Trauma is a Complicated Thing

My last post didn’t cover everything I wanted to say about this topic, and it was a bit all over the place. The thoughts were all very fresh and I was still working through them, and I was also kind of dissociating at the time. Which brings me to the points I wanted to make in this follow-up.

Trauma is messy. It is messy and ugly and it doesn’t make sense a lot of the time. It has been brought up a lot recently, because of the Jian Ghomeshi trial, that there is no such thing as a perfect survivor. This is because rape is a complicated thing, and so is trauma. My personal experience is an excellent example of this. My story is just one story; it does not at all describe the experiences of every survivor of sexual abuse and assault, it may not even describe a lot of them. But it describes mine, and it is an important example of the myriad ways that trauma is messy.

I spoke in my last piece about the fact that I finally came to the conclusion that I have experienced rape. But the fact is, this wasn’t an earth shattering moment for me. I did not feel like I had been severely traumatized by my rapes; during them, I did not feel particularly violated. None of my trauma responses had come from those instances, or had been created by that relationship. That’s why it took me so long to identify it as rape. I didn’t quite feel like, just from those moments, I had been raped. BUT. That doesn’t actually mean that it wasn’t rape. Where the trauma did come from was the entire rest of the relationship. The rapes in particular didn’t really seem to affect me because they were simply one symptom of an already broken, toxic relationship. The decay had seeped so deeply into my bones that doing something I was not interested in doing was just a minor annoyance that was part of the norm. Those moments were part of an entire context of feeling disrespected, dismissed, and less than. So they did not stick out to me as particularly traumatizing; they were simply reinforcing trauma responses I had already learned.

There were other instances in that relationship that left more of a traumatic memory for me; one moment when I had felt triggered and told my partner not to touch me and instead he lay there poking me over and over again as I cried silently, telling him to stop, stop, stop. In a relationship dynamic like that, continuing to do something sexual — that I had stopped wanting to do ten minutes previously — just to stop my partner from giving me the silent treatment seemed pretty mundane in comparison. Hence never really realising or feeling like I had been raped. When coercion and a lack of respect have become the norm, rape is almost an inevitable because one cannot truly give consent in an environment of coercion.

Where I did experience a LOT of trauma, and developed a lot of my coping methods and trauma responses, was from the relationship before. A relationship in which I never even got touched. I never even met him in person. This is where my major trauma lies, and all of my typical responses to trauma happened. My shame. My flashbacks and triggers. My self-destructive coping mechanisms. My dissociation. My shame is still so overwhelming I never even talk about this experience as a relationship. How could I have been so easily manipulated, let my entire life be controlled, by someone I didn’t even know face-to-face.

But the fact is undeniable; I was emotionally abused and sexually exploited to an extreme in this relationship, and I suffered severe trauma. I felt incredibly violated and degraded during that online relationship, and I was emotionally blackmailed into doing things I was intensely uncomfortable with or even disgusted by. I became disgusted with myself. For a long time afterwards, certain phrases or situations would trigger an extreme response; I would burst into tears, or almost throw up, and I would not want to be touched. I was told a lot of horrible things about myself, and I started to internalize them. When I ended the relationship, I resorted to self-sabotaging coping mechanisms as a way to attempt to work through my feelings and take back the control I had felt I lost.

So clearly, I experienced a great deal of abuse and developed trauma responses from the situation that seems, out of context, far less terrible than a rape. And my rapes simply reinforced my trauma of the relationship as a whole, rather than being particular instances of intense trauma in and of themselves. Trauma presents itself in unexpected ways, and events that may seem more traumatic to an outsider can sometimes feel less so than other moments in our lives. Survivors of sexual abuse and assault each experience their trauma in a different way, and each of us cope in our own ways.

Expecting every survivor to fit into your expectations is not only unfair and unrealistic, but dangerous too. In our legal system, the knowledge that trauma is a complicated thing is not given space for consideration. The expectation is that abuse survivors will all share very similar experiences and thus will act in a particular way. But this is not the truth of our realities. When the reality of survivors’ experiences are not accepted or acknowledged, justice cannot be served, and verdicts like that of the Jian Ghomeshi trial become commonplace. Even when a survivor’s experience contradicts everything you think you know about trauma and people’s responses to it, you must acknowledge that you cannot possibly know their truth. Only they do. Please, believe survivors.

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