Thursday, 30 April 2009

Repeat to fade: a healing process or pathway to eternal victim?

I was raped when I was nineteen (14 years ago) you can see my below post for details. I was prone to bouts of low self esteem anyway, which I have no doubt led me to be the perfect victim in that circumstance. I wasn't forceful and I wasn't very good at defending myself. I was lost in such a confrontational situation and didn't put up much of a fight, although thanks to the comments below I know that I made it clear that I did not consent to sex and that it was rape.

I have always been an approval seeker and after the rape the compulsion to seek approval grew much stronger. The roots of my low opinion of myself were deeply entrenched from childhood. I suffered considerable bullying. I was the kind of child who took it greatly to heart. I don't want to get into the details now, but I may post about this some time in the future. What I will say is that it taught me a certain reaction to confrontation. I learned that the best way to get through such situations was the "grin and bear it" option. In order to ensure that my attackers were not aggravated into more extreme acts of bullying I learnt to just take what was being thrown at me and hope that they would get what they wanted sooner rather than later and that it would be over as fast as possible. Why fight the inevitable? I have no doubt that this made me a favoured target because I didn't fight back and more importantly I would never tell.

At the time it seemed that I chose to let myself be the victim and thus I perpetuated my own cycle of abuse. It felt like a choice at the time anyway. I felt that I was actively choosing the passive role, but that actively choosing it meant that it wasn't passive at all. Again from the comments to my post below I realise that in these types of situations I was just fooling myself by creating the illusion of having been given a choice where no choice ever existed.

A dangerous game to play, perhaps, choosing to give up control, choosing to rely on others to do the decent thing and not push the situation too far. With hindsight, yes, but at the times when people confronted me I was so disabled with panic, so downtrodden and miserable I have to say that I didn't care how they treated me as long as I survived. And I didn't much care what state I survived in. Or maybe I just couldn't bring myself to wish for anything better where it seemed to be such a fruitless wish. I embraced my fate as my own, as part of me. I was the type of person who would always be bullied and I couldn’t see how it would ever be any different. I wore the mantel of bullying like a familiar coat.

So we have a teenager already primed to be the victim, already accustomed to choosing the victim's role and to accepting it as her fate, which no doubt led to me supplicating myself in situations which wouldn’t really have become that serious if I'd been more assertive. But the role was mine, it was what I was destined for and sometimes I’m sure I made a "bully versus victim" situation develop where a stronger person would have been able to dissipate it or prevent it from happening by presenting themselves clearly as an equal. But I expected to be treated badly I expected to be used by others for their amusement.

Now the point of my posting here isn't really to talk about bullying, I'm just trying to set the scene, to establish my personality type and to show how I was already in the victim mentality. It's difficult to come back from this place of fearing for your health, your mind and sometimes even your life at the hands of others, to become a strong person, to learn to stand up for yourself, to even realise that you have a choice to be anything other than what you've become. I had a few years free from physical bullying in the later years of my school life (although still teased verbally) and I'd managed to get some confidence back. The move to university at eighteen was like a rebirth. It was a new place and a new set of people who didn't know anything about my past. They didn't have a bullying lead to follow. They hadn't yet discovered the qualities which made people hate me to the extent that they wanted to physically or mentally abuse me. Maybe this new set of people never would? Maybe I could manage to portray the person who I really wanted to be and could finally leave all that nastiness behind me? Maybe I could manage to fool them into not noticing the parts of me which prompted the bullying, the parts of me which I could never identify to be able to change, but which seemed so obvious to others?

As far as the bullying was concerned my wishes came true. I lived a new life. I grew in confidence and began to feel for the first time in many years that I fitted in with a group of people and didn't need to seek their approval. I didn’t need to constantly monitor myself to prevent myself from giving people any reason to pick on me. They accepted me for who I was and I was able to make mistakes, say stupid things, act without thinking and still retain their respect. I could be a normal person without fear of reprisals. It was truly wonderful. I had a new set of friends who loved my personality and I felt worthy. I began to realise what a strong person I actually was and began to see my own attractiveness.

