So, here's the thing that I have learned this week: I am really uncomfortable accessing hard or painful emotional things, things which require me to be vulnerable, when I am feeling physically shitty.
And this is a good thing to learn. Because I actually haven't really gotten sick since the rapebrain got bad, and WHOA did the getting sick knock out my ability to deal. Like, I have been crying A LOT. And I have a lot of health problems, one of them being the propensity to get chest infections, which makes me feel out of control, and when I am already struggling with control issues about my body, this means everything feels extra super painful. I feel like one giant nerve. And this post may make me cry, but that is ok, because we are just going there today.
I have been talking to various folks about various things about rape, and I was really struck by how rape interacts with the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, or about how we expect those stories to go. And rape pretty much destroys the story you tell yourself about yourself. And then because your process of dealing rape never seems to track the narrative you think it should, then you think you were not raped, or you are somehow healing "wrong." So today, Readers, we are going to talk about narratives.
I was actually first raped at 19. I almost never talk about it; I've never mentioned it here before. And part of this is I did this weird rapid-eye-movement-therapy-something-or-other, and I have a hard time accessing the memory. It's like in that Greek myth where to torture the dude, they give him a cup and make him really thirsty but whenever he tries to bend down to drink from the lake, the water recedes so he can never fill his cup. That's what the memory of the event feels like; when I go to access it, it always pulls just out of reach.
And that's ok? I guess. It's weird, and it's a little strange to me that I can't really access a piece of my brain, and my life, but such as it is. But that was ok with me for a long time, because not remembering it was fine. Because then it didn't disrupt the narrative I had about myself.
Which was: I am a strong, bad-ass, feminist woman who can take on the world. And who wants to admit a moment of complete powerlesness and violation? Not my kick-ass self. So letting that memory get fuzzy and fade seemed like an ok way to go. I could keep the narrative of me more intact, undisturbed; I still made sense to myself.
But recently someone asked me if I had ever reported the rape I am currently working through that has triggered my rapebrain (and my therapist now has mentioned I might be suffering from a sort of accumulated rapebrain, from never dealing properly with the first instance). He asked whether the police were ever notified, I'd ever pressed charges. And I went, "What?" And then I gave a bunch of bullshit reasons why I hadn't. Like, the criminal justice system is really terrible to raped ladies, andI had been in a long-term relationship with this dude, and we'd had plenty of consensual sex, and I knew that could be brought up against me, and he was on fucking probation from charges relating to his drug abuse and I'd been in love with him for a decade and didn't have the heart to turn him in and jail was really not going to help him, since it hadn't yet (this, at the time, was really a reason I never reported. It pisses me off the most now).
But those are after-the-fact reasons, mostly, except for the fleeting thought that I just couldn't put the dude back in jail, because he was clearly very ill, and that wouldn't help him (it's true - it wouldn't have. Whether it would have helped ME is not something I even asked at the time). But here's the biggest reason I never considered reporting: I never, ever called it rape at the time.
I recognized there was an assault. A violation. I recognized that I had been extremely scared and disturbed and felt like I had been really severely damaged in some way. But to call it rape? No way. I didn't call it rape until a friend, sitting across from me at my dining room table last November, two and a half years later, told me I had to call it rape, because that was what it was.
I couldn't handle what admitting I was raped would do to the narrative I was constructing about myself. Which was: that I was stronger than ever before. I was braver. I spoke out more, I was gaining confidence, I could handle my shit. I was an unabashed feminist and I would never let a dude abuse me. And since that was my running story about myself, I couldn't allow that I'd been raped. That would have destroyed everything I believed about myself.
There were several things that went through my head the morning after I was raped (so far as I can remember; shit is reeeaaally fuzzy in my head). The first one was: That wasn't rape. The second was: It can't have been rape, I've already been raped (based on the premise the universe can just not be that evil, and no one should have to handle that much. That premise is, sadly, crap). And the third one was: I would never have allowed that to happen, and thus it was not rape.
And then I went about promptly forgetting not just all about the incident, but that my rapist had ever existed. My brain managed an impressive amount Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind type shit, considering I had been in love with the dude for a decade. I forgot everything about my rapist. I cut him completely out. I would remember parties, events, anything, where he would have been there, without him there; the memory remained intact, but he was just erased. I never thought of him. I never spoke of him. Only when a year later he emailed me to apologize for the assault, as that was the step he was at in his latest attempt at a 12 step program, did I remember something had gone very wrong with him. And then only when I got mad, and was like, fuck you dude, I am not accepting your apology, did I start admitting to others that something had happened, and he had beat me. But I did not say rape.
