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I am a Rape Survivor Part Three: Rape Trauma and the Aftermath

August 4, 2010

"Bound" by Hayley Rose

Although the subject of rape rightfully garnishes much attention, the aftermath of such a trauma, and its long-term psychological effects, are often less discussed.  Being a victim of rape myself, I still relive the terror and shame of being raped even though it occurred ten years ago. To this day, my emotional and mental well-being is still affected.

Although the term “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” typically connotes images of war veterans who live an existence tormented with nightmares and flashbacks from their days in combat, it is not unique to this group of individuals. In fact, 7 – 8% of Americans will develop PTSD in their lifetime. Along with combat veterans, rape victims are common sufferers of PTSD. In fact, one third of all rape victims will develop PTSD in their lifetime, and 11% of all rape victims continue to suffer from it.

Women are twice as likely as men to suffer from PTSD, a relevant statistic considering that 91% of rape victims are female. It’s not hard to imagine that both male and female victims of rape often suffer from PTSD, a disorder that occurs after a person witnesses or experiences severe trauma. There are many types of reactions to traumatic events, such as anxiety, depression, and other troubling emotions. PTSD is different in the sense that it lingers on for many months and sometimes years after the traumatic event occurs.

Ten years after the assault, I am still suffering through the trauma of rape.  The issues I experience can range from mild to severe. Major trust issues often occur in conjunction with PTSD symptoms. Recently, I took a dress to be dry-cleaned. It was a black satin dress with white satin bows. When I brought it home from the dry cleaner, I swore that the dye from the black portion of the dress had bled onto the white satin bows. In tears, I began complaining about how my once perfect dress was now ruined, with gray bows instead of white. I felt frustrated and convinced that I could not rely on other people; if I wanted something done right, I had to do it myself.

My mother came over and examined the dress. She did not see what I was talking about as I continued to have a fit over it. At that point, I felt completely validated in my longstanding fear that I could not trust anyone, not even the dry cleaner. But then, as I began to calm down, I realized that the bows were still white, and somehow, perhaps in the dim lighting, I had made a mistake.

In this case, it is obvious that I was not in danger. This is an example of a more minor mental stressor that sometimes occurs in my daily life. Even during a minor event like this one, the anxiety can be paralyzing. Many times I get extremely upset over something small, like the dress. Even the people close to me accuse me of being ridiculous, but they don’t understand the severity of the panic and frustration I am going through. When these “events” occur, I am sometimes completely unable to function for hours, with my mind caught up in a loop of obsessive worry. When a more serious trigger occurs, the obsessive anxiety can last the whole day, only to begin again when I wake the next morning. Many days, I have issues similar to the dress, but often it is over something I perceive to be important and threatening.  A lot of the time, I feel like I can’t trust anybody, even my closest relatives and friends.

Drawing by Hayley Rose

Dealing with PTSD is debilitating. The feelings of extreme vulnerability and fear sometimes make it difficult to leave the house. Even the most benign daily chores and events are sometimes plagued by moments of terror and panic. Earlier this week, I was at the gas station and a man quietly approached me from behind. I didn’t immediately realize he was a frail homeless person who just wanted some change. Even when I did put the facts into perspective -that he wasn’t going to harm me in any way and just wanted change- I was still completely shaken because this innocuous man snuck up on me while I was alone.

It is common for someone with PTSD to be more “on guard” than people without PTSD. Other symptoms include difficulty sleeping, emotional and social withdrawal, difficulty concentrating, the loss of positive feelings, reliving the incident through dreams or while awake, and avoidance of people, places and/or other reminders of the incident.

The severity of mental and emotional issues such as PTSD can ebb and flow. However, it does get a little easier as time goes on. In the meantime, if you know someone who is suffering from PTSD, lending them an ear and letting them tell you about their experiences is something you can do to help. If you happen to be suffering from PTSD, there are a few things you can do to lessen its severity. The following exercises are things I did and continue to do to calm my severe PTSD issues.

  1. Spend Time with Animals. If you have dogs or cats, pampering them and taking them for a walk or ride can steer your mind away from your fears and worries. If you find animals to be calming, you can volunteer at an animal shelter or a farm. Many animal shelters need volunteers just to play with the furry friends.  I volunteered on a horse farm and cleaned stables for a while.
  2. Spend Time with Reliable People. If you are having trust issues with yourself and others, it helps to spend quality time with people who have proven to be reliable time after time, people who always put actions behind their words, and people who have strong moral values. There are definitely lessons in trust you can learn from people who empathize with what you’re going through, whether they’re a therapist, friend, or relative.
  3. Do Something Fun. When you are caught up in the cycle of debilitating fear, obsessive paranoia, or any of the other seriously life-draining symptoms that come with PTSD, you are often too panicked to enjoy anything. Taking time to pick up an old hobby or something that brings you joy is a very helpful healing tool. Whether it’s scrap booking, photography, video games, or gardening, spending your time doing something fun is very therapeutic and a great tool for healing.
  4. Speak to a Therapist. Speaking to a therapist is probably one of the most effective ways to overcome some of the debilitating fears associated with the aftermath of a traumatic event. Finding a good therapist who will guide you on your journey of healing is an invaluable tool.

