Every time I am let down by someone, it matters little how big or small the let down is, it sets something off. Disappointments are the after-shocks from the earthquake that sexual assault was in my life. Sexual assault split the earth open, tore the ground from beneath my feet and left me terrified. Disappointments are the habitual reminders of that terror.
What is most devastating about sexual assault is the abuse of trust. I trusted that taxi driver to take me home safely. I trusted other human beings to respect my right to bodily integrity and sexual autonomy. I trusted men to respect me as a woman and to respect me as a person. He did not. He abused my trust. He took advantage of my unsuspecting expectations to assault me.
Now, any disappointment of my expectations, any hurtful or dismissive remark or action, any unreliable behaviour, has the capacity to send me into panic mode. Is this is a warning? Is this a sign I was wrong to trust? Are they about to escalate into cruelty? Is it about to happen again?
Even minor disappointments can be crushing in their capacity to call up my doubt in myself and my instincts to protect myself and my doubt in others and their good will and basic humanity. When someone’s actions cause harm to me, or to others, create shock or doubt or are unreliable, it takes every effort for me to not spin straight out of control and into a fear-stricken, hyper-vigilant attack-or-be-attacked mode.
Sexual assault has called into question my very capacity to know safety, to know when to be concerned and when to be reassured. How can I tell when another’s actions are dangerous, when the man who was most dangerous of all, never forewarned me? There were no flashing lights, or ringing bells. There were no warning signs. There was no chance to prepare a response, or a plan, or an escape. One minute it was a taxi ride like any other until, all of a sudden, it was not.
It’s the abuse of trust that is so hard to heal. It’s the wound that continues to weep, that continues to hobble me. Two years on and the shock waves of rape are beginning to be felt less powerfully. Sometimes I barely notice them and, mostly, I’m very good at covering them up. But then, all of a sudden, someone will behave unpredictably and I will be hurt and, as a result, I will find myself floored by a violent resurgence of grief and terror and trauma. That tidal wave of emotion will sweep in and wash away, once more, my tenuous attempts at structure and order and, somehow, I will have to find a way to once more construct faith in myself, in others and, in the world around me.
Rebuilding a life, restoring trust, resurrecting confidence are monumental tasks – they are exhausting, frustrating and tenuous undertakings, readily undermined, frequently challenged and never assured. They are intensely personal and intimate acts and yet, necessarily, social and public. You cannot do them alone and yet, you can only do it yourself. Without the understanding, compassion and support of others it cannot be done, but only your bravery, resilience and persistence will achieve them. This is what it means to survive rape – this is the cost and the achievement of survival, the despair and the hope.