Most therapists eventually develop a standard approach for helping clients recover from trauma. We tell them that none of us has any control over what happens to us, but we can do something about how we respond. We try to help them get beyond their anger, hopelessness, and sense of devastation; beyond the feeling of unfairness, the question "Why me?" so often occasioned by tragedy and terror. We encourage them to move forward, to open themselves again to new experiences, and to allow life to continue to unfold. But it's only when we experience trauma firsthand that the real meaning of all this sensible therapeutic advice becomes apparent--as well as the difficulty of following it.
On Tuesday, January 4, 1994, at 9:45 p.m., trauma became a lived reality for me. That evening, I ended a group therapy session and stayed behind, alone in my office, to write a few notes and return calls. As I walked into the hallway, I was grabbed from behind and heard a low, menacing voice say, "If you cooperate, I won't hurt you." It took a few moments for me to realize what was happening. I felt panic rising, and an impulse to fight back, but somehow I knew that to keep the situation from spinning out of control, I had to maintain control of myself.
I was forced to the floor, face down. My attacker sat on me. I heard him unroll duct tape and cut it. He wrapped it around my head, sealing my eyes shut. He demanded my jewelry and my purse. I had the urge to ask him not to take my bracelet--it had been my mother-in-law's and she'd just recently died. But I couldn't allow myself to beg. Nor could I let him know any of my thoughts. I hated to turn over my wedding and engagement rings because I'd worn them daily for more than 23 years.
Only when I heard him unzipping his pants did I realize that he intended more than just robbery. He stripped me and forced me to perform oral sex. After a brief interval, he fled. I waited a few moments, lying there to be sure he'd gone, and then ran to the alarm panel in the hall. I pressed the panic button, which alerted the police. Then I called my husband. Within minutes, the police arrived, and then my husband.
During those few minutes alone, my thoughts were surprisingly clear and resolute, and I remember them well. I wanted very badly to brush my teeth and clean up, but I knew I had to do what I could to preserve evidence. I also knew from my work with many clients that an experience like this might change me forever, but I was determined that I wouldn't allow it to alter what I thought of as my essential self. The phrase "He can't take what I don't give him," kept running through my head. He could take my jewelry and force himself on me sexually, but, I told myself, he couldn't take the things that mattered most, unless I agreed to surrender them.
In the days, weeks, and months that followed, I struggled not to allow the attack to defeat me. I had to learn how to control the fear, stop the flashbacks, and handle the anger, while dealing with an overwhelming range and intensity of feelings. First, there was the simple emotional, psychological, and physical trauma of having been violated. We all know that there are people capable of intentionally brutalizing others, but for most of us, this is an intellectual awareness, not a firsthand experience. When the theoretical becomes actual, the world becomes a different, far more threatening, place.
For weeks after the rape, as I did the laundry or drove to the office, I was afraid of the man on the corner, the rustle in the dark. Unable to swallow, I kept gagging. I lived in a kind of distorted reality, feeling periodic surges of fear and anger as my memories were continually triggered. It would take a long time for my brain and neurological chemistry to return to anything like a normal balance. Periodically, I'd ask myself in disbelief, "Did this really happen?" I regularly doubted my own perceptions and was preoccupied with self-questioning: Was my report to the police accurate and complete enough? Did I really see the baton-like weapon hanging by his side? Did I respond in the "right" way? (As if there were a right way!) But most of all, I wondered why I'd been spared, realizing I could have experienced a worse fate.
Support is the first of several ingredients necessary for a rape victim to regain her equilibrium and reclaim the self that existed prior to the trauma. I was blessed with the full support and love of my husband, family, and friends. Though my husband had his own feelings of rage and yearning for revenge to deal with, he was able to put those aside and focus on what I needed. He listened and comforted me physically. He reminded me of who I was before the attack, especially my role as mother of our son and two daughters. I was by no means ready to fully reassume that role, but I wanted to return to it as quickly as possible, as much for me as for my children.
I'd always believed the adage that if you fall off a horse, get right back on. Sometimes there are injuries that need to heal first, but the goal is to get back on and not let fear set in. I returned to work the morning after the rape. Forcing myself to concentrate on others allowed me to hold on to a valued part of myself. It was ironic that my first session involved hypnosis for an anxious client. That session proved healing for me as well, as did many others in the months to follow.
Though I often didn't feel like following work-day routines, I forced myself to. I discovered the truth of the Talmudic saying that loosely translates as "Through the doing comes the being." I didn't feel like doing laundry, making lunches and dinners, driving car pool, or going to meetings, but I forced myself to do those practical tasks, because they'd been part of my life before the attack. I did it all hesitantly at first, doubting if I had the energy or ability. I discovered that the mundane repetition of necessary tasks anchored me in the world and in my family. Ultimately, they became soothing.
