The Anniversary Effect and Rape Trauma
Two years ago today (four a.m., Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016) I was raped by one of my best friends.
To recap: Between October 2016 and May 2017, I got (in rough chronological order) surprise-served divorce papers after four years of volatile marriage, embroiled in a bitter custody battle, was stalked to NY by my schizophrenic mother, raped by a close friend, harassed, bullied, gossiped about, pressed charges, lost most of my friends including my mentor and hero, bankrupted by attorney fees, run through the legal, professional and emotional wringer, lost a dear friend to cancer, lost a job I loved and was incredibly good at (for reasons not my fault and pertaining to the aftermath of said rape), paid my first visit to a food bank, settled my divorce, testified about my rape before the Grand Jury — and watched it get thrown out of court, and pushed beyond the outer limits of what the human can spirit can bear. Oh, and had three major catastrophes involving (respectively): a toddler-life-threatening catastrophe, an attempted home invasion, and my mother getting picked up by the cops in Detroit brandishing machetes at strangers. To add insult to very serious injury, I also knocked out my two front teeth (mine are elaborate and expensive fakes). And on an ancillary note, let’s not forget WE ELECTED A PUSSY-GRABBING NATIONAL-SECURITY-COMPROMISING TANGERINE FRAGGLE IN A TOUPEE TO THE HIGHEST OFFICE IN THE LAND somewhere in there.
It was after that rape two years ago that I was first diagnosed with PTSD (what I now know, in fact, is likely what is termed complex-PTSD — common among folks with repeated sustained blunt-force traumas with little to no recovery time in between — like victims of childhood abuse/neglect, survivors of long-term intimate partner violence, and prisoners of war). Although I had had numerous traumas in my childhood and adult life before this (including other sexual assaults), I didn’t have the onset of full-blown PTSD until after this particular initiating event.
In recent months, of course, some incidents brought some of this trauma, particularly the sexual abuse trauma, back up for me. And today is always the worst of all.
The first episode of Season 2 of Stranger Things addresses this: in psychological circles, it is called the “anniversary effect,” and it is very real. “We see this with soldiers,” Dr. Owens says to Joyce Byers. “The anniversary of the event brings back traumatic memories — sort of opens up the neurological floodgates, so to speak.”
And the thing about these floodgates, C.S. Lewis once noted, is that no one ever tells you that grief feels so like fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the future. Fear of the Sword of Damocles teetering precariously above your head. Fear of the past repeating itself. Fear of being suffocated by the nothingness. Fear of not being able to buy groceries for your kid. Fear of drowning in the Swamp of Sadness like Artax in The Neverending Story. Much like Dante’s hypocrites, grief wears a lead-lined cloak. It’s heavy. You don’t sleep much, and even your smile contains multitudes.
Here’s the other thing: I’m not a noteworthily crazy person. I’m quite functional and, at first blush, doing just fine. But I severely dissociate and compartmentalize traumatic memories, to the point where there are large segments of them I just don’t remember at all. My emotional memory associated with the events is almost nonexistent (except when something trips the lock on Pandora’s box and it all comes rushing back). My concentration and memory are shot to hell — ADHD on steroids. I endlessly ruminate, stuck obsessing over the same thought or image pertaining to these events for hours or days. I have a much, much shorter fuse. I have horrible nightmares (a few nights ago, it was of being kidnapped and sex trafficked) that make the not-sleeping-at-all option vastly preferable. My startle response is intense. I apologize constantly. I trust almost no one, assume everyone hates me, and feel oddly distant from those around me most of the time.
Just as in Golden-Age-of-Hollywood films when a “moving” vehicle was depicted by a car that was very much standing still as the studio backdrop flickered, sometimes it’s hard to determine with the naked eye whether the horizon is in fact receding or you are — whether the world has turned its back on you or you turned your back on the world.
In social settings where I once felt at peace and at home, I often feel, now, like the Little Match Girl looking in — as if a thick pane of glass separates me from the people I love, all of them gathered cozily around the fire as I freeze to death outside on the stoop. My laugh is hollower. My responses are stilted. My voice sounds a thousand miles away. My heart pounds a little bit more. My nagging insecurities reach fever pitch. I am, I feel, an impostor inhabiting someone else’s life, and as with all humbugs, I fear being outed. Pay no attention to the girl behind the curtain.
