Your first year of college is supposed to be a time of new experiences. Most students probably look back on their first year with a certain fondness, perhaps an eyeroll and a shake of the head regarding decisions made and quantity of alcohol consumed. But when your first year was overshadowed by your life falling apart, it’s easy to feel that you missed out on the best year of college and that nothing is ever going to get better.
When I was raped in my first term of college, it seemed like all the hopes and expectations I had for university life crumbled before my eyes. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I cried multiple times each day. I stopped trying to be heard in conversations. I stopped wanting to meet new people. I felt as if my personality had been diluted, reduced to a sad imitation of who I used to be. I felt truly, awfully alone. And I thought that that was it. That this was going to be my life, forever. But it’s been exactly 12 months and I’m writing the article I wanted to read last year. Because it’s been awful and sad and ugly and sickening and difficult – but it’s starting to get better.
Coming to terms with what happened took a few days. Putting the “rape” label on it took a few months. Because it’s the sort of thing you think would never happen to you – until it does. The statistics are sobering, sure, but you never think you’ll be the one until you’re passed out in bed and feel someone on top of you, until you say “no” and “stop” but it keeps going, till you try to move, to do anything, and just feel arms on your neck and chest pushing you back down. Until you have to wash your own blood out of your sheets.
We’ve all heard these stories already, too many times. But the aftermath – these are the parts no-one talks about. How specific things trigger flashbacks, innocuous to everyone else, sending you from cloud nine to a shaking mess in moments. For me, it’s birthday cake. I’ve never had it in me to tell anyone that it’s not a coincidence how, since it happened, I’ve left the room at every birthday party when the cake is brought in, because in that moment, I’m back at that night in my flat and it’s a case of spiralling all over again. How truly awful it feels to hear friends talking about the idea that “it’s like leaving your door unlocked and complaining about getting robbed”, as if I am a piece of property. How there are days where any sort of physical contact leads to retching and vomiting. How there are other days when I’ll spend hours staring with vacant eyes at the photos I took on my phone a week after it happened, detached from the reality that that bruised, beaten girl in the picture is actually me, and wondering how I could ever have let it happen at all. How I saw him before my first exam in May, ended up in the bathroom with a panic attack, walked in five minutes late, couldn’t read the paper for half an hour because my eyes were swimming, and ended up with a 2.2 in the exam although I knew every answer.
It’s a slow process, it’s an ugly process, filled with tears and anger and frustration, but rebuilding yourself is always possible, and always worthwhile
Healing is ugly. Sometimes it’s still two hours under a shower with the water at forty degrees celsius, hoping that if it’s hot enough it will get under the skin and remove whatever’s left underneath. Sometimes it’s getting flashbacks so bad that you have to walk out of a lecture and get the next train home. Sometimes it’s wearing the most ill-fitting clothes you can find because you don’t want to be reminded that you have a body.
I’ve reached a point where I’ve stopped doing things just to prove that he didn’t ruin them for me, and started doing them for myself again. I haven’t slept on my floor once this year. I’ve gone back to seeing sex as something fun, something good, and not something that ruined my life: because rape is not sex, it is rape.
What was stolen from me? My year in Halls, no doubt. Some friends – “sorry I’ve been ignoring your messages for two weeks, I’ve been trying to cope with extreme trauma. Let’s pick up where we left off?”. My grades dropped significantly. It took months for me to sleep in my bed again. I lost the ability to form close friendships quickly, constantly feeling like I was holding back this huge part of myself. My confidence. I became so bitter.
But I thought I’d be living the rest of my life with a “FRAGILE – HANDLE WITH CARE” sign wrapped around me, “damaged goods” marked out in between my legs. But relearning your body post-trauma is the most cathartic part of all. Forgiving and accepting, acknowledging and feeling. I can also do hugs now, and don’t drink full bottles of wine just to sleep without nightmares.
Maybe I’ll never be the same person I was beforehand, but I’m learning how to listen to myself, and to give myself permission to heal everyday
A year on, I wake up in the morning and it’s not the first thing I think about. Some days, I don’t think about it at all. It’s still there, it’s not something I’ve let go of completely, but it no longer feels like the biggest part of me. I’m a student, a writer, a feminist, a purveyor of the finest €4 wine and sender of the most pretentious text messages – rape victim doesn’t come into it.
I’ve learned that most people don’t know how to help – but they want to. It’s not something people are comfortable talking about but friends want to be there for you, you just have to allow them to be.
So, a year on, here’s what healing looks like. It’s seeing him coming out of a lecture and looking down, stopping, take deep breaths for a full minute – but not going into the nearest toilet to throw up. It’s having someone beside you in bed again and not feeling panic, the sort that starts in the pit of your stomach and extends out like a scream of adrenaline. It’s saying to your friend, “yes, I do need a distraction. Please watch the Lord of the Rings with me”. (I’m not a big Lord of the Rings fan.) It’s crying in the library, but not because I still feel broken, but because I feel like I’m finally getting better. And maybe I skipped a night out this week because I thought it would be too much for me, but that’s not a failure on my part. Maybe I’ll never be the same person I was beforehand, but I’m learning how to listen to myself, and to give myself permission to heal everyday. It’s a slow process, it’s an ugly process, filled with tears and anger and frustration, but rebuilding yourself is always possible, and always worthwhile.
After it happened, I cut my hair and pierced my nose because I wanted an excuse to not recognise the girl I saw in the mirror. I’ve kept the nose piercing but I’m growing out my hair. I can look myself in the eye now, and I miss it being long.
Editor’s Note: The publication of articles written by anonymous authors is generally forbidden at The University Times. However, the Editor may, in certain cases, make an exception if the publication of such an article is of great public interest and there is a significant risk that the writer may experience great harm as a result of their name being associated with the article in question.