Survivor’s Guilt

 

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I think about her every so often.

I’ll be sitting on the bus heading to an appointment across town, or at home, chopping veggies for dinner, and suddenly, there she is—or, at least, a reasonable facsimile. We’ve never met, so I have no clue what she really looks like, how old she is, where she lives, what kind of car she drives, if any, or what she does for a living, but I have no doubt she’s out there somewhere.

Sometimes, I wonder if she wonders about me, too.

If so, does she blame me, because I didn’t protect her?

Barely seventeen years old and struggling to survive my own trauma, I wasn’t strong enough to save anyone else, but even so, after more than two decades (twenty-three years to be precise), it still haunts me at times, the idea that she exists, the knowing-in-my-bones of it, and the guilt, the shame, because I let it happen, not only to me, but to her, and any others who followed and suffered through my silence…

I let my rapist walk away scot-free.

Free to do it again.

I refused to report the rape to the police. Didn’t tell my mom. Instead, I just tried to put it behind me, move on, forget about it. It was 1993, after all, and the term “date rape” was not in widespread use. Most people still tended to believe that a rape between people who knew one another was basically a misunderstanding, not “real” rape, which was assumed to be committed by a stranger, and since my rapist was known to me, intimately, the very notion of filing a report and potentially testifying against him, a former lover, in a courtroom stuffed with stern, judgy people made me want to die.

I couldn’t.

It took years before I was able to own what happened to me.

Rape.

I couldn’t possibly have said it aloud in front of a judge and jury, God, my mother, and anybody else who happened to be present—the word and the whole ugly story and everything that came before—only to be disbelieved or, even worse, blamed. No way. I didn’t have that kind of courage or conviction.

Although contemporary statistics have proven beyond all doubt that the perpetrator is known to the victim in a vast majority of rape and sexual assault cases, we still inhabit a world where only a Perfect Victim is entitled to justice, and even then, doesn’t always get it. If I had told someone way back when, filed a report and testified, the boy who raped me might have gotten away with it anyhow. It’s probable.

We had a history and I was an imperfect victim.

Still, I feel guilty about her sometimes. I don’t know her name, but I know her pain, as sure as I know my own. Did she survive? Does she feel guilty as well, knowing, as I do, there must be others like us? I mean, if a boy rapes a girl and gets away with it, who does he grow to become, in all likelihood?

A man who rapes women.

According to Google, survivor’s guilt occurs when a person perceives themselves to have done wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not. Most often associated with accidents or natural disasters, I think it also applies in certain circumstances to victims of unreported rape who, in addition to the weight of their own pain, carry the added burden of responsibility toward potential future victims.

How ridiculous is that?!

A rapist walks free and we, the raped, hold ourselves accountable for future rapes by this rapist??? No.

No, no, no, no, no!

A rapist is the only one responsible for rape.

The boy who raped me is the only human being on this entire planet accountable for his actions.

But even so, every now and again, I think of her. I’ll be walking through the woods on a golden afternoon, or in the office, putting sentences together for an essay, and suddenly, there she is…

Trigger Season

fall leaves

Still awake at 2:43 a.m.

Third night in a row.

I could easily stay up all night until dawn, but I have to try and get a little rest, at least, so I can be the mom that I need to be for my children tomorrow. When I do finally fall asleep, it is restless and disturbed, full of half-lucid dreams and recurring nightmares. I get up several times to check the lock on the windows, the front and back door, as well as the porch light, and before I can go back to bed, I have to make sure that the curtains are drawn, the kids are okay, and the phone is within arms’ reach. It is a task.

A cool draught blows through the room.

I am reminded that summer is nearly over and start to cry in the dark.

I wake up on the wrong side of the bed. On the wrong side of myself. I feel ugly, exhausted, out of sorts, on the outside of everything. I bumble through my morning routine in a fog. Easily exasperated, far too impatient, I sigh and mumble under my breath as I rush the kids to get ready for daycare, my words stumbling over themselves in an effort to appear normal, whatever the hell that is. It is bad enough that I had to leave the sanctuary of my bedroom today at all, really, but is it truly necessary for me to be normal, too?

If so, I think, epic fail.

I smile harder, because I do not know what else to do, and keep going.

I take my meds. Remind myself that a bad day is just a bad day and not the end of the world. Keep going. Keep going, yes, but with a belly full of fanged butterflies determined to escape. Usually, the medication settles the rush of wings, but today—these days—it barely takes the edge off. On the balcony, catching the last rays of the summer sunshine, I try to figure out why.

Then it occurs to me. Fall is on the way.

It’s in the air, at night, I can smell it. Trigger season.

After a number of incidences in my childhood involving various forms of sexual abuse, I was raped at the age of seventeen, in autumn, by a boy I had previously dated. Every year since then, without fail, as soon as the first leaves begin to fall, the first chill touches my nose, the first hint of pumpkin spice arrives, I start to feel it, all of it, again, in my throat, my chest, my breasts, my guts… all over. Anxiety, panic, fear, depression, sorrow, angst, a sense of impending disaster, an urge to run, hide, avoid, disappear.

One by one, they arrive, like uninvited guests to the worst party ever.

And I’m the unwilling host, shackled to the floor and gagged, unable to get rid of them.

Oh, they will leave when they are ready, I know. By December, the dreaded gang will have gone, for the most part, leaving only a few stragglers behind—nothing I cannot manage with help from the Christmas Spirit—but for now, oh, for now, as my PTSD symptoms start to slowly worsen day by day, I find myself holding my breath, waiting.

Maybe it won’t be as bad this year, I tell myself noncommittally.

Guess we’ll see, I reply.

Since opening up about my experiences and sharing my own story, I have come to know countless other survivors, many of whom also experience a Trigger Season, a particular time of year, associated in the recesses of the mind with a past traumatic event (or events), which leaves them feeling unusually vulnerable and susceptible to flashbacks and triggers. For some, it is the high heat of summer. Others may find discomfort during the colder days of winter.

I feel paper thin from late-August through to late-November.

If you know someone who suffers from PTSD, please be aware that certain times of the year may be more challenging than others, and while we may not be able to express what we need, you can still ask. Understand, we may be utilising every ounce of available energy just to get through a day. We do not mean to be short, snippy, cranky, or rude, so if it happens, we probably feel worse about it than you do. Forgive easily. Since we are used to feeling less than and not enough, remind us to be gentle with ourselves, and be gentle with us. Show your love and support by checking in.

PTSD can be very isolating and lonely, and it helps to know that, even on the days when we do not want to face the world, we are not alone and we are loved.