Friday, January 29, 2010

The Pros and Cautions of Volunteering

My volunteer work with WISE has finally gotten underway. WISE (Women's Information Service) is the local crisis center here that deals with sexual assault, domestic violence, and stalking. It is a wonderful place with wonderful people, and I couldn't be happier about volunteering here. The building is warm and homey, and the best thing about it is that there are dogs! I love dogs. They're big, lovely, friendly dogs, and they definitely add a touch of comforting personality to what could otherwise be an intimidating place. Unless you don't like dogs, I suppose. :-(

It looks like I won't be able to do actual crisis work (i.e. staffing the 24-hour hotline) because I am leaving the States just a few days before the February training session and then the next session is so late in the spring that I will pretty much be leaving Hanover right after it is done. The project I'm currently working on does feel very rewarding, though. I am reorganizing, editing, and updating the volunteer advocate resource manual. So far I have reorganized some chapters and moved around bits of information that seemed out-of-place, and now I am going through each organization listing one by one and verifying the organization name, address, phone number(s), and website. There are definitely things that are out-of-date, so I feel useful, not just like some glorified copy-editor.

Last night, while I was going through the list of local crisis centers and particularly their 24-hour hotlines, I was struck by an overwhelming sense of gratitude to the volunteers who keep them running. It was so touching and humbling to realize exactly how many organizations there are just in the New Hampshire/Vermont area, how many crisis lines there are, and therefore how many people are needed to staff them so they can be open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Dear volunteers, you're the best.

Even though my work is superbly rewarding, I am starting to realize that overexposure is possible. Last night I was reading a movie summary for Precious (having known nothing about its plot) to see if I wanted to go see it, and I discovered that rape/incest play a pretty big part in the movie. Then I found out that Slumdog Millionaire also involves rape. I went a little numb in that way I always do when rape gets brought up, and so I couldn't work on my applications. Instead I decided to do some more work with the resource manual. That basically involved looking up websites for crisis center after crisis center, and therefore thinking about sexual assault and domestic violence for two hours. I didn't think much of it, and in fact felt pretty good about doing something useful, but then I couldn't sleep last night. I got a few hours of very restless sleep towards the morning, but anxiety is still fluttering in my stomach and I don't quite feel right. I think it is from overexposure to issues surrounding rape the last few days (since quite a few of my application essays talk about my experiences as well).

I am learning to set boundaries, though. A year ago I probably would have followed the compulsion to continue steeping myself in these issues until someone rescued me. However, I am trying to set healthy boundaries now. As worried as I am about time and trying to get my applications done before I leave for Thailand, I am giving myself a break today. I simply don't think I could get anything done in this anxious and wonky mood I'm in. D* is coming up this evening, and I am very much looking forward to getting to see him. Hopefully the weekend will reset things and I can start seriously working again on Monday.

Aww, D* just called me on his lunch break, just because. :)  Yay for much-needed smiles.

Anyway, I think I am off to go do mindless productive things today. Cheerio!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus

alternatively titled:
How (not?) to Start a Relationship

A while ago, I wrote a post about how to tell a potential significant other about your experience. As I mentioned in the post, I didn't really have too much to say on the topic, because I sort of had to do it once but then it didn't work out and all that. However, now, I think I have a little more to add, so here's part 2.

When it became clear to me that I really wanted this thing with D* to work out, I did what comes automatically to me when I get anxious-- I went to the library and checked out a bunch of books on the subject. One of the lucky ducks I brought home with me was Mars and Venus on a Date: A Guide for Navigating the 5 Stages of Dating to Create a Loving and Lasting Relationship. (Yup, part of the gigantic series written by the guy who wrote the original Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.) I should probably feel embarrassed to be admitting to this in a public forum, but I will claim that it was all in the name of experimentation and research for this blog. (*shifty eyes*)

Anyway. I read about one-third of the book, and then I had to stop. Why? Because the moral of the book seems to be "Resist the urge to do what comes naturally to you, because following your instincts will just mess everything up." If I were to believe in the advice offered in the book, I totally messed up everything with D*. And I believed that for a little bit. Some unquantifiable amount of anxiety later, I talked with D* and thought about things, and ended up deciding that I wasn't such a screw-up after all and John Gray, Ph.D., can take his advice to other people who might actually care.

Let's take a step back and look at what I actually did with D* that was deemed so awful by the Book. I essentially followed my instincts: I was wary but eager, and I showed my desire to get to know and trust him through unflinching honesty. Basically, I took the first chance I got to spill my guts about everything and waited to see his reaction.


