Rejection, Realization, Reaction: A Rape Survivor's Path To Recovery

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(Photo: Samantha Marx/Flickr)

My friend was raped.

She didn't internalize it immediately, in fact it took her weeks to be able to say the words, to tell me "I was drugged and raped on a date." Weeks to realize what actually happened to her was rape.

The sickening thing is that part of me had expected that one day, a close friend of mine was going to say these words to me. Statistically, one in five women are raped, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. But nothing prepared me for the reality of a human being behind the statistic, much less a close friend.

Only when I sat there, with Laura (I've changed her name), on the other end of the phone line, did I internalize that the trauma doesn't end at the encounter. In the weeks and months following the attack, a rape survivor is reminded again and again of what they've been through.

Perhaps the worst part was the simple gesture that sent her into darkness. She agreed to spend the night at a guy's place -- a guy who had told her explicitly he was not interested in pursuing anything romantic with her after a couple of dates. They decided to be friends and met up for drinks.

"Something in me hesitated driving back. I could tell I was just past the acceptable alcohol limit for driving, and he said I was welcome to crash to avoid unnecessary trouble," she told me. "I was already sobering up while we brushed our teeth. I remembered everything, I didn't stumble around, and I wasn't intoxicated. I lay down, closed my eyes, then nothing. Then nothing. Then as my senses start coming back, I realized I was having sex."

At first she told herself maybe she had underestimated the impact of the wine. Maybe she drunkenly consented to sex. But as she began to remember details of her night, she realized it couldn't be true. She hadn't had many drinks. She remembered her head hitting the pillow, and next thing she knew, a man was inside her -- no condom. Her body was numb.

"My arms weren't moving, and it felt like I had one body sense coming back at a time," she recalled. "First feeling, then sight, then sound, then finally I could start to move my muscles."

The sad reality is that women are conditioned to think that unwanted advances are their own fault. They rack their brains, replay the details of the situation over and over, looking for the moment where they may have unintentionally signaled consent. In many cases, it takes a long time for a woman to realize that moment never came. That it wasn't their fault.

Some women never realize at all.

It was only weeks later that Laura began to suspected there was must have been something wrong with the glass of water he gave her before she went to bed. Too many details didn't match the patterns of a drunken hook up. She also couldn't shake the feeling of being violated.

It's not unusual for rape survivors who have been drugged to experience confusion. And date-rape drugs leave the system rapidly. By the time all of this clicked for Laura, it was too late to get a rape kit done.

...

July 1st has burned itself into Laura's memory. But as horrific as that night was, she felt the aftermath was much worse. She was in a new city, and had just started a new job. She was navigating an unfamiliar place while simultaneously coping with floods of emotions that came at unexpected times.

She became so depressed that staring at a wall for hours turned into the only activity that took off the edge from the day. She drank. A lot.

At the same time, her anxiety levels were rising. Was she pregnant? Had she contracted an STD? It takes months before diseases can be detected. For HIV, survivors need to be tested at three months, and in some cases as many as 6 months.

All she could do was wait.

"Through this whole ordeal I had to sit at work, smile as my boss would chastise me for not having 100 percent correct spelling on an 84-page proposal - a draft proposal!" she told me.

Initially - at my urging - Laura tried to go through a rape crisis center.

But the American system isn't set up to prioritize help for rape survivors. Rape crisis centers are under funded, and overwhelmed by the number of requests they receive. Around 45 percent of centers across the country lost funding in 2015, according to the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence.

They also struggle to keep staff. Roughly a third of centers have lost staff in the last year.

That has real-world repercussions for survivors. Half of the rape survivors who approach crisis centers are put on waiting lists and the list can be as long as 100 survivors.

It's not that centres don't want to help, they just can't manage on their own. And too often, women's well-being is not a priority for law-makers. Instead, they keep trying to block funding to places like Planned Parenthood, which provides services to these survivors.

In the end, Laura found it was easier to go through the normal medical system that to wait for the rape centre to get back to her.

When she finally got the first set of STD tests done, the wait seemed interminable. When the doctor didn't call back within a couple of days, Laura lost all her remaining ability to concentrate at work. She began to worry the doctor wasn't calling because there was bad news. She checked her phone a thousand times a day.

"I had to act like a normal employee would that doesn't jump at every buzz their phone makes," she said. "I was scared to go to meetings without my phone, even though I couldn't pick it up anyway."

In the end, all of her results came back clear. She has another few months before she can achieve a conclusive HIV test.

Things are better now. Laura no longer feels like a victim. A weight has lifted off her since the results came. Still, nothing will ever be the same. Her approach to men, sex and relationships has changed. And she will have to live with that for the rest of her life.

(This blog was written with Laura's permission)