I had a few one night stands and a couple of more serious relationships, I was a bit of a "loose" woman in the end and I know that I started to turn things the other way sometimes, using the men. I called the shots, I picked them up and I took them back to my cave. But in university-land this was acceptable and it felt like a safe environment, a false world I suppose where everyone was friends and respected each other. I admit that I was enjoying being promiscuous at this time, it didn’t feel like something I was being pressured into and I never felt that I did anything that I didn’t feel comfortable with. I tended to favour the relationship option where that would develop, rather than the one-night stand, and I remained friends with all these blokes so I know that they were healthy encounters as this new confident self.

However back in the real world where I went for end-of-term holidays things were a lot different - more edgy, more risky and violent. Taking this student attitude into the real world is what caused me to get myself into the unseen danger in the first place. It also contributed to the state of denial I was in after the rape. I convinced myself that I had been an easy lay, following on from the promiscuous attitude I’d started to adopt. It was simple enough to add this guy to the figurative notches on the bedpost and pretend it was just another night of experimental sex.

It then seemed a natural progression to thinking of my sexual behaviour after the rape in the same vein. Seeing myself as the experienced scarlet woman who had very liberal boundaries. If I had been a willing participant then I'd done some very liberal things in sexual terms (I'm not going to get into the details, but the rape situation involved things I'd never done before or since). But in this assumption I was fooling myself. The sexual encounters I had after the rape were not the same thing at all. I hadn’t been gradually building myself up to them, I hadn’t been getting more carefree in my own way and on my own terms, I was noticeably different, suddenly, looking back now. I felt I could understand how women get into prostitution and I know that if I'd been short of money I'd have seen nothing wrong with it. Something inside had died, the romance attached to sex, the intimacy, it just all seemed like people pounding (whether consensually or not) on each other for thrills, not any kind of act of love. The emotional connection had been lost, and I have to say that I've never completely reconnected it.

People don't appreciate the consequences of rape. It's not just one night of violence or coercion to be dealt with. There is an undulating aftermath. The physical consequences are easier to spot and appreciate, but these soon pass once we’ve dealt with them, although memories of their horror can still come back to bite us when we’re least expecting it.

Firstly there is the practical side of healing physical wounds. I was lucky I didn't have anything too drastic (and I'm not getting into details). I do believe that the post traumatic stress and particularly the way I kept it so tightly wound up inside of me contributed to my contraction of irritable bowel syndrome a few years later. It’s certainly connected in my brain, it’s stress related, this was a stressful event, it’s logical. This is a condition to be "managed" for the rest of my life, so I do feel like the physical effects are always with me.

Secondly there is the fear. Fear of everybody and everything. I went through being claustrphobic, then agrophobic. I was anorexic, then I was bulemic. All these things were only ever for short burts. I was so unsure of myself I couldn't even pick a phobia to get lost in. I didn't let myself dwell here too long, I chose eating and smoking as much more socially acceptable habits and which didn't indicate any deeper trauma. I smoked a lot though. I put on four stone eventually as well.

Thirdly there's the foreboding of drastic consequences. I didn't have a period for four months. It took two months to build any sort of courage to have a pregnancy test, which thankfully came out negative, but not before I'd pondered that stinker of a question - whether to keep a rapist's baby. Then I began to fear, vast painful fear, stomach-churning panic-ridden fear, that my system wasn't working because he'd infected me with something horrible. Of all the men I've ever been with he's the most likely candidate for having an S.T.D. and he took drugs. I could have contracted anything from him! Now we're talking over four months after the rape and I was still finding out the extent of the damage he'd done to me, before I could even hope to move on with my life. Added to this was my extreme secrecy - nobody knew. I had the H.I.V. test. Luckily I was ok. So the missed periods must have been stress - pure and simple. My body knew what trauma I'd been through even though my brain was still in denial. A denial which was to last nearly 14 years.

And the effects go on in many other ways. They are still with me now. I’m still finding out how and I'm gradually dealing with the issues.

Regardless of whether I admitted it to myself or those around me, I was now the victim of sexual violence as well as physical and mental bullying in my life. Sexual violence brings something new to the equation. It causes a different type of trauma. It's easier to see physical violence as a wrong act being committed against you. Violence is wrong, hitting is wrong, pushing is wrong, calling people names is wrong, belittling people in public is wrong. Sex is not wrong in itself. It's easy to convince yourself that you chose to have that sex after all, that you chose to be a man who you didn't fancy. Then the brain starts constructing a false truth around it. Why would I have chosen to have sex with a man I found repulsive? Why would I choose to have unprotected sex like an idiot? Maybe it was because I was so desperate for sex that I didn't look after myself? Maybe I was so much of a whore that I didn't respect myself or the people who I slept with? Maybe I didn't value sex as any kind of intimate act, but that it was lust only - an itch to be scratched… etc. etc.

