A younger version of myself always figured that sexual assault would be blatantly obvious. The survivor would have a clear picture of what had occurred and a straightforward impression that their consent had been violated. My situation felt different, more like a failure of communication on my end. I had willingly gone over to his apartment and I couldn’t even remember if I had clearly said “no.” I felt broken and alone, but convinced that anyone who heard my story would think I was at fault or overreacting. So, I kept it a secret. For two years.
The more I tried to bury the events of that evening, the more they haunted me. I had panic attacks so intense that I would hyperventilate and wonder if I was dying. My brain jumped around between the past and present, sometimes confusing me. One moment I was safe in my apartment, snuggled under the covers; the next, I was at his place, his sweaty palms pinning me down as he whispered sardonically in my ear, “Your heart is beating so fast, you must be either really excited or really scared.”
These panic attacks, which I now understand were symptoms of PTSD, happened with increasing frequency over the course of the next year. They had severe consequences on my everyday life. I lost friends who were overwhelmed and frightened by the intensity of my emotions when I reached out in alarm. I was forced to quit an internship that I had worked hard for because I couldn’t guarantee I’d be able to get out of bed in the morning. I was dropped from an elite running team due to my inability to consistently train. Running, which had once given me so much joy, made me feel like I was spiraling into panic because it increased my heart and respiratory rates.
I had intrusive thoughts about suicide, especially when I considered how much of a burden I must be on my friends and family. I feared having another episode so badly that sometimes death seemed like the better option. I went to therapy but was ashamed to admit that I was hung up on an evening that no one else would consider a big deal. I spent the appointments talking about unrelated issues or saying nothing at all. Then, I would go home and furiously read blogs on sexual assault trying to determine if my situation “counted.”
On the two-year anniversary of that night, I hit my all-time low. The flashbacks were too intense. I had hurt too many people that I loved. I had lost too much. Unable to calm myself, I climbed to the top of a nearby parking garage and stood on the edge. Looking down, I didn’t want to die, but I also could not live like this. I felt trapped between two undesirable choices with nowhere to go.
I sat there for quite a while, crying and shaking. My thoughts were racing and, in an effort to settle them, I broke the decision between life and death into two questions. Would it be better or worse for the people I loved if I were gone? Did I have anything I still wanted to live for?
Faces of loved ones who had supported me popped into my mind. My breath steadied and my shoulders relaxed. There were people who had made it very clear to me that they wanted me around, struggles or not. I was fortunate for that.
Now was there anything to look forward to in my life? Something that actually felt achievable given my current state? I wanted to raise and train a puppy. The thought was quite mundane, even silly, considering the intensity of the situation, but bringing home a puppy felt feasible and made me look forward to living. In a moment of clarity, a third option besides death and living with untreated mental illness came to mind- I could talk about that night and just see what happened.
That week, I finally shared the details of the “misunderstanding” with my therapist. I told her that instead of fighting back, I froze and just let it happen. I cried as I admitted that I didn’t deserve to be this upset because everything was my fault. The expression on her face immediately suggested the opposite. She had no doubt I was sexually assaulted.
While most people have heard of the “fight or flight response”, many people haven’t heard of the third automatic response, freezing. This occurs when stress hormones flood the body and one is unable to move or speak. These survivors often blame themselves for not actively resisting or question the validity of their experience because they did not clearly say “no.” I now realize that even though I did not resist my assaulter, it was very clear that I was scared and not an active participant in the encounter. He knew my consent was not there, even if I was unable to explicitly state it in the moment.
It took me two years, when I could have been getting help, to admit to myself that I had been sexually assaulted. I hope that by sharing this story, it can enable one to validate their own experience. Since that night, my healing journey has had both its ups and downs, but now there is hope that I can have the future that I have dreamed of. Plus, I finally got that dog. Not only does he help me manage my symptoms, but he is also a daily reminder that life is worth living.