How Writing Helped Me Heal From Rape Trauma
I realized I was a writer long before I was raped. Both conclusions have had comparable impact on the trajectory of my career. As a disillusioned adolescent desperate for guiding words to live by, I found solace in a self-help tip from a fortune cookie: “If you’re feeling down, try throwing yourself into your work.” I obeyed for as long as I could.
Over the course of seven years I allowed these seemingly separate influencers of my identity to become dangerously convoluted, married in my quest to become a vigilante journalist. For a while this career-driven method of coping with the psychological impact of sexual assault worked reasonably well: I graduated from journalism school and secured a full-time job at a Boston newspaper by age 22.
I found stability through my work, as though injustice couldn’t touch me in the newsroom. Then came the day our publisher unexpectedly pulled the plug.
As rape lit a fire that fueled my journalism, the death of that paper sent me into the darkest depression of my life.
The depression grew to contaminate every facet of my existence, and I fell numb to my former passions. It quickly robbed me of my journalistic ambitions to pursue justice for the oppressed, and I eventually gave up searching for media jobs altogether. The last place I felt safe was in love, but I couldn’t hide from the darkness.
One morning, a year and a half after the paper shut down, I woke up trapped in a wordless emptiness far removed from my bed. Something vital inside me had died and gone during the night, killed by a force that was now threatening what was left of me. My partner held close my limp, sobbing body as I begged her to find me and bring me back.
“I love you, I love you, I love you,” she repeated over and over and over, relentlessly attempting to resuscitate my soul. I felt less than nothing in response; not even memories of love could reach me. I couldn’t remember how to feel anything, but I couldn’t forget the old me. I knew I needed to hire a professional to help me find her before my grief faded into acceptance.
At the time of my first meeting with Rebecca, I was shamefully employed in retail and could barely touch my computer without being immobilized by self-deprecating thoughts. Blank Word documents triggered memories of a past life in which pain could be immediately transformed into productivity, so long as I could find the words to tell someone else’s story.
When I started seeing Rebecca I hadn’t published in almost a year. I had stopped writing altogether, because every time I tried to write I wound up writing about memories of rape.
Life taught me rape was an action word, made a verb by my body, an object. My emotional vocabulary limited itself to the familiar as memories of rape ricocheted in my brain, causing constant pain while I hid between the lines of simple, witty proverbs.
Rebecca was the first person to name the pain not for its cause but for what it had become: trauma. Trauma was a noun that implied a pause, psychological symptoms and a healing process. Claiming this new word helped me access stability while navigating the space between past and present, “victim” and “survivor,” connotation and denotation. It helped me categorize my emotions and memories without letting them define my identity.
Unlike learning about rape, learning about trauma left me with optimism.
Humanistic in her approach to psychotherapy, Rebecca explained early on that our main goal was to help me learn to regulate my more difficult emotions when trauma triggers compromised my stability. When I asked for tips to speed up the healing process, Rebecca encouraged me to have patience and challenged my affinity for quick-fix motivational quips.
She offered instead another term for processing: internal validation. If I focused on rebuilding my sense of self-worth through internal rather than external sources of validation, I could learn to feel secure in my identity regardless of my job title. Maybe I could learn to write again if I stopped obsessing about being publishable.
A few months into our work together, I tried to trick myself by writing about writing. I made it through two single-spaced pages before my fingers invited the word “rape” into the essay. I lost hope all over again:
“We’re too deep on a topic without a thesis or a goal or a point of reference other than rape. Rape did this to me... Rape made me disregard the structure of comprehendible writing, publishable writing, writing worth reading and words worth remembering…”
The next time I met with Rebecca I wound up wailing harder than ever. I’d started the climb out of darkness, resuming feelings of passion for life, but I seriously questioned how I’d ever work in media again if all I could write about was rape, a massive cultural epidemic most often mishandled by institutions.
“What do you do when you try to write and the feelings about rape start to come?” she asked.
I told her