Disclosure related to trauma is difficult to navigate. Sharing secret information can be courageous, but it can also make the person disclosing information feel vulnerable. The truth is, as we share our experiences — especially dark ones – with others, they perceive us differently.
I always try to be seen as happy and kind to others, although certain experiences have made me feel and act differently. The word “victim” carries a heavy weight and meaning — something I consistently struggle with as I consider who I am.
I was raped by two men when I was nineteen years old while away at college. Two men I had previously considered to be my friends.
In the ambulance ride to the hospital I knew something had gone terribly wrong. I didn’t know what happened or why but I knew it was wrong. The experience left me feeling confused, bewildered, saddened, mentally and physically wounded.
In the hospital, I was made aware of what had happened to me. Everything felt as though it was happening so quickly. There is a lot of confusion connected to violence. I was expected to speak about what had happened. Doctors and nurses asked me to give specific details as they inspected my broken body and collected sexual assault evidence for a rape kit. Later, the police asked me questions about the incident as well. They had taken things from my room — sheets, camera, computer — collecting evidence. A great deal was taken from me that night. It took me a long time to understand those feelings and to begin the healing process. Yet, within these moments directly after the violent thing that had occurred, I felt forced to disclose information about what had just happened — information I could not fully understand in the cold and sterile environment populated with doctors, nurses and police.
The trauma became a map of facts and injuries. It was collection of pieces. I could not place myself within this and needed to get away.
I moved away from my once-sleepy-now-scary college town as soon as I was able to leave the hospital and police station. I didn’t pack up my things. I just left. I told my parents that I never wanted to go back there again. I was sad and confused and couldn’t speak. All sense of community and safety I once felt was gone. My school planned a hearing after the incident because I had reported the crime to the police. My friends still at school encouraged me to attend and speak at the hearing. I was so angry about what had happened, but I was still confused. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to speak about it in a hearing — another cold and formal environment.
Finally, with the help of many people (including a lawyer) I decided to return to my school so I could share what had happened to me. I was hoping for some kind of justice. I was hoping that the people who had taken so much of me would not go unpunished, and that they would learn how hurtful their actions were. The trauma had ignited something new in me. It eliminated the passivity that had once dictated my life. I knew I had to disclose this information so that something could happen, so the same cycles of gendered violence and rape culture would not continue to happen. I returned to school with my story and evidence — ready to disclose this information. I was feeling wounded, but also strong. I was taking a stand. I was sharing a bad thing so that a good thing could happen. I hoped for change and recognition.
The process of speaking at the hearing was a new kind of trauma. I had to face the two men that had done this to me. I had to speak to them. In truth, I couldn’t imagine being in the same room with them, let alone speak with them. The very thought of speaking at the hearing created a perpetual state of anxiety and fear in my mind. As I entered the room, my heart was racing, my palms were sweaty, and I felt dizzy. But I knew that I needed to share what had happened to me.
Eventually the school ruled that due to a preponderance of evidence the boys were not guilty. I was so confused but I vowed not to let the school’s reaction injure me further. Rather, I felt passionately that my story was an important one to share. For the first time in a long time, I felt the need to be loud. Being unheard (by not only the two men that had done this to me, but the environment which was meant to keep me safe) created a new passion with in me, a need to share. I couldn’t remain passive. I had lived that way for so long as a young teen — I was never heard. Suddenly, that all changed. I wanted to disclose what had happened to me to seek justice. I wanted to share my story even if it made me vulnerable.
As women, we are often taught to not be loud. We are taught a language of “if you hadn’t . . . been wearing this,” or “. . . been at the party,” or “. . . been drinking.” When blame is placed, it’s often not on the person who did the violent thing. We hear the phrase: “It was their/your/her fault.” Hearing from others that you are somehow responsible for the violent crime that happened to you makes it difficult to share.
After this trauma, I started therapy and my need for justice somewhat shifted. I found ways to understand myself within the trauma, and I didn’t have such urgency to do something about it. I didn’t have the same urgency to tell those close to me what had happened. In fact, to this day I feel anxiety in sharing what had happened and I’m careful when I choose places to do so or people to share with. I need a safe space to feel comfortable sharing. I need someone with an understanding of who I am as a full human being, so I don’t fear that they will define me by this one experience. I need an ally.
After my experience with trauma, I did want to do something, but what that something was began to shift during therapy. I wanted to help others who had experienced similar things, and began volunteering with organizations. Often times these experiences of volunteering triggered my own trauma in ways I could not navigate or understand. One organization that I volunteered for asked me to go to court cases with young victims of sexual violence. Seeing these children becoming wrapped up in a legal language while dealing with life-altering traumas made me feel sad, angry, triggered and confused. It is difficult to talk about violence in these formal, legal environments, especially for young children who are not aware of the language of legality, who cannot afford a lawyer, or who may not have any healthy support system. My heart broke for the children I was helping.
When I returned to school (a new school), I wanted to learn more about trauma and sexual education, so I began to study these things and worked towards becoming a sex educator. During my time as a part of a sex educating collective I began to talk about trauma and violence. I wanted to share my personal experiences of trauma in hopes of educating others, but I had a lot of fear. I would become so nervous before revealing my experiences. Often times I felt uncertain if I was capable of doing so. Sometimes I didn’t share my personal experiences at all. Instead I would vaguely hint at trauma in my life. I didn’t feel ready to identify as a survivor. Disclosure is not only about the process of sharing new information but it is a feeling. As we disclose new information to others about ourselves we become vulnerable. This experience can be unnerving.
