Trigger/Content Warnings: rape, self-harm, cutting, ptsd, depression, self-blame, medical settings, dead bodies
Triggers Everywhere: Refocusing in College After Trauma
College can be hard even when nothing traumatic happens to you – especially in a physical therapy doctorate program – but navigating hallways where you could pass your rapist at any moment is hard on another level. And on a small campus, where he’s popular and you’re not? It can feel like all you can do is brace yourself. Forget support systems or telling anyone his name.
I did tell a few friends who my rapist was, and I eventually told a few professors that I’d been raped. I had a very feminist professor who taught a literature by women class, and every story was triggering for me, so I explained why my attendance was spotty at best. She told me I didn’t have to read Margaret Atwood’s “Rape Fantasies” if I didn’t want to. The story was only seven pages long and I probably used as many tissues to get through it, as well as a whole bottle of wine, but I read it. Not because I felt strong, but because I wasn’t ready to let anyone make life easier for me. I thought she felt obligated to offer pity, a guilt trip I’d never intended when I’d felt obligated to be honest with her. I didn’t believe anymore that anyone with any kind of power over me would be kind to me because they wanted to be.
I also had a psychology class about how to be a good health care provider for mentally ill patients, and I felt more like a patient than provider when we took a PTSD self assessment. It was 20 yes or no questions, where more than 10 yes answers was “very concerning.” I had 17. Triggers, triggers everywhere. The professor assured us that the PTSD assessment was not a clinical diagnosis, but he asked to speak to me after class. I ran out of the room. I still wasn’t ready to let anyone help. I wasn’t diagnosed with PTSD until the summer, nine months after I was raped.
When I started taking meds for PTSD, I had to drop out of the physical therapy program because I failed my cadaver class. Twice a day I popped a sedative that helped with panic attacks but also made me sleep too much to study, and my antidepressant dose was so high – almost the legal limit – that I was too headachey to study when I was awake. Spending upwards of four hours a day in a hospital poking at a dead body was hardly a way to enhance my mood or social life. I did not feel any less sad, and I stopped taking pills when it became far too tempting to take far too many. I started cutting and burning my arms with an iron. I stopped eating and vomited for a week until I could hardly leave my bed. The doctors said I was overly stressed. Sitting in an urgent care room with an IV and anti-nausea tablets, I realized how much of my life my rapist affected: my health, education, future career as a PT, nearly my whole future. I didn’t know whose fault this was, his or mine. I didn’t know how to feel happier.
But no one wanted to talk to me about how to be happy. They wanted to talk to me about how to not be afraid of sex – like it’s better to be depressed than asexual.
Everyone’s biggest concern was that, after my sexual trauma, I regain the sexual interest they assumed I had before. Become normal again. Every time I went to someone new for talk therapy, I judged the therapist by how much emphasis their intake evaluations placed on sex. “Have you reached a place in your life where you’d be comfortable having sex?” Well, no, but trauma aside, the answer would still be no. The only discussion I wanted about sex was validation that I had been raped, that it wasn’t just “bad sex” as my rapist continued to tell me, urging me to let him try again until I liked it. I was worried I would start to believe I just didn’t know or understand what sex was. Sex is something normal people choose, right? So I must have chosen it, and should again, or I was weird. I hardly trusted myself.
Even some friends who I trusted enough to talk to weren’t supportive. They tried to define for me what mattered or counted. Some said I should be over it in a few weeks. Some said if it wasn’t very violent, it didn’t count as rape. One said I didn’t have to worry about my virginity, that being raped didn’t count as sex in God’s eyes. I am a Buddhist, and I don’t care about the concept of virginity. I don’t worry about the potential difficulty of finding a partner who also wouldn’t care, who wouldn’t reject me on a sexual level, because a partner who wants sex is not a partner I would want. For some reason, this is unfathomable.
This isn’t to say that some people weren’t helpful. In many ways, when I thought I could never create a support system at school while keeping my rapist’s identity hidden, I was still blindly believed enough to be helped when I was ready. I became an English and health science double major, exploring what happened to me from creative and medical angles. I saved an email from my English advisor (“you are not a bother, not in the least, I promise”) and a voicemail from my health science advisor (“please call me today, just so I know that you’re okay”). I was told that it was okay if I took my time getting better.
My health science advisor also told me that it was okay if I became a lesbian. She said she knew women who were assaulted by men and no longer felt safe with men, so they pursued relationships with other women. This thought had never crossed my mind – how does one even become a lesbian – yet it clearly seemed normal to her. It would be reasonable to turn to sex with women as an alternative to sex with men, but it would be unthinkable to just not have sex. I never told her I didn’t want a relationship of any kind with anyone, and she never told me it was okay if I was asexual. I don’t know if she knew this word.
My academic life was and is far more important than my sex life, but everyone in my academic life was concerned about my sex life. I needed to get their priorities on board with mine. That was a lot harder than it should have been, but once I was able to reframe my healing process, I had the power and help to begin the journey. No doubt it is a journey I will be on for some time, but it has already taken me halfway across the country to gerontology school, and with the physical distance, the mental distance will hopefully come too.