Two decades back, I interviewed one of the world’s most respected authorities on self-harm. Dr Roy Sugarman told me of an experiment in which he anesthetized the legs of lab mice. They self-mutilated in response. Agony was more tolerable to them than numbness, and Sugarman believed cutters self-harmed for precisely that reason—to force themselves out of oblivion.
At the time, I had no idea how relevant that interview would become to my own life. For 10 years after my rape, I straddled the divide between oblivion and trauma, never quite knowing which was more tolerable.
My PTSD manifested in dissociation. My head would click into a sense of unreality all by itself. It felt as though I curled into a tiny ball and retracted into the centre of my body. The world felt so many distances away. Self-harm cured the numbness, but it kept me static. It only helped me to get back to reality. It didn’t help me to process trauma.
Dissociation makes it well-nigh impossible to get beyond rape. You continually push yourself into emotional numbness, so how do you get to the other side of all those feelings you’re refusing to experience?
Trial and error. Trial and error over and over and over. I had to learn how to stop using oblivion like a drug.
Gaining a sense of reality can be learned just like dissociation can. Once you figure out how to get your head there, it becomes easier to repeat. Drawing my surroundings forced me into the present. Cleaning a tile or sewing a butterfly worked just as well. Zen Buddhism taught me how to be mindful, which gave me much-needed moments of peace.
It didn’t cure my PTSD. Nothing did, but then I found a rape trauma specialist who told me why I was stuck: she told me that patients who dissociate never become immune to their rapes. The trauma comes back in all its ugliness every time you talk about it. Continuous therapy was the very thing that was freezing me in my pain, so once I’d dealt with all my fucked up beliefs about my rape and processed the feelings, my therapist told me I never needed to talk about it again.
It took a few months to finally feel free, but I’ve had to figure out which situations cause relapse. Psychological abuse created an entirely new layer of trauma complete with its own triggering sounds, smells, and colours. Victim blaming fucks me up every time, too. I have to stay away from certain thought habits and people. When I put it down like this, in such a simple way, it seems absurd that it healed me, but it did.
I wish every survivor was the same so that we could just use one guaranteed step-by-step guide, but we all have to do it the long way: by getting through the trial and error a thousand times until we figure out where our peace can be found.