I was sitting on a stool in her kitchen, the counter between us, vegetables, knives, jars and a chopping board. She leaned forward and fell back through time. Thirty years back in time. A confident well-spoken woman, used to bossing me around her kitchen, who knew the world, knew who she was, knew she had purpose and had made a difference to many lives. And as she fell through time, all that confidence dissipated.
She told me of a story, of waiting for a girl to arrive at her house, and the girl not arriving. The clock ticked, hours passed, and the girl did not arrive. Late, in the evening, there was a feeble knock at the door. The woman opened the door and saw the girl stood there. Her dress ripped, her soul torn through.
“I’ll talk to you in the morning, I’ll explain,” the girl promised. “I need to sleep.”
The woman told me how the next day she found out that the taxi driver, who had been the one to collect the girl from the train station had raped her.
I watched across the kitchen counter as the trauma of that day played in the woman’s eyes. I watched as she said those words, “I need to sleep,” and how much helplessness was contained in those words. Thirty years and time had not softened that pain.
I moved my hand across the table to touch hers and spoke quietly, acknowledging that when you are raped, you are traumatised, and that trauma bleeds into every relationship you have. Nobody is immune to the pain.
Rape is a collective hurt. Thirty years later she was still hurting, but she’d held space for that girl that night and that takes courage.
Trauma doesn’t just affect the person who was there at the time, but everyone who takes a moment to touch upon their own vulnerability and empathise. Trauma is hard for everyone touched by it to deal with. You might feel that it didn’t happen to you so you shouldn’t feel as awful about it as you do, but that isn’t being honest about the damage that trauma does. You don’t have to be involved or witness an event to feel the effects of trauma. You can experience nightmares and fears, a tightness in your chest, a sense of overwhelming helplessness or lack of control, and all of it’s valid.
Often people put a brave face on when talking to me, and then go away and cry because it hurts. It plays on people’s minds, worries them and they sit awkwardly, wanting to know something to clarify their own feelings, to check that I’m okay, to see for themselves that I’m okay so that they can feel okay themselves.
My psychotherapist talks often about the need for looking after ourselves. We must be self-nurturing and show ourselves kindness. If you’ve been touched by any trauma – and most of us have – then you need to give yourself the permission to feel the discomfort. You also must ask for help when you need it.
By making my trauma public, I’m giving permission for it to be discussed. The culture that we have towards rape typically silences its victims. There are few avenues for discussing such a trauma and we don’t develop the skills to have these difficult discussions until the horrors are under our own skin. I’ve watched even professionals struggle.
What’s surprised me as I’ve talked about my own experiences dealing with the fact that I was raped, is that for so many people I know, sexual abuse is a topic that has a personal meaning. I’m not the first friend who’s spoken quietly. There’s many of us carrying stories like this and we’ll talk about them, quietly, to the people who are ready to hear when we’re ready to talk. When you hear stories like mine, and you feel angry or upset yet unable to express those feelings, you’re not alone.
If you are going to read up on the effects of rape, sexual abuse and trauma then there are a few things I’ve learnt. My strongest suggestion is that you use a timer. Limit how deep you delve in one go, because it’s hard stuff and you need to give yourself space afterwards to come back to yourself. It might also help to tell someone what you’re doing.
To understand what goes on with someone who has been traumatised, The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk is an excellent book. It’s written by a man who has a deep respect for trauma victims and therefore doesn’t play games to shock the reader. That said, some of the material is upsetting. If you need something more personal and direct, talk to a professional psychotherapist, as my sister so bravely has done.
To understand a little of why you’re so uncomfortable with stories of rape, this TED Talk (in Spanish with English Subtitles) by Inés Hercovich is a prompt to start reassessing the story you’re telling yourself.
If you don’t have the right person available to talk to when you need to then Rape Crisis is a charity you can call for a confidential conversation and some support.
Remember to take care of yourself as well. Supporting a survivor can be difficult and it’s OK to take time and space for yourself sometimes. It’s important not to betray a survivor’s trust by telling others about their experiences without their permission, but you can talk confidentially to and get specialist support from your nearest Rape Crisis service.
– Rape Crisis Website
It takes bravery to try and understand. Don’t underestimate how hard this is for you.