O God, the aftermath.
Trigger warning: sexual assault, flashbacks, PTSD.
This post is largely to document the various reactions I received from mentors and friends regarding the incident, as well as how I’m coping now.
After dropping out of sculpture, I still kept in touch with Liz. At least for a little bit. She told me that the sculpture teacher took her aside one evening and asked where I’d gone and why (which I found fishy…hadn’t the dean let him know?). Liz told him what happened, and said that he was shocked – that he didn’t know it had gone to the extent that it had. Again, I was suspicious. Why else would he have worded it “Tom has wandering hands”? Then apparently Esther cornered Liz in class another evening and demanded to know why I wasn’t there. Liz explained to her, as well. Esther scoffed and basically said that I was lying – that Tom didn’t have control of his arms and hands enough to be able to do that, and even if he did that he wouldn’t know what he was doing, that he had the mind of a 13-year-old.
When Liz told me that, I was stunned. “But she’s been telling us all along that his mind is just the same! And that he cut and pasted those pictures on his sculpture by himself! It doesn’t make sense!”
“Please don’t put me in the middle of this,” Liz replied. “It’s not fair.”
I blinked at the screen, once again feeling that slow falling sensation. The fight was knocked out of me, and I suddenly felt very alone.
A few weeks passed, and my old crush’s mom and sister each talked to me separately at church. They were both serving as mentors of a sort to me. I confided in them what had happened. The mom smiled and shook her head when I told her that I’d dropped out of class, that I couldn’t face him. “God hasn’t given us a spirit of fear,” she rebuked quietly. “What an opportunity you would have had to witness to him and his mother. Pity.” The sister wasn’t much better. “Didn’t you fight back?” she asked incredulously. I frowned. “I tried to get away, but I couldn’t. He was too strong.” “If it had happened to me, I would have fought back. But maybe it’s good you didn’t. At least nothing worse happened.”
My childhood best friend was even less understanding. “You’ve obviously not had a lot of experience with guys,” she bristled at me, hinting that she’d experienced my assault and worse (of which I have no doubt). “Seriously. What happened to you was not a big deal. You should be grateful it wasn’t anything worse. Stop overreacting and just get over it. We all have to.”
Another close friend at the time, this one a guy, chided me similarly. “My girlfriend’s assault was way worse than what happened to you. Honestly? You don’t have much room to complain. It’s not that bad.”
A year or so later, I was talking to a guy online who had a passion for evangelism (and that I had a slight crush on). He was talking about suffering for the Lord, but more along the lines of being made fun of. I hadn’t spoken of what happened to me to anyone for a long time, having tried to stuff it down and ignore it. I tearfully confided in him what happened to me. He responded enthusiastically with, “Praise the Lord!” I was quiet for a moment, then asked what he meant. “We’re supposed to praise God when we’re made to suffer for His sake. I’d love to be able to suffer physically for Him!” My crush on him evaporated in that instant.
Not everyone’s responses were horrible. My best friend at the time (not to be confused with my childhood best friend) listened to me sympathetically. When I started telling her how guilty I felt, that it must have been my fault, that God must be trying to tell me something, she completely snapped. “I was molested as a kid. Are you saying that’s my fault?” I stared at her, open-mouthed. I had no idea. I shook my head, tears filling my eyes. She softened, tears filling her eyes too. “People are just sick. It was nothing you did. God’s not out to get you. He’s not like that.”
The summer after the assault, my sleeping patterns worsened. Not only was I unable to sleep for long periods of time (no more than 2 hours at a time), but my sleep was punctuated with nightmares. At first it was simply reliving what had happened. Then the nightmares got worse…almost like my subconscious said, “You don’t think what happened to you was a big deal? I’m going to make you suffer far worse in your dreams.” I had nightmares of gang rapes and being sold as a sex slave, each nightmare full of violence and fear. I would wake in the middle of the night, covered in sweat, shaking, crying. But by the time late August, early September came around, all of my male friends, from Bible study and from my summer camp, learned not to touch me without express permission (which was rarely given). I could sleep more normally. Finally, I thought, I’m over it. Everything’s okay.
Fall semester started. My first day, I was so relieved to not see Tom or his mother anywhere. (Believe me. I looked.) I felt like a burden had been lifted.
The next day, however, as I was leaving my math class…I saw him. Apparently his therapy was helping him – he was standing, with the help of a walker and what must have been his father. I broke into a cold sweat and tried to find another exit, but it was no use. I had to walk past him to leave the building. I refused to look at him, refused to acknowledge he was there. I went out to my car, sat, and cried. She must have meant the summer semester, if that, I thought bitterly. But…the fight had been knocked out of me. Every fear and doubt I had about it had been reinforced by those closest to me (save my mom and best friend). I couldn’t think of any justification for demanding to know why nothing had happened to him.
