We talk about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) clinically. Therapists talk about the big symptoms, like nightmares, insomnia, exaggerated startle responses. We discuss ways of coping with panic attacks. We look at practical solutions. What we don’t talk about is the everyday realities living with the emotional and cognitive effects of having experienced a physical violation that crosses all personal boundaries.
Yes the big things are hard, but the Devil is in the details. A few years ago I wrote a piece for an international publication. Some contributions were a few lines of poetry while others were pages long. The one sentence that stood out for me in that entire book, was the one in which the writer describes sleeping with one foot uncovered. I have also done that for as long as I can remember. Is that a survivor thing? Do we all do it? It doesn’t matter. What matters is the way that one detail jumped out at me. The fact that I did wonder if doing that is somehow related to having been raped.
It is the same way that I struggle to buy anything for myself. Then I analyse those difficulties until I’m going around in circles. Why did it take me 18 months to commit to a pair of boots? Was it because I am generally indecisive? Is that because I had the basic choice of whether or not to have sex taken away from me at the age of 7? How does one have the confidence to make such small decisions when such big ones have been forced out of your control? Is it because I am worried that my husband won’t approve of my choice of boots? I can’t handle hearing about how ugly they are every time I wear them. Where does my need for approval come from? Am I trying to prove that I’m a good girl because I somehow still believe that deep down inside I am to blame for having been raped? You know, because only certain types of girls get raped so I must have done lots wrong to have been raped repeatedly as a kid and then again as an adult. Then of course there’s the obvious, do I really deserve to spend that much money on myself?
In case you haven’t figured it out the boots are one example, a metaphor if you like, for my whole life. I constantly question every behaviour, every relationship, everything about the way I am. Which brings me to the really hard one – the reason I started writing this. It is about me as a survivor in relationships. So let’s go back to the beginning to put it all in perspective.
I grew up in the kind of home and community where kids weren’t even allowed to watch people kissing on TV. That was part of the reason I didn’t know that what my cousin was doing to me was wrong. There was so little physical contact or discussion about it in my life that I had no idea where the boundaries were or even that there should be any. All I knew was that he made me feel special. He always chose to sleep with me whenever there were sleepovers (about every second weekend). What made it more difficult to recognize as being wrong was that it felt good. I don’t remember being physically hurt. He cuddled me afterwards and I always fell asleep in his arms, with my head rested on his chest. It felt warm and safe. Then one day he asked me if I had started having periods yet. I said that I hadn’t and he was very relieved. With hindsight I realize that he must have just found out at that point how babies are made. He never raped me again. We did still remain close; until I tried to talk to him about it as an adult. Now we avoid each other as far as possible.
For a long time I blocked it out. There was a kind of cognitive dissonance about it. When the nurses came to school to talk to us about sex, I didn’t connect the dots. I didn’t make the association between what we did and what they were talking about.
Thankfully the boyfriends I had through high school were the kinds that assumed I was a “good girl” and didn’t really try for more than just a few kisses. The problem was that I didn’t know about boundaries. I didn’t realize that I had a choice. I ended up kissing a lot of boys, not because I liked them but because I didn’t know how to refuse. Somehow it didn’t matter what my body was doing. I could disconnect from it. I had no real concept of romance or what being a girlfriend meant in terms of actually building a relationship with another human being. If a guy was cute and he wanted to kiss me I’d let him. Sometimes it was because he said that he liked me and we’d go out a few times. Other times he’d pretend afterwards that it hadn’t happened. Sometimes that hurt. Sometimes it didn’t.
Then when I was in first year of varsity my Dad died. I suddenly had more freedom than I ever did before. He had always been the authority figure. My mum didn’t know what to do with me. She just didn’t have it in her to even raise her voice, never mind beat the crap out of me. She just did what she knew best. She retreated into her shell to avoid conflict. I partied. Hard. I drank heavily (about 300ml of brandy a night, at least four nights a week). I smoked cigarettes and tried marijuana a few times. In those days good girls never smoked or drank alcohol at all, at least not in public and certainly not with boys.
One night after a house party, the guy that was driving us home took me to an empty veld. We got into the back seat of his car. I thought he just wanted to kiss a bit and then he’d take me home. He started taking off my clothes. I asked him to stop but he didn’t listen. He told me to stop playing hard to get. I didn’t know what he meant. He was rough and I remember feeling bruised and sore afterwards, even though I was too drunk to feel it at the time. When he was done (and I was throwing up with my head hanging out the car) he said, “I am so sorry. I didn’t know you were a virgin.”
For a long time I didn’t quite process it as being rape. Back in 1993, the Indian community still had blinkers on about rape being a “stranger in the bushes” type of crime. When I heard the term date rape for the first time many years later it started the gears turning in my brain. At the time though, it never occurred to me to report it.
