The night, the week, and the month after #2, I was entirely unprepared to label my experience. I still don’t feel like any term feels exactly right in describing what happened to me. Today in my inner dialogue I don’t use labels. What happened to me is a feeling not a word. But because we live in a society where most people don’t understand sexual violence enough to comprehend what I am going through, it’s helpful to have one word that represents what happened to me that is both true and also descriptive.
(Sidenote: I do not believe that giving it a name is a necessary or even important step in everyone’s process of believing, accepting, and healing. However, when I found words to describe my experience, it became socially (and in turn personally) okay for me to feel the pain and hurt I felt. It became okay for me to identify what happened to me as totally and utterly wrong. And it gave me a way to convey the seriousness of what had happened to me to others.)
The word rape conjures up a lot of images that involve strangers and dark alleys, but on the very basic level rape is sexual penetration without consent.
That is what happened to me.
In society we identify rape as totally and completely wrong. It is wrong because it devastatingly hurts people.
And it was wrong. And it was devastating.
So I chose the word rape to describe my experience with #2. All of this being said, it took a long time for me to adopt this label.
There are a million reasons why this is. Here are three:
1. Psychologically, trauma changes the way our brain remembers incidents. This can lead to confusion—and even disbelief in our own memories. For instance, while I rationally know what happened to me, I can’t remember everything from the night I was raped, and I have never been able to. While this isn’t alarming for most memories, the fact that I can’t remember every detail of this night freaks me out. It’s unsettling feeling so disconnected from what happened to me even though it consumes so many of my thoughts and hijacks my emotions so often.
2. Rape-doesn’t-happen-to-a-person-like-me is a real feeling and not in any way stupid or naïve. If we truly believed that something like this could really happen to us, we would be living life in perpetual fear and that’s no way to live (if we can help it).
3. Sexual violence doesn’t look like they told us it would in the 2 minutes we talked about it in high school sex ed. Our male PE teachers didn’t tell us that the person that wasn’t going to listen to our “no” was going to be someone we know—and maybe even someone we like. They didn’t tell us it would happen on a night out or on a random afternoon. They didn’t tell us we were allowed to say no and they didn’t tell us what to do should someone not listen to that no. They didn’t tell us anything that would have prepared us to be able to digest something like this happening.
Who knew believing our own memories to be true could be such a shit show?
So, when I find myself staring at the ceiling at 2 in the morning wondering if I made up all I know to have happened, I let the pain be my validation. If I’m feeling this much pain—both physically and emotionally, both in my brain and in my chest—it has to be real, and that’s enough for me.
Outside of my own personal understanding of my experience, when I find myself in the situation where I need to help someone understand what has happened to me, it’s sometimes helpful (and empowering) to be able to (rightfully) identify my experience as rape and leave the details unsaid.