The Smell of Smoke: What It's Like to Survive the Fires of Sexual Trauma


Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

Survivors. We smell the smoke. It seeps into our clothing and surrounds us like a heavy fog. Ashes rain down like snowfall, cover us in dust, catch in our eyelashes and clump under our fingernails. The flames have long since flickered out. Even so, the houses of our lives have burned to the ground in the aftermath of the trauma we have endured. Somehow, we made it through.

We know what it feels like to sit down in the charred remains, to dig among the rubble, searching for meaning, something to hold onto or bring us back to the present. We try our best. Some days, we are lost. Flooded by memories that feel so real they could be mistaken for right now. Our reality is skewed. Other days, we manage to feel things as we turn them over and over in blackened hands, tracing their edges as if they could construct words and speak to us. These objects are our braille, and we are blinded and reeling in the aftereffects of all that has happened.

We probably look strange from the outside. The reality we walk through each day is heavy with silence, guilt and shame. These things press down hard upon us, like the words we’ve taken in and have running endlessly on repeat just loud enough to hear, but not loud enough to consciously register them anymore. From the outside, you can’t see the devastation, the loss, or what it continues to cost us to survive.

From your vantage point, we look rather like a lost puppy, or a homeless person begging coins and food on the street corner. The urge to turn your head and ignore us is strong. This only adds to the cacophony of silence. For the trauma to have happened, it required silence and tolerance. Looking the other way. None of that helps us. Instead, it further validates our abusers and their actions toward us. If you haven’t yet, this is where you’ll turn away.

We keep going.

We walk on hot coals, smoldering beneath our feet, ready to reignite at any moment a spark falls upon our steps. One memory stacks upon another, increasing the heat of the flames that relentlessly burn. Fire ebbs and flows. It comes and goes. At times, it can build until it seems an entire forest is aflame. At other times, the coal bed, while hot, is banked to the back corner of the fireplace, barely keeping the chill off. Yet, still we rub our hands expectantly for warmth.

We are in the aftershock and there aren’t enough blankets to weigh us down and keep the shivers away. Absentmindedly, our soot-covered hands work through the ash heap looking for something else that made it through the flames, perhaps with scorch marks, but intact enough to recognize. It might as well be a mirror. That’s exactly what a survivor is, too.

Do you know a survivor? Chances are, you do. One in 4 women and 1 in 6 men, before they turn 18, have survived child sexual abuse. The statistics for rape, of both men and women, as well as those from the trans and gender fluid communities, are even worse. All of us are survivors. All of us have endured trauma. We went through the fires. We were likely burned. Many of us are still reeling from the aftereffects. Without support, we might choose a path that includes self-medicating behaviors such as alcohol, drugs and other substance abuses, or addictions such as porn and self-harm.

There is hope. There is a way through the fire. There is life on the other side. Mindfulness may help you get there. Resiliency, too. Recovery is possible. Change is possible.

Most importantly of all: You are not alone. Many, many others travel with you.

Getty images photo via Grandfailure

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

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