trauma from Grizzly; accordingly, during my first year in the HRC, I had chronic insomnia, chronic panic attacks, and chronic suicidal thoughts.  The HRC community has been invaluable to my ongoing recovery.

However, I could not have articulated my experience this clearly without having heard and read testimonies of sexual assault and rape survivors.  I have never been sexually assaulted or raped.  My intention here is not to portray myself as having it as bad as survivors of such heinous violations of personhood; on the contrary, I am convinced they have it worse than I do.  From what I can tell, they have all the same effects of trauma as I do—though for different reasons—plus more.  I have never cut myself or attempted suicide in real life, as many of them have.  Neither have I had PTSD, as many of them do.

At least some rape survivors feel like their bodies are no longer their own; one described her body as a crime scene that she inhabits.  However much my body was hit, I never felt like it was not my own.  I cannot comprehend what sexual assault and rape survivors experience, and words cannot adequately convey it.  While I sympathize with them, I am incapable of empathizing with them because I have never experienced what they experience.

Let me emphasize it again: I am neither diminishing the experiences of sexual assault and rape survivors, nor overstating my experience as if it were as severe as their experiences.  My intention here is to draw, with acknowledged limitations, comparisons between their greater trauma and my lesser trauma to understand the phenomenon of trauma in general.

I’ve often heard sexual assault and rape survivors attest these two points:

1. Because of lack of education about sexual assault/rape/consent, they were not aware that what was done to them was sexual assault or rape.

2. As a coping method, if they know it was sexual assault or rape, they tried to repress their memories/feelings and behave as if it did not happen so as not to be affected by it.

An example of the first point is a survivor account I read.  Long after her rape, she was in a college classroom listening to a lecture.  The professor was explaining sexual consent.  Right there in the midst of the lecture, she realized she was raped.  She had to leave class early.

Examples of the second point are two survivor accounts I read.  One wrote, “I just shoved these feelings as deep as they would go assuming I would be better off trying to deal with everything after I graduate so I would be distanced from the incident and that my grades wouldn’t suffer from trying to handle the repercussions.”  Another wrote, “I had blocked my assault out of my memory […].  I just didn’t want to think about it.  But […] I could not go any longer forcing all of these dark memories down and hoping they would just go away.  Because they never would.  I just wish I would have known that earlier.”

Their testimonies help me understand my experience.  Comparable to the first point, because I did not know how people were supposed to behave, I did not recognize how badly Bayonet was mistreating me; yet it still affected me without me realizing how bad it was.  Comparable to the second point, I had suppressed my memories and feelings about what Grizzly did to me; but trauma does not just go away unacknowledged, and must take effect eventually.  I suspect these points correspond to common human reactions to traumatic experiences in general.

Now I’m going to cry myself to sleep.