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"PTSD is a whole-body tragedy, an integral human event of enormous proportions with massive repercussions.”
~ Susan Pease Banitt ~

PARTNER RAPE
AND TRAUMA SYNDROMES

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Additionally to the effects experienced by survivors of IPSV, you may have experienced feelings and symptoms common to survivors of rape or other crimes of violence in general. When people experience a trauma that is life threatening or dehumanising, they can experience an array of symptoms known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Rape is a trauma which can give rise to PTSD symptoms.

The longer the sexual violence went on, or the presence of physical violence, the worse symptoms may be, and you may have developed Complex PTSD 1, 2. , about which more below

There are also rape-specific symptoms known as Rape Trauma Syndrome. For practical purposes, there is little difference between some symptoms of PTSD and Rape Trauma Syndrome, but a separate category is useful because rape survivors do experience some symptoms that differ from survivors of, say, car accidents or earthquakes.

If you were raped/sexually assaulted by your ex/partner, you may have experienced some of the following symptoms. Please know that they do not mean there is anything wrong with you. You are not crazy or deficient in any way for feeling as you do; you are experiencing normal responses to an abnormal situation. Where appropriate, I have also made added notes on managing trauma. Throughout the text, you'll also find related and useful links. 

I recall a 'fairytale' about a man who killed a woman who spurned his advances, and buried her under some reeds by a river. The reeds that grew up over her body told the story of what had happened every time the wind blew through them. This is how it can be with trauma; the secret lies in us, but the symptoms 'tell the story'. Women often interpret their trauma symptoms as negative personality characteristics, but they aren't - they are normal responses. Often, it's only when healing begins, that, looking back, you can see how traumatized you were. You can begin to understand that after what you've experienced, it would be odd if there hadn't been some fallout, and you can respond to yourself with empathy. You were subjected to rape; you may have been beaten ort otherwise feared that your partner would kill you. Sometimes it is very okay not to be okay.

If you were raped/sexually assaulted by your ex/partner, you may have experienced some of the following symptoms. Please know that they do not mean there is anything wrong with you. You are not crazy or deficient in any way for feeling as you do; you are experiencing normal responses to an abnormal situation.


IMPORTANT NOTE:
While it is my hope that the following is helpful, it should not be taken as a substitute for professional advice. A web-page cannot tell you if you have PTSD. If you do recognise yourself in the following, please speak to a psychologist who can diagnose and follow up with treatment. Rape crisis services can also help you manage symptoms.

In order to receive the maximum benefit from treatment for PTSD, it will be ideal for you to be safe. It will be very difficult, if not impossible, to make progress if you are still being harmed and constantly retraumatized.


RAPE TRAUMA SYNDROME:

The Acute Stage (Short-term following rape) may include such symptoms as 3, 4 :

  • Shock: What has happened feels like a dream; it has an unreal quality. Thoughts of "this can't be happening/cannot have happened" occur. Physically, there is a sensation of being very cold, and shivering. There might also be insensitivity to pain. This might be coupled with a sense of derealization; literally, you feel as if you are not real.
  • Memory Loss: Shock can impair the ability to recall part or even all of the rape.
  • Emotional Swings The image of the rape victim crying hysterically or screaming is somewhat of a Hollywood stereotype. There are certainly women who respond this way, but due to shock, many rape victims are perfectly calm and composed. This does not mean they are not equally as traumatized as a victim who is sobbing. Very likely, they have gone into psychic numbing, or the tendency of some traumatized people to feel nothing . In the following days there may be marked swings between uncontrollable crying, not-feeling or laughing wildly.
  • Social Disruption: A rape survivor may begin to fear going out or being alone. She feels as if people can see the rape stamped all over her. Decisions such as whether to meet friends for lunch may feel too burdensome. 
  • Memory Reorganization Did you happen to see the movie "Cast the First Stone", starring Jill Eikenberry? In this movie, Ms Eikenberry's character is raped by a man she granted shelter from a stormy night to. The way she remembers the story is that the man forced his way into her motel room. Later, she recalls, with deep shame, that she actually let him in of her own volition. This is not unusual; further, such inconsistencies do not mean that a woman is lying about being raped. This reorganising of memory is a way she can protect herself from shame and feeling as if she asked for the attack. Having been so dehumanised, this may also occur as a means of seeing herself as having more power or control than she actually did. It is not a deliberate process of truth-distortion, but one that happens as a defence against the horrible feelings invoked by rape.

