What People Don't Understand About Being a Male Rape Survivor
I have to write this. Not for pity or to tell anybody they are wrong, but because people really don’t understand.
Yes, I am a sexual abuse and a sexual assault survivor.
I am male, age 31. I’m fairly husky. I’m not particularly strong physically, but I can be intimidating — only by accident though. I’m not what you really picture when you think “rape victim,” but here you have it. When I was a child, a family member sexually abused me. Later on, during my teen years, a group of bullies gang-raped me one night at a school camp.
I carry this as a part of my identity. Not to play the victim, not to stubbornly hold on to it, but because it has shaped a large part of who I am as an individual. I can be very odd. I’m that weird “omega wolf” teammate in any group project whom the other teammates either really like or deeply despise. I can be very creative — you have to develop a strong imagination and fantasy self in order to carry yourself through that kind of torture. I can be at times difficult, moody, depressing and petulant. At the same time, I can also be extremely stoic, strong and/or patient in the face of things that would bother others much more.
My past gave me weaknesses, but it also gave me strengths.
Yes, it is in my past.
The physical damage from the abuse is (mostly, save for some minor issues) in the past. The event itself was, yes, horrific, but I can at least handle the memories. I was strong enough to survive it.
But, it affects my future, right now, in the present.
One of my favorite quotes lately comes from “Game of Thrones.” The character Sansa Stark says of her own abuse, “I can still feel it. I don’t mean ‘in my tender heart, it still pains me so.’ I can still feel what he did, in my body, standing here, right now.”
She nailed it. It’s not that it happened. Were it merely a long moment of hurt and abuse, that had a beginning and an end, it wouldn’t even matter to me. But that’s the problem here. After it’s over, things change. Your logical brain often shuts down, and has to reboot itself. After several of my assaults, I had to literally lay there a moment and gather myself and my thoughts back together, like some sort of broken automaton. Because the amount of fear and stress (and their respective hormones) had triggered my body to enter a sort of safe mode.
There is something called the fight-flight-freeze-response. Danger happens. If you cannot fight your way out of danger, you try to run. If you cannot run, you’re forced to freeze. It’s like running a computer on safe mode after a virus has damaged half of its functions. At that point, all your body is concerned with is making sure to minimize the damage by going more or less slack. Meanwhile a bunch of traumatic and difficult memories get recorded in the emotional and survival core of your physical brain because the logical part is checked out. These memories can trigger and reply at difficult times or sometimes for no reason at all.
It makes certain situations very difficult. I may logically know that the person angry with me doesn’t intend to physically hurt me, but my survival mechanisms are already taking over and I’m edging into a panic attack.
All the time, I hear well-meaning supporters tell me, “It’s in the past, you have to let it go.”
Well, yes and no. First, this invalidates the struggle I go through. It also proves how far separated the perceptions of non-survivors and survivors are. Yes, it’s in my past. But it left me with problems that affect me in the present. I can’t just decide that everything is OK when I am still suffering the symptoms of post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD). Yes, I can choose to seek help and support, which I am. But please don’t treat my neurological damage like it is a character defect. I’m stronger than you know.
Be supportive. Instead of telling me to just get over it, reassure me that I’m not alone and I can trust you. Instead of asking me why I’m feeling sorry for myself, ask me if I need someone to confide in. Instead of seeing me as unstable, dangerous or damaged, see me as recovering, resilient and brave. Because I’ve survived battles. Some I’m still fighting. And when I finally emerge victorious, I won’t let you down.
I am a survivor.
Unsplash photo via Grace Madelin