Clocks tick and water drips to the fast pace of my heart beat; its rhythm twice the speed of the morning before. My eyes blink repeatedly, cringing at each word that the people around me exchange. Am I in danger here? I’m walking along a normal shopping strip, but I’m torn between wanting to blend in, and my attempt to recollect any patches of the moments that my mind may have erased in its stressed state. Every day is another adventure in my twentysomething life, but it’s also a daily reminder of the anxiety, body-ache, and unpredictability of living with an invisible disability.
I am 21 years old, and I have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
A little less than a month after turning 20, I was violently raped at my college. I never thought that anything like the nightmare of my assault would happen at place like Carolina, or that it would happen at a safe place, surrounded by friends, unclouded by alcohol or drugs, and so close to a campus that I loved so much. The scene of my rape was nothing like what orientation taught me to “look out for”: I wasn’t in a dark alley, I wasn’t alone, and there was no obvious aggressor to point the police to. No, my rape was the sickening “rite of passage” that 1 in 4 college women face.
I had four friends around me that night.
Not a single person heard it happen.
Not a single person saw it.
The blood, bruising, and blistering of my rape left my body feeling weak and violated, but I never thought that after the worst night of my life, other scars would mark my body forever.
I remember the first time that I woke up and felt the sharp pounding in my head, the pain waking me before the earliest peaks of dawn. It was as if I had a virus that concentrated on my forehead, rhythmically tapping, fogging my vision and making me search for a cure that I knew wouldn’t exist. The migraines worsened daily, and anger built up inside me, calmed solely by the high doses of caffeine that gave me a reason to leave my room.
If I leave my room, I get a coffee and Excedrin as a reward.
Six months after my assault, my body began feeling in constant danger at night. My heart would run faster than it did during my half marathon. My eyes opened every morning with a blood-shot hue that darkened every hour. Faint noises began to blast in my ears, and the sight sound, and presence of people began to trigger a bestial restlessness throughout every nerve in my body.
Many told me to see a therapist, to “focus on my healing,” “stop thinking about rape,” “concentrate on studying,” “get over it” — but the reality wasn’t that simple. My fear didn’t come from my rape.
When I came out as a sexual assault survivor, I opened a door into the haunting reality that my university had been concealing for more than 200 years.
Since the day I moved into my dorm that August, I woke up to a loud knock on my door almost every night.
“It happened. It happened to me too. I didn’t run away. He found me. I’ve told no one.”
Two days later.
“The first time it happened, I was in his car. The doors wouldn’t unlock.”
Three days later.
“It happened in the showers. People heard it. No one believed I was anything but a slut.”
Four weeks passed, and there were a dozen more stories of assault.
I was trained. I had been through it. I thought I could help them.
My migraines grew in intensity, and with every Excedrin pill I popped, I drilled for an answer to end all the pain that I saw around me.
I was going to fight back, I was going to make it better for survivors.
Everyone would listen, because they would believe that I went through it, and could help them make our campus safer and make reporting easier.
Everyone’s stories would matter; my university would protect us.
I was wrong.
“Just Plain Wrong”
After filing two federal complaints with fellow survivors, I thought that taking action would spark others to listen.
Instead, my university stood publicly and claimed that our “allegations” were “just plain wrong.”
Women were being assaulted at UNC.
Women were switching majors because they didn’t feel safe taking night classes at UNC.
Women were dropping out because they didn’t feel safe at UNC.
Women could never have an equal education at UNC as long at sexual assaults were at epidemic proportions.
My university knew this, but was doing nothing.
There were about 28,000 students at UNC, approximately 60 percent female. About 2 to 3 percent report a rape during each academic year. Meaning that, annually, between 336 and 504 women at UNC are likely to be raped.
Why were we not talking about rape?
Why did no one warn me that when I opened my college brochures, I would be misled by the opiate of the “college experience”?
Why did no one warn me that we wouldn’t be believed even if we came in numbers?
Why did not one warn me that that the “Carolina Way” would not protect us from being raped by our peers?
