It is intense times at Van Slam right now. We fully expected that once we broke the silence, a lot more people would come forward with their stories, and they are. We have proven that although silence is powerful, it is also breathtakingly fragile.
I think that more and more people are disclosing for a couple of reasons: firstly because although we are taught to be quiet around violence, we really don’t want to be alone with our pain, and we want help. And also, hearing about other peoples’ experiences of sexual assault gives us new understanding and access to our own experiences.
Put more simply, one person coming out of denial around something (“Nope, that wasn’t just bad sex, that was rape”) can give us the prompt and support to painfully reevaluate our past.
Three days after I learned what had happened to Jessica, I realised that an encounter I’d had with someone last summer had involved a sexual assault. I’d said No to him, twice, and he did what he wanted anyway. I was incredibly surprised at the time, promptly numbed out, went along with what was happening, and have been courteous to him ever since. Dealing what he did has been no picnic; all the anger and humiliation and plain old hurt has come banging on my door demanding recognition and integration.
This looks like lots of crying, like jumping at loud noises, like fumbling words and faltering sentences, like struggling at one of my jobs because last week a patients’ meds were changed and he was staring at my breasts and now I wear my baggiest hoodie when I go there and my acupuncture station is right by the wall heater and so I sweat and sweat the whole time.
This looks like post-traumatic stress disorder, and it’s a totally normal response to trauma. It is also exhausting, and confusing as hell, even though I know what to expect. In the interests of dissipating any potential confusion for other survivors, (and reminding myself to be really really nice to myself right now,) here are the 5 main symptoms as I understand them:
1) Recurrent, intrusive memories of trauma. (Note that sometimes we are left with only fragments. Note that one can spend hours unfolding the creased corners of memory, peering at a history traced on antique lace, brittle and yellow, shot through with holes.)
2) Periods of sleeplessness and/or distressing dreams. (Or, just, going to bed at midnight, waking before 6 am, and brightly reassuring yourself and others that you happen to be a “morning person” who’s also a night owl.)
3) Forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating, disassociation, startling easily. (Like leaping a mile in the air when your best friend taps your shoulder and you already knew she was there. Like literally physically flinching at sharp noises that might not have even registered a week ago. Like getting totally turned around trying to get to Third Beach for a nettlepicking mission, unable to recall the simplest of directions.)
4) Distress when exposed to reminders of traumatic events. (Like triggering your own damn self with your own damn poem in a tiebreaker at semifinals, like kinda losing your shit onstage while most folks in the audience probably think you’re all tense about wanting to make finals but actually you’re thinking “Oh fuck, I need to rework part of this poem because I see it in a totally new light right now” and trying desperately not to confuse your audience by bursting into angry tears. Thanks to JCP for your generous insights on this process.)
5) Outbursts of anger and irritability. (Like going from zero to utter fury in a white-hot instant at the victim-blaming starting to appear – right on schedule!! – in response to people speaking out.)
The good news? PTSD goes away. It needs gentleness and patience and acceptance. And then some more gentleness and patience and acceptance. And don’t try to deal with this alone. In the midst of all this necessary and long-overdue work, we need to be held.