Trauma and Post-Traumatic Growth
I am a rape survivor. I was 12 years old when I was first raped, an experience that shattered everything I thought I knew. Neither my parents nor I knew how to cope. I soon turned to alcohol and drugs, which gave me temporary relief for the pain I was in. I was an alcoholic from the minute I picked up my first drink, but my story today isn’t about my sexual assault or the substance abuse that followed. Instead, it’s about the life I found once I confronted that pain. Mental health professionals call it post-traumatic growth, and I am here to tell all those who have suffered sexual assault and other traumas that they too can claim it for themselves.
I spent ten years in addiction, culminating with a suicide attempt that put me in a psychiatric ward and, eventually, an addiction treatment facility. During my treatment, a former patient came to tell her story of how she was able to recover and move on with her life. I was amazed. Her story was exactly my story, yet here she was, a put-together, well-dressed woman with a professional career. If she could do it, I thought, I could do it. Then she said something that literally changed my life: “It was my secrets that kept me sick.”
It struck me that if I was going to live a different life, then I needed to dredge up all of those old secrets, those things that were keeping me sick. So, I started to write, which helped get my thoughts and feelings out of my head and on to paper so that I could examine them in the cool light of day. I also found a therapist who helped me confront my past. Going to 12-step meetings saved my life, but had I not coupled the meetings with one-on-one counseling to help me deal with the trauma I endured, I would have relapsed. For me, my trauma was a gaping wound, and all the drugs, alcohol and 12-step meetings were just temporary bandages.
I truly found my voice when I first spoke publicly about my story as a rape survivor at a Take Back the Night Rally at Penn State University. There was a freedom in speaking out which, ironically enough, felt addicting.
Once I shared my story, I didn’t want to stop, because sharing attracts other people who have had similar experiences, and you realize that you’re not alone. Instead of being a freak on the fringes of society, you’re part of a horrifically vast community of people who have gone through the exact same thing. It starts to normalize the experience to an extent. Sexual violence shouldn’t be normal, but it is. We’re just now starting to realize how normal it is for the average person in our country, which is disturbing.
Through the understanding, appreciation, support and camaraderie of that larger community of fellow survivors, I have been able to heal even more. Every time I share my story, a little piece of me is healed. But I also do it because it reminds me and others like me, that we’re not alone.
Sharing and hearing stories is one of the single best ways that people can grow and heal. Going to a lecture or a class learning all the technicalities of a topic is simply not the same as sitting with someone else, hearing the story from their perspective. Time and time again, storytelling has helped me grow and to move on in my life.
There are parts of being sexually violated that are never going to leave me. I’m more hyper vigilant than most people, especially at night. In a situation where there’s a level of intimacy, that intimacy will always be clouded by the assaults. Those are the realities of living with trauma that will never go away. But I also now have a better understanding of why I respond the way I do, and that helps me move through it in a healthy way.
Speaking in front of a large audience is not necessarily the path for everyone, but, I believe, connecting to the larger community of survivors is an essential part of healing. I see survivors at their strongest and most peaceful when they’re among other survivors. Being among people who speak a similar language and have similar truths is tremendously healing.
That’s why I’m so passionate about educating addiction treatment providers, rape crisis programs and therapists about the need to acknowledge trauma in every single aspect of what they do. They need to create specific safe spaces for survivors of sexual violence, because it’s different. There are lots of different levels of trauma that people experience in their lives, but sexual violence is in a category unto itself. There needs to be sacred, safe spaces for people who are dealing with sexual trauma on top of addiction.
For me, my most significant post traumatic growth process is my own self-awareness. I know who I am. I know why I respond certain ways. I have a very intimate relationship with my emotions, and I have to because it’s how I safeguard my sobriety. I’m not saying I’m perfect, because I’m a hot mess at times, like we all are. If I am washing dishes and my wife comes up behind me and grabs me unexpectedly and I clench, I understand why. Had I never gone through therapy, that clench could lead to anger, which could lead to an outburst, which could lead to a fight, which could lead to the end of a relationship. But, because I’ve worked to develop self-awareness, I recognize that my response stems from those past touches that were not appropriate. Then I can take a deep breath and know that this is all normal -- and it passes. I’m okay and she’s okay, and we’re okay. That, for me, is post-traumatic growth.
The beauty of my post-traumatic growth is I don’t walk around with secrets anymore. Nor do I walk around with regrets, because I’m aware enough now to know when I screw up, and I atone for it. When I am doing well, I acknowledge that for myself. In the areas where I still need to grow, I give myself the space and time to do that.
In post-traumatic growth, you’re never going to get back to being the same person completely. There’s going to be differences, because experiences change us, regardless. Good, bad, or indifferent -- it’s a whole new normal.
I am often asked what my life would be like today if I hadn’t been raped. To be honest, I am who I am because of what I’ve been through. I wouldn’t give back the strength and the tenacity and the personality traits that I have today because of the way I’ve worked through that experience. Nobody wants to be raped. It’s a horrific experience. But I can appreciate who I’ve become despite that rape. I’m not saying I wouldn’t still have the same tenacity and fortitude that I have now, because I was born this way. I came into this world very type A: Straight A student with perfect attendance. I was very driven. That was taken from me for a time by a traumatic experience, but my growth beyond that experience has given a lot of that back to me, tenfold.