I was raped twenty years ago. It was date rape. I didn’t even consider it rape until someone pointed it out to me: The doctor who saw me for the STD I contracted. It made sense. I hadn’t wanted sex. Somehow it happened. To this day I am not exactly sure how. I had pretty much forgotten about the rape until just recently. I got the assignment to read an article about rape on campus (here’s a rebuttle to that article). Slowly, everything came back. I was starting to have flashbacks again. It’s like a movie that plays in my head without my control. It just plays whenever it wants to. I used to call myself a survivor. That helped with healing to a point but I didn’t want to define myself that way, so eventually I moved on. Other things happened in my life and the rape faded into the background. Obviously, it never went away. The hurt, the pain, the doubts are trickling back in. I don’t think I suppressed the memory – it’s just not something you can dwell on, plus it’s just damn painful to talk about in detail. Healing from the experience of rape requires us to move on, to not solely define ourselves as rape victims. As survivors. Yet that is who we are. It will always be a part of our history. The movie is encoded in our brains and plays when triggered.
Now that I am beginning to read more about the evolutionary process – more in terms of memes than genes because I find that more fascinating – I am wondering what a traumatic experience like this does to us. There’s more than movie encoded in my brain. The movie is just the obvious part. There is also a very, very deep hurt that never quite goes away. And there is always a part that doesn’t quite feel okay anymore. What pathways are forged in the brains of a person who experienced such trauma and how can we heal those pathways because they are obviously much deeper than I, at least, realized? I can only suspect how this experience affected the rest of my life. I don’t even know if it did. I do know that I have had my share of unhealthy and abusive relationships. Did I end up in those because of some wiring left behind by the rape experience? Or is that giving the rape too much power? Maybe it wasn’t such a formative and destructive event.
There is evidence, though, that does suggest that traumatic events that trigger Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, including rape, change the brain, thus are quite formative. The amygdala, a part of our brain, is involved in the processing of our fear response (among other emotions). During trauma, this fear response sensitizes the amygdala, which then apparently reacts more quickly and strongly to fear-inducing stimuli. The hippocampus, the part of our brain involved in memory, is also affected. Studies have found changes in the hippocampus of patients with PTSD. Our body releases natural opiates when we’re faced with danger. These opiate levels remain high in people with PTSD, possibly leading to the blunting of emotions we experience. Neurotransmitters that activate the hippocampus – our memory – are at higher levels than normal, which might explain why the movie of the trauma is so well preserved.
All this is comforting to me, as well as fascinating. There is a reason why this experience keeps popping up, despite all the work I’ve done around it, and why each rerun of the movie leaves me scatter brained and close to tears. It’s wired in my brain. The reaction is completely normal. And that is what every rape survivor wants to know: we are normal, we are okay. It happened to us and we survived. However, knowing about the effects of the experience on our brains can help us accept the after-effects of our trauma. That, too, is normal and there is a biological explanation for it. Though, to me, the question that remains now seems to stay largely unanswered: How do I undo that rewiring? I am not sure if there is a way to do that. After all the nature of trauma is that it is traumatic, i.e., different than our normal experience (though for some, such as survivors of childhood abuse, unfortunately, the trauma became the “normal”). There are, of course, treatments that help us cope but I don’t think those treatments re-wire our brain again. They help us learn to live with our “new” brain; they help us cope and move on, yet our brain remains rewired. My flashbacks are a vivid reminder of that.
There is also an interesting comment, which almost seems like an aside, in the Psychology Today article on PTSD: “Thus, the fear induced by re-exposure to traumatic material indicates a failure of inhibition on the part of the hippocampus, and is evidence that the traumatic episode is not integrated as a narrative, spatio-temporal event in autobiographical memory.” As Timothy Wilson would put it – based on Strangers to Ourselves: We haven’t found a good self-story yet. Maybe knowing that our brain got re-wired can help us integrate the trauma into our self-story.
What about the effect of the rape on the rest of my life? Of course, this is speculation at this point but it sounds like the scientific evidence points to a heightened fear response. We become afraid faster and more strongly. Maybe that is why I was attracted to men who seemed strong and able to protect me. Unfortunately, they were neither.
I am hesitant to post this to my blog. It’s a much more personal note than anything that I’ve posted so far. But this is part of who I am, part of my history. And I found the neuropsychological findings on PTSD very helpful for making sense of that past, writing a little more of my self-story. Learning this, contributed another piece to my healing from the rape. I want to share that with other survivors of trauma in the hopes that it might be helpful to them. Still, it feels like a big step to hit “publish.”