Best of luck to anyone who is experiencing or has experienced any of the painful symptoms of PTSD and it’s debilitating anxieties. Know that, although at times it seems like a long journey, you can overcome these fears through time and extreme endurance. Remember, don’t be afraid to ask for help! Here is a link to the National Institute of Mental Health’s Hotline.

This is the third in a series of posts by Hayley about coping with sexual assault. Read the first post here and the second post here.

Hayley Rose is a writer, photographer, artist, and jewelry designer. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing and a Studio Art minor from Johnson State College. She just finished her first novel, a work of literary fiction about a young woman’s attempt to find her place in this world. Visit her flickr page here.

  1. August 4, 2010 2:06 am

    Thank you so much, Hayley, for your words of wisdom and courage. Your posts are helping so many women. THANK YOU!!!

    • Hayley Rose permalink
      August 5, 2010 2:48 pm

      Thank-you so much Clarissa, I appreciate it!

  2. Erik permalink
    August 4, 2010 10:25 am

    The problem is really that there is literally no sympathy culture for rape victims, outside of the survivor circle itself. Traumas are defining moments in one’s life – and while the example you gave may seem trivial, Hayley, it’s exactly the sort of everyday anxiety one develops from having a traumatic experience. For almost any other sort of trauma, there’s a national pity party, a rallying behind victims, a springing into action. You can have certain anxieties or fears and you can publicly attribute them to being hit by a drunk driver, having been in combat, having been abducted, having had a lousy upbringing with abusive parents – and yet rape, probably the most common type of traumatic experience, at least for women, remains the exception, the trauma one is encouraged to keep secret, the one that isn’t supposed to affect minims in your life for years after; though of course it does, and not being able to talk openly about it without it making everyone ‘uncomfortable’ is the second trauma of rape, the trauma of having lived this particular trauma, if you will.

    Perhaps its because war is so banal to us now, thanks to Hollywood and the newspaper and the idea that it’s a just thing to do and that soldiers, unlike rape victims, don’t have a choice what they do – they just bravely follow their orders, and so what happens to them is a tragedy. But rape victims, of course, were raped on their volition (hopefully my sarcasm is clear here).

    In any case, it is improving, thanks to outspoken people like you, Hayley. Thanks for being strong, for sharing your story and for being part of the solution. I love your suggestions. Even if you don’t have PTSD, you’d be surprised what therapy and a cat can do for your life 😉

    • Hayley Rose permalink
      August 5, 2010 3:10 pm

      Thanks Erik. I can’t help but nod along as I read most of your comments. It really is funny how so many people prefer the victim remain quiet. It’s much tidier that way I suppose. A lot of people like to sympathize with the rapist and blame the victim. For example, I have had a woman very coldly tell me to get over it and say something along the lines of “who hasn’t been raped before?” In this case, the woman clearly had some pent up issue that she herself still hadn’t ever dealt with. A few boyfriends I dated in the past downplayed the severity of what happened to me (to even go as far as to tell me I was lying) because they were uncomfortable with what I was saying. Perhaps they too had participated in behaviors that can be defined as rape or sexual assault (for example taking advantage of someone under the influence, passed out, ect, or some type of unwanted advance) and not what most people think of when they think of as a “typical rape scenario.” Whatever the motive behind their invalidation, I’ll never know for sure, but it’s pretty difficult to understand why anyone would deny you acknowledgment to such a traumatic life altering experience. I am glad that after all this time I finally found my voice.

  3. Josh permalink
    August 5, 2010 3:15 pm

    I have read your three articles and it never ceases to amaze me that so many people can commonly identify, yet there is no overwhelming outcry. It could be due to the fact that a large percent of victims do not report the abuse because they might feel guilt and shame for “letting it happen to them” or are afraid of how people will perceive them. I’m just speculating, but I hope that more people read your story, and that it will touch so many more lives.

    This comment aside, your articles generate some quality feedback! 🙂

    • Hayley Rose permalink
      August 5, 2010 3:46 pm

      Thanks Josh! I think you make some valid points. A lot of victims blame themselves directly or indirectly. You could blame yourself for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or perhaps victims who were under the influence of something blame themselves for that reason. I heard someone put it this way, “Just because someone has a lot of money doesn’t mean it’s okay to rob them.” People who do not like to sympathize with the victims of rape are quick to blame the victim for their attire, location, intoxication, ect, at the time of the rape. As a victim of rape, it is easy to take on the blame, when you do not have the full backing of society or even friends/ family. The bottom line is regardless of what you’re wearing, doing, where you are, it is never anyone’s right to sexually assault you.

  4. Sunset permalink
    August 9, 2010 2:05 pm

    Very well written. It’s nice to finally see that anxiety written out, the lack of trust and feeling of complete helplessness when something goes wrong.

    I’m curious if you have any idea how you go about finding a “safe” therapist? I am out of therapy right now after a couple of strongly re-traumatizing experiences with them, mostly your standard victim-blaming stuff. I’d love to be able to talk to one but I don’t think at this point I can handle having yet another professional ask me why I didn’t say no louder.

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