An edited version of this article is published at The Sydney Morning Herald, however, this is the original and full-length version.
It’s late afternoon and I ride my bike; country roads, dirt roads, lonely places. Twenty kilometres turns into thirty, turns into forty-five. Lately I have been riding more than usual. At some point I realise it’s less about movement and more about escape. I don’t allow the thought to linger.
The September winds bluster, bitter and relentless. An old farmer once explained them as the Spring equinox winds. The blowing out of winter. The making way for summer. I should welcome them – their representation of longer days, more hopeful days. Instead, I resent the way they force themselves upon me, uninvited. I am angry at the way they won’t let up and my legs burn and my lungs burn and they do not stop and I cannot stop, either. Anger propels me. Hours pass. I’m still riding.
I recognise the anger, the familiar warmth and comfort of it. Triggers aren’t always immediate or apparent, but often harder to pinpoint. We find ourselves short-tempered, impatient. An edge in our voice. A shoulder angled away. Less outward engagement, more inward turn. An underlying simmer we feel inside our organs. It isn’t until we excavate beyond these outward expressions that we are able to unearth our truths within them.
This week I’ve been watching the Netflix series, Unbelievable. The show is based on the 2015 news article “An Unbelievable Story of Rape” about the story of an 18-year-old woman who reported a rape but was later accused of false reporting while her rapist continued to carry out horrific crimes for a further two years before being eventually caught by two female detectives in Colorado.
The series is fearless in its willingness to explore trauma. There is much to respect and admire in both the writing of the show and its execution. For me, as I have watched, I have been most drawn to its portrayal of the varied responses to trauma which women experience – more so, the assurance that they need not apologise for the ways in which they have responded to, and processed, their trauma.
I think of this as I ride uphill. Take mouthfuls of air into my lungs. Push. Punish. Push harder. In episode five of Unbelievable there is a scene where Amber, a victim of the serial rapist, stands outside the church service she has just attended with detective Karen Duvell and says,
“I bought a gun. I give my dad hell about hunting wild turkeys, and here I am at a shooting range. I met a guy there. Two, actually. I have no idea why I slept with either one of them. I didn’t plan on it. I just… if Eric found out. If anyone found out – my friends, may family. Sorry, um, you came here to worship, not to hear how crazy I’ve turned.”
Duvell replies to this, “You don’t sound crazy to me. You sound like someone who’s been through a trauma and is looking for a way to feel safe again and in control. And there is nothing crazy about that.”
I found myself simultaneously gripped and undone by this scene. I cannot stop thinking about it; as I work, shower, grocery shop, make dinner. It is with me again as I ride – try to outride – the anger it dredges from my most unseen places.
Rape Trauma Syndrome is the psychological trauma experienced by a rape victim that includes disruptions to normal physical, emotional, cognitive, and interpersonal behaviour. It is a cluster of psychological and physical signs, symptoms and reactions common to most rape victims immediately following a rape, but which can also occur for months or years afterwards.
There is no typical or expected way to process rape or sexual trauma, as we are shown in Unbelievable. Some victims outwardly express the trauma through agitation or anxiety, others are more controlled and appear to be without emotion, while others again go into shock and feel confused, disoriented and unable to concentrate.
Likewise, sexual relationships become disrupted and while most would expect victims to shy away from sexual interaction after rape, many survivors lean toward the other extreme and become hyper-sexual or promiscuous as a way to feel in control of their lives and regain autonomy over their own bodies.
In an article on how childhood sexual abuse can lead to promiscuity, Tia Hollowood writes, “Sex became an escape on several levels. It was a dopamine-, serotonin-, endorphin-loaded experience. I did not have to be emotionally attached. I could have the satisfaction of being found attractive, wanted, and worthwhile, while still escaping any controlling relationship or the possibility of abandonment. As a final defence, my reckless encounters could trigger dissociation, which remained my ultimate escape for many years.”
There was a point in my life, some years after I had stopped being raped by my stepfather, when life spun out of control. It was during this time I plummeted into self-destructive behaviours, yet also during this time I was regularly involved with a church. There is no amalgamation of these two things; you cannot both fornicate and worship on the same day, at least, not without some measure of compartmentalisation, which as it turns out, was a skill I was quite adept at.
However, there is always the shame; man-made or church-made or God-made, tangled around the compartments of your psyche like a barbed-wire fence; the harder you try and remove yourself, the more it pierces your flesh. Eventually the shame drove deeper than I could continue to carry. I sought help; a broken woman in need of compassion and grace and permission to be human. Instead, told I carried the lust of my stepfather inside of me. I was not cared for, but prayed for; advised to repent of my sins that I would be forgiven and washed clean and made acceptable before God.
There’s a quote that occasionally surfaces on my social media pages which says, “I sat with my anger long enough, until she told me her real name was grief.” (unknown) I ride until my body is spent; until there is nothing left for me to give anymore, until there is nothing left for me to outride anymore, until there is nothing left but surrender, then pull over on the side of the road, and weep.
I realise it is grief, this thing which has inflated inside me; I am a swollen riverbank who can no longer contain the burden of overflow and in that moment I yield. Allow this long-held grief to seep from my bones and form salt-crusted recesses in the pale earth alongside my feet. Drain myself of its heaviness, it’s mass. Grief for what I needed most, and was not given. It is a different grief than the mourning of something you once had, and lost; more desperate grasping for than letting go of. Clawing at the deficit of our basic human need for understanding, compassion, grace, forgiveness, acceptance, validation, empathy. Trying to fill the wounds of gaping scarcity with our bare, empty hands.
The thing about the process of healing, is it must be the same as the process of grieving, or even the process of development; there must be stages and milestones and if we are denied these things or shamed because of them, our healing cannot occur as it needs to. We struggle to move forward; stagnate, eventually regress. Loathe ourselves for our incapacities, and how they affect not just ourselves, but those who would try to love us.
For years I lived overwrought with shame because of the judgement from those who were not given the burden of my shoes to walk in; whose knees did not bleed like mine when that walk eventually became a crawl. I allowed this shame to destroy my self-worth and convince me I was unworthy. When what I needed to be told was promiscuity does not make a person morally defective or inferior – that our worth has nothing to do with the number of people we have been with, nor the ways we have chosen to survive.
Also, however, that engaging in promiscuity as a means of control and autonomy will not reconcile the symptoms of Rape Trauma Syndrome, nor elicit healing. But that it is still a normal, valid and expected response to sexual trauma, and one which should not be met with judgement or condemnation, but empathy and compassion.
How we respond to victims of sexual trauma will determine the outcome of their healing. We must understand that at the core of Rape Trauma Syndrome is the innate need for permission to be human. Whether we understand or not, or agree or not, we cannot deny victims of sexual trauma the fundamental right to process trauma in whatever way makes them feel most safe and in control of their shattered world.
As the afternoon sun deepens its yellow hue, I stand; note the way the shadows have lengthened, the new softness of their silhouettes. The ride home is an act of purification; I breathe in crisp air mingled with wattle, breathe out that which I will no longer call mine. Realise not all of us will have Duvell’s in our lives to hold such generous space for us. Understand that makes us no less deserving of such tender grace.