I know, it probably sounds silly and wholly ridiculous now, but it made sense at the time and still kind of does, to me. One of the most significant changes post-trauma was the way in which I saw myself. For the longest time, my traumatic experiences were everything to me. I thought about it a lot and talked about it all the time. I simply could not conceive of a self that did not revolve around my trauma, because I did not remember my "old self" and my new, current self was so preoccupied with what had happened that there was no room for anything else. I could not have described myself without talking about my experiences. I had a terribly hard time having a conversation with anyone in which I did not bring up something related to trauma. I could not see myself in any other light-- I did not have other hobbies or interests with which to define myself, and I had no concept of personality apart from my obsession with advocacy regarding assault.

Granted, that all got better by the time I returned to classes and a semblance of a normal life. I made the effort to rediscover interests and hobbies so that I could tenuously define myself like a Facebook profile, with at least some answers for the requisite fields like "activities" and "interests" and "favorites." I even managed to hold off for some time before blurting out my experiences to new friends I made. (Though the fact that I stressed over when to tell people and made such a big deal of it to myself led to fantastic amounts of awkwardness, as chronicled in this post that I wrote after one experience with telling a friend.) In any case, I was doing better with not defining myself wholly according to my trauma.

Then I started talking to D* online, and all my carefully conceived sense went out the door. Because this was something that I felt could be special, my instinct was to be completely honest. No facades or filters-- just complete and total honesty. I remembered all too well the meltdown that occurred when I told Boyfriend 3 a couple weeks into our relationship about how I lost my virginity with Boyfriend 2 (i.e. unwillingly). He acted furious with Boyfriend 2, but he also blamed me. He couldn't understand that I hadn't wanted it. He shamed me and made me cry for days. I guess I just subconsciously hoped that by telling D* about everything upfront, it would be all out in the open, and he could decide to run or stay before I became too emotionally attached.

What actually happened was massive amounts of awkwardness and bad judgment on my part. Things got a little out of control in my mind: I told him about what happened, but I also slipped into a state of numbness and detachment. I slid into a tough-girl mode that hid my actual uncertainty about my feelings regarding sex, nudity, and my fraternity. I basically adopted the facade of a shameless and sexually unreserved girl-- the profile I used to present to my fraternity before the event of my senior spring, when I was still repressing what had happened at Simon's Rock. It was as if I wanted to see how much D* could take, or what would make him run. I don't know why I did it. I don't know if I was just testing him, or if I was trying to prove something to myself, like the fact that no nice guy could ever want me or deal with me. I just don't know. But I basically dug such a hole for myself that I did almost push him away, and probably would have if one of my close friends hadn't stepped in and fixed things for me.

It was an unconventional beginning, to say the least. Mars and Venus on a Date says you shouldn't present anything negative about your real self until Stage 4 of the whole process. For perspective, the 5 stages of dating are attraction, uncertainty, exclusivity, intimacy, and engagement; the Book basically says that you need to wait until you have your partner completely hooked and trusting before you even hint at a negative side. For goodness's sake, the first stage in which that is permissible is the one right before getting engaged! You're supposed to present only your good side until then, and repress all urges to be natural and honest. Let's see the multitude of ways in which the author tells the reader this (all quotes taken from the beginning of Chapter 3, which is about stage 1, attraction):

Although feelings of attraction are automatic, in order to sustain attraction in a personal relationship we must also be skillful in presenting ourselves in ways that are not just appealing to the other sex but supportive as well. It is not enough to say, "Here I am; take me as I am."

My reaction to that was "why not?" What's wrong with presenting myself as I am? It just seems disingenuous to act like something I am not. Isn't the romantic ideal finding someone who accepts you exactly for who you are?

Then he says some things that make sense:

On Venus, when two friends get together they enjoy the opportunity to share freely the mishaps, frustrations, disappointments, and complaints of the week. A woman's willingness to "share all" is actually a compliment to the other woman. It is a sign of trust, goodwill, and friendship.

While this gesture on Venus may be "putting your best foot forward," on Mars it is not. A man can easily get the wrong impression. When a woman dwells on negative feelings or problems in her life, instead of valuing her willingness to share openly, a man mistakenly assumes that she is difficult to please. Just as a woman is attracted to a man who shows interest in her, a man is attracted to a woman who can clearly be pleased. When she appears to be difficult to please, he may easily become turned off.

I made the mistake of doing that early on in my conversations with D*. One night, I was getting upset because of a series of frustrating email exchanges. D* was already starting to become more to me than just a friend, and so I felt the urge to tell him I was upset. I wasn't expecting, or even wanting, him to solve my problems, because he couldn't. He didn't know enough about the situation to even have a chance. I just wanted some kind of commiseration or support. But after I told him I was upset, he did try and solve my problems, and it just succeeded in frustrating us both. So I learned that talking about problems was not a good bonding experience.