 Later Stages:

  • Regaining Control: After the initial shock abates, the woman who has been raped may outwardly seem to be coping well. She may be functioning quite well at her job or family responsibilities. After having control taken away from her, she naturally wants to feel more normal and in control of her life. She may be experiencing an internal struggle to keep feelings that she knows are not resolved under control, but she wants to believe she is "over it". This stage may be exacerbated by the fact that she is unable to tell anybody of the rape. If she has told, perhaps she is busy looking after the feelings of others (it's sadly common for a rape survivor to assume responsibility for comforting those she has told. It is she who deserve the comfort, but she may try to "protect" others from her pain). She may downplay the seriousness of the attack, and its affect on her life 5.
  • Psuedorecovery: Aphrodite Matsakis 6 writes that it is at this stage after rape that women may go into psuedorecovery. They may believe that the way they are coping means they are over the rape, only to find that months or years later, the affects begin to show in ways that can no longer be avoided. Women raped by partners may believe they have nothing to "get over" because of notions about partner rape not being "real" rape 7.
  • Thoughts of the rape: A woman with Rape Trauma syndrome may constantly ruminate about how she could have avoided, or stopped the rape. She berates herself for not doing "enough", and may even question whether since she didn't fight hard enough, protest enough, scream enough, she was actually raped at all. This may be made worse by secondary wounding experiences in which people have accused her of not doing enough, or of encouraging the rape. She will undoubtedly have been exposed to the myth that a woman can only say she was raped if she was beaten black and blue trying to get away. (In fact, only a small percentage of rapes involve severe violence. If she trusted her rapist, she loses trust in her own perceptions. However, with healing, over time, she comes to trust herself, and realize that the responsibility for forcing sexual activity on her is the perpetrator's. Squashing thoughts of the rape might be very difficult as the thoughts reappear in nightmares, or intrusive thoughts. She may change hairstyles, jobs or residence to get away from reminders, or to be a "different" person than the one the rape happened to 8.
  • Ongoing fear of seeing the rapist again: Men bearing a physical resemblance to the perpetrator can cause abject terror to a survivor. I remember my own experiences of thinking I'd seen Peter, and what I felt in the few seconds before it registered that it couldn't possibly be him. 9.
  • Potential Problems - If the survivor cannot successfully avoid the memories, or has not had support and feelings, she may begin to feel helpless, anxious and depressed. Her confidence in herself and her ability to judge people and situations falters, and, without intervention, she may develop long-term post- traumatic symptoms 10.
  • Physical symptoms: Nausea, vomiting or difficulty swallowing might be components of Rape Trauma Syndrome. Women report more headaches, abdominal or back pains, and gastrointestinal upsets 11. Vaginal infections accompanied by itching and burning might also be frequent.
POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER

Symptoms of PTSD may include the following 12:

Re-experiencing the trauma:

