Monday, June 9, 2014

If I Hadn't Been Raped

Written by: Lauren von Bernuth

Sometimes I struggle to accept that this one singular act so profoundly and negatively impacted my life. In those moments, instead of seeing myself as a survivor struggling with healing, I see myself as someone who is intrinsically weak and I wonder what is wrong with me, why can’t I handle things normally. Then I go to my rape survivors support group (wahoo!, but seriously thank God this exists) and am relieved to feel completely understood and accepted. There I’m reminded that all of us are struggling with the same exact feelings and these people just get me and I get them. We all have different “rape scenarios” (I was 19 and had just started college) but we were all left with the same battles. This is because rape isn’t just about those minutes or hours of the physical act. The physical stuff you recover from. What can destroy you is the psychological damage that rape does.
Image courtesy of  luigi diamanti /
Rape is a violation of your soul, it pierces you down to the very core of who you are. One minute you are living in a world where you see yourself as a human being with value and personal space. You know rape happens, but it happens to other people and you can control your life. Then suddenly you are raped and nothing is the same. Someone overpowered you and treated you like you’re nothing and now the world doesn’t look the same. The world goes from inherently good to inherently dangerous. You’ve been made to feel you have no worth, that you are not even human, and your ability to trust others and yourself is shattered. Unless you get good psychological help right away you internalize those feelings and they become embedded in your body. What really kills is the sense of shame you carry around.

As a rape victim you blame yourself because you want to think you had control in the matter; so if you hadn’t done this or that you wouldn’t have let yourself get raped. The idea that you had absolutely no control is terrifying and so you keep imagining what you could have done. If only you’d seen it coming you could have kicked his ass or whatever it is that you tell yourself. But the truth is, in that moment you had no control and you did whatever you did just to get through the moment. For me I froze because I was shocked. I couldn’t understand what was happening, I didn’t think people treated other people that way, and I disassociated which is what most victims do. Disassociating is a survival mechanism and a natural bodily response to trauma.

I can look back now, 13 years after the rape, and understand what happened and how the effects trickled down through my life. However, unfortunately, when I was a 19 year old freshman who had just been raped, I couldn’t handle it. I remember now, how the day after being raped I felt completely overwhelmed by shame. I told myself that the only way I could live with myself was to not think about it. So I didn’t. I buried the memory and completely forgot about it until it popped up 13 years later and 6 months into therapy. My therapist knew very early on some kind of trauma had happened because of the amount of shame she saw I was carrying around. I recently contacted my best friend from college to ask what she remembered about me and the incident. She couldn’t have written a kinder response, but what really shocked me was that she said she never thought of what happened as anything other than rape. So for 13+ years she thought I had been raped and my therapist saw it right away as well. Yet, I never once even considered the idea of rape until months into therapy and after deciding to look at and purge every crappy feeling I had. Unfortunately, stuffing the memory away didn’t make it go away. Instead my body and mind internalized it and it just rippled through my life subconsciously.

The good thing is that as soon as the memory came back I realized it was rape and the first thought that popped into my head was that I didn’t have to be ashamed anymore. I was on cloud nine for about a week. Frustratingly, although a huge amount of shame is gone, there is still some lingering shame and doubt. Rape victims typically need to hear over and over again that they were raped and it wasn’t their fault. My life has completely changed and things are much better, but there is still a struggle. What helps sometimes is to picture how I see my life playing out if I hadn’t been raped. So I wrote it out. I also hope that anyone who recognizes themselves in the behaviors below takes the time to really figure out where the behavior is coming from; because they are all typical and normal responses to sexual assault or other traumas. Rape can kill you if you just try and bury it with drugs, alcohol, depression, sex, food and other addictions.

If I hadn’t been raped.

I wouldn’t have withdrawn socially from my peers at college.
I would have been excited to be in college and part of the college experience.
I wouldn’t have seen guys at my school as self-centered and manipulating.
I wouldn’t have developed an eating disorder as a way to regain control in my life.
I wouldn’t have tried to drink every last bit of shame and self-loathing out of me.
I might have seen college guys as potential friends and had a healthy relationship.
I might have kept my head up and looked around for human contact instead of looking down and keeping to myself.
I might not have trembled uncontrollably the next time a guy touched me.
I might not have needed to be wasted for every time after that.
I wouldn’t have trivialized sex as a way to reduce the significance of what happened.
I wouldn’t have tolerated and normalized other “rapey” experiences.
I wouldn’t have transferred the disgust from my rape into shame and disgust of my body.
I wouldn’t have spent 13 years battling depression, shame, and suicidal thoughts.
I wouldn’t see men as predators first who could only value me for my physical self.
I would feel things fully and in the moment instead of delayed and suppressed.
I wouldn’t feel like I always had to watch my back.
I wouldn’t struggle to see the world as a good and safe place.
I wouldn’t struggle to believe that men can be as kind and caring as women.
I wouldn’t be trying to rebuild my sense of self-worth and confidence.
I wouldn’t be afraid of saying no to a man.
I wouldn’t have a visceral hate of all men who remind me of my rapist.
I wouldn’t be terrified of looking in mirrors.
I wouldn’t have shrunk into myself.
I wouldn’t be 13 years later finally allowing myself to remember I was raped and working on accepting and healing from that.
I wouldn’t feel like I lost 13 years of my life.

After rape, you don’t get your old self back but you can become stronger, more compassionate and understanding than you ever were before. The world you lived in before being raped doesn’t exist anymore. The nature of a trauma is that it changes you, it splits your world open. You can put the pieces back but it’s not the same; there are now cracks and scars. With help you can create something positive out of it. I have met other rape survivors and now I can just get them. I have a new passion for helping them. I think trauma can give you a level of empathy and compassion that you can use for good. So many men and women are raped or sexually abused and they just bury it, as I did. In a way I was lucky because I had a bunch of things fall apart in my life at once and I hit bottom. I never wanted to go to therapy, it scared me, made me feel weak for going and the work is incredibly hard but I had no other options left. So I went and kept going and eventually I dug up the memory of my rape. Unfortunately, so many people never uncover it and because of that they live a life of struggle. They carry with them a secret that shrouds them in shame. Shame is a judgment you place on yourself, who you are intrinsically as a human being, and living a life filled with shame and self-loathing is barely living.

The remedy to shame is bringing your secret into the open and realizing there is no need to be ashamed or to have a secret. Reading other survivor stories and their ability to be public about their struggle is what helped me. They seemed like badasses and incredibly strong individuals. I wanted to become like that. It takes incredible strength to stare down your shame, reveal it to the world, and try to deal with it in a healthy manner instead of through one addiction or another. When I do that and see myself in that light I feel invincible. Even if you don’t take your story public, trying to deal with your issues in a healthy manner is incredibly challenging and something to take pride in. If you can do that you will feel like you can do anything. I hope anyone else out there who is struggling with anything finds a way to stare it down because in the end it can turn you into Superman (or woman).

Written by: Lauren von Bernuth
Country: United States
Twitter: @FacetoFaceLA

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