Founder of Attacked Not Defeated, Phoebe Tansley, is a sexual health practitioner, gender-based violence prevention advocate and survivor. Here she revisits a previous blog and reflects on her experiences over the last five years.
By Phoebe Tansley
Unbelievably, it’s been over two years since I last wrote about my personal experience of surviving rape. I suppose as time goes by and workload mounts, self-reflection gets pushed to the bottom of the priority list too often.
I decided to write this as I recently reached the five year milestone since I was attacked; and in particular wanted to focus on something which has cropped up for me recently; triggers.
In the five years I have been doing this, many survivors have approached me and asked me for advice on how to cope; some reassurance that it gets easier. I know that when survivors who are further along in their journeys than me describe where they are at with it, it has at times comforted me.
In particular I remember reading an account written by a woman who – like me – was strangled, but around 20 years ago. She talked about how she couldn’t wear anything too restrictive around her neck for years because it reminded her of the attack, but that over time she started to wear scarves again and now she can do so without even thinking about it.
To me, in the early days of recovery, that was probably the most comforting thing I read. So next time you see me rocking a turtleneck and looking pretty smug about it, you’ll know why.
The word ‘trigger’ suddenly becomes really present in your life after you’ve experienced sexual violence.
I remember in the immediate aftermath, various professionals kept asking me what ‘triggers’ me or if I had been ‘triggered’, and not really knowing what they meant.
As I wrote in a previous blog, my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) arrived with delayed onset so for about six months after I was raped I felt relatively ‘okay’. It was my first trigger which actually then led to the first signs of PTSD; and that trigger was a pretty catastrophic one as it involved me being mugged by two men carrying machetes.
The sight of two violent men, the feeling of vulnerability, and the very real threat to my life took me right back to the night of the rape, and culminated in a total shut down of logic; I remember a feeling of overwhelming fear, and of utter devastation. It was from that moment on that my hyper-arousal kicked in.
There are plenty of definitions of hyper-arousal online; all I can really say with any authority is my own experience of it, which was a feeling of being constantly under threat.
Every situation was a risk, every day was a mission to avoid being raped or attacked. Every unknown person, and some known people, felt threatening. I had adrenaline constantly pumping through my body which translated into night-terrors as I slept; and so it was rare to have a restful and uninterrupted night’s sleep – even with the addition of a hammer that I kept by my bed.
I remained in this exhausting state of existence for around 18 months; but now, I am pleased to report, it has eased off substantially.
These days I walk home from the tube at night with the regular amount of anxiety that any woman experiences (that in itself is still frustrating but I’ll take putting keys between my fingers over screaming ‘HEELLPPPPP’ and running in the opposite direction when a man smiles at me on the street – this actually happened).
I am also, I think, a better friend and family member than I was back then. I’d put this mostly down to the fact that I don’t conduct an impossible-to-pass risk assessment of every social engagement before I attend in the same way I used to; I’m generally more trusting and can devote more brain space to enjoying people’s company now that it’s not being taken up by holding my bladder for hours on end because I’m convinced an attacker is waiting for me in the toilet.
All joking aside – hyper-arousal is totally debilitating and so if you are currently experiencing it, be gentle with yourself. You’re allowed to drop the ball a bit in other areas of your life while you navigate this horrible, relentless sense of impending doom. If a loved one is experiencing this, let them off the hook if they flake on a few meetups or don’t reply to your messages. They will come back to you and they will be so thankful that you continued to love them and gave them time to find their footing again.
So, remember a few paragraphs ago when I said everything was much better? It is – however, as with most difficult things in life, recovering from trauma is not a smooth ride. Rewind to four months ago, there I was living my life, feeling good about not having to barricade myself into rooms anymore, when the mother of all triggers decided to descend.
It had been so long that I had forgotten how it felt. And yet; the length of time I had felt better for, and the confidence I had developed, somehow made it worse: I wasn’t protected by shock like I was back then; the memories were flooding in with ease and clarity, and I was no longer dissociating with the event like I used to.
