My boyfriend and I lay in bed, his fingers twirling my chest hair as we talked about our plans for hysterectomies. I told him I saw the procedure as a safeguard against a worst case scenario. Hearing this, he looked so anguished, I nearly felt guilty.
“It makes me sad that you worry about that happening again” he said.
A few years ago, I told my 12-step sponsor about surviving sexual assault. He said we can’t resolve some experiences, we can only share our stories to help others realize they’re not alone. In other words, we can say, “me, too.”
Since getting sober in 2013, I’ve heard stories from several sexual assault survivors and I’ve told my own. Men don’t often discuss sexual assault or mental health, and while it’s not easy to share my story, I believe it’s crucial.
It happened a few months before I got sober.
He was an acquaintance, and like all of my acquaintances at the time, our relationship was defined by our mutual affinity for substance use. I was 21 and he was about 15 years older. He was stocky, blond, and clean-shaven. I never knew his last name.
One afternoon, we sat together under a bridge. Although I hadn’t found him attractive, as the rush of euphoria overtook my senses, I stared into his eyes and felt profound joy and affection. I kissed him. He kissed me back.
By nightfall, he had found a bottle of whiskey. Though I didn’t need encouragement, he urged me to keep drinking.
The next thing I recall, I was pressed up against a parked car in the dark. After another memory gap, we were atop the air mattress in my sparsely-furnished bedroom. The ceiling spun above him and I only remember thinking, “I can’t wait for this to be over.”
Maybe the gaps in my memory are for the better. But they’re frustrating because some stubborn part of me believes if I can determine exactly what happened, then I can prevent it from happening again.
Reliving the Trauma
A week later, I told — and believed — my therapist it was another bad hook-up. Then, I told my acquaintance I didn’t want to do that again.
His reply felt like a knife to my throat.
“Don’t go accusing me of rape,” he said.
I didn’t. Not in our conversation and not afterward. But he soon left town, after gifting me a romantic letter and a bracelet, too feminine for my taste. Though I’d come out as a trans man, most people in my life disregarded this and treated me as a woman.
Over the next few weeks, I completely forgot what happened. I didn’t remember until I’d been sober for over six months.
In the meantime, my mind latched onto desperate attempts to prevent another assault. Consumed with paranoia, I berated my housemates about keeping the doors locked. While a buddy and I watched a horror movie with a rape scene, I felt suddenly nauseous without knowing why. Since trans people risk violence in gendered spaces, I avoided public restrooms at any cost. While driving, I accidentally hit a parking curb which threw me into a panic attack. One night, I jolted awake after a vividly terrifying nightmare involving sleep paralysis and a man directly behind me, undeterred by my knife.
After enduring something so intimately traumatic, misunderstood and deeply ingrained within society, nearly everyone seems to blame themselves. As I worked through my post-assault responses and feelings, I began to realize how self-blame can emerge in ways more complex than simply believing it was my fault.
Months later, I read a postcard on PostSecret: “I’m not sure if it was rape.”
“If you’re unsure, it probably was,” I thought. Then I remembered everything.
Until then, I’d clung onto a narrow idea of what defines a rape survivor. I’d believed survivors experience debilitating trauma, explicitly blaming themselves, and suffering from PTSD flashbacks like combat veterans. That wasn’t my experience, so how could I be a survivor?
Opening Up to Seek Help
After realizing I’d been raped, I shared my experience in a 12-step meeting. Another member kindly recommended talking to a therapist. My previous therapist had closed her practice, so I made an appointment at the community mental health agency. The new therapist listened empathetically, but I wasn’t sure what to tell him. While I occasionally felt justifiably angry at the man who raped me, my thoughts usually lingered on it without feeling anything.
Later, I realized that I felt a sort of commonality with my assailant. Though not as violently, I’d certainly harmed others with my actions. His was a crime of power but, like my own misdeeds, it was also a crime of opportunity. After this realization, my anger lessened. His actions weren’t remotely acceptable, but indulging my fantasies of revenge only fueled my own misery.
My heart raced with anxiety when my sponsor made the same point. He said, “If you cling onto that resentment, you’re getting raped again.”
That’s a harsh statement which my brain initially took literally, revving into fight or flight mode. But he meant I was only reliving it by holding onto my anger.
That was in 2014. Since then, I’ve utilized what I’ve learned in 12-step meetings to cope with the lingering effects of surviving sexual assault. Many of these skills are the same ones I’ve learned from therapists: talking or writing about it, meditating, and finding ways to help others. Men aren’t expected to talk about this, but in my experience, many people are willing to listen.
It’s Not Your Fault
Recovering from sexual assault is a slow process, but it’s happening. I used to think about it every day, as soon as I woke up. Now, I realize it’s been several days since it’s crossed my mind.
Reflecting back, I realize how my obsessive attempts to prevent another assault were my way of blaming myself. In some ways, it’s easier to blame ourselves because then we could prevent it from happening again. It’s hard to acknowledge the reality that someone else was solely responsible. But it’s also a relief, because I can accept that it wasn’t my fault.