After the assault, I took a month’s annual leave. Ostensibly this was time to ‘recover’, to rest and recuperate. A necessary break from the stress and demands of ordinary life in order to focus my energy on surviving what had been done to me. However, between medical treatments, counselling sessions and the demands of the police reporting and investigative process, there turned out to be very little time for rest. Despite this, once my month was up, I was grimly, unwaveringly determined to return to my job. It was not just a matter of returning to routine and the earning of an income. It was about resuming my place in the world. It was about reclaiming my life and the expectations I had held for what my life would be. It was about asserting, to the world but mostly to myself, that I would not be destroyed by this man and his actions.
It wasn’t that simple, however. The force field within which the trauma held me prevented me from even the most basic tasks. I simply couldn’t concentrate. The more I tried to stop thinking about what had happened, the more aggressively flashbacks would assert themselves. The more I tried to focus on my job, the more uncontrollably my stress levels would rise and that panicky feeling of danger would override any hope of work. I desperately wanted a return to normality, to slip back unnoticed into all that had previously been mine but I could no longer even believe in the ‘normality’ I was seeking. The foundations that held up that life no longer seemed to even exist to my mind. The life that I had held seemed to float in some magical, fairyland now that I could see the world as it really was. There was simply no way I could walk back into that unnatural normality and resume my rightful place – I would just fall right out the bottom only to sink into the murky quagmire where the rapist had left me.
No matter how valiantly I tried, I was left to face a devastating decision: to recover from rape I would have to quit my job. What my job required of me was simply not something I could give. I did not have those resources, those skills for hire. It felt like a defeat, a crushing confirmation of the rapist’s assessment of my non-worth. But it also felt like a relief, a release from a set of expectations I could simply no longer support. However, in unharnessing myself from one set of obligations, I knew I had committed myself to a far more exigent set of demands, to a work that has been the most relentless, consuming, exhausting work that I have ever undertaken.
Although I am saying ‘the work of recovery’, it is only because it is the most straightforward and comprehensible way to explain what I have been doing for the past year. I am very hesitant to use the word recovery because of all it implies: that one day I will ‘get over’ the assault, the wounds will heal and my pre-assault existence will resume, as if nothing had happened. I do not believe this and I do not want to suggest this. While I believe in healing, and therefore ‘recovery’, to an extent, it is not a matter of erasure, of forgetting, of restoring. It is rather, about learning to live with the disfigurements that the trauma has inflicted, learning how to carry them without being disabled by them, how to make sense of them and work with them, not deny or dismiss them.
However, unlike most work, the work of recovery has no identifiable structure, no language, no clearly defined roles, expectations or systems that allow others to understand, no matter how vaguely, what it is that you ‘do’. As much as anything, work is how we identify ourselves, represent and explain ourselves to each other. How we create purpose, how we structure our lives and how we conceptualise ourselves and others. It is how we prove our worth, our value in a culture that sees work as an unquestionable virtue. Taking time off paid work, full-time career work, to work at recovery from assault, is effectively consigning oneself to invisibility. To prioritise this work over acknowledged work, no matter that to me it was not a choice but an imperative, meant accepting an even more marginal, discredited and misunderstood position than the rapist had originally consigned me to.
Despite this non-existence, the work of recovery is work. Not only is it incredibly challenging and specialised work, it is also highly valuable. Valuable to me, and valuable to the world of which I am a part. It is a beneficial and worthy employment of my time, energy and resources, even if it will never be recognised or understood, let alone compensated. Sexual assault costs all societies globally enormously. The damage done to individuals, to families, to communities and societies by rapists is colossal. The work of recovery is the only way I know how to alleviate, at least partially, the burden of damage that I now carry. It is this work that will enable me to return to being a productive and contributing member of human society, to form trusting and loving human relationships and to negotiate the minefield of this post-traumatic life. Without this work being achieved by victim/survivors everywhere, not only will we not regain the life that is rightly ours but, more importantly, we will not be able to create a world that is safe and just for all human beings.