It turns out that semester, I had to see him 3-4 days a week, passing in the halls in different buildings going to and from different classes. I learned how to erase every emotion from my face. I learned to stuff my emotions down as far as I could, to numb myself in public and even in private sometimes. At Bible study, I earned the nickname “Ice Princess” as a result. I didn’t care. I was in full-fledged self-preservation mode. I didn’t realize that my entire personality had changed, morphed. I was no longer outgoing. I was no longer talkative. I was forcibly friendly, but not inviting. I was different – and the change, so far, seems to be permanent.
Spring started. My nightmares came back in full force. I wondered vaguely if they were going to be seasonal, starting in February and ending in August. So far, that’s been the pattern for the past five or six years. (I was assaulted at age 18; I’m now 24.) My nightmares begin in late January, and end in the summer. After I met my now-husband, and we decided to get married, I was ecstatic. Of course, yes, because I loved him with all my heart and couldn’t wait to spend the rest of my life with him. But also because I trusted him, and I thought that maybe, finally, the nightmares would stop.
Our first year of marriage, 2009-2010, seemed mostly okay. Gary* remembers one time trying to hug me from behind in the kitchen, and says that I jumped and snapped at him. He also said that he noticed I was having nightmares off and on for several months starting in January of 2010. Blessedly, I don’t remember them. I thought that my hopes had come true. I didn’t realize how wrong I was. I didn’t realize that after five years of ignoring the situation, that it had festered and was ready to debilitate me.
It was the late fall/early winter of 2010. We were laying in bed, talking, cuddling. I don’t remember what we were talking about. I was laying on my stomach with my arms curled under me, and he was rubbing my back. Suddenly, the world slowed down. Someone’s hand moved to my right shoulder and arm and started rubbing, dangerously close to my breast. I started hyperventilating, thinking wildly, Who’s here?! Who’s touching me?! Why isn’t Gary doing something?! I heard his voice from a long way away, saying my name in deep concern. “What’s wrong?” Someone pulled me close. I screamed and burst into tears, trying to get away. I couldn’t move very well – I couldn’t stand, couldn’t sit. I kept scooting away, and he kept scooting closer. “Go away!” I shrieked. “Don’t touch me!” Suddenly he understood. He moved his hand to the middle of my back, started rubbing methodically, and kept saying over and over again, “It’s me. It’s Gary. Everything’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you. Please, move back on the bed – you’re going to fall off.” I was sobbing convulsively. It took me about two hours to calm down, to realize what happened. Gary was shaken. I was horrified. After I calmed down, he tried to comfort me, tried to hold me. I couldn’t touch him. He told me later that I slept as far from him as possible and wouldn’t let him touch me during the night.
I wish I could say that was an isolated incident. I wish, I wish, I wish. But frankly, I’ve lost count of how many times it’s happened. It can be completely innocent, like that night when we were just cuddling – his hand will wander to my arm or shoulder, or I’ll hear him breathing in my ear, or feel his breath in my hair – and all of a sudden, I’m back in that classroom. Sometimes it’s even more devastating, happening while we’re being intimate, and suddenly I’m experiencing one of my more violent nightmares. There’s almost no recovery from that. I can’t imagine what it’s like from Gary’s end, trying to love his wife and suddenly I start weeping uncontrollably and curl into a ball, not able to allow him to touch me during what is supposed to be a beautiful expression of love between us, pulling us together. I never dreamed that my fear would extend to my married life in that way. I never dreamed I would live in fear of my husband’s loving arms, fear that they’ll suddenly turn into someone else’s arms and I’ll be helpless once again. There have been a handful of times when I’ve reacted in immediate violence, usually clawing towards his face or grabbing his arm. Somehow, in these times, my eyes find his and I realize what’s happening. I’ve been able to stop from hurting him so far. The worst thing of all is that I never know when it’s going to happen. Sometimes, everything is okay. Sometimes I’ll go weeks without incident. Sometimes.
All I can think is that this is a direct result of my refusal to deal with the situation. Of my constant fear and doubt and guilt and self-flagellation, fed by those who reinforced that guilt and fear (however well-meaning they were). I just wish…I wish so much I could figure out how to heal. How to cope. I can’t afford therapy.
Oh God. I just want to be free.
My story continues with “And the world spun madly on.”