Content Note: Sexual Violence
The night I was sexually assaulted was cold. I don’t remember the date or even the month; I only remember it was winter. I’ve blocked out a lot of the details. Mostly, I wanted to pretend it never happened and didn’t even tell my parents until after I had graduated the next spring. My roommates were the only people who knew right away, and after I told them, I pushed the incident to the back of my mind as quickly as possible.
I was in college and had gone to a party with my friends. When we got home, my best friend and I made drunk food, changed into our sweats, flicked on the TV, and snuggled up on our respective couches. But in the middle of the night, I was woken up by an acquaintance shaking me. I looked around the room for my best friend, but she seemed to have wandered off to her bedroom for the night. I struggled to adjust my eyes to the dark, as this guy—who looked more like a bear than a human—tried to wake me up. I knew him, but only through friends; he had graduated the year before and had returned to campus for the weekend to visit.
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Once he saw I was awake, he tried to kiss me. Leaning in, he used his body weight to trap me on the couch. I smelled his horrible breath enveloping my face and felt like I was choking for air. I wanted my best friend to still be sleeping on the couch adjacent to me so she could help. But of course, it wasn’t her fault that she had woken up and gone to bed, it was this creep’s fault for trying to violate me in my own home.
I pushed him off me and gruffly told him to stop, but he continued to lean in and push back. As I used all my strength to push him off me, he pulled me back down to the couch and drunkenly mumbled, “You know you want it.” I could not have possibly wanted “it” less. As he fondled my breasts and tried to fumble at my sweatpants, I kept pushing him away and jabbing him with my elbow.
Suddenly, he hunched over in an episode of drunken narcolepsy. His body was slumped heavily on top of me, but I was determined to get away. My heart beat out of my chest and my mind raced, but I worked out a plan. My bedroom was only one room over, and I wasn’t sure if he would come looking for me there. Instead, I decided to run down to the basement and hide there for the night.
So with this man’s full weight on top of me, I pretended to be asleep for a minute or so. I wanted him to be in a deep enough sleep before attempting to escape, and I also thought that if he woke up and saw that I was asleep, maybe he would leave me alone. Once his snores escalated to a roar, I made my move. I pushed his body over as much as I could without waking him and slid off the couch.
Careful not to make even the slightest sound, I crawled on all fours through the living room and across the kitchen, then tiptoed down the stairs, where I locked myself in a basement room that was used for storage. I stayed there until morning on the bare floor, hoping that the guy who was determined to assault me would leave me alone.
After this happened, I immediately told myself that it could have been worse—I considered myself “lucky” that forceful and unwelcome groping from a virtual stranger hadn’t turned into anything more. I’d heard so many stories that were so much more violent than mine; I felt like what happened to me wasn’t that bad. I’ve since learned that this is a depressingly common reaction among folks who have been assaulted; many survivors try to minimize what has happened to them as a coping mechanism.
Relatedly, I’d “forgotten” that I’d ever been a victim of sexual assault until fairly recently; it took our persistent cultural discussion following the Harvey Weinstein revelations to bring it all back. Research confirms that this is common; many survivors have a delayed response to trauma, the memories of which can stay dormant until someone or something triggers a response, forcing them to acknowledge what had happened. In studies, these triggers have been linked to a handful of factors, the most common of which is sensory recall, or sensory reminders that bring the survivor back to the trauma in question.
For example, if a survivor was being followed by someone in the moments leading up to their attack, then the sound of footsteps behind them may trigger memories of assault. Reading some detail in one of the many harrowing stories of women who have been assaulted by powerful men may trigger memories of the survivor’s personal experience with assault, as well.
What Causes Memories to Return
“Models of classical conditioning can help explain how one can become triggered by stimuli related to the original traumatic event,” says Kathryn M. Bell, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Capital University. During a traumatic event, stimuli like sights, smells, and physical sensations become paired with the traumatic event itself and can become conditioned to produce a similarly feared response.
“For example, if a sexual assault occurs at a party, stimuli present at the time of the assault (a song playing on the radio, the perpetrator’s body odor, etc.) can become paired with the assault itself, and can produce a feared response if encountered again in the future.” This is essentially like Pavlov’s Law, but for terrifying circumstances.
“Because reminders of the trauma are emotionally distressing, the individual may attempt to avoid these reminders, but if they do so, the individual won’t learn that these stimuli are not dangerous (and, thus, the feared reaction to these stimuli remains).”
