I didn’t know this could happen. Reading that, (and this is exactly how it felt, writing it down), you’ll be thinking – is she stupid? What do you mean you didn’t know rape could happen? Of course, I knew of rape. I knew how to define the word, I knew it existed, I knew that it must, and did, happen. But it was abstract and distant knowledge. Rape only happens to other people. People in war-torn or third world countries, people in abusive relationships, people in dangerous places or with dangerous people. Rape didn’t happen to ordinary people, in ordinary circumstances – a night out with friends, a taxi home. Rape was too horrific to fit in with ordinary life, normal people, everyday circumstances. If everything else that night was so ordinary, so unremarkable, so definitely lacking in signs of danger, then clearly what happened couldn’t have been rape. Right?
This is exactly the kind of rationalisation that circles endlessly in your head in the aftermath. The horror of what you’ve been through, the inconceivability of something so terrifying occurring in the midst of everyday life, the sudden and radical upheaval of everything you thought you knew, of all the plans and ideas you had about yourself, about other people, about life and how yours would happen, add up only to confusion, to denial, to emptiness. It just doesn’t make sense. It’s not right. It’s not possible. It couldn’t be. In shock, you sit dumbfounded, uncomprehending, overwhelmed. There are simply no tools, no means to deal with knowledge like this. You look out at the world around and think, I must be missing something. You go over and over the details and try, desperately, to uncover the clue, to find the missing piece, the key that will will suddenly transform your memories into something rational, possible, sensible. Something that makes sense, something that can be explained away, laughed off – oh, it was all a silly mistake! Over and over it you go, clinging absurdly to the hope that somehow you can make it all add up to something else.
When that doesn’t work, you stop thinking. Altogether. Thinking leads back only to information too devastating to acknowledge. To accept this knowledge would be to do yourself irreparable harm. It would be to collude with your attacker, it would allow their actions to have the desired impact, to diminish and destroy you. So you stop thinking. You go into auto-pilot. “If I just keep going, keep completing the same actions I’ve done in all the days prior, maybe it will be like it didn’t happen. If no one else notices then maybe I won’t need to notice, either.” You try to bargain with yourself, to trick yourself into unknowing. It doesn’t work. Trauma creates wounds, wounds that may often not be perceptible but that go deep, nonetheless. They tunnel into every part of your self and your life and, just like termites in a home, they undermine all the foundations until the house just crumbles. One day, unexpectedly a perfectly solid looking building just disintegrates into dust.
The shock of sexual assault is so complete, so forceful, so intense that it crumbles your whole world. Some events are too destabilising, too violent – both physically and conceptually – to not induce a reaction of extreme disbelief and horror. Nothing can prepare you for the experience of being violently assaulted, of having your liberty, security and integrity taken from you aggressively and hatefully. For someone to take pleasure from doing precisely that is beyond shocking, it’s inconceivable. Unexpected and radical change is challenging at the best of times, disappointing or hurtful behaviour is devastating even when minor. But assault is too extreme to make sense of in normal terms, it cannot be compared to normal experience, it doesn’t fit into any paradigm. When the inconceivable happens to you, the impact of that shock is far-reaching and uncontainable. All you can do is submit to it in the hope that gradually you will learn to live alongside of it, to carve out at its perimeter a world of your own again. Trauma will have one side of the bed and you will have the other, and, with time, you’ll learn to tolerate each other’s presence.