There is a great gaping hole at the the center of my life. Many things belong in that hole: safety, security, confidence, faith, laughter, freedom, trust, joy, focus, relaxation, pleasure, sleep, comfort, the future – the list feels endless. These are all missing, missing since the day of the rape. Most people understand, at least on some level, that rape is a horrendous crime. What they rarely understand is that the act, the crime, is only peremptory – it sets in motion a chain reaction of losses that fall like dominoes, one after another. Once again, you are left standing passively by as devastation is wrought all about you. The shock of this continuing destruction stills you, silences you, leaves you stranded in a grey, lifeless no man’s land. Barely alive but not quite dead, you are not able to take refuge in the past, nor are you able to believe in the future. And the present? Well, that offers only pain and hurt. Terrorised into abandoning the person you were and unable to conceive of the person you will be, there is only nothingness. The small piles of rubble that are left of the person you were, of the life you had, are so indistinct, so ruined that it’s hard to believe they once formed anything coherent at all.
Gradually, in the aftermath of the rape, as the impacts of the shock, shame and terror lessen, as they relinquish just a little of their hold on you, a space opens up. At first, this space feels relieving but only do you begin to stretch your limbs a little, to test this newfound space, when you find a new emotion wallowing in to fill the void: grief. It settles over you like a fire blanket, smothering every spark, extinguishing any glow, stifling each remaining molecule of oxygen. With the hyperactivity and obsessive vigilance of fear no longer occupying every nanosecond, you find time to reflect. To look around you at what is left and to examine the rubble, to try and piece together what you had and what might be worth saving. To become aware that almost everything that ever meant anything to you has been taken from you, directly or indirectly, makes you feel as if the crime in question wasn’t really assault at all. Rather, it was murder. Where exactly is the line drawn between inflicting extreme harm on somebody and therefore effectively destroying their autonomy, and taking a life? How do we distinguish between these actions? Is it a question of degree or is there a qualitative difference? I wish I understood these questions better for all those times when I was left feeling surprised to find myself still alive or unsure as to whether I could in any way still be considered living.
The desolation of this picture is too hard to swallow. It is, literally, unbearable. To see this picture for what it is, to see yourself for what you now are, is a crushing undertaking to have forced upon you. What it really requires is facing up, boldly, bravely, unsqueamishly to what has happened to you, to what has been done, deliberately, to you. There is no getting over something like this. There is only getting through it. If you are going to somehow rebuild a life on your own terms, if you are going to reemerge from the ashes, then you must acknowledge what rape has done to you, you must really see for yourself the consequences of the rapist’s actions and you must let yourself feel everything that comes with that. At first, you will think this is impossible. You will think if I allow myself to see and feel all this agonising sorrow, all this humiliating destruction, all this devastating loss I will be giving in to the rapist. I will be giving him what he wants. I will be admitting defeat. But it is not that simple. To face up to things is to take control and it is to deal in truth. Both of these things, while being perhaps some of the toughest, rawest and most confronting things you’ll ever do, will reveal to you all the unknown but undestroyed strengths that the rapist couldn’t touch. The things he left behind. He didn’t want your strength, he was only interested in your vulnerability, in what he could exploit. By accessing your strengths you begin the process of dismantling the structures the rapist leant upon and replacing them with foundations that serve you.
This is work that will never be complete. Trauma doesn’t have a lifespan. It is bigger than any one individual, bigger than any one act. Just as there can never be adequate compensation for all the damage that rape has done, for all the loss that it has inflicted, for all the grief that it has caused, the impacts of trauma will never disappear entirely. Your grief will never cease but it will not be all, anymore. This might seem like a hopeless situation. At first it is hard to see it as anything else. Certainly, it is an enormous responsibility. Dealing with trauma is very hard to do, it is exhausting and often tiresome work. However, if we do not undertake this work, we run the risk not only of diminishing our own lives, but also of passing on the impacts of trauma to those around us and to the next generation. Second-generation post-traumatic stress is very real. But when we see trauma for what it is, when we make space for it in our conceptions of our selves and in our lives and when, communally or as a society, we acknowledge it, we relieve some of the burden, some of the stress, and, most of all, some of the heart-breaking loneliness. Even more significantly, we also begin to clear the way for change, for improvement. When we can see trauma for what it is, and clearly identify how it is created, then we will begin to understand how we can stop it from being inflicted in the first place.