Trigger warning: This post contains descriptions of sexual trauma.
I got a UTI two to three times a month when I was being repeatedly raped. I went to a doctor, and they asked if I was bathing enough, and then prescribed a preventative antibiotic to take before I had sex. Though my body was clearly rebelling against what was happening, no one listened to it—including me. The doctor didn’t ask if my sexually-active relationship was consensual or not, and I didn’t have the language to tell them otherwise.
In the years since, I’ve practiced saying the word “rape.” It happened to me more than once and by someone I know—details I haven’t quite worked out how to relay in one sentence. Again, saying I was raped at all took practice.
Now, years later, I’m physically far away from my abuser but my body still doesn’t feel safe, which often results in panic attacks during or after sex. Without warning, I can’t breathe, think, or override my physical reactions of crying and hyperventilation. My skin crawls until I wrap it up tight, usually in a sweatshirt or blanket. Sometimes my vision goes, or my ears ring. The worst of the episode can last anywhere from three to five minutes; the residual feelings of urgency and shame usually continue all night, often into the following day.
Sometimes I avoid sex for weeks or even months afterward. Other times I seek it out, subconsciously hoping, I’m sure, for a way to release the trauma my body still holds. I wear heavier clothes. The assaults are a constant, aching presence in the back of my mind, as if I’ve forgotten to lock my front door, turn off the oven, or set my alarm. I think about rape when I drink. Sometimes I drink too much because of it. When I’m feeling up to the challenge, I practice looking at my body in the mirror and naming each part—arm, leg, torso—as something that belongs to me, a technique some therapists recommend.
Three months ago, I sat in my therapist’s office recapping an almost idyllic Fourth of July weekend: A trip to upstate New York, farm-to-table meals, oh and a panic attack that left me sick and hyperventilating in the bathroom for an hour. “I think EMDR could really help you,” she said.
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy. In my case this looked like holding a buzzer in each hand, their alternating vibrations ping-ponging between my palms as my therapist prompted me to close my eyes and conjure certain memories. She asked me to notice how I felt—physically and emotionally—when remembering those moments.
The session lasted 90 minutes. Afterward, I was disoriented and raw. I couldn’t bring myself to do it again.
A few weeks later, I had lunch with a friend who told me she had PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, without so much as a flinch or a nervous blink. She too was in the midst of EMDR therapy—a treatment that’s shown promise for those living with PTSD. When I thought of the condition, I thought of veterans and violent crime survivors, people who’d had knives held to their throats, guns to their backs. People who certainly weren’t me.
Do I have PTSD? I asked my therapist in our next session. She pulled out her DSM-5, a manual which defines and classifies mental disorders, with the caveat that diagnosis is an inexact science; then she read off the criteria for PTSD. There are eight, five of which have between two and seven sub-criteria. I met each of the main criteria and all of the subs except for three.
In that moment, I realized I’ve had imposter syndrome about my own mental health; somehow the years I spent in a body that at any moment might betray me didn’t feel like enough evidence to warrant a serious diagnosis. In a twisted way, my panic attacks and struggling for intimacy with myself and partners for years, didn’t feel significant enough to qualify for PTSD. Why did I need the DSM-5 to tell me what my body had known all along?