So the real damage isn't the trama which is caused by remembering a situation where you were forced into sex, the damage is done by these false memories constructed to relieve the mind from the horror of coercion and/or violence. It reflects what I said about the bullying, that I looked for a way to remember it as having been an active choice on my part. I suspect that a lot of people who suffer various kinds of abuse fabricate these false realities to make themselves feel like they have some control. I convinced myself I chose to be used, I chose to take part in sex that I didn't really want. That's the cancerous little seed which gets planted and which starts to grow and destroy all self-respect and you lose the ability to see yourself as a person who deserves to be respected by others.

You start on the lowest rung, you start from a pit, a cavernous hole in which you are barely better than an animal. With no more rights to sexual pleasure than an animal has, instead you feel like you are just a functional vessel with no rights to your own pleasure and to own your body. You start from the point of thinking that every bloke is better than you, that they deserve to ask what they want of you, that everybody else's opinions are more important, that you are worth nothing and you deserve nothing. With me this was very much kept below the surface. And on top I was all bravado. I'd had a three in a bed (again see the post below) and I'd had an adventure, I was enjoying my new freedom at university and I was just having some fun. I would see a bloke I wanted to be with and I would make it happen. This is the false truth I constructed for myself so I didn't have to deal with the more painful reality.

This is where we get to the title of this post. I know now that I mostly didn't pick the blokes I wanted and I didn't work some kind of magic, didn't charm them or have some "je n'est ce qois" which the other girls didn't have. What was different about me was that I didn't say no to anyone. I would pick up the vibe that a bloke was interested in me and without conscious thought I would decide that I was going to pursue that man and I was going to have that man, regardless of whether I actually fancied him or not. I would act in whatever way would make him approve of me and I would offer him everything on a plate, but all the time convinced in myself that I was in control. When alone with them in private I would allow them to steer the course of things, but I would convince myself that I was in the seat of control and that I was getting all the attention, I was the one using them. When things got to a certain stage, though, I would make myself as passive as I needed to be to be more passive than them. To somehow re-enact the rape scenario.

Now the difference between these blokes and the rapist was simple. They weren't rapists! They didn't want to push a girl into having sex against her consent or against her will. They wanted to have consensual sex with a girl who fancied them. What I realise now that I wanted from them was to use them in a deeply misguided healing process. Because I refused to acknowledge that I had been forced into sex I couldn't start the healing process that I should have embarked upon. I should have got some counselling or I should have talked to my friends. I should at least have allowed myself to feel, in my darkest moments, the reality of my experiences. But instead I was trapped there, unable to move on. I was trapped in a prison of my own making. I'd walked in and closed the door behind me. It was all my fault. Somehow that translated in the end into me believing that it was ALL my fault – the ill-chosen sex (not acknowledged as rape), my odd reactions to it, the fact that I no longer respected myself and the men I was going with. I blamed myself for all of it, so I couldn’t see myself ever as a victim of circumstance. I was so far away from "victim" in my own head.

In this unhealthy loop I continued to choose, over and over again, to become involved with men in a way that I wouldn't really have wanted to if I'd allowed myself to really think about it. I'm not saying I didn't fancy them, well some of them I did very much, but I allowed myself to be carried on whatever desire they were wanting to pursue, regardless of what I wanted from them. I would have sex with them on the first night, I would allow things to go further than I would ever have steered them if I'd been in charge. I allowed them to take charge and supplicated myself. I remember one particular one-night stand. This one sticks out in my memory because I remember vividly wishing that he would force me into sex. I remember lying prostrate in a luring position, whilst pretending to have fallen asleep, hoping and nigh-on praying that he would try to force things, that he would take control and that I could be passive in the whole event. I remember wishing that he'd rape me. But he didn't, and I was disappointed. I remember this now looking back. I also remember that at this moment I had absolutely no self respect after acknowledging these intentions to myself. Instead of healing myself all I was doing was reinforcing my fabrications and all the prejudices which I’d placed onto my own head. I was "asking for it", I must have been - I was so sexually depraved that I wanted to be raped. This is what I began to believe at the time. This was extremely destructive, it made me unable to see anything wrong in the rape and the preceding assault. I was left unable to lay any blame on anyone other than myself.

