How Rape Will Change Your Life

Illustrated by Pepper Pieroni

I used to think surviving rape would be about tears and shame and the impulsive wearing of baggy clothes. So when I was twenty and it happened to me, I had all of the wrong expectations. It’s been nearly five years since my rape, and now I know how rape will change your life.

Your brain will rebel against you…

Throughout my journey to bring my rapist to justice, I met several other recent rape victims. As I got to know each of them, I noticed a trend: we all had promising careers, challenging extracurriculars, and diplomas on our walls. What else did we have in common? How much our brains suddenly felt like mush. After my rape, I found myself stumbling to recall my words mid-sentence or pay attention to my favorite TV shows. I locked my keys in my car too many times to count. It was embarrassing, sure, but it also devastating. These experiences made me realize just how much I took for granted. To some degree I had begun to lose the things that had made me myself: quick wit, clarity of thought, and the ability to talk in complete sentences.

…and so will your body.

Trauma hides in the body. Popular media often portrays psychological damage in terms of hours of therapy or prescription pill bottles, but what I didn’t realize was that my body might change in other ways. A couple years after my rape, I was always exhausted, my muscles constantly aching. I tried everything before finally consulting a doctor. I was examined, prodded, and prescribed a sleep study.

“I sleep just fine,” I insisted.

The next day, the results came back that I had developed sleep apnea. I had begun to spontaneously stop breathing in my sleep, the doctor explained, and was doing it numerous times per hour. The reason I felt exhausted was because every time this happened, I was wrenched out of deep sleep. It was chilling to know my rape could affect me on such a deep and basic level.

I now sleep with a machine that helps me breathe at night, a look complete with tubing and a mask. It was endlessly frustrating to get used to, and I still haven’t found a way to stop the breakouts I get from the silicone face straps. Who would’ve thought that a rape would’ve given me cystic acne?

You’ll become afraid of the strangest things…

I used to be fearless. I used to do things like hang upside-down by my ankles ziplining over a hundred-foot ravine, or cling to the crashing bow of my father’s Boston Whaler in a tropical storm.

I certainly wasn’t so fearless after the rape. Strangely, though, it was the things that I thought rape would mean a fear of sex, or men. But suddenly, I found myself jumpy around horn-rimmed glasses. A certain texture of hair on a waiter or a hand placed too near my calf could send me straight out of a room with the shakes. I found I slept the best with a machete under my bed. Rape turned me into a ball of nerves that jumped at the most mundane things.

…and sometimes, people will become afraid of you…

A few years after my rape, my annual review was handed to me at work, and I felt my heart sink into my stomach. It was filled with paragraphs of comments about how my coworkers had been “concerned” after noticing me acting “tired” or “stressed” on certain days. It was of course true—I often had to go put my head down in the spare office to cope with the dizziness from poor nights of sleep. I had already explained my PTSD to my managers, but reading the rambling anxieties over my “stress management” made me feel so misunderstood. I never felt more alone than I did that day, now realizing I had been being judged all year despite my hard work. I had become something to be wary of, an inconvenience, an anomaly. Hiding my trauma took precedence over my own healing.

…but you will discover who your true friends are.

When you are in your darkest hour of your life and call for help, the people who answer—and those who don’t—will surprise you. I was always relatively vocal about my assault on social media, and was always shocked and humbled at how many messages I received from sheer acquaintances pledging to lend a supportive ear whenever I might need it. On the other hand, a couple friends I once considered some of my closest still avoid discussing the topic years later. I’ve lost many relationships because my dates didn’t support choices I made in my recovery, including speaking out about the botched police investigation. While my rape did cost me some relationships, it deepened others.