  • Nightmares which are literal repeats of all or part of the trauma, or are symbolic of it in a way that frightens you, are ways of reexperiencing trauma. Such dreams may leave lingering fear and other unpleasant feelings after you've awakened. This may cause associated problems such as difficulty falling or staying asleep. Such nightmares can cause a feeling as if the rape had just occurred. If you have such an experience, please don't be afraid to call a trusted friend or crisis line to talk with you as you calm down. You can post about your dreams on Pandora's Aquarium Support Forum and get support - there are usually people there around the clock who will post caring responses to you. If you can't do this, please know the terror will pass. Remind yourself it isn't happening now.
  • Flashbacks are memories of the trauma which make it feel as if it was occurring right now; you feel as if you're "back there". You may see "pictures" of the abuser's face, smell his aftershave, or feel his penis inside you (this, or other flashbacks in which you physically "feel" the assault, or pain associated with it, are often called "body memories"). You may be able to "hear" things he said to you. Flashbacks are different from recalling a thing in the ordinary sense. Flashbacks may be emotional, and not necessarily coupled with an actual memory of the rape. You may feel the overwhelming fear or helplessness you felt when you were raped
  • Triggers are reminders of your rape which may cause the "back there" feeling. These are common and can be really scary. It is a good idea if, when you are feeling a bit safer, you can identify your triggers and perhaps defuse some of the fear from them. One of my own worst triggers is somebody breathing deeply through their nose, particularly if they are angry. This was how my abuser breathed when he turned violent. I need to remind myself that the person may be angry, but I have nothing to fear from them. Also, maybe they have a cold or an adenoidal problem!
Numbing and Avoidance:
  • Emotional Numbing may happen when a person has been exposed to very painful situations; the mind "anaesthetizes" the emotions so that you feel nothing at all. My experience of this is feeling a sort of grey, detached feeling, I feel tired and confused, but I have no emotions. This may happen at the time of a rape- perhaps the feelings around your partner having raped you were so sad or frightening that you actually felt nothing. Depending on where you are at in your healing, you still may have not recovered the ability to feel. This shutting down on emotion can also occur in order to help a person think more clearly, or appropriately assess danger.
  • Avoidance involves shutting down on thoughts or feelings of the trauma. It may also mean that you go out of your way to avoid reminders, such as a place, a colour, form of sexual touching or other thing that ushers in pain connected with the rape/s. Avoidance is completely understandable, but it can mean that, while you are busy avoiding triggers, your life is limited in other ways. For example, avoidance may mean your social life has suffered. Women who have been orally raped often find trips to the dentist terrifying, or may get to the stage where putting anything in their mouths causes retching combined with terror. Obviously avoidance of these triggers may have consequences for your health. A not-so-good avoidance strategy I used in the couple of years after ending my violent relationship, was to drink in order to numb myself. Any thought of his violence, or sometimes the mere mention of him, set off dreadful feelings of shame that I wanted to drown. You can get help and support to face overwhelming bad feelings about what happened to you.  After getting support from a rape counsellor and beginning to heal, I gradually learned to defuse the impact of the triggers, and to be able to entertain and work through thoughts of the rapes without needing to avoid them. Sometimes I am still triggered, but I try to ask myself why, and what it is that needs addressing. Your feelings may be an opportunity to do further healing.
  • Memory Impairment may also be a facet of avoidance. It may be partial or total  For many years, while I knew I had been raped, I could not recall the rape itself; what it felt like or how long it took. Patricia Easteal's 'Voices of the Survivors' contains the story of a woman who completely forgot a violent rape by her husband until years later 13.