And then the author goes on to say:

To create the ideal opportunity to experience the best a man has to offer and for a man to experience her best, a woman needs to be careful to share the positive side of her life and avoid dwelling on negative experiences. Conversation should be light, not heavy, focused on current events in the world and in their lives, but discussed in a positive manner.

My response to reading this the first time: PG version- "Oops." (Actual response- more like "oh sh*t.") I basically did the exact opposite of what it was telling me I needed to do.

This does not imply in any way that she should be fake. Authenticity is what makes anyone most attractive. Everyone has a positive side and a negative side, everyone has ups and downs, and everyone has a needy side and an autonomous side. Putting her best foot forward means sharing her most positive side, her up side, and her autonomous side. Later on she can share the other part. It is just a matter of timing.

To make the best impression and to get to know someone most effectively, it is important that we first get a chance to know the positive side. In the first three stages of dating-- attraction, uncertainty, and exclusivity-- it is best to focus on putting forth our best self. After getting to know our best sides, then in stage four, intimacy, we are ready to deal with the less positive sides of who we are.

The first time I read this, I was oscillating between feeling awful because I had messed everything up with D* and then feeling indignant because it all seemed so misogynistic and fake. Even if I had read this before talking to D* for the first time, I'm not sure I could have stuck to those rules. It would have seemed way too fake after a few conversations. For someone who considers her experiences to be such an important part of her life when they happened and who still sees them as significant in her drive and motivation in life now, for me not to mention anything about them would have required conscious planning and thought, which seems so forced and fake.

Could I have found some other way to tell him? Probably. I approached it a different way with the guy I considered dating before I met D*. The first time I mentioned anything was probably the second time we met, when he asked me what my ideal job would be. Without thinking much, I answered "rape crisis counselor." He was pretty shocked and taken aback at the specificity and promptness of my response, and then he recovered. I explained briefly that sexual assault was an important issue to me, and that was that. It didn't stick in his mind too much, because he made a rape joke to me a few weeks later on our first "date," but when I actually told him about what had happened my senior spring, he said he'd already guessed. Then we decided not to date, for various reasons, so I just never bothered to reflect on how that went.

When I talked to D* a while later about what the Book had said and how I felt awful for messing up, he told me that the book was written for "normal people," and that I had a perfectly good reason or explanation for going about things the way I did. Did I? I guess I had an explanation for it, albeit a subconscious one, but is it justifiable? I don't know. Unlike the Book, I have no moral or conclusion to this post, no dating advice for trauma survivors. I can't really say what's best because my relationship with D* is the only one I've had in which I've had to find some way to share my experience. The only advice I can give is to do what feels comfortable, and if he's a good guy, he'll understand.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Old emails

I have been reading and organizing loads of old emails in the process of transferring them from my undergraduate account to my gmail. Chronologically I just reached emails from early April 2008-- i.e. those exchanged among friends and my fraternity after the event. As I reread them, my mind started to think back to the aftermath and all that was said and done.

I'm feeling pretty numb right now. There are a couple of things that made me cringe mentally, but otherwise I am feeling pretty emotionless. The numbness is heavy, though. The combination of my mood and the fact that outside was gray and gross today makes me just want to curl up and clutch a stuffed animal and hope the world goes away from a little while if I close my eyes.

In other news, I finally deleted some old emails that I had hidden away for several years. I still became (become?) angry when I think about them, but at least they are gone. I had so much trouble deleting them because I kept wondering if I would ever want them again, as evidence of how much of a liar and a jerk he was, but I know that I should just delete them all and try to move on.


Monday, January 18, 2010

Preaching from a pedestal is easy, isn't it?

I've started not wearing a watch unless I have to. It's very interesting to not be so caught up in the urgency of time anymore, instead just drifting along during the day, judging time by how light it is outside, and then realizing it doesn't actually really matter what time it is. Because of that, I just realized it's January 18. Happy half-birthday to me?

I've had a lot on my mind since graduation has given me boatloads of free time. However, I seem to be less good at regularly writing about it. There have been a few developments on the relationship front and the advocacy front (i.e. volunteer work with a crisis center), which I think I will talk about in future separate posts.

