There’s a question I’ve been asking myself for eighteen years.
“How long does it take to heal from a rape?”
Initially I thought, “I will be healed when I can sleep alone without drugs.” (The Xanax our family doctor prescribed to me along with birth control pills to take to act as a morning after pill.)
Then I thought, “I will be healed when I don’t think about it every day.” This last one didn’t seem possible since I had heard from more than one source that it would be “the first thing you think about in the morning and the last thing you think about at night for the rest of your life.”
But they also say that time heals all wounds. I didn’t realize the second anniversary of the rape had passed until a few days later, the third a few months later. Eighteen years have passed, I do NOT think about it every day. Though I’ll admit it sometimes the phrase “raped at knifepoint” will pop into my head in the middle of the day. Or that I’ll go weeks without thinking about it at all when suddenly I remember the day I cut class to go to the Police Station to see if I could identify a knife they had found on the side of the road.
Most of the time it no longer affects my daily life. It’s very rare that I feel scared anymore and when I do, I have my methods of coping. I tell myself that if any kind of divine goodness exists in this universe, it won’t allow me to experience another assault. Sometimes that helps, sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t work I just focus on the fact that I survived rape once, I could do it again if I had to. I try to convince myself that it wasn’t that bad.
Eighteen years have passed and I write and speak freely about my experience. I never pop a Xanax, I have no problem spending a night at home without my husband. I don’t worry about going into public restrooms alone (a strange fear I had developed after the rape). I don’t think about it every day and I don’t even remember what the anniversary date is.
So how come I still wouldn't say I was completely healed?
Sometimes I think about it and get mad at myself for not trying to fight back. I think I need to digest that and write it again: Eighteen years have passed and I can still get mad at myself for not fighting back. Mostly I marvel at how calm I was and am thankful I got through it alive.
Small hurdles crop up, like an unexpected letter from the State Parole Board asking me for a new statement. Each time I get one it seems to take me a little longer to pull myself together and compose my statement for them. Maybe it’s because with each one I know we are getting closer to the date that he will be released for good, even if he does not ever make parole. (So far he has not. Next chance at parole will be February 2014 and maximum release date March 2016.)
Small victories arise, like the opportunity to talk to my kids in small, age-appropriate steps about what happened to me*. After the first time I felt like I was flying high on the victory of breaking the ice on that conversation, only to be followed by an unexpected emotional crash hours later, devastated by the symbolic chipping away of my child’s innocence.
Years ago I had made an analogy of this healing process to the one for the dog bite on my cheek. I wrote in my journal: the dog bite was stitched up; a small scar remains. A stranger held a knife to my neck and raped me repeatedly. There are no bandages to peek under and check the recovery rate. How do I know when I’m healed?
I thought for a while the emotional injuries were not unlike the dog bite: the bandages gone but the scars remain. But upon further reflection I think it’s more than that. I realize now it’s more comparable to a larger physical wound, maybe like losing a limb since it was an injury that was life-altering but I persevered and can now manage just fine. Occasionally a problem arises, but for the most part I live my life as I did before.
I didn’t want to accept this new comparison because it felt like I was giving too much weight to the rape. I never wanted it to define me. But at the same time, I cannot deny the role it played in my life. And I realized: the rape might have been a pivotal event in my life, but it certainly doesn’t define me. Do you know what defines me? Learning to soar again. Being a survivor is what defines me.
*My first conversation with daughter B when she was five: "You know how you're the boss of your body and nobody should touch it if you don't want them to?"
"And that the most important parts people shouldn't touch are..?"
"Vagina and heinie and private parts."
"Right, well when I was at college something kind of sad happened to me. And that was that somebody touched my body and I didn't want them to."
"Oh...did your teachers help you?"
"One lady that's like a teacher helped me, that's who we'll see today at the college. And police officers helped me too."
" And the meeting is about what I'm going to do soon which is talk to other big-kid-students about being the bosses of their own bodies."
"And then me and brother won't come with you then?"