I changed the crowd that I hung out with on campus to avoid the guys who partied with him. I started dating a family friend, who wouldn’t have dreamed of being inappropriate with me at all. It was more about feeling safe and being able to say I had a boyfriend. He was someone who would protect me while we partied together. As always, there was no romance, none of the love letters and flowers and chocolates that the pretty girls always seemed to get in high school. I was just one of the guys who happened to be a girl that he could kiss goodnight. We were friends with minimal benefits. I wanted one of those relationships where they did the corny things like saying “I love you” at the end of every phone call. I just didn’t think I was worth it. I felt like a fraud. I knew I wasn’t a good girl any more. I didn’t deserve to be loved at all. That was when I decided to go to Israel.
At first I turned down all offers, saying that I had a boyfriend back home. I had learned by this stage that being the property of another man was often a good enough excuse to refuse unwanted attention. Then I made friends with a man who asked me to pretend to be his girlfriend so the homophobic soldiers wouldn’t realize he was gay. That was perfect for us both. Until we laid eyes on an extremely attractive man from the kibbutz down the street. He kissed us both on the lips at the New Years Eve party and we argued for days about his sexuality. That question was answered on my 21st birthday. I was horribly wasted by the time we got to the pub on his kibbutz. All I remember of the night was sobering up suddenly for a moment and realizing that I was somehow in his room. I had a flashback to somebody else trying to take my pants off when I was too drunk to fight back effectively. He must have seen the panic in my eyes or something, because he immediately stopped and took me back to my friends.
He came to visit me the next night. We went out on a real date; just the 2 of us – no big party, no crowd of friends, no alcohol. A few nights later we made love for the first time. It was everything the romance novels describe, right down to the candlelight. He was still there in the morning. We had breakfast together. We both had to work that day but we went to the pub together that night and he was with me. He still treated me the same as he did before. He asked about the new Hebrew words I had learned. We talked and laughed together. He kissed me in public. He made me feel like there was absolutely nothing wrong with us having sex just for the fun of it. More importantly, he treated me like I was beautiful. He looked at me like I mattered to him. Even though we both knew that I had to go home in less than two months, I felt like the world stood still. Of course it didn’t. I had to go home.
I suffered more cultural shock arriving back in Durban than I did on my first day in Israel. That was when I started to really understand rape culture. I didn’t have the words for that yet. I just finally realized the difference between what was done to me and what I had shared by choice. In the throes of readjusting to all of the constraints of the life I had taken for granted for so long (including attending the wedding of my 18 year old cousin) I finally started thinking about sex. I thought about our conditioning. I thought about the taboos. I thought about how I might never have the kind of relationship that I had only just discovered. I thought about going back. I found out that in order to become an Israeli citizen I would have to join the army. I couldn’t do that so I stayed in Durban.
It was so much harder to fit in, knowing what I knew. The boyfriend back home was still waiting for me. He hadn’t changed at all, while I felt like a butterfly being forced back into a cocoon. There was no one I could talk to about my feelings, nobody could possibly understand what it was like to be even weirder than I was before. More than that I ached to be touched, to be loved physically, to wake up next to a beautiful man who somehow didn’t think less of me after having seen me naked.
It was two years before I found that again. Two years of hating myself more and more after every unfulfilling encounter. Every man seemed to be ashamed of being with me. The worst was the morning after a one night stand with a colleague from work. He refused to even kiss me goodbye in the morning. When I asked him about it, he explained that we could never have a relationship because we were different races. He compared sleeping with me to his equally drunken experimentation with homosexuality. That was right up there with the guy who I knew because his sister married my cousin. We slept together a few times and even had some fairly decent conversations about music and philosophy. The problem was that he wouldn’t admit to either of our families that we saw each other outside of the family functions. When we were in public it was like I didn’t even exist, not even at a wedding where I was all dressed up and knew for sure that I looked pretty damned good (because some guy’s parents asked my uncle if they could talk to him about arranging for us to meet – read potential arranged marriage).
It was ridiculous. I was going through the most intensely sexual time of my life, trying to figure out how to find fantastic sex and mutual respect in the same relationship, in a world where arranged marriages still happened. Then there was a guy who was so intrigued by my otherness that he asked me to marry him. I don’t think I actually knew what he meant. I was just so relieved that somebody could know that I was a slut and still see himself spending the rest of his life with me, that I agreed without really thinking about how I felt. He was the kind of guy that made mixed tapes, and bought roses on Valentine’s Day and all the things I thought I wanted; until I met the man who was meant to be my “’til death do us part.”
I knew he was different immediately. He didn’t try to get in my pants the first time we met, which was new for me at that stage. We talked a lot. He was between jobs because he had quit as a restaurant manager when he couldn’t handle the way the owner treated non-white staff. He started working at the same timeshare sales company as me. We spent a lot of time just talking. He had read all kinds of esoteric literature. We had some really deep discussions. When he had to move out of the apartment that was one of his perks at the restaurant, I invited him to come live with me. I told the other guy that I need to take some time out to think about what I wanted. When he came to visit unexpectedly one day, he found Costa there. They talked together alone. To this day I have no idea what either of them said. All I knew was that he collected his stuff soon after and I never saw him again.
This was the beginning of the relationship where I did the most healing. It is also the relationship where I have been hurt the most. It is sometimes frightening how I can see both sides of the story equally well. It feels almost schizophrenic in a lot of ways.