OLIVIA FOSTER, EDITOR-IN-CHEIF
Note to readers: This column may be a trigger for survivors of sexual assault.
I am a survivor of sexual assault. There’s no getting around that fact.
Yet, for months after it happened, I was blissfully unaware of what the perpetrator had done to me. I ignored the flashbacks and pushed away the bad feelings associated with them. I pretended that what he had done wasn’t a big deal.
I denied it until I simply couldn’t deny it anymore. It took me leaving the place where the assault occurred for everything to hit me. And when it did, it came all at once.
I won’t go into details of what happened because I know how triggering that can be. All I will say is that it happened at night. And since I was able to fully realize what happened, I have had difficulty sleeping.
Oftentimes when I turn off my lights at night, I feel like he is there, lurking in the dark. Even though I rationally know that no one is there and my doors are locked, it’s a difficult feeling to push away.
I have an app on my phone that tracks my sleep and according to that I get an average of 4 hours and 17 minutes of sleep per night. None of the sleep exercises, meditations, or over-the-counter sleep medications that I’ve tried have made a difference.
The biggest help in getting me to sleep has been my suitemate’s emotional support cat. She will sometimes come into my room at night and I feel safer knowing that she is there. But she can’t be in my room every night.
Because of my lack of sleep, I am exhausted every day. According to the National Institutes of Health, inadequate sleep impacts both mental and physical health. That has proved to be true for me.
I have experienced stress and anxiety on a deeper level than ever before. And I often catch my hands shaking or myself spacing out.
Over time I have found strategies to deal with the effects of my trauma.
Journaling has become one of my favorite ways to understand what I am feeling and release my emotions. Every day I set aside 30 minutes to write about whatever I want. This has been particularly helpful on the bad days or during times when I don’t know what exactly I’m feeling.
Getting outside has also been so important for me. I’ve noticed that I experience fewer flashbacks and less anxiety when I’m outside. There’s just something cleansing about being able to breathe fresh air that diminishes stress and anxiety.
I have also been trying to find a healthy balance between spending time with friends and being alone.
I am an introvert at heart, so taking time for myself to be alone and recharge has always been important. That has changed a bit since everything happened. When I’m alone now is when the trauma affects me the most viscerally.
Because of that, I’ve found myself spending more time with friends and family. Having more time with people who I care about has had the added bonus of strengthening my relationships while protecting my mental health.
Even with these strategies to diminish the impacts of my trauma, there are still days where the past overwhelms me.
Just a few days ago I had a panic attack because I saw someone who looked similar to the guy that hurt me. And I’ve come to terms with realizing that this will probably always impact my life in some way.
What happened to me is not unique. According to RAINN (the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), female college students ages 18-24 are 3 times more likely than women in general to experience sexual violence.
Sadly, sexual assault is not uncommon and many people go through similar things. While there is some comfort in knowing that I’m not alone, the fact that this happens to so many people is so much worse.
If you or someone you know is struggling with this, call the sexual assault hotline at 800.656.4673. Pathways Counseling services on campus is another helpful resource.