Making a Reflection for Others
I’m a “research” person. My family knows this about me. If they are reading this, they are nodding their collective heads.
When I don’t understand a concept or when I want to figure out how to do something or improve the way I do it, I research. I over-research, actually.
It’s how I used to approach papers in college and articles when I was a younger journalist; I would do at least twice the amount of research as necessary to complete a project, and by the time I was ready to begin my first draft, the words would just pour out of me.
I love the state of flow that sometimes comes from a feeling of attained expertise.
However, my research obsession has almost never extended to reading user manuals. I hate them with a passion. They are usually the most poorly written documents, and trying to read them stresses me out – particularly the ones with a lot of diagrams. I look at those diagrams, and I feel the tension rising in my chest like an expanding balloon. Ugh. Not my thing. Not how my brain works.
Unless I absolutely cannot figure out an issue I have with a piece of technology, product or software I’m using, I prefer to muddle through and learn by doing. Or I read online articles that explain things in a better way. But user manuals? Yuck.
So as I began to process my sexual assault in 2018, I did what I always do: I researched.
I Googled “middle age sexual assault,” “attempted rape,” “sexual assault definitions,” “sexual assault fight off attacker,” “fight flight freeze sexual assault,” “sexual assault acute trauma vs. PTSD,“ “PTSD therapies,” “EMDR,” “sexual assault legal process,” “sexual assault trial,” “sexual assault testifying,” “sexual assault sentencing,” “sexual assault plea agreements,” “sexual assault victim impact statement.”
Yes, I did. All of this.
During the immediate aftermath of the assault, the investigation and search for my attacker, and the court processes after he was caught and charged for a total of three sexual assaults, I wasn’t just looking for facts. I was looking for other women’s stories that were sort of like mine and that would help me understand what I was feeling (and not feeling). I wanted to “know” other women who went through something similar. I also wanted help understanding my choices and how to make the decisions I needed to make.
The 15 months between the assault and completion of my court case were bewildering and extremely stressful. I felt lost and alone, and I craved being able to see myself and my experiences reflected in other people so that I didn’t feel quite so lonely.
I seemed to need — perish the thought — some sort of user manual of how to begin to understand the experience of being a sexual assault Survivor and to figure out how to define this experience on my own terms.
I also craved reading experiences about the legal process I became part of as soon as I dialed 911. I wanted to do my job as “prosecuting victim” the best I could and be more than a cog in the justice machine that seemed to have output showing widely variable, and many times grossly inappropriate, sentencing. I feared going through the whole process and him getting a low sentence that didn’t match the effect the assault had on my life.
Though I did as much reading and research as I could tolerate at the time, I couldn’t always find the information I was looking for.
I couldn’t seem to find “me” and my situation in many stories.
Most notably, I couldn’t find a lot about being sexually assaulted when middle-aged, and I couldn’t find a lot of information about the “experience” and psychology of attempted rape and its aftermath, versus completed rape. I wanted to know if what I was feeling was “normal/usual.” If other women had felt what I was feeling.
As I tried to figure things out, many circumstances and players became part of the very, very bumpy road that at first had me giving priority to external cues for defining what happened to me.
- what I remembered about the assault;
- what I couldn’t remember about the assault;
- the trauma response and what my brain and body were telling me about what happened to me;
- the reactions of family and friends – all the way from horror to seeming indifference, with a common theme of discomfort in discussing it;
- the reactions of first responders, detectives, hospital staff and the district attorney’s office;
- the legal definitions of sexual assault and rape;
- the sociological and academic definitions of sexual assault and rape;
- the confusion over definitions – he didn’t complete the rape, but it still felt like a major sexual violation, with something large taken from me;
- the confusion about remembering him on top of me, but not being able to remember what he did to me;
- the understanding that I fought him, but not being able to take ownership of that because it felt like the fighting was something my body did largely on its own and that I was just along for the ride;
- the knowledge there were other victims of his out there who had different stories than mine and trying to make sense of the non-understandable intentions of a mentally ill sociopath (my feelings about him — not a diagnosis); and
- all of this while at the same time the #MeToo movement was in high gear and swirling around me.
It took me a long time to start defining my experience and understand it on my own terms, beyond the legal definition and beyond what others think about it. It’s a journey that’s still evolving as I continue to process the after-effects of the trauma and learn to try to let go of what I can’t remember.
Although the words I write as part of Volume Two can’t be a “Survivor user manual” because every experience is different and nothing will be comprehensive, I hope it serves as a mirror for some, that they will see themselves reflected in me, that they won’t feel so lonely and that they can perhaps travel the path of defining what happened to them more quickly.
I write because one voice matters. It can matter to one other person. And that matters.
Photo Credit: John Hammer Filter: Prisma