Saturday, October 29, 2011

Avoidance no more

If I had to sum up this past week in one word, I would choose "avoidance."
I have been avoiding everything from writing in meeting with my responding to emails and phone doing doing anything productive just about. I'm usually not a big T.V. person, but I seem to be spending all my free time in front of the T.V. these days. I feel like it is the only thing that gets my mind off of everything.

When I'm at school, my mind wonders in and out from the class lecture material to thinking back to college. I'm trying to develop a system for dealing with this because I really want to put this behind me, but I also want to finish school on a good note. It turns out that it was a really good thing that I spoke with my thesis advisor about going through personal issues because several professors had already contacted the director of my program about my decline in academic performance. I feel so withdrawn from school and the people around me because it feels like I am living 2 lives - the one in my head and the one I am physically part of. There's very little cohesion between the two these days. 

I think that's been the most difficult thing about revisiting the past. I should have dealt with this stuff years ago. When it happened. When the thoughts in my mind matched the world around me. Or at least that would have been ideal. 

I have to keep reminding myself that there was a reason why I didn't deal with what happened back then. No matter how annoyed or confused I am about my current emotional response, I have to remember that I am in a much better place now to be processing it. I keep forgetting that it was worse back then. Much worse. Sure, the setting, people, and circumstances (e.g., my age) back then "matched," or were at least related to, the thoughts and feelings I was experiencing, but I was that much more confused because of it. Perhaps I needed the distance of time and location that I have now. Now I have the comfort of not bumping into A.T. in my daily life. I also have access to much more support than I did at the time.

Sophomore year it felt like a rug had been completely snatched out from under me. Everything I knew - about others and about myself - was completely shaken in the matter of one night. And then, to top it off, the emotions I felt in response to having my world altered were attributed to chemical imbalances in my brain, not to what happened that night. I didn't know who to trust, what to trust. I couldn't even trust myself. 

I remember looking around the room during my semester off and thinking that I had never really paid attention to it before. Everything looked much different than I remembered. Nothing looked like it belonged to me. It sounds weird now, but I remember not even trusting the color of the sofa or sky. If someone had told me that my sofa were a different color, I would have taken their word for it. Even the sky's color. I felt that these thoughts were more evidence of my chemical imbalance. More proof that I needed to get medical treatment and push my emotions and thoughts regarding what happened with A.T. under a rug. So that's what I did. 

It was almost impossible at first, especially when I returned to college, but by the time I graduated I was pretty much a pro at blocking it out. On the outside everything looked great. I got a job immediately following college. I was in a steady relationship with my now husband. I completed my first marathon. My last semester grades were on par with my old self. For all intents and purposes, I was doing just fine.

I am realizing now how much I actually was affected by what happened. The most obvious effects are decreased self-esteem, inability to feel whole, and an almost lack of sense of self. I had experienced traumatic events prior to that night, so why did that night have such a huge impact on me? 

Why did it influence my life more than the other experiences?

After that one single night in college, I awoke a different person. I think that one night and its aftermath impacted me so much more because it directly impacted my sense of self. I had always valued my virginity, and strangely considered it a part of my identity. That's not to say, had I not been a virgin, that I wouldn't have been equally hurt and confused. 

When someone robs you, it's a violation of your belongings. When someone rapes you (using the "r-word" is new for me - I was so scared of it before, but the more I use it, the lighter I feel), it's more than a violation of body. It's a violation of the entire person. It permeates your ability to trust even yourself and your ability to rationalize. While I could rationalize my childhood experiences and process any associated hurt, I failed miserably at processing my college experience. In fact, nothing about the experience made sense to me. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't rationalize what happened in a way that allowed myself to process it and move on.

But what does it mean to "process something and move on"?

This is something with which I have been struggling a great deal recently. I am coming to realize that for me to process what happened, I have to let go of trying to hold onto my old self. And by that, I do not mean that I need to allow this one experience to define me. What I mean is that I have to accept the changes in me and recognize the ways that I am still the same person. 

When my rape occurred, I felt like a completely different person. A dirty person. A person not worthy of respect. A person to be used as a means to an end. A crazy person. An out-of-control person. Needless to say, I did not like this person. 

At the time, to hold onto my old self, I had to bury this new self. Keep her completely separate. As far away as I possibly could. I was always aware that she was there, but I tried to keep her at a distance. Sometimes I would recognize to other people that she was there, but usually as a joke. I even have a funny name for her that rhymes with my real name. But the meaning of this "alter ego" is much different for me than my joking with friends presents. I hope that I am doing an okay job explaining this because I do not actually have multiple personalities or anything. It's kind of difficult to explain, but I'll give it my best my shot.