Learning this began making my mind trail off from classes, and making my body feel like standing pray. Flight or fight became the routine, and I quickly realized that my body’s condition, my migraines, my frequent insomnia, and my fear of people were caused by something greater than stress.
I went to counseling and filled out a survey.
What were my problems?
What was happening?
How could I explain that I could not live with hearing all the stories?
After months, my condition was finally diagnosed: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
But, therapy wasn’t working; EMDR wasn’t working.
Over and over, I was asked to explain why I was “unstable” — why I couldn’t just “move past” my rape and get things done: send an email, finish a paper, attend a meeting, be around a crowd.
What was wrong with me?
I stared at that important email, and my hands shake remembering that my nervous system was telling them to move.
I sat at a bar, staring blankly at my friends, remembering that reality was playing before me, and I was looking at myself from the outside
I traced the bubble sheets of my exam, hearing the clicking sounds of pencils and pens, feeling the hours of studying leave the memories of my brain.
I became mute, feeling my body tense up after a nights of no sleep, because my mind was too preoccupied staring at the window, hoping that my body would not have to endure another invasion.
Even after surviving a rape, PTSD was nothing that I could ever be ready for.
Sending emails, taking exams, hearing laughter, seeing police lights: these were my daily panic attacks, not an “obsession” over my assault or listening to other survivors.
My triggers weren’t the memories of my rape.
My triggers were my entire world.
“Don’t try to claim PTSD, that’s only for soldiers”
Last week, on the first day of my senior year, I began typing this blog from a hospital bed rather than a desk at the first class of my last fall semester. Strapped to IVs, I was recommended to get my brain checked out to see if my PTSD was leading to any more complications that I was unaware of.
As I stared at the roof of the MRI, awaiting the beginning of a week of neurological tests, the medical assistant asked: “What is it that you have again?”
“PTSD,” I replied.
Dumbfounded, I looked at him sternly and said: “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
He stared at me and said, “How can you claim PTSD? You’re too young. You can’t be a solider.”
“I’m not. I am a rape survivor. PTSD isn’t just caused by war, you know.”
But, was my battle with rape and betrayal nothing like war?
Three years ago, I was that typical, excited first year, shaking with the adrenaline of being accepted to a school that many only dreamed about attending. Now, as a senior, I am shaking again, but with a life-altering disorder that will affect me for the rest of my life. After months of self-blaming, and sinking in the shame imposed on me, I realized that healing from my PTSD is nothing like healing from anything else.
I have PTSD from being raped, harassed, and betrayed by the very “heroes” I admired during my first days on my campus. I have PTSD from being told that my headaches, body aches, and fears were “irrational” and “unprofessional.” I have PTSD from being made to feel that my disability rendered me worthless, and that my actions and decisions — regardless of being up to par with others — were “clouded” by my rape. I have PTSD from hearing more than 100 stories of the same, sickening abuse and blatant apathy — holding dozens of survivors; talking dozens away from suicide; hearing every story echo the same pattern of violence and betrayal.
When I was asked how I have PTSD if I’m not a solider, I sank in my chair, ashamed and guilty for claiming a disability that plagued so many of our veterans. But, when I read MST survivor Jennifer Norris’ blog, the veteran’s words sounded much too familiar:
“In the end, I realized that the original oppression AND retaliation for reporting those violent crimes is what truly damaged me. I was completely taken by surprise. I had no idea that I would ever be scorned and accused of causing a criminal to ‘lose their job’. I just assumed that I would be believed and taken care of. Boy was I wrong.”
Every person that has PTSD is currently fighting a battle — an invisible war that plagues each of us equally, regardless of the traumas that brought us to the battlefield. As a 21-year-old college student, my battles consist of learning how to live again, respecting my body, enjoying adventures, and remembering what it means to be a young, and confident in my abilities to succeed. Often times, it’s easy for those of us with PTSD to isolate ourselves in the battles of being misunderstood and unsupported, and to push off others that want to love and believe in our ability to heal.
I know now that rape didn’t take my life away, and that the betrayal of my university didn’t take my courage — even if it caused my PTSD.
I may be one of many others fighting the invisible, daily battles of PTSD, but I am fighting, and I’m not stopping.