This wasn’t a scary movie anymore, it was me. It happened to me. It really happened.
I was watching the TV programme Broadchurch, which came with very clear and robust trigger warnings. Confession: I basically ignore trigger warnings. This is because between working in sexual health, studying sexual violence advocacy, and running AND, I have developed the ability to almost completely separate my personal experience and my professional experience. This ability is what has enabled me to do the job I love for the last five years.
I watch documentaries, films and TV programmes as well as read academic texts, personal accounts and fictional descriptions involving sexual violence all the time. Of course – I am human – it still affects me, but what I rarely do is relate it to my own experience.
I think one of the main reasons I have been able to do this is because what happened to me is a less common form of sexual violence – stranger rape. So, when I tuned into Broadchurch, the only thing going through my mind was that it would be interesting to see sexual violence support services depicted in a drama starring Olivia Coleman and David Tennant. It didn’t even occur to me that it might impact me personally.
And then suddenly, a frightened, injured woman was being taken into a clinical room for examinations – and it was me.
She had bruising on her arms and neck and cuts on her legs – just like me. She even had a cut on the back of her head where it hit the ground when she lost consciousness – just like me. And as the timid remains of her voice attempted to answer the policewoman’s questions while tears involuntarily fell out of her eyes, I remembered: that’s me.
This totally blindsided me and it took some time to feel like myself again. My nearest and dearest will tell you I am pretty in touch with my emotions – I regularly cry watching DIY SOS – but before experiencing this trigger, I can count on one hand the number of times that I remember crying about what happened to me. But this trigger acted like a faucet, and the tears were unyielding for a good five days.
I am very lucky in that I am currently being supported by a therapist, so I was able to take this into the therapy room within a week of it happening and do some very intense, challenging, but ultimately hugely restorative work around it. My therapist also gave me a talking to around my wilful ignorance of trigger warnings, and encouraged me to take a bit of a time out from anything which could be upsetting to watch.
But the most profound realisation to come out of this trigger has been this: maybe I don’t have to carry around my experience like a heavy burden whilst simultaneously trying to conceal it. Maybe I don’t need to be so anxious that others might view it as an impediment to my work and other areas of my life.
After watching Broadchurch I got into such a state that I felt an overwhelming urge to run away, because I genuinely didn’t know how I would ever be able to act normal and carry on with the life I had created for myself.
Partially due to aforementioned hyper-arousal, and partially due to my tireless indulgence in self-serve guilt, I decided not to do a runner and instead to bite the bullet and talk to a couple of people in my life about what I was going through.
The response I got wasn’t the one I was expecting. The people I chose to share with were my brother (for the comforting honesty that a sibling will reliably deliver) and two co-workers (because I was demonstrably not coping at work).
Both of these conversations resulted in these people fundamentally (and much more sensitively than this) asking me what on earth would possess me to stifle my human feelings and reactions to something which was not my fault in the first place, when those very feelings and reactions grant me an empathic knowledge which could actually be invaluable to my work?
I had been so utterly convinced that my experience of sexual violence and the impact it had on my mental health would be at odds with my professional practice that I had neglected it and starved it of oxygen until it eventually clambered up into my consciousness, gasping for air and begging me to accept it as a part of me.
I am coming to realise that the most important thing I can do to aid my work is to take care of myself – and that means all of myself, not just the parts that are convenient.
Sometimes, admitting that something is hard and asking for help is the hardest part.
These blogs are not easy to write; and they’re even harder to share. But I do so in the hope that – just as that article comforted me five years ago – someone might read it and feel a little bit less alone. So to anybody who can relate to some of the things I have described in this blog, consider that sometimes it takes another person to point out the truth that has been glaringly obvious to everyone else the whole time; that the darkest part of yourself that you have demonised and shamed for so long could actually be cultivated into something wonderful, if you’d only shed a little bit of light onto it.