On November 11th 2010 I posted this note to Facebook. After I wrote about it here on my blog a few commenters got in contact to ask if they could read it without having a FB account, but I wanted to keep it private to my FB friends so as to be careful about who could access it. I decided instead to post a copy on my blog, and here it is.
If you noticed the Jezebel article I posted to my Facebook wall last night about the bullying and suicide of a teenager who had been sexually assaulted you might understand why I’m writing this. After getting upset over it I realised that there was something I could do to fight the stigma surrounding and bullying of victims of sexual violence. I could make it personal to everyone who knows me, so they might become more interested in, more knowledgeable about and less complacent towards the issue. So here is my contribution to the cause. Deep breath…
Eight years ago this month I was violently sexually assaulted by a girl I thought was a friend and her boyfriend. I had already suffered from depression and anxiety during my teens as a result of bullying, but had made a lot of progress over the previous year and was well on the way to recovery. During that night in November 2002 everything I had worked for was casually ripped to pieces by two people who wanted to use me for their sexual gratification and didn’t care what the consequences were for me.
Those consequences were devastating. For the first six months I was so anxious that I became paranoid, bordering on psychotic, constantly imagining that people and unspecified monsters were about to jump out from behind corners and attack me. After a while my body and mind just burned out and I sank into depression. Having been sure that I was going to be killed during the assault I became obsessed with death and couldn’t think of anything else. It was all I could do to drag myself out of bed every morning and get to college; once there I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t take notes, couldn’t read, couldn’t socialise with anyone else. I would go to bed at 8pm because I was so exhausted, but wouldn’t sleep until two or three in the morning. I was too scared to close my eyes, and literally could not do so without my bedroom light, television and/or stereo on, for about three years afterwards. When I did eventually pass out I would have nightmares of being chased and would wake up again terrified. I couldn’t cope with being alone in my house for the first year. I lived with what I thought was the certainty that I was about to die. I lost my independence, my peace of mind, my illusions of safety and security, and all sense of who I was.
Every slightest reminder of the assault triggered flashbacks. Anything from discussions of rape in my sociology class, to cars like his, to hairstyles like hers, to thunderstorms like the one of the morning after. I couldn’t stand enclosed spaces after being trapped in his bedroom for those twelve hours, and so fought and often lost against panic attacks in lifts, the backs of cars, trains, lecture halls, cinemas, crowded places like shops and pubs. I reported the incident to the police but was so afraid that the perpetrators would come after me that I didn’t press charges, and had to live with the knowledge that I could run into either or both of them in town. When I moved to another city for university in 2004 I was so relieved that I wouldn’t be at risk of seeing them anymore, but living away from my family and boyfriend meant the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) kicked off worse than ever, and I had to leave after five months because of insomnia, agoraphobia and depression. I can easily trace my hospitalisation for depression in 2007, and the relapse into anorexia which resulted in the end of my final attempt at university in 2009 back to the fact that I had untreated PTSD.
So why the hell am I writing this and putting it on Facebook, of all places? For my entire adolescence and early adulthood I have been ashamed of suffering from mental health problems, and too embarrassed to stand up and give my perspective when I hear people talking about sex crimes. I get upset and frustrated over every newspaper article about another bullied child or rape victim who has killed themselves, because I understand what drove them to that point and I know that it could so easily have been me. I want to help change this. I want there to be more understanding and less stigma surrounding sexual violence and mental health problems. I think a lot of stigma is the result of myths and fear.
This is what I want you to know.
Most rapes and assaults are committed by a person the victim knows. It could be a relative, partner, friend or work colleague. In my case it was someone I’d met at college.
It is never the fault of the victim, whether they were drunk and wearing a miniskirt or sober and wearing jeans and a jumper, like I was. If a person is threatened, coerced or flat out does not consent to a sexual activity and the other party (or parties) go ahead anyway, that is assault or rape. It really is that simple.
Men and women can be the victims of sexual violence, just as men and women can be the perpetrators. Even a couple of the counsellors I’ve seen looked shocked when I first told them I was sexually assaulted by a woman. I sometimes felt like an outcast among outcasts in the years following the incident, because most of the literature and public accounts of sexual violence follow the same pattern of man rapes woman. Male abuse survivors can also feel very marginalised, especially if the person who attacked them was female.
People who have mental health issues are more likely to be the victims of crime than to commit crimes themselves. That goes for all mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
People do not develop PTSD because they lack strength of character; they develop PTSD because they have been through a hugely traumatic event. PTSD is as much physiological as it is psychological: in basic terms it is the brain’s attempt to defend itself against death. After going through an event in which a person’s life is threatened, whether it is in the context of war, sexual violence, a car accident, an illness or anything else, their body and mind can become chronically hypervigilent to future threats. That’s what PTSD is.
I think a lot of bullying and stigma around both rape and mental health issues occurs because people don’t want to believe it could happen to them. They try to distance themselves from the victim by blaming them. With rape they can say that the victim was asking for it, they were drunk, they should have known better, they were a slut. With mental illness they can say someone is crazy, lazy, stupid, attention seeking or weak. None of that will protect someone against the possibility of it happening to them one day, because rapists do not have neon signs over their heads. Being cruel to someone who has already been traumatised is disgusting and inhuman, but it happens so often. People must speak up if they see it happening, because bullying is not okay and it could end in tragedy. I wish everyone who had ever been abused, raped, bullied or assaulted could stand up and say that they will not tolerate being shamed for their experiences, but the trauma leaves many unable to speak for themselves for years afterwards.
But for me it is years afterwards now, and I can speak for myself. For the last couple of years I have thought that the best way I can fight stigma over mental health issues is to stop hiding and acting as if I have something to be ashamed of, and I think the same goes here. So here it is: I am a survivor of sexual violence, and I still have problems with PTSD and anxiety. I am not weak, I am not crazy, I did not ask for it, it was not my fault. I will not be made to feel damaged or ashamed. I’m sure some people reading this are survivors themselves, because it’s not an uncommon experience. To those people, I want to say that you are not alone, and you can recover however bad you feel now. Other people might look the other way and ask you not to talk about it but I’m here if anyone wants to send me a message, and there are wonderful organisations like Rape Crisis who run a dedicated helpline for anyone who has been affected by rape or sexual assault – http://www.rapecrisis.org.uk/
I know this is long for a Facebook note, but if you got this far, thank for you not looking away. You’re helping just by listening and accepting that this is a huge issue in the world today, and that it happens to people you care about, not just faceless subjects of court cases written up in newspapers and on blogs.