I was feeling ambitious tonight and planned on writing at least one post about trauma and relationships, but a few minutes ago I just ran into a post on a friend's journal that left me feeling emotionally overwhelmed and a bit triggered. My friend is strongly pro-life, with the view that abortion is murder and therefore unacceptable in all cases. That I can respect-- I talked a little about my views on that in this previous post. What irks me is specifically the "it's for your own good" argument. There are several studies that present findings that many women who experience an abortion develop depression and anxiety and other mental conditions. When I am in a calmer and less triggered mood, I will read those studies and return to this blog with my analysis. However, just for right now, I am going to approach this issue from an entirely personal perspective, academic impartial analysis be damned.

If I had become pregnant from either of the rapes I experienced, particularly the second one, it would have killed me to carry the baby to term. I mean that not only figuratively but also quite possibly literally. I would have spent all nine months hating the baby growing inside me. I had enough problems with harmful and self-destructive behavior without having part of my body act as a constant reminder of what happened. If just the memory of the event and later the aftermath with people's ignorance and apathy was enough to drive me to physically hurt myself, what do you think having his baby inside me would have done? I think it very well could have led to me killing myself, and thus the baby as well.

It is appallingly arrogant and presumptuous of anyone to badger, coerce, guilt-trip, or force a rape victim to carry the baby to term if she believes it is not in her own best interests to do so. Only misguided arrogance could make someone believe he or she knows better than the victim what she should do with her own body. In other words, the "for your own good" argument makes me want to slug someone. It's quite easy to wave around "scientific studies" and preach that the victim will regret it if she chooses to have an abortion. However, I wonder how many of those people would actually have the guts to say that directly to a traumatized rape victim.

It makes me wonder what would have happened had I become pregnant after the rape. I want to know how many people would have tried to guilt-trip me into carrying the baby to term. I want to know which of my friends would have dared tell me to my face that it was for my own good. With the way things actually went, already most of the people I knew wanted nothing to do with me and my trauma and my struggle to heal. How many people would have tried to coerce me into making a decision that would directly contradict my understanding of how I could best heal and then left me to my own struggles? The apathy I faced from "friends" was bad enough. No one would have wanted to deal with the extreme self-loathing that would have ensued had I been forced to carry his baby for nine months. I had enough problems with starving myself for days, standing into the cold (yes, New Hampshire winter, snow and all) with no protection, and physically marking and scarring myself. [Self-destructive behavior: another post for another day.]

I felt so dirty after both times I was raped. Think of the shower scenes you see in movies after someone has been so irrevocably violated (e.g. in The Lives of Others). I felt like I could never be clean again. What genius could think that having my rapist's baby inside my body for nine whole months is going to help me heal? How much more of a constant physical reminder of the trauma that already plays itself over and over in my head do I need? How can you possibly tell me that you know better than me what will help me heal-- and better yet, use that as justification to try to prevent me from making any kind of choice whatsoever?

Dear pro-lifers:

Feel free to try to educate rape victims about the potential mental health risks of aborting their rapist's baby. I support the concept of fair and impartial education. However, you have absolutely no right whatsoever to take away the woman's choice by shutting down abortion clinics or making them unaffordable. Furthermore, if you ever intimidate, coerce, or guilt-trip a woman into carrying the baby against her will, you are no better than her rapist.

No love,

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Bad dream bad dream bad dream bad dream


It's not often I wake up screaming. I had this dream after I went back to sleep at 10am (intending to wake up at 11:30) so it's all very vivid still. The feeling of utter helplessness during an assault-- this time I did try to fight, but I was overpowered. That feeling is still sitting in my chest, a huge, heavy, stifling weight. There were two assaults, and then somehow it switched to a scene of physical torture involving knives or razors or scalpels, I don't remember exactly. I had enough consciousness at the last moment before I woke up to turn my head into my pillow so my screaming wouldn't echo through my whole house.

This is totally not an appropriate post for this blog, but I didn't know where else to write about it and I needed to get it all out so I could try to start functioning for the day.

Monday, January 11, 2010


My nerves are having a really tough time today. First, a really frustrating conversation; second, major fraternity-induced anxiety; and third, almost getting hit by a car that didn't feel like stopping while I was in a crosswalk on the way home. I'm jittery as hell and having a tough time calming down.