I could manage to tell the story about being hit by my drug-addicted former lover. But being raped? No way. I was the awesome strong kick-ass lady who would have cut his dick off before I let him hurt me like that. I was bad-ass like that. So my brain kept up its willful forgetting of the rape part of that night.
Once I was harassed and assaulted in South Africa last summer, though, and started having panic attacks, and massive anxiety, and flashbacks, and nightmares every night, that's when I thought: ok. There is something wrong with the story I have been telling myself about myself. There is something missing here. There is a hole, a gap, a huge bleeding wound that I must have gotten somewhere, but cannot explain. It's like when you get giant bruises on your thigh and you're like, where the fuck did that come from? I must have hurt myself, but I can't remember when.
But I started to recall more details from that night, more of what had really happened. I was able to fill in the lost pieces, slowly. And then once someone called it rape, my entire narrative about myself fell apart. It is taking a really long time, still, to figure out how to tell the story of myself and include the rape. I don't know how to work it in there. And now that is has thrown out my entire basic premise, seemingly (it hasn't really. I can be kick-ass and STILL be raped, but it feels like it does) I don't know where the story is going to go. I don't know what chapter is coming next. It makes it hard to move forward in life, in a lot of ways, if you cannot move the narrative of yourself forward because the plot has just run headfirst into a brick wall.
So, there's the first hurdle. How to comprehend your rape when it seems to run totally contrary and completely undermines your own creation story you tell about yourself. And here's the second hurdle when it comes to narratives: you never fit the acceptable narrative of How a Lady Deals with Rape.
I don't have the faintest idea where narrative comes from. Law & Order episodes? Movies? I don't know. But, when a lady is raped, she is supposed to feel ashamed and dirty and fall apart right afterward and then have to go through therapy and then she slowly gets better, but always has a tortured experience with sex and trust. But in this story, the lady identifies that what has happened to her is rape. She has immediate repercussions from it. She won't let people touch her from that point on for a long time.
And that's just not the only experience with rape (I think that narrative is predicated on stranger rapes, which is what society likes to think of as "real" rape, but is not prevalent, as most of us are not raped by strangers in dark alleys who jump out at us, so that narrative then serves to perpetuate that the only acceptable, real rape is stranger rape). Most women I speak to - they are rarely able to call the rape what it is at the time. They can't even wrap their minds around that word. And then maybe it doesn't hit them hard for a while. Or they actually get angry instead of self-hating. Or whatever. But there is this sense that if you did not have the acceptable narrative about what happens when a lady is raped, you weren't raped. Or you are healing "wrong." Or, and this was my my thing, you have no "right" to fall apart and be a mess years later. Because you should be over it now, and you are just being ridiculous, dealing with this shit now.
There's your second hurdle. It is fighting the narrative of what rape is (not strangers in dark alleys), and how it's supposed to go, for you as a rape victim. The thing is, rape is pretty much incomprehensible. There is no way to just DEAL with it. You have to heal, and you heal in fits and starts, and new, strange emotions and places where you have been cut but thought were scabbed over will start to bleed suddenly, and it will flood you at strange times, and this is stretched over weeks, and months, and years. It is a process. And there is always a scar.
But it just never feels like it is valid, if it doesn't match the predominant narrative. I was able to have sex after I was raped as if nothing had happened. I didn't lose sleep. I wasn't disturbed. I put the entire thing into a box in my head very neatly and pretended it wasn't there, until I couldn't anymore. It actually took a friend saying that she, too, was only hit hard years later by her rape, to feel like there wasn't something wrong with me, that it was ok for me to be falling apart, that I was allowed my emotions.
And the thing is, I guess that's part of the reason I started talking about my rape. We need to make room for all the stories. We need to change the narratives. We need to show that we can continue to write the stories of our lives after the rape. And that none of the stories we were telling ourselves were fantasies; rape doesn't change who we are, at the heart of us. The story I tell myself about myself has gotten harder, yes. But I need to learn to tell that story, the story of the kick-ass, take-no-prisoners, force-of-nature, untamable lady that was, also, raped. Because I am that kick-ass lady. And I intend for the story that I will write, the one that I am beginning to write now, to be extraordinary.