My friends sometimes joke before we go out that they hope to see my alter ego. To them, she is the fun, party-hardy gal. They do not realize that she scares me. They do not realize that behind the smile on her face while dancing is a whole host of emotions that would be better represented by a tornado. 

They do not realize that I have associated her with a terrible time in my life. To me, she is everything that makes me nervous. She is the out-of-control me. She is the me that allowed herself to party so hard that she didn't know her body was being used. She is the me that is not worthy of respect. She is the me that is unstable. She is the me that is self-destructive. She is the me that went off the deep end. She is the me that I cannot rationalize. 

My friends do not perceive her this way. They have no idea of how going out and having a few drinks can stir a tornado of emotions in me that sometimes I can conceal, but frequently leaves me feeling depressed and/or crying. Or on the really bad occasions, yelling at my husband. When my inhibitions are lowered from drinking, so is my ability to keep myself away from the unprocessed emotions that my alter ego represents.

Over time, my alter ego has become less associated with that night itself. It's become more associated with the emotional side of that experience. A feeling that I am capable of losing control and going off the deep end if I do not stay aware. I am so scared of letting out my "crazy side" that I constantly dampen my emotions out of fear of letting the alter ego have a more prominent part of my life. 

As time has gone by, my fear of losing control has subsided a great deal. However, always there in the distance, throbbing and aching, has been my pain, unrecognized as related to the rape. To avoid thinking about it, or "going there"as I've always said, I have attributed the ache to other things around me, allowing it to leak out in small amounts when necessary. Allowing me to maintain a sense of emotional control. Truly acknowledging my rape has, in the words of my therapist, "flipped off the lid of my emotions."

My hope is that by not running from them, I will be able to accept the new me. By learning more about the effects of rape on victims, I am already becoming more understanding of my emotions. With understanding comes validation. And with validation comes acceptance. 

It's much easier to talk about low self-esteem as the product of a low grade or an argument with a family member than it is to talk about rape. However, in talking what happened, I hope to free myself of the underlying ache that is always present in the distance. I'm not saying that I expect it to completely dissolve - although that would be amazing :) - but I do hope that it will allow me to assign blame where deserved. To free myself of negative, unwarranted intrusive thoughts about myself. And to develop a better relationship with myself. 

Perhaps the loss of emotional control that I am currently experiencing is a necessary and temporary stepping stone in regaining control of my life. Perhaps by no longer denying the feelings that relate to my rape and its aftermath, I will free myself of my alter ego - my "crazy side" - because I will learn a healthier way to process these emotions. Perhaps I will no longer need to dampen my emotions out of fear of losing control. For the first time in a while, I hope to live in the moment. Feel feelings as they arise, not deny them, and thus allow myself to release them healthily. I hope to rid myself of the need to have a rug for sweeping away emotions. I have learned that in doing so, unwanted emotions never leave. Perhaps once I process that night, I will learn that I am more like my old self than I realize.


  1. I think we all want to get back to the person we was before everything changed. Often while going through this healing process we simultaneously fear, long for, admire, and despise who we were. We fear that version of us because of the vulnerability that's attributed to it, but we also long for it because we were so carefree and innocent in an emotional sense. We despise who we were for the seemingly juvenile mistakes that might have led to us getting hurt, but we admire the ability we had to live in the moment.

    I think what you are getting at in your article is true. Healing is about simultaneously letting go of the pain of who we were and what happened while remaining attached to the goodness. The initial survival method is to separate the pain and the goodness in order to protect our emotions, but once we begin to heal we realize although our pain doesn't define us, it's a part of us. Thus, a separation of who we were and who we are is no longer needed, but instead a sensible reintegration is.

    I'm glad you're facing this pain and looking the demon in the eyes and telling him that he's no longer in control. (((hugs)))

  2. Thanks so much for the support, Jaime. As always, you do such a nice job rephrasing my jumbled thoughts into succinct, easy-to-follow paragraphs :-) I noticed that your last name changed - any particular reason? Just curious, but understand if it's personal.

  3. My dad saw looked over my shoulder and saw that I was using our last name and he sort of got upset about it. He is being very protective and I understand where he's coming from. So I changed it to make him stop nagging, I mean feel that I'm safer.