So, to elaborate on the second point mentioned above, I seem to have lost my only social space on campus. Friday night at the frat was an absolute disaster. Tau can get pretty ragey and sketchy, but that "party" just felt completely out of control. There were just too many drunk people and half-naked people-- and then there was the frighteningly loud, high-pitched, piercing screaming that would happen every few minutes, induced by some girls' inebriated ecstasy. My nerves were already fraying and the constant screaming just made them snap. I was in the chapter room with some friends while the chaos was happening in the kitchen and dining room. When I started to visibly get anxious, one of my friends--without my asking or prompting--went to go shut the sliding doors between us and them. It was a very kind gesture on his part and one that helped a lot. But then the doors opened right back up and one of the house officers glared at us indignantly for daring to impede upon their fun. Because clearly, anyone in their right mind who wasn't joining in on the fun would at least want to watch. "What are you closing the door for? It's just another normal day at Tau," was what she said. Closing a door for some peace of mind-- when they weren't even coming into the room we were in-- is apparently far too insulting. The dismissive attitude of another officer of the house, one I used to like or at least respect, was the last straw. I started to panic and had to leave, so I went to the math building next door and sobbed hysterically until I could calm down and breathe normally again.

It was one of the more awful instances at Tau, the kind that make me wonder why I go back there. I stayed at home and refused to go over during the weekend. I had no immediate plans to go back but then last night I made plans with some friends to go get breakfast (because one of them was just visiting and was about to leave). After breakfast I decided to come back to Tau and give it a shot. I stayed in the chapter room for a while, but I just couldn't do it.

I don't feel safe there anymore. I am constantly on edge again whenever I am there. When I see certain people, I freeze up, half-resentful and half-afraid. I am tense and uncomfortable in the house that is supposed to be warm and welcoming, a house that is supposed to make its brothers feel safe. Too much has changed, and I am too dissociated when I am there. At its best, everything just feels fake and unreal; at its worst, everything feels laughably inane, trivial, and ridiculous.

It's unfortunate. I really started to believe that Tau was improving with the addition of new people. I really like the new brothers, but even their lovely selves cannot make up for the presence of certain older members and attitudes.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Moving on

So when I said that I was back in my last post, I might have been a bit premature. Whoops. December was busy for me, with graduating, meeting D*, and going home to visit my parents, so I ended up not being able to return to and commit to a regular schedule of posting. I will be overseas next month, but I will try my best to make the most of January.

I'd like to start writing a new series of posts, not directly about sexual assault or PTSD, but about what it's like to move on, specifically in the context of a relationship. I was originally going to try to keep my blog more academic and less personal, but as I started writing in these last few months, I began to see that too much of my life was still revolving around these issues and unable to let go. Because I have not completely moved on yet, I am perhaps most equipped to write about myself and my own healing process, as opposed to detached academic treatises or abstract philosophical musings.

Sooo... I am currently in a new and blooming long-distance relationship with D*, who is an incredibly wonderful and supportive guy. Predictably, I started to run into mental blocks and triggers as he and I started to become involved. However, this time around I have a true ally in my boyfriend, and he is helping me work through these issues as they arise. I have begun to see and identify the extent of my insecurities, anxieties, and fears. I have started to realize that I can, and should, communicate with him about them. And I have started to address my relationship with sex-- a much more complicated venture than I'd realized.

I have a great many issues with physical intimacy that come from not only the rape but also the various relationships I've been in. For one, I had no concept of boundaries. When I first tried to voice them in my first seriously physical relationship, they were blatantly ignored, like a bulldozer just rolling right over my efforts to resist. I don't remember how much I protested when something unwanted was done to me or I was forced to do something I had said I didn't want to do. All I remember is that at some point my mind detached and it felt like it was no longer me so it was okay, or at least as okay as it could be. And then after it all I simply repressed the memory-- it was like forgetting.

But then it became too easy to detach, and so I dissociated constantly whenever anything related to sex arose, preemptively, before anything unwanted occurred. It simply became habit, and there was no reason for me to fight it. Being detached helped when what I wanted was ignored or never asked about, or when there was pain and tears dripped down my cheeks while I closed my eyes and bit my lip. There was no reason for me to not become detached, because it wasn't like my partner would have focused on my feeling pleasure anyhow.

But then I met D*. I have no idea how to express this without being sappy or cliche or trite, but he is so very different. He is a gentle, patient, and caring partner who has never once made physical intimacy all about him. He has tried to impress upon me that it is perfectly all right for me to say no to something and that it won't make him upset or resentful. He maintains his expression of affection for me both during intimate moments and not, so that it doesn't feel like sexual activity --> affection. All of that makes a difference-- I have been working so hard on keeping myself in the moment and not dissociating. I have tried to identify and communicate the events of my past and the anxieties they created, and he has understood. And most importantly of all for me, for the first time in my life I was able to say no. I cannot find the words to express how incredulous I was when I mustered up the courage to say that I was exhausted and not feeling well and he simply cuddled me and said we could go to sleep. I get kind of choked up still when I think about that. What some people might take for granted actually means so much to me.

Things have the potential to be so special with D*. I so badly want them to be, and I think they can.