Updated: Nov 6, 2020
by Claire Huder
I can’t even say it. Hearing it spoken brings feelings of unease and anxiety, and, sometimes, visions of the past; visions of an experience at university my freshman year that, astonishingly, one in four women share (2) and even fewer—one in five—report (1).
When it flashes through my mind, all I see is blackness. When asked, the first image that appears to me is a wall of darkness. It is this specific wall of black that makes me relive it over and over again. I see nothing but black because that is all I could see.
It felt impossible to move, let alone open my eyes, no matter how hard I tried to. I see the blackness behind my eyelids. I hear his breath and camera shutter clicking.
I feel the pain. It makes me afraid to close my eyes sometimes, because that is all the memory associated with that sense that I have of what happened.
It clouds my mind with “What ifs”: “What if I had opened my eyes?” “What if I said something?” “What if I fought back?” Or other vaguer questions, such as: “What if I hadn’t drunk that much?” “What if I hadn’t gone to the party at all?” “What if I left earlier?” Or questions of why: “Why was no one else there?” “Why did they leave me all alone?” “Why did he feel like he could?” “Why did he do it?”
I dwell on these questions for what seems like hours but in reality only lasts a few seconds or minutes. Time seems to slow.
What can I do to free myself from these memories and feelings? Can I continue to push them back and pretend they don’t exist? No. As with fear, the more we ignore it the more detrimental it may become. No matter how painful it may seem at first, we must push through it.
I pretended for a whole week that nothing was wrong. I went to class, I hung out in my dorm, and I prepared to go out again the following weekend. On my way out, though, I froze and burst into tears in my hallway. I couldn’t bring myself to go. The Resident Assistant in my hallway brought me into her room and listened as I told her what happened, and, after offering her support and urging me to come forward, set it up so that I was contacted and picked up by the police the following day to make a statement.
If only telling the officer of my experience didn’t bring up fears that I was in the wrong, and that I waited too long anyways to report it and the officer didn’t believe me.
It wasn’t until I brought it up in therapy that I began to really process it. I couldn’t ignore how it was affecting me any longer. I began what is called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing—otherwise known as EMDR—therapy, “designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories.” Essentially, I began the work to truly process my trauma and strengthen myself. In EMDR, a specific traumatic experience is first recognized in a history-taking session. Then the client is taught a variety of different methods for handling emotional distress, such as visualizations and physical exercises. I was taught a tapping exercise to help calm me down when anxious in which I crossed my arms over my chest and tapped—in a constant rhythm, not too slow or too fast—alternating each collarbone. I was also given two personal visualizations to focus on when feeling any distressing emotion or when stuck in a flashback; a comforting color and a comforting place.
I envisioned the color of the water of Torch Lake, Michigan, the combination of blue and green that held in it the calm of being on the water and the happiness of childhood memories in, on, and around the lake. I envisioned the sight of a large stone circle in front of a log home in which I and sometimes my family would have small picnics growing up, providing the comfort of being somewhere familiar and safe and surrounded by loved ones (and a reminder of my love of picnics). Once the client is prepared, the real work begins by identifying the trauma and processing it through EMDR therapy procedures by identifying three things: “the vivid visual image related to the memory”, “a negative belief about self”, and “related emotions and body sensations”. (3)
As I said before, when I think of it all I see is blackness. So, once asked by my therapist to visualize an image relating to my trauma, my visualization was not of a person or action, but of the blackness I saw while my eyes were closed. As I focused on this “image”, my therapist engaged in alternately tapping my outstretched palms while talking me through what to focus on and listening to my responses regarding what thoughts entered my mind, what feelings I felt, and what—if anything—changed in the image. As expected, I began with thoughts of “Why this?” and “What if that?”; feelings of anxiety, sadness, and helplessness; seeing blackness. Eventually, though, my questions changed, my feelings evolved, and the blackness began to fade.
At first I blamed myself for what happened. I blamed myself for putting myself in that situation, for not coming forward sooner so that he may be caught, for not opening my eyes.
Then, instead of the sadness, I felt anger; anger at him, whoever he was, for doing that to me, for having the audacity to treat me like that. I no longer felt ashamed that I didn’t—or couldn’t, who knows because it felt like both—open my eyes, rather accepting because it could have escalated if I did. The looming vision of complete and utter blackness started to lose its hold on me.
Though, since this trauma happened years ago, this therapy process initially brought these thoughts and memories forward again, I gained the ability to face it head-on instead of pretending it wasn’t there.
Let me say this: I am not “cured”. My treatment is incomplete, and I sometimes revert back to those images or feelings. I still see the blackness, but I am no longer afraid of it. I still have more appointments to attend, and I will carry this traumatic experience around with me forever. However, I now have the strength and tools to face it, and I will not let it control me or negatively influence me again. I have my exercises, my Torch Lake, my stone circle, and my support system. I still flinch when I hear the “R” word, and still feel uneasy. But now I can at least admit it to myself:
I was raped. And NONE of it was my fault.
(1) “Campus Sexual Violence: Statistics.” RAINN, 2014, www.rainn.org/statistics/campus-sexual-violence.
(2) “Statistics.” National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 2019, www.nsvrc.org/statistics.
(3) “What Is EMDR?: EMDR Institute – EYE MOVEMENT DESENSITIZATION AND REPROCESSING THERAPY.” Emdr Institute Inc, 2020, www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/.