One of the most insidious impacts of violence is the toll it exacts on your relationships, on your ability to connect to other people, to feel, to trust, to communicate, to believe in them and in yourself, to believe in the possibility of connection, to believe that you can have ‘normal’ relationships, ever again.
By relationships, I don’t just mean intimate, romantic or sexual relationships, although they’re part of it. I mean all relationships – from fleeting connections to committed, longterm ones, from family to friends to the workplace to just everyday interactions, relationships will never be something I take for granted anymore.
I’ve written before about the loneliness of being a victim and a survivor, and the isolation. But it’s not just that. Feeling severed from life, feeling disconnected and even exiled – cut off from what was mine, detached from what is ‘normal’ and the world around me, cleaved from all that I expected from life, these feelings persist. I continue to grieve for what the rapist stole from me, I continue to feel the loss, like a phantom limb amputated, ever-present and ever-absent simultaneously, of the life I had been planning when rape so brutally intervened and put an end to that set of expectations.
But, I have also, to a point, come to terms with my grief and my ‘lost’ life, despite the ache its presence-absence can still cause. But, what I struggle with is that along with my ‘lost’ life goes a ‘lost’ me. The person that I was (before the rape), is not the person that I am now (after the rape). My phantom limb is, in fact, a phantom me – a me that was only too real and active and known just a few years ago, but a me that I often cannot fathom anymore, a me I can’t quite believe in, a me that cannot be restored.
Trauma changes you, which is hardly surprising, but which can be hard to communicate to those who love you. Those who love you, more than anything, want to see you restored – they want you to ‘get over’ it, to ‘move on with your life’, to not ‘let this dictate’ the rest of your life. What they don’t understand is that none of these things are in my control. They are not simply decisions I can make. No matter how hard I try, or how much I wish it were so, I cannot just wish away the impacts of sexual assault.
I am not the person I was and I will not ever be the person I was in the process of becoming. This single event has radically intervened and rewritten so much of who I am and who I will be and, at the same time, determined an entirely different set of expectations for me. My understandings of trust and faith, of hope and confidence, of fear and danger, of what is possible and not possible have been completely reshaped by what happened to me. I will never see strangers the same way I did, I will never approach the unknown the same way I did, I will never conceive of the future the same way I did. The changes violence has forced upon me are incalculable, they are nuanced and profound, extending to every part of myself and my life, my world and my relationships. A labyrinthine network of effects and consequences that extends way beyond me and even those connected to me, but also right to the core of me: the change sexual assault has enacted upon me is not just a difference of degree, but a difference in kind.
Again, what is hardest is not how I feel about that change – now, nearly three years on I have found a way, haphazard and galling as it may be much of the time, to accept it – but what it does to my ability to connect to people. To the family and friends who have stayed by my side, how do I continue a relationship that allows them to let go of who they knew and to make sense of who I am now? When still so much of my life revolves around negotiating the impacts of sexual assault, of coping with the ongoing trauma of protracted legal proceedings, of simply keeping myself safe and well – something that takes far more effort and energy than it used to? My life is, in so many ways, boring, repetitive and even, at times, bleak. Socialising is often hard. My energy is limited and often does not extend beyond everyday activities.
I struggle to believe I have anything to offer my friends other than this bleak version of me. I struggle to remember who I was and I am afraid I cannot live up to the expectations of those who knew me before. I struggle to connect to people in good faith and to trust and I know this is because of what happened to me and not what is happening now, but how to overcome the solid barricade this presents? I struggle to hold onto confidence in myself or others, I cannot take safety for granted, and how to construct or maintain a relationship on such faltering foundations? I struggle to find the energy, on so many days, to even consider a way through or around the difficulties sexual assault has created for me when it comes to connecting with others and so, instead, I settle for the relative comfort of solitude and isolation.
I know this is hollow comfort. It doesn’t take long for solitude to become loneliness, for isolation to go from feeling safe to desolate. But I also know that the voice inside of me, the one that sexual assault created in me, will not go quietly. The voice of fear, of mistrust. It is part of me now, another ghost that has to be incorporated into this evermore fractured person I have become, another voice that cannot be silenced no matter how inconvenient or unpleasant its message. When its so hard for me to negotiate and manage these fractured realities, how can I ask it of anyone else?