Three times this week, a loud noise or a trick of light convinced me that something terrible was about to happen to the people whom I love most. The misperception caused my brain and body to have an overwhelming, involuntary reaction.
Here’s what happens: I’m suddenly unable to breathe. My heart races and feels as though it is going to break through my ribs. I can’t see well and feel fear-driven confusion. The reaction can last for 30 seconds or 30 minutes. Immediately afterward, I’m sucked dry of both energy and emotion. I cry (or try to avoid crying) exhausted tears. My hands and arms shiver. It takes an hour or so before my body is back to normal — unless the reaction happens in the middle of the night, in which case, there is no back to normal. I can’t go back to sleep. I give up on getting any rest and end up staring out the window, impatient for the sun to rise.
The third reaction this week happened at 5:30 a.m., as my husband and two children drove me to the airport. It was so early that the sun had yet to rise. Suddenly, a trick of the streetlight shining through a spindly tree caused me to believe that my family’s car was about to slam into a deer. I screamed. Even when I knew all was safe, I couldn’t let go of the panic.
My husband, accustomed to these outbursts, rested his hand on my knee to reassure me that all was well. As my heart slowed again, I worked hard not to cry in front of the kids. After a few minutes, my 5-year-old asked me, “Mommy, why are you always screaming over nothing?” Then he and his 7-year-old brother laughed at the hilarious joke.
My husband squeezed my hand. I felt relief at my children’s laughter.
I have panic reactions because I was raped in graduate school. Sometimes they happen when I’m doing events specifically related to rape — like watching movies, writing articles, or doing readings about the subject. Other times, as I’ve mentioned, the reactions are triggered by some random occurrence like a loud noise. The unpredictability is the worst part: It happens in the grocery store ... at my sister’s house ... around my kids.
It’s hard to know whether I would have developed these responses after being raped if I didn’t also have a psychiatric disability. It’s hard to know, in part, because one main study of PTSD in rape victims excluded people with pre-existing mental-health conditions. The two — severe trauma and psychiatric disability — make for a tough combination.
But what researchers do know is that you do not have to have a psychiatric disability to develop PTSD — nearly half of all rape victims in that study do. And they know that having a psychiatric disability makes rape victims more vulnerable to developing PTSD after being raped, which is why they’re excluded from the major studies. Researchers also know that having a disability, including a psychiatric one, makes you more vulnerable to being raped in the first place.
The Before and After
Now that I am older — now that I am a rape survivor — I am far more careful with how I drink alcohol. Now I know that one drink — just one — can make me drunk. Or, I can have three and not be the slightest bit tipsy. I can never predict what my body’s reaction will be because I can never predict how my body will have metabolized my psychiatric medicine throughout the day.
But when I was younger — still learning how the medicines worked, still more trusting of those around me — I was less careful. Less, you might say, paranoid.
So when I tell you that I was drunk the night that I was raped in graduate school, after drinking at a bar with other students whom I trusted, you might imagine a typical night out, a group of us throwing back drinks, a girl who should have been more careful (paranoid). But nothing about having a severe psychiatric disability is typical. It changes everything.
I did not consent. I did, indeed, say “no” (over and over). My rapist held me down with his elbow across my neck.
What I have learned about the interaction of psychiatric disability and rape is this: I cannot separate the before (I am disabled), from the event (I am a disabled person who was raped), from the aftermath (I am a disabled person who was raped, and who then developed a new disability — PTSD and panic attacks).
At the time I was raped, I did not report it to the police because I knew that I would not be believed. For similar reasons, I did not initially report my rape to the university, either. I knew that I would not be believed not (only) because I had been drinking, but also because I have a psychiatric disability. People with psychiatric disabilities are deemed, by our very nature, to be untrustworthy witnesses to our own lives.
But I am not an outlier. Most victims do not report being raped. There are lots of reasons to avoid reporting. If you are raped at college and report it, as we all now know, universities do a notoriously bad job of helping you. Organizations like End Rape on Campus and The Hunting Ground film have shined some light on this problem.
But universities also do a bad job handling the ways that disability and rape often unfold together.
A student is raped. After being raped, she has — what studies show — a normal reaction. She grows anxious and depressed. Anxiety and depression cause insomnia. Lack of sleep means she has trouble making it to class, which causes her to do poorly in her studies. Her poor performance makes her more depressed. She is also afraid to leave her room for fear of seeing her rapist and his enabling friends around campus. She stops eating. She stops exercising. She grows even more depressed.
Sometimes, this normal post-rape reaction kills her. Women do not kill themselves after being raped because they are weak. They kill themselves because depression and other post-trauma reactions can be deadly, and institutions do not provide rape victims with the support and intervention they need.
Depression is a psychiatric disability, as is PTSD. And, yet when I (finally) reported my rape to the university officials, they showed no particular urgency to get me any sort of disability services. It was as though no one on campus knew the incidence of psychiatric disability in rape victims. Or, perhaps they knew, but they did not care. I’m not sure.
All I know is, 10 years later, I’m still screaming. But not, despite all of the time that has passed, over nothing.