The Legal Ordeal
About five weeks later, I received a call from the detective asking if I'd had any car trouble during the previous months. As soon as she asked, I was seized by the horrible, sinking awareness that my first encounter with the attacker hadn't been at my office. It finally became clear to me why I'd told the police at the scene of the crime that the attacker was familiar to me.
The detective went on to tell me that the wife of another police officer had come forward. Several years earlier, she'd lived with a man who was probably my attacker. She'd run into her old boyfriend recently at a bar, and he'd bragged to her about how he'd orchestrated meeting my husband and me. He'd slashed my tire in the parking lot before I left, thinking I'd notice immediately and not pull away. He told her he'd hoped that I'd return to the building alone to call for help, setting up an opportunity for the attack.
The informant's present husband, the police officer, had convinced her to go to my detective. With her information, the detectives staged surveillance and got enough evidence to arrest my attacker. They took him into custody six weeks after the attack.
Once a perpetrator is caught, a whole new set of demands is placed on the victim, and my case was no different. There were identification lineups, DNA testing, and much unwanted publicity over which I had no control. I felt violated again, not by the police but by the media, which considered this a sensational story. Television crews camped outside my office. Details of the attack became public, even though I wanted them kept from my children and my clients. As a result, I felt violated in a different way, and this reactivated my initial feelings of pain and helplessness. I struggled with competing values--freedom of the press versus my right to privacy--and agonized over which I believed was more important.
Once the accused is brought to trial, the requirements of the legal system take precedence, and the victim can easily feel marginalized. For me, the meaning of the expression "the wheels of justice grind slowly" became all too clear. Though a defendant has a legal right to a trial within 60 days after incarceration, the defendant's lawyer used many maneuvers to delay the proceedings, apparently hoping I'd tire or become afraid and refuse to testify. It took more than a year and a half after the arrest for the trial to begin. Several court dates were scheduled and postponed. Each delay was agonizing.
The psychological and physical reaction of facing the accused was difficult. Though he was brought into court in chains, guarded by two armed deputies, I had no control over my physiological reaction of fear each time I saw him. This continued throughout the trial, and still happens today if I see someone who resembles the rapist.
At sentencing, I was allowed to deliver a Victim's Impact Statement about the effects of the attack for the judge to consider in passing sentence. It was also an opportunity for me to bring closure. The statement was very hard for me to write. I had no problem saying that the attacker should receive the longest possible sentence. I wanted to be sure others were protected from him.
Friends and family wanted my attacker to suffer as he'd caused me to suffer. I suspect I would have felt those same feelings had someone I love been harmed. However, as the victim, I knew that nothing that could happen to him could erase what he'd done to me. I felt that his sentence shouldn't be dependent upon how I reacted to the attack, but upon the gravity of the crime. I was also reluctant to express in court how the attack affected me, as I didn't want him to know anything more about my life.
Though I did address how his attack affected me somewhat, my statement closed with the following:
"I do not wish you harm in prison. Even in prison, one can make choices for oneself. I hope that you reflect upon what kind of person you are and what you have done and decide, in whatever way is possible in prison, to better yourself and contribute to others. Only then will you be able to understand the true horror of what you have done to me.... Though you robbed me of possessions, safety, and peace of mind, I would not let you take away what I value most. I would not allow this trauma to keep me from focusing on what is most important to me. I still have the love of my family and friends, the values and customs we share, the joys and sorrows of our lives together, and the richness of our relationships. I am grateful to God that you could not harm any of these."
Each January, I'm surprised by the strength of my reaction on the anniversary of the attack. But I can say without hesitation that I've recovered. The attack never became my life, nor does it define who I am. Most of all, I learned that recovery is made possible by shifting focus from the pain of the attack to what gives life meaning and purpose.
Fully understanding how fleeting life can be, I have a keener sense of when I'm living it to the fullest and when fear has stopped me from doing what I truly want to do. For me, overcoming my fear of rejection and judgment to write this is a sign that I've triumphed. The rapist may have assaulted me sexually, but he didn't take my capacity to appreciate life's glory. For all the lingering memories of that terrible event, every year, I feel renewed gratitude that I was given a chance to live. May others who suffer trauma similarly triumph.
This blog is excerpted from "Reclaiming the Self," by Janice Starkman Goldfein. The full version is available in the January/February 2004 issue, In the Eye of the Storm: Bessel van der Kolk Has the Trauma Field in an Uproar.
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