So this brings me on to the premise of this piece. "Repeat to fade" is the phrase I decided fits this scenario. The act of trying to heal myself by designing the same traumatic situation again and again, but with safer perpetrators. Looking back these blokes were not the pushy types. I'd pushed them, I'd picked them up, I was the pushy one. Then I would change and hope that they would take over being in control and this would somehow allow me to re-enact the rape in "safe" circumstances. I’m not quite sure whether I was hoping to be able to break the cycle by eventually taking control over one of these blokes, or whether I was reliving the scene over and over again to dull its effects after accepting that it was just the way things were going to be. I’m no psychologist. I think the hope was that eventually I would heal myself. That the balance would start to swing towards the middle, that in my own time I would be able to take back the control and that each scenario would bring me one step closer to being a sexual equal again.

This might have worked eventually. One bloke might have been just the right personality type to question me or to get me to admit things. I was close on some occasions to breaking and telling all. I don't know really, I'd be interested to know whether this is a common reaction, whether it's the sort of approach which has been known to work - reliving trauma to reduce its effects and basically going round and round in the same loop until it breaks, until a scenario presents itself which allows the victim to break it. Now I mention "victim" here because now I realise that was precisely what I was. I wasn't in control as I thought I was, but I wasn't the victim of these non-rapists either. I was trying to project the scenario onto scenes where it wouldn't fit and I was failing to ever recognise or blame the real culprit, the man who did the act in the first place.

Unfortunately one time the scenario did fit and it fitted all too well. This is what brings me to the question in the title. Did I just set myself up to be the eternal victim? Eventually one of the random guys I was using in my healing loop turned out to be one of those vultures who prays on vulnerable women to control them. He caught me in his snare good and proper. Although I didn't know how vulnerable I really was, he could smell it and I became a victim of a new variety. He was able to control me mentally because I was hooked on his bad treatment of me. This wasn't just a one night stand to use in my healing loop, as we were in a relationship and I had bad treatment available on tap. This relationship was intense, we lived in the same house, and I put up with so much that a confident woman, who was not devoid of self-esteem, would never have allowed to happen. He fooled around with other girls, blatantly, I remember knowing what was going on at the time, he wasn't fooling me, he didn't need to hide his infidelity from me because I was so low that I didn't think I deserved his respect. He got the best of the relationship in all ways. I was devoted to him, obsessed by him, I let sex happen whenever and however he wanted and I allowed him to bring girls back to his room and often would visit him after they'd left and spend the night with him. Other times he would crawl up to my room and into bed with me and I would comfort him if things hadn't gone well.

Something snapped one day though, which I'm sure often happens with people who are in denial. Reality slaps you hard in the face one day and revelation strikes. Mine came when he left me in his room and his screensaver eventually clicked on. It was porn. He didn't think anything of porn just randomly popping up for me to see, it wasn't even as if it was hidden away. The thought that it was such a throw away thing to him jarred against the raw parts inside, which still hadn't healed from the rape. It screamed at me that I was with a man who didn't respect any women, not just that he didn't respect me. This was the kick I needed to get myself out of the loop and I soon extricated myself from the relationship and eventually orchestrated his move from the house, at which time I got my control back.

I emerged from this relationship a much stronger person and my next sexual encounter was not a one-night stand but turned out to be a long-term relationship on equal terms. I still have a lot of problems associated with the rape and I'm only just discovering how much it has affected me, but somehow at least I broke this victim loop.

So I'll try to conclude in terms of the original question. I do find it difficult because I think I'm still blind to a lot of the truth in this situation and I've been in denial so long that it's difficult to unfurl it all. Anyway I think I was on the pathway to eternal victim. If I hadn't plunged so deeply into the role, that I was so far into the passive realm to ignore its passive nature, then I might never have been free of it. I might have carried on sleeping around and carried on with the one-night stands, and I probably would have still been stuck there now.



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