Trigger & content warning // effects of trauma, sexual assault.
The months since my assault have been difficult but I think that’s to be expected. They are also a bit of a blur. I am sure this is something so many others can relate to. I think my idea of the world crumbled to pieces around me. I never thought I would be one of the 85,000 women that get raped each year.
Suddenly everything around me had changed. Rooms full of men felt dangerous. I would just start randomly crying. Going to the gym was scary. I started crying in my workouts - that never happened before. People kept asking me if I was okay. I told them I was, but deep down I knew I wasn’t. I wouldn’t put makeup on because I was worried I would cry again and it would just come off. There were days when I felt physically sick at certain memories. I had panic attacks and became hyper vigilant walking around, especially at night.
I think for a long time I was, and to some extent still am, grappling with the fact that the world as I saw it changed. I used to take risks just because I could and now I think twice about my safety. I was angry that I had to deal with all these thoughts and some of my closest friends could continue living life with a more free-spirited approach. People kept telling me to be patient with myself, which was hard to hear when I know I’m quite an impatient person, especially when it comes to myself. It made me so angry that I had no control over the recovery process. My brain had to process the trauma at its own pace. I just wanted to feel “normal” again. I felt like a different person. I didn’t recognise myself and at times really hated the person I felt I had become.
The sadness came later. It was mixed with anger and I think sometimes the anger was easier for me to process than the sadness. I felt at times physically in pain. For me, it was hopelessness and a lack of trust in humanity. A sadness that I was sad, but not being able to feel better, but desperately trying to. There were days when I would cry for 6 hours because a family member sent me a text asking me what was new in my life. I would leave things with friends early because I was just so drained emotionally and just needed my own space.
So, what’s helped me muddle through?
Initially, I found writing down my emotions really therapeutic. I have notes pages filled with how I felt. That helped - not always but sometimes. Talking to people I trusted also helped but sometimes they weren’t around, or it was too personal so that’s where writing helped. I was also lucky that I was already seeing a psychotherapist and could talk to him about everything too. I could only recommend this. For me it was, and is, particularly useful when he helps me understand why I am feeling the way I feel by explaining the workings of the brain to me. Subsequently, he helps me handle my emotions.
At first, I was terrified to go to the shops or the gym or into a room full of people. The key for me to not let fear determine my life, was baby steps. Slowly but surely, I felt like I could do these things again by proving to myself that it was safe and that I was capable of doing this. Making a good playlist to make you feel strong and empowered again really helped me on this front too; if you're looking for a playlist that's already been created, you can find mine by clicking here.
It irritates me to say this, but time helps. I still have days where I struggle but things are better than they were. Be patient with yourself. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Remember, your brain is processing an experience when it thought it was going to die. Not an average day’s work for your brain.
Feel your emotions. I tried my best to not ignore them or put them in a box because I was desperate for this experience not to affect me in life later down the line so I figured I would rather deal with it all now. If you want to cry: cry. Let it all out. Sit with it. But on the flip side I tried not to wallow and the line for this is different for everyone. Do not let anyone tell you how long it should take for you to recover or feel better or how to do it - that is completely up to you.
I have found the process of recovery a little bit like the grieving process. There’s the initial shock and denial followed by anger, depression and finally acceptance. And the emotions come in waves and can come together. There are days when I felt fine and others which I have found and still do find difficult. As I tried to move out of the depressive stage, I tried to find things to keep me busy. I found a summer job and started going to the gym again. I tried to see my friends as much as I could whilst I was at university to keep myself busy and away from my thoughts. I surrounded myself with those who loved me most. But equally I started (and this was new to me) to set boundaries in terms of my social life. I had times when I just needed to be on my own to sit, watch Netflix and eat chocolate.
Whilst having a great support system I have still found the process lonely and isolating at times. No one else was in my head and feeling my emotions or in the room with me at the time when I got assaulted. And that made me feel isolated as much as my friends tried to help and understand. Whilst it can feel like this sometimes, try to remember that you are not alone as whilst people cannot always understand the full extent of what happened to you, most women have sadly experienced some form of assault and for me there’s a strange sense of warmth to the solidarity that comes with that.
Lastly, there is the acceptance stage of recovery and I am sure this will be different for everyone. Accepting the experience can be so difficult, because it was unfair, and you did nothing to deserve it. It’s not karma as I originally convinced myself it might be. I think I have found this really difficult and there are days when I try to spin it into something positive and remind myself of the resilience and strength I have. The recovery process has also taught me so much about myself. But on the other hand, I have days where I feel really angry that I have to deal with all the subsequent emotions of having been sexually assaulted. I am still not entirely sure what the answer is. But in general, the intensity of the emotions have faded over time and the bad days become less frequent.
I'm aware that this post has been a bit of a “here’s my story” kind of post and I hope to delve into specific recovery themes further in other posts in a more generic and less personal sense. But I thought that a more personal story of the realities of day-to-day recovery would work well alongside the sister post on the BBC docuseries.
This article was intended as part of a series of blog posts in collaboration with our GINA volunteers on the themes of the BBC docuseries ‘I May Destroy You’ around survivorship and sexual assault, and whether these themes can be seen in our realities.