Why Some of Us Forget
Jodi J. De Luca, Ph.D, explains why many sexual trauma survivors exhibit a delayed response. Certain memories become psychologically repressed, which can take shape in the form of dissociative amnesia, or a breakdown in memory. De Luca says we get dissociative amnesia “to protect the psyche from re-experiencing the trauma, pain, or the intense stress associated with that memory.”
Survivors often have fragmented memories of their assault. According to Bell, this phenomenon is not only common, but a sensible choice our brains make. “When a person is faced with a dangerous or threatening situation, their attention becomes narrowly focused on the danger at hand,” she says.
So when survivors can’t remember every aspect of the trauma later, that isn’t the result of negligence or absent-mindedness—instead, certain aspects of the trauma simply weren’t encoded into the survivor’s memory because they were experiencing real and present danger. “This can help explain why a survivor may recall vividly certain details of the trauma while being unable to recall other details of the event,” Bell says.
As if speaking up and reporting sex crimes to the police wasn’t intimidating enough, it’s inherently scarier when you can’t even remember pivotal aspects of your assault and assailant. But instead of remembering the details that will be more important later on, survivors of trauma often remember minuscule details—whatever they happened to be focusing on in the moment—and those details became encoded in the brain instead.
And Why Others Remember
There are also survivors who do have constant memories of their trauma and their assailant. In some of these cases, victims may feel compelled to seek immediate action, which means there’s a chance that their aggressor may be brought to justice. But that also means they may be living in a day-to-day nightmare where they can’t help but be reminded of the dehumanizing ways in which they were victimized.
Intrusive memories, or memories of the event that occur without our bidding them, are both very distressing and quite common in PTSD survivors, Bell says. Certain survivor experiences have been shown to lead to greater symptoms of PTSD. Some of these include self-blame, previous exposure to trauma, avoidance coping, and perceived life threat during the assault itself. So while some people can more easily push away reminders of their assault, others—usually with more complex histories of assault and fewer skills with which to cope—end up more prone to intrusive memories.
Some Fall Into Depression
Everyone responds to trauma differently. While some people forget and others swiftly take action, many other survivors fall into depression. Fran Walfish, Psy.D., a family and relationship psychotherapist, says that a depressive reaction to sexual abuse stems from overwhelming feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, and rage.
“The survivor hasn’t had the liberty of verbalizing direct anger toward the aggressor,” she says, which means they frequently “implode,” turning those feelings inward, causing a depression. Walfish explains that many survivors can benefit from anti-anxiety and/or antidepressant medications in addition to therapy.
And even still, there are survivors who end up having mixed emotions and experiences because there is no universal way in which to properly process assault. So while research catches up to the intricacies and breadth of trauma responses, survivors are finding ways to process as best they can in an effort to cope and move forward.
There Are Ways Out
“Some people may have been able to process the memories—and associated emotions—related to the trauma and experience less distress when recalling the memories of the trauma,” Bell says.
“Paradoxically, sometimes by recalling the memories and processing one’s emotions and thoughts related to them, you can experience fewer intrusive memories about the trauma.” She notes that, conversely, when you try to avoid recalling traumatic memories, you can actually experience an increase in intrusive memories and other re-experiencing PTSD symptoms. “This is at the heart of many evidence-based PTSD treatments—survivors are encouraged to face the memories of their traumatic experience and process the emotions and thoughts related to their memories of the trauma,” Bell says.
Personally, I always blamed my dissociation from that chilly winter night as being simply because “it wasn’t really assault.” But it was. And now I’m ready to acknowledge it. “Forgetting—such as in the case of repressed or delayed memory post trauma—is a part of the human memory process,” De Luca explains. “And it is also a part of remembering.”
While some aspects of trauma and memory are still cloaked in mystery, many others are already quite clear; we both forget and remember as part of a cyclical response to the type of trauma which—through awareness and activism—we can hope to break the cycle of altogether.
Alexis Dent is a poet, essayist, entrepreneur, and author. Her first book, Everything I Left Behind, came out this fall. In addition to freelancing, Dent writes a weekly newsletter called White Collar Dropout for self-employed millennials and ambitious side hustlers. Dent also designs quirky leggings for her apparel company, Eraminta, because she really hates wearing pants. Keep up with her on her website and follow her on Twitter @alexisdent.