  • Sense Of a Foreshortened Future: This little understood, but horrible symptom of trauma was quite possibly one which plagued me worse than many others. I felt a constant sense of impending doom, and truly believed I was going to die in the near future. At its severest, I thought about who would care for my children, and the details of my funeral. The terror and misery this caused makes me look back in anger and sadness, but triumph as well. Mastering it was a process of talking to trusted friends, and actively facing times in my life I'd received the message that I could not expect to live long. My ex-partner, of course, had physically or verbally threatened my life many times. It is much less severe now, although it still rears its head from time to time. If you feel this way, you might avoid making plans because you fear they will never materialize as you will not be here. You might live every moment as if it were your last 14. You might, as I did, consider suicide because you think you're going to die anyway. You could tend to interpret any physical symptom as a sign of a terminal illness. This is not funny; it is not being a hypochondriac, it is agonizing. If you have suffered a terrible threat, it could be that even though that threat is long gone, your psyche is behaving as if it was still present. There is help and understanding for you.
Hyperarousal:
  • Fight or Flight and Freeze Reactions: Perhaps, when you were assaulted, you either felt an adrenalin rush that provoked a desire or an attempt to escape, or alternatively, you may have felt hypnotized, and frozen into immobility as the events unfolded. You may not recall how long the rape took because you remember things in a kind of "slow motion" way. Reminders of the trauma may cause you to re-experience these feelings.
  • Anxiety is a feeling of dread, as if a disaster were about to occur. You may worry about your health, your loved ones, fear the return of your rapist, or being assaulted again.
  • Panic attacks are feelings of sudden terror which you may or may not recognize the trigger for. You heart palpitates, you sweat, feel dizzy, shake, and may want to vomit. You might feel as if you are going crazy or losing control, or as if you are about to die. If panic attacks go on, Agoraphobia may follow. I have experienced panic disorder with agoraphobia, and am in my 6th year of recovery at the time of this writing. With the right help, you can manage panic - I've placed some links here. Panic attacks will not kill you or drive you insane, but I do know how debilitating they can feel - please see helpful links at the top of this page. I have found being close to somebody I feel safe with helps to calm me down, and it helps too, to remind myself that I am not crazy, I am experiencing a PTSD symptom. That tends to put it into perspective a little.
  • Interpreting people's behaviour: You may feel as if people are leveling negative judgments at you because you were raped, or are terribly afraid people are blaming you. Of course this may be based in fact, but if you are suffering trauma-based hypersensitivity, sometimes slurs can be perceived where they may not actually be meant 15.
  •  Irritability and anger outbursts: Everything feels like it is happening to annoy you. This is normal, but may mean that you'll need to learn some calming techniques - releasing that anger onto those around you isn't a good idea..
  • Difficulty Concentrating: You daydream, you let sink water overflow, forget appointments and don't know what you did with your car keys. You cannot remember conversations you had five minutes ago.
  • Hypervigilance: You are constantly on the lookout for danger. Even if there is nobody there, you still turn sharply to see if there is anybody there. A slight change in a person's manner or voice may remind you of the ways your partner's voice or manner changed when he was going to hurt you, and even though it is safe now, you feel intense fear. You check and recheck locks. If your partner woke you suddenly before or during the rape/s, you might wake at noises, intensely fearful of intruders. It may feel as if there is somebody next to your bed, watching you. You may actually have visions of your abuser sneaking up on you, choking you. This is hypervigilance. If you are feeling particularly fearful, and you see black shapes or other things darting about out of the corner of your eyes, you are not crazy. This is something many women I've spoken to experience at intense times of feeling traumatized by their sexual assaults.
  • Exaggerated Startle Response: you jump at loud noises or being surprised by people. I have an unfortunate tendency to scream loudly when surprised, which is more alarming for the poor person who has surprised me. My husband saying my name in his deep voice when I'm half asleep or wasn't expecting it, sends me through the roof. I become instantly enraged sometimes, and may need to apologize for swearing at somebody who has startled me.
Depression:

