A rape survivor's story: My ‘world view’ was one of the biggest casualties of the attack

Since a stranger followed me off a bus and raped and beat me, yoga, the kindness of strangers and cuddles with a stinky mutt have been formative in my recovery

The man that did what he did put me through two trials before finally being convicted and sent to jail. Photograph: iStock

The man that did what he did put me through two trials before finally being convicted and sent to jail. Photograph: iStock

 

There are two kinds of days for me as a rape survivor. Ones that work, or rather within which I can “work”, and the other ones – non-days which sneak up from nowhere and sabotage my best-laid plans.

Good days are ones where I get the satisfaction of ticking off boxes and counting the things I’ve managed to do like some miserly accountant. There is a smugness to it, I will admit. But after a long period where going to yoga and doing some admin, and perhaps even meeting someone for a coffee, was nothing more than a distant memory of the sociable multi-tasker I used to be, this smugness is a trait I allow myself.

At the end of a “good” day, I love to sit in bed and look at my diary and fill in what I did with my time, unconstrained by fear or anxiety or depression, and how utterly normal it looked to everyone – even myself.

I present at work like the person they knew before the attack

Good days begin with an early-morning gym class – spin preferably, so I don’t have to decide to push myself but can simply follow direction and sweat and feel my body get stronger. No points for guessing where that instinct to strengthen myself comes from.

Propelled by this energy burst, I present at work like the person they knew before the attack – smiles and enthusiasm abounding. I am happy to get involved with whatever projects are going on, ready to give a colleague a dig-out when they need and I pride myself on providing a warm and earnest mentor to the young people I work with as an educator.

On a good day, I see out the day with my positivity intact.

I might manage an errand – always keeping sight of energy outputs – before arriving on the mat at yoga. This is one of the highlights of every day; the safe space created and held by a group of people that do not utter one word to each other usually. Bizarre, but true.

Since the week after a stranger followed me off a bus and raped and beat me, yoga and the people who share my practice with me have been a solace in the darkest times, whenever I could manage to attend. I’ve wept on the mat, I’ve sweated and worked furiously, I stopped and managed several moments of calm and acceptance. And other times I have curled up in a child’s pose and understood that was the most I could manage, but that I was lucky to have that right then and there.

Evening rituals have replaced mid-week pints and late cinema trips. I give myself facials and paint my toes nowadays. I draw and sketch and meditate and journal. Writing has made sense of much of my thinking as it evolved over my recovery and it’s a keeper; I will journal no matter what frame of mind I am in, even if only to rant about world politics or gush about a good day at work. I make sure I have a decent book beside my bed, and two or three back-ups in case I don’t feel like fiction/non-fiction/poetry/space-opera/God knows on the night that is in it.

After teaching young people with dyslexia for years, I finally gained insight into the sheer frustration of not being able to translate those symbols on a page into meaning. ‘TBI’, one of the many terms I have learned in the 18 months since the attack, means traumatic brain injury.

It helped to pathologise the terrifying things that made my brain an alien intruder to me at times and a damaged pet at others. Long story short, though, your cognitive and memory processing can go slightly berserk for a while after a traumatic incident and one of the effects was I could mechanically read just fine, but it was exhausting trying to parse what each sentence meant. And compound/complex sentences . . . ? Forget about it.

I remember tears of anger, wading through the pages of novel suggested by my sister who described it as a Baroque delight and ultimately discarding it, without any sense of what was going on in it. It took four lonely months and a lot of brain training games and meditation before books were back in my life. I missed them like I missed a limb and I don’t think I will ever take them for granted again.

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Bed time is sacred

At 10pm my alarm goes off and I get myself organised for my early start, always cautiously hopeful it will be another “good” day. Each successful activity is ticked off, a tiny success in reclaiming normalcy, life. I look at what tomorrow is shaping up like, but crucially try not to engage with the anxiety that would come along with getting deeply involved in the myriad ways it might all go wrong. I read – joy! I do my breathing techniques and a bit of body scanning or meditation in the last moments before I fall asleep and relinquish my grip on control of things. And I pray there will be no bad dreams to rock my steady boat.

