CONTENT WARNING: SUBSTANCE ABUSE + SEXUAL ASSAULT
I now understand what is meant by the term “survivor.” It is not just about living through the violence of the assault or abuse itself. It is about surviving the aftermath, living with the trauma.
Two years ago today, I was sexually assaulted. It was certainly not the first time, but it was different. I was sober and the perpetrator was a woman. Sexual violence occurs in the LGBTQI community, and it needs to be talked about.
There I was, wide-eyed and dipping my toe into the world of kink. I was among fellow queer folks, so I felt safe.
I thought I had worked hard enough in therapy to protect myself from ever having to experience this kind of trauma again. I thought I'd read enough about rape culture and consent to arm myself against assault.
Once the shock wore off, my soul cracked open and my world splintered apart. Wounds from past trauma ripped open.
Queer spaces didn’t feel safe anymore. Nowhere felt safe, not even my home. The whole world seemed threatening. I had frequent panic attacks in those early weeks. When the deliveryman came with our dinner one night, I sobbed, terrified, unable to answer the door. My wife had to meet me several times as I wandered around crying in the street. I couldn’t think straight or make decisions for months. I was utterly overwhelmed. Anxious and afraid, I couldn't sleep for days on end.
My body was confused: My muscles felt hungry and my stomach felt tired. Because what I was experiencing felt so physical, I requested blood tests several times. The results were always normal. I was deeply depressed for most of 2015 — so fatigued at times, I couldn’t move or get out of bed.
It felt like someone had poured cement over me. Like I was being held underwater. It felt as if it had always been this way, and it echoed out into forever.
I experienced three episodes of mild mania last year—my every cell was infused with excitement and energy. These episodes may have been triggered by PTSD, an adrenaline-fueled, hyper-anxious response to trauma.
During the first episode, I planned a trip around Europe in obsessive detail, rented our flat out for a couple of months, and pressured my wife to resign from her job. When I crashed, we had to find accommodations in London. For weeks, we stayed in a shitty bedsit right around the corner from our home. Thankfully, she’d kept her job. Each time the mania flooded in, I was convinced my depression had lifted, only to sink even lower once it dissipated.
During the lows, I returned to self-harming behaviours to cope: I relapsed with my eating disorder after more than two years of solid recovery; I annihilated myself with alcohol after a year of sobriety; I even cut and burned myself again. I turned 30 last year—a milestone —and I spent my birthday in Berlin. The entire time, I longed to fling my body under a moving train.
"I’VE HAVE HAD MANY DIFFICULT YEARS IN MY THREE DECADES ON EARTH. BUT THAT YEAR MAY WELL HAVE BEEN THE MOST DIFFICULT DUE TO THE CUMULATIVE EFFECT OF TRAUMA AND BEREAVEMENT. I BARELY GOT THROUGH THIS ONE. I FELT LIKE I COULDN’T TAKE ANY MORE BLOWS."
2015 had started well enough, I’d spent a month visiting family. I had been promoted at work and, just six weeks before the assault happened, I’d accepted the new, well-paid position. Afterwards, I took four months off — eventually, I resigned.
Everything changed. My whole identity crumbled. I no longer felt strong, independent, and passionate. I completely lost interest in things that had once defined me, like dancing, participating in queer culture, and going on cycling trips and other adventures. I isolated. I stopped going out.
Trauma does not only affect the victim. The devastation ripples out. The emotional burden has also weighed heavily on my wife. My body had been violated again, and any attempt at physical intimacy would often result in tears. She has been supporting us financially — the financial costs of sexual assault are immense.
Fighting back isn’t the only appropriate response to trauma. It is common, particularly for traumatized people, to freeze when they feel threatened. So many of us blame ourselves for not fighting back or resisting enough, thanks in part to our victim-blaming rape culture. This is why the onus is on us as sexual partners to actively seek enthusiastic consent. We cannot simply infer consent from silence or submission.
Six months before I was assaulted, I presented a paper on affirmative consent at a conference of young professionals. Around the same time, a friend of mine was raped and she turned to me for emotional support.
Although I understood the importance of consent, my body’s natural instinct was to freeze during the assault. Thankfully, I was able to name what had happened to me. I was then able to seek support. This meant I didn't bury the memory for years (like I had in the past) underneath self-blame, guilt, and shame.
Although, I do sometimes feel angry at the woman who took so much from me, I am frightened by the fact that I suspect she did not intentionally violate me. It just seemed like she had a fixed idea of how to make a woman come and she was fucking going for it. I read an article that said, at best, this attitude has the potential to make you a bad lover (because what gets each person off is different, so if you don't ask, you won't know). At worst, this attitude makes you a rapist.
Her intentions, however, do not diminish my trauma. Like manslaughter, “I didn't mean to” just doesn't cut it. If a partner of yours experiences a sexual act or encounter as a sexual assault, then your intentions do not matter. This is why active consent is so important.
"A VERY WISE FRIEND WROTE TO ME IN THE FIRST FEW DAYS, 'ONE DAY THAT BOULDER ON YOUR SHOULDERS WILL ERODE TO A PEBBLE. IT WILL BE EASY TO CARRY IN A WAY YOU COULDN’T HAVE POSSIBLY IMAGINED.'"
I’ve have had many difficult years in my three decades on earth. But that year may well have been the most difficult due to the cumulative effect of trauma and bereavement. I barely got through this one. I felt like I couldn't take any more blows.
At times, being loved felt like a burden; it meant I had no choice but to find some way through. What a thing to say to your partner and truly mean it: “If it wasn’t for you, I’d be dead.”
Both my brother and father had struggled with addiction and, eventually, each took his own life. It is hard to admit, but there were moments that year that I felt angry at them. No matter how strong the urge, I couldn’t take my own life — I couldn’t do that to my family or my wife. Their suicides meant I didn’t have that option.
So many angels have carried me on their backs in my recovery journey, many of whom are fellow addicts in twelve-step programs. It has kept me alive. Therapy has been a haven — I have curled up in that room sometimes three times a week.
I also don’t underestimate the power of snuggling dogs and cuddling babies on my recovery journey. I have received uncomplicated, unconditional love and happiness from these little beings. My tears have soaked into the coats of the dozen dogs I have been lucky enough to spend time with as a way to earn some cash. They have made me laugh, inflated my lungs with joy, and licked tears from my cheeks.
A very wise friend wrote to me in the first few days, “One day that boulder on your shoulders will erode to a pebble. It will be easy to carry in a way you couldn't have possibly imagined.” Two years on, it is beginning to crumble.
I am slowly rebuilding my sense of self.
I have started reclaiming my sexuality and sexual selfhood. I have had strong emotional connections with my wife and other partners, and I have started to heal trauma in my body. I found there was only so much work I could do in the therapy room — I’ve experienced profound recovery in practice with beautiful and safe people. I’ve experienced how light it feels to share the emotional labor of boundary-holding with a tender butch. How a deep connection can be created with good before, during, and aftercare. Every loving kink experience I have informs my horror when I consider what that woman did to me.
I am healing in waves, spiraling away from the trauma, and sometimes back again.
Nicola is a queer femme based in London. She blogs on the site ‘that Jekyll and Hyde vibe’ and is passionate about queer and feminist issues.