Depression may be a feature of PTSD 16. It may happen as part of the grief you feel at being betrayed by your partner's rape, or the loss of safety or control it represented. Depression is different from sadness; instead of just feeling sad and being able to express that, you feel hopeless and helpless. Your self-esteem is shot; you may feel as if you dislike or hate yourself. It feels as if there is no point in trying to achieve anything, and that you wish you could die. You feel tired all the time, and may also experience sleeping difficulties. You may feel suicidal. If you think you are depressed, please get help now. There are excellent medications available, or you might prefer to try a natural remedy. Naturopathic remedies usually need to be taken for some time before they get into your system. Medications vary in their working time, and bear in mind that some meds work in different ways for different people - speak to a doctor you think you can trust. Sometimes, talk therapy with or without medication may help if you are depressed.

If you have fantasies of killing yourself, or are seriously entertaining such thoughts, you are experiencing something that many survivors of Domestic Violence/rape do. But please remember:

  • Your pain will pass.
  • You deserve to live
  • You deserve help at this time, you may feel as if you can't reach out to anybody, you will be a burden or that you don't deserve help, but you do.
  • Those awful things depression tells you about yourself are not statements of truth about who you are. They are the products of a part of depression called Cognitive Distortion, which basically means that depression relays messages to you about yourself, life and living that are lies.
Anniversary Reactions:

If there was a particular date on which you were raped, you may find yourself becoming anxious and distressed on and around that date 17. I suggest you get support from a trusted friend, a counsellor, or the Pandora's Aquarium Message Board. Many women choose to do something good for themselves on their rape anniversaries. You might like to curl up and eat chocolate, buy that CD you've been hankering after, or, like a friend of mine, parachute jump. Whatever you feel like doing, you go girl! Take the day back from your rapist and make it your own again.

COMPLEX PTSD

If you were exposed to repeated and severe trauma, you may have Complex PTSD, which has some different symptoms to PTSD 18. You can read more about this here.

HOPE AND HEALING?
Some people do make full recoveries from PTSD, but for many of us, myself included, healing is about managing the more intrusive symptoms, and living well with them, rather than focusing on trying to make them go away altogether. I hope not to have made having PTSD sound completely grim and hopeless.. While the complete disappearance of symptoms might be a great thing to wish for, it is not always a reality. In my experience, asking for help, and realising that PTSD does not make you weak are two key components in self-acceptance and healing. Please read this chat transcript with author Marla Handy about living with PTSD, and you may also like to read an article I wrote on accepting my broken bits. Remember that you are very strong for surviving rape and domestic violence, even if you do feel otherwise. Remember also that you are so much more than a cluster of symptoms.
SOURCES
  1. Roth, S., Newman, E., Pelcovitz, D., van der Kolk, B., and Mandel, F.S. (1997) “Complex PTSD in victims exposed to sexual and physical abuse: results from the DSM-IV field trial for posttraumatic stress disorder.” Journal of Traumatic Stress 10, 539–555.
  2. Herman, Judith L. Trauma and Recovery: From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, Basic Books (1992)
  3. Shapcott, D.The Face Of The Rapist: Why Men Rape - The Myths Exposed, Penguin Books, Ringwood, 1988
  4. Matsakis, A. Ph.D. I Can't Get Over It: A Handbook For Trauma Survivors, New Harbinger Publications Inc. California, 1992 
  5. Shapcott, D.The Face Of The Rapist: Why Men Rape - The Myths Exposed, Penguin Books, Ringwood, 1988
  6. Matsakis, A. Ph.D. I Can't Get Over It: A Handbook For Trauma Survivors, New Harbinger Publications Inc. California, 1992 
  7. Easteal, P. and McOrmond-Plummer, L. , Real Rape, Real Pain: Help for Women Sexually Assaulted by Male Partners. Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers 2006.
  8. Shapcott, D.The Face Of The Rapist: Why Men Rape - The Myths Exposed, Penguin Books, Ringwood, 1988
  9. Herman, Judith L. Trauma and Recovery: From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, Basic Books (1992)
  10. Shapcott, D.The Face Of The Rapist: Why Men Rape - The Myths Exposed, Penguin Books, Ringwood, 1988
  11. Herman, Judith L. Trauma and Recovery: From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, Basic Books (1992)
  12. Matsakis, A. Ph.D. I Can't Get Over It: A Handbook For Trauma Survivors, New Harbinger Publications Inc. California, 1992 
  13. Easteal, P. Voices of the Survivors. North Melbourne: Spinifex Press 1994
  14. Matsakis, A. Ph.D. I Can't Get Over It: A Handbook For Trauma Survivors, New Harbinger Publications Inc. California, 1992 
  15. Ledray, Linda E. R.N., Ph.D, Recovering From Rape, Henry Holt and Company, USA 1994
  16. Herman, Judith L. Trauma and Recovery: From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, Basic Books (1992)
  17. Matsakis, A. Ph.D. I Can't Get Over It: A Handbook For Trauma Survivors, New Harbinger Publications Inc. California, 1992
  18. Herman, Judith L. Trauma and Recovery: From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, Basic Books (1992)