The truth is, though, that, despite this being a good day, it is scheduled and controlled to the extent that I can control it. Planning each day isn’t just a chance to tick off “goals met” each evening. It is a way of forecasting what my day will be like, how much energy I will spend and how much I will have remaining, the most precious commodity when you being to experience a chronic lack of it as I have since the attack. Migraines, possibly triggered by stress, possibly by head trauma sustained by the violence of my assault, pop up every couple of weeks and my immune system has never been in a sorrier state. Something to do with the sustained high levels of stress hormones fritzing the rest of my body’s systems. Which makes me feel sympathy for my body, like it is a friend who – having survived the brutality of rape – cannot catch a break with ongoing health issues and surprise cameos from panic attacks and flashbacks.

Yoga and meditation and my pre-existing fervent feminism has helped in redefining my relationship with my body and with the world at large. My ‘world view’ was one of the biggest casualties of the attack, as my therapist observed. I was no idiot prior to it all, but that said . . . I thought people were generally led by an instinct to do good.

The man that did what he did put me through two trials before finally being convicted and sent to jail.

The people on the bus who saw me trying to get away from him and did nothing.

The barrister, a woman, which somehow made it worse, who knew about his priors and persisted in harassing me into a state of persistent fear and anxiety which my body will not, even now, let go of.

These are the people who rocked that world view.

But there have been people who are rebuilding it – friends, family, counsellors and unknowing strangers who demonstrate kindness and prove my worst fears wrong. The family who heard me that night and rang the police. And travelled to testify twice, making the case infinitely more solid. The retired men and women, ‘witness liaisons’ who volunteer to keep you company at court when you testify and make sure your hand is never empty of a cup of tea and welcome you with a gentle, unintrusive smile. Proper heroes.

Dogs have been formative in my recovery

Lastly, dogs. Dogs have been formative in my recovery. My sister’s glorious Samoyed was the first creature I was comfortable touching after it happened. Burying my hands and face in his fur, I remembered what it was to associate sensation with affection rather than fear. I built myself up over months with the daily care of loved ones and daily cuddles with a large, rather stinky mutt.

On a ‘bad’ day, there is a shorter script for my ‘to do’ list.

It can happen at any stage of the day; I can wake in a sudden depressive funk and have to battle my way through the day at work, hiding as much as possible, ensuring my duties are done before I head for the door on the button of clock-out. I can be travelling on the Luas on a sunny morning into town when a perfectly nice, presumably, guy’s leg grazes off mine as he sits down, and it is all I can do to not scream, as I break out in a sweat and resist the urge to vomit.

Flashbacks are not memories; if nothing else, repeat this to yourself and learn it. They are a part of your traumatised brain being mistakenly convinced that the same danger it faced before is back again and it is dead set on reacting to it. You don’t think clearly, react normally. They can strike any time, more often if you are fatigued or sad or in crowds or . . . the list goes on.

And they may never happen to me again. Or they might continue for decades. There is no way to tell. It is embarrassing and horrifying, and it can happen because of an innocuous event like the above did or a more direct-seeming trigger like a violent assault scene on TV.

The effect is the same though; physical and mental distress followed by feeling like you just ran half a marathon and you need to sleep, and have a hug, and drink some tea some place safe, possibly simultaneously if only that were possible.

‘Bad’ days don’t include getting angry with him, the man that did this and then lied about it. I can’t. I think I am too scared to open that Pandora’s box, like if I began being angry at him I would never, ever stop.

And it scares me to consider it. But I have enough to process without that.

I sometimes feel sad I need to schedule self-care and compassion for myself

I hustle each and every day to ensure I’m doing everything I can to prevent the bad days from occurring more often than they need to. They do apparently ‘need’ to, according to therapists, so as to work through what needs working through. And there is improvement and relapses as with anything of this nature. I sometimes feel sad I need to schedule self-care and compassion for myself, as opposed to wanting to do it naturally. But until it comes naturally, I will trust that my diary and yoga and dogs are the way to go.

I would also recommend joining a survivors’ group, though I am sad to say no such group currently exists in Dublin.

– The writer wishes to remain anonymous. Her identity is known to the editor.
– For the location and contacts of rape crisis centres in Ireland, or information about supports, see rapecrisishelp.ie or call the 24-hour helpline 1800 778 888.

- If you would like to tell your story for this series, you can do so here, or by emailing health@irishtimes.com. (please write "Daily Routine" in the subject line).
Thank you,
Damian Cullen (Health & Family Editor)

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