In one class we began to discuss rape culture and gendered violence. My heart was racing. Something felt physically wrong outside of just the nervous feeling of my heart pounding. I became light headed and grew pale. I’ve fainted before, and this feeling was similar. My throat was tense and my head was spinning. I couldn’t ungrasp my hands from the fists they had become. My muscles were cramping. The voices in the classroom turned into static as my vision became fuzzy. I had to leave the room and lay down in the common area at school. I couldn’t speak about what was happening, I couldn’t speak at all. I briefly lost consciousness and woke to find a friend from class who had brought me water and offered to walk me to the health center. I later wrote about the experience in a poem and shared it in another class. Interestingly, it was easier to share the poem, which allowed me to only disclose the pieces of this experience that I wanted to share — feeling overwhelmed and faint. I didn’t have to share what had happened to me — the traumas I have endured. It has always been easier for me to talk about trauma via metaphor.
Many questions run through my mind when I think about disclosure. How can I have control in what I choose to share and where? When is the time to share? When is it necessary or important? How can disclosure be not so scary and sensitive? Where is the proper place? When does sharing feel urgent or necessary? When am I unable to share due to fear?
After my experience with trauma and violence and after spending time in the hospital for these traumas and for my mental health, I have had a hard time re-accessing my identity. How do these things impact who I am? How can I move forward and how can I share with those I love, with those I work with, with those I meet these parts of my picture? Do I always need to share these parts? I do identify as a survivor, but I don’t think this is something for everyone to know. I don’t think this one word is all of me.
As I consider all of these questions, my identity constantly shifts. Sometimes I feel as though I have been many people; it can be difficult to understand them all as part of who I am. I have anxiety thinking about what parts of myself I want to share with others.
I am a very trusting person. I want to share myself with others, and I want to trust that others will be understanding and accepting of me. Unfortunately, I have learned that this isn’t always the case. I have since become very careful about when and where I choose to share. I also question the feeling of urgency, because I have been told that these behaviors can come across as manic and disoriented and this makes me feel “othered.” To me feeling “othered” is the experience of being viewed as different, abnormal, or not like the rest. I feel like an outsider, but also in these moments I feel outside of myself.
Sometimes pieces of me feel that it’s urgent to reveal my story to people. When I feel this way, I take a step back and think about why I might be feeling this way. Longevity is important to me in relationships. I need to feel comfortable and it is important that I feel that someone is truly listening when I share these parts of myself with others.
Yes, violence happened to me but it does not define me. It has shifted my thinking and made me a stronger person in some ways (and weaker in other ways) but it is not all of who I am. And yes, it has taken me a long time to find compassion and understanding for myself, vital energies if I am to start sharing these new parts of myself with others. It is something that I am constantly working on and struggle with. Still, there are many people do not know these parts of me. And I must admit that these parts of myself still feel secret, shameful at times.
Recently, I started a creative project to share pieces of my experiences in a way that felt safe to me- as though I wasn’t sharing too much. The project was about disclosure. I copied medical documents, journal entries and drawings, worksheets and musical lyrics from art and group therapies; I put all of the pieces together in little zines. Each zine was different, and each zine had different information. No single zine had all of the information. The gaps were intentional. If you think about it, when receiving any kind of information, there are gaps and everyone’s perception is different. I wanted to speak to my identity and disclosure. These are all pieces of me, my experiences with trauma and mental unwellness, but the important thing is that I decide how and when to share. I wrote individual letters to a select group of friends with whom I chose to share this zine project. I explained that this was my way of working through my experiences and slowly finding ways to talk about them and heal.
In addition to creating zines, writing has always been an important tool for me in my recovery. I find that writing creates a safe space for healing and provides me with newfound clarity. When I first became a part of OC87 Recovery Diaries team, writing about mental health, I focused on doing reviews or interviews. It was nice to write about topics that felt pressing to me, but I was able to do so with distance. Slowly, as I became comfortable sharing on the website and felt safe within the team, I was able to disclose personal information and stories. I started to write about my own traumas and mental health journey. Very recently, I wrote for the first time about my experience with trauma when I was 19 through the lens of EMDR therapy – eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. Once I wrote the piece and it was shared in a public space I suddenly felt a new understanding and distance from the experience. Once it was out in the world, for others to read, it felt as though a weight had been lifted in some ways.
I also wrote a piece about another experience titled “Hospitalized for a Break from Reality.” I was again very nervous to share this experience but in doing so I gained new clarity and distance from the experience. I shared these pieces with many people in my community and the response was overwhelming — in a positive way. I received several messages of support, praise, appreciation, thanks, solidarity, notes about my bravery, and kind words from loved ones. I felt so safe, happy and connected in this moment, even though my traumas had previously made me feel the opposite.
In many ways, disclosure is about feeling safe enough to find a kinder voice for ourselves.
It is not easy to share, especially sharing experiences that make us feel vulnerable or “othered.” However, I believe that by sharing these experiences we can cultivate our own communities, reduce stigma and find/feel solidarity and support. It has taken me a long time to share these parts of myself – either with people that I have become close to or in a more public space like a website. And honestly, there are still several parts that feel too scary to share. I only hope that one day, those experiences that feel too scary to share right now will become easier to disclose. This will come from a great deal of self-exploration, self-care, and conversation.
I do know this: every time I share my experiences in safe spaces I feel truer to myself.