When I started to write this, it was intended to be short, and be about how it feels to be attacked and have PTSD. But when I started to write, it escalated into me writing down everything that happened when I was assaulted, what it feels like to be assaulted, how you feel for the undetermined future. It’s not an easy read. I wrote more generally about PTSD earlier too, for a less ‘personal’ angle.
What it’s like to be assaulted and to have PTSD
It’s the most confusing thing I’ve ever experienced. You don’t think it’s ever going to happen to you. It’s what you hear about on the news, maybe you have a friend who knows someone who was attacked once, but it would never ever happen to you now would it….until it does.
It’s pure terror. It’s shock. It’s the unknown. You freeze, unable to move, you don’t know how to react. You can’t make a sound. You have no control over your body, someone else does. You know that he’s too strong for you to be able to get away. Your mind doesn’t know what to do. It’s blank. Once you realise what’s happening you’ll try to shout for help, help that might not even be there. You don’t know who can hear you, or if they’ll even come to see what the fuss is about. You’ll be told to shut up, you’re told what he’ll do to you if you don’t do what he says, and you comply. You start thinking about what might happen next…those us who are lucky manage to get away in time. Others don’t. You try to fight back and you’re kicked to the ground. Somehow, you manage to get free, so you run. Fast. And he follows. You scream for help, you see people and run to the first person whose face you recognise and tell them what happened whilst everyone else looks at you confused as he runs away in the other direction. You’re taken to a safe place, you’re heart is racing and you’re still trying to figure out what’s happened. You sit there not really processing what’s happening as the person who’s helping you explains to the staff members what happened, and you’re taken somewhere out of the way to wait for other people to arrive before the police are called.
You sit there in silence. And then, out of nowhere, it hits you. And you cry and cry and cry. You can’t stop. More staff members arrive You’re taken to an office where you sit and wait for the police to arrive with the person who found you and your Principal. You’ve just about managed to stop crying when the person who you really need to be there finally arrives. And you cry harder than you’ve ever cried before in her arms. You just want it stop. You’d already had two weeks from hell. You’ve already had a break down from stress, you’ve had to defer your exams, you’ve been ‘banned’ from coming into college to avoid the stress it causes you. Why did it all have to get ten times worse? Then the police arrive and you’re interviewed. You have to relive it. The policeman tells you ways to defend yourself (like that’s going to be any help now) – he doesn’t get what it’s like, it’s not happened to him now has it. Then you’re driven home and someone comes in with you to explain to your housemates what happened. They’re shocked. They’re upset. You feel bad because you feel like it’s all your fault that they’re upset. The worst part: they can’t hug you. Because the police are on their way to take away your clothes to be tested and to take swabs of your arms where he grabbed you so tight you knew he had no intention of letting go. Then, once the police have come and gone, you can finally wash of the marks on you. You notice bruises. They’re only small, but they’re there. You don’t care. You’re emotionless. You’re numb. You want to cry, but you can’t anymore. You just want to hide. To sleep. To forget. And then your parents call, they’ve been told what’s happened. You don’t know what to say, and neither do they. You go to bed, but you don’t sleep. You’re jumpy. You think shadows are moving and are going to attack you. You lie in bed, wide awake as the sun rises, and your housemates go off to their exams.
Your mum arrives the next morning, and she doesn’t know how to react. She’s acting normal, and that makes you feel better. She hugs you and helps you pack your stuff. Then the police arrive again, new ones this time. They’re detectives, and you have to go and be interviewed again. You have to sit on a sofa with 4 cameras on you whilst your questioned by someone who isn’t allowed to comfort you when you get upset because they have to be unbiased or something. Then it’s over, and you then have to do something else. You have to go back to where it happened. So you go. But you feel numb. You have no emotional responses left any more. You go and get food, you go and see the staff who were so supportive yesterday to let them know how you’re doing. There are more hugs. Next stop is the police station, to try and get a drawing of the person who attacked you. You can’t do it. It’s impossible. Nothing they’re able to draw comes close, so you feel like a failure. Finally, you can go back home with your mum.
You’re half way home and you stop for food half. There’s a phone call. It’s the police, saying they’re doing everything they can and that they’ll let me know if they catch him (spoilers: they never did). You hang up and look to your right, and see your mum in floods of tears, in more pain than you’ve ever seen. It crushes you. You’ll remember that forever. She was being so strong until then, I don’t know how she did it. She tried so hard for me. You get upset too, you both calm down, and go home.
You stay home for two weeks. Then you have to go back. You’re scared. Only a few people know what happened. It’s been all over the local news, all over social media, you’ve seen people comment on people sharing links and appeals for help, people who are your friends but who don’t know it’s you. There’s no escaping it. The news stories are still there on the student newspaper website. They appear on the sidebar when there are newer stories about assault.
You don’t talk about what happened. There’re a few people who know, who ask how you are, but you don’t know how to answer. They can’t possibly understand. How could they? You used to think you could emphasise with people, but then this happened and you realised that nothing, absolutely nothing, comes close to being able to understand how it feels. But you don’t think you should be sad, because there are people who’ve been through worse, who’ve been more seriously hurt than you, who’ve actually been raped. You were lucky by comparison. You should be fine. You feel guilty for feeling like s***.
You wait for phone calls from the police, but none come. You get sent off to counselling but it doesn’t help. You don’t want to talk about it, and it just makes you cry.
There’s something else too, something that’s really difficult for you to understand. You usually cared about people, you cared if they were upset, you cared about people’s wellbeing. But for a few, very bleak months, you don’t. Because you’ve lost faith in humanity. It comes back eventually, thankfully, but the months where it’s not there are the worst of your life. You don’t care about anyone or anything.
Months pass, you have your exams in the summer, you’ve ‘fine’. You’re taking anti-depressants (but they’re not really working but you don’t realise this yet so don’t understand why you don’t feel better). You have a few more break downs along the way, the work’s all a bit much on top of the emotional turmoil in your head, plus your long-term anxiety is just adding to the stress. You somehow get through your exams, you fill in the serious adverse circumstances form to tell your department why you performed so poorly, and you go home. You have two weeks to relax until your results are released, and somehow, you’ve passed, but you don’t think you deserve it. You don’t deserve the extra help you were given to pass the exams – other people have it worse than you so what makes you so special. You feel like you’ve cheated. You’re nothing and you’re worthless.
You start your final year. It’s really tough. Depression has really set in now, but you don’t realise that’s what it is yet. You won’t realise for another year what’s happening to you. You don’t like your doctors, none of them understand, some of them don’t ask why you need anti-depressants, and when you tell them you’re exhausted and can’t sleep you’re told you’re just a lazy student. And when they say this you cry, because they’re reaffirming the thoughts that have been in your head for months: that there’s nothing wrong with you. You leave and cry all the way home. You stop taking anti-depressants so you don’t have to go back to the doctors again.
You’re still on edge, waiting for a phone call that is never going to come telling you that they’ve caught him. It’s been months now, you know it’s not going to happen. Eventually you get a call asking you to look at some photos. None are him. You leave and wait for a few more months. Then you get a call saying they’re scaling everything back (they’re giving up without actually saying it). But that doesn’t mean it’s over, it’s still in the back of your mind. It creeps in quite regularly and makes you feel worthless again. You don’t like walking anywhere on your own, and you’re always on the look out, what if it happens again?
Many more months pass, you’re emotions are up and down and you continue to feel as rubbish as you’ve felt for well over a year now. It’s becoming normal to feel like this so you’ve stopped thinking anything of it. You move to a new university and meet new people, and all of a sudden you’re able to talk to them about things you’ve never spoken about before. And it helps. It helps, so so much. Because finally, someone tells you that actually, it’s okay that you feel horrific about what happened – how can you not?! People tell you you’re strong, but you don’t believe them. For you, the things that have happened seem normal – everyone feels this way though, don’t they? More and more you can talk about it. You tell more the friends who you’ve been hiding the truth from for years and it’s really tough. You cry with them about it, but this time it helps. They support you, and you begin to think that maybe it’s going to be okay. You realise you’re depressed, that you have been for a very long time. You realise that more than that, you have PTSD. The guilt, the flashbacks, the nightmares, the shame, not trusting people, being on edge all the time, there’s a reason why you feel that way – they’re symptoms. You tell your doctor, your counsellor, the mental health support team, your department and they understand, they want to help you. You didn’t think they would because you didn’t think you were worth helping. You begin to be able to tell your parents that you’re struggling, and they’re so supportive you can’t believe it because, again, you can’t understand why they would care about you (ridiculous now because of course they do, you’re their daughter).
You begin to get better. You still have your bad days, and your sleep is worse than ever, as are the nightmares. There are still days where it all gets a bit too much, where you burst into tears rather unexpectedly and end up blurting everything out to people who you didn’t know if you’d ever tell. But you have something else now. Hope. After years of avoiding your feelings and months of mulling things over in your head, you find a video that helps you understand your head, that you’re not alone in this scary PTSD world you’ll be in for the rest of your life. You realise that you’re not going to be able to get the memories out of your head, but that’s okay, because, as one person manages to sum it up perfectly, it may never be the same, but it can get better.