Trauma, I suppose, has a way of doing that to you, of rendering everyone suspect. Suddenly the world seems a lot colder. Are people being chillier toward you, or is it you who have lost the capacity to feel warmth? Is it in fact reasonable for the hard of hearing to assume the world has ceased to emit sound? For the blind to assume the world has ceased to bloom in glorious living color? And if you no longer speak the language of love and laughter and human connection in the same way you once did — if you are re-learning it as a stroke victim navigates an unfamiliar language with tricky syntax — is it fair to assume these things no longer exist?
I think the ravages of post-traumatic stress are in some ways hardest on the extrovert. Like the ballerina losing her legs, Julie Andrews losing her voice, or John Nash losing his mind, those who thrive on human interaction cannot help but feel the sharp pangs of phantom limbs when human interaction can no longer be trusted.
You remind yourself that it is they who are at rest and you who have receded into the distance, but to no avail. Tricky camera-work, love. But it takes a bugler with impressive lung capacity to sound a call you can recognize.
You don’t recognize yourself, sometimes. You stare down the mirror in vain, searching for any clue to your own identity, to unlocking the person you were Before the Thing. Because your friends want you, not a shabby simulacrum of you. And that you can’t help them with; she isn’t coming back. And any version of her reborn from the ashes is someone else altogether.
We talk a lot about PTSD these days. We live in a world of posted notices and trigger warnings and safe spaces, but for all that we fail to understand. The trauma victim is Rowling’s Inferius: a corpse reanimated to gruesome effect. It looks and sounds and feels like her, but it is not her. And for all our talk of the nightmares and the sleeplessness and the panic attacks and the things that go bump in the night, we miss the real bitch of it all: that you are consigned to going through the motions of a life that doesn’t feel like your own, one that most times, doesn’t even feel quite real. You are playing a part and you are your own body double. It is an Oscar-worthy performance and you are Meryl goddamn Streep.
The dialectic of trauma gives rise to complicated, sometimes uncanny alterations of consciousness, which George Orwell, one of the committed truth-tellers of our century, called ‘doublethink,’ and which mental health professionals, searching for calm, precise language, call ‘dissociation.’” — Judith Lewis Herman, “Trauma and Recovery: the Aftermath of Violence”
But I will be, I think, more valuable healed than I ever was unbroken. I share this photo as it was the last photo of the girl I was before The Thing. My timehop is ominously silent that night after that. But I think it’s important to speak up, even if it means underscoring my own neuroses and exposed nerves. We all need to do better when it comes to trauma. We all need to own our own. We all need to listen better to others’. We all need to understand that not all wounds are visible — that post-traumatic stress is not even, strictly speaking, a mental illness, but a wholly normal response to abnormal human behavior.
I would not have chosen this path. I would not have wished my particular set of life experiences on my worst enemy. I did not choose PTSD; PTSD chose me. But I think Kay Redfield Jamison sums up my thoughts on the matter best in “An Unquiet Mind”:
I have had a marvelous — albeit turbulent and occasionally awful — existence. … ‘Beneath those stars,’ Melville once said, ‘is a universe of gliding monsters.’ But with time, one has encountered many of the monsters, and one is increasingly less terrified of those still to be met. … After each seeming death within my mind or heart, love has returned to create hope and to restore life. It has, at its best, made the inherent sadness of life bearable, and its beauty manifest. It has, inexplicably and savingly, provided not only cloak but lantern for the darker seasons and grimmer weather. … I have often asked myself whether, given the choice, I would chose to have [this] illness. .. Strangely enough, I think I would choose to have it. Why would I want anything to do with this illness? Because I honestly believe that as a result of it I have felt more things, more deeply; had more experiences, more intensely; loved more, and been more loved; laughed more often for having cried more often; appreciated more the springs, for all the winters; worn death ‘as close as dungarees,’ appreciated it — and life — more; seen the finest and most terrible in people, and slowly learned the values of caring, loyalty, and seeing things through. I have seen the breadth and depth and width of my mind and heart and seen how frail they both are, and how ultimately unknowable they both are. But I have run faster, thought faster, and loved faster than most I know.”
Thanks for reading this far. And thanks — always and forever — for the salvific healing powers of your love and light and Care Bear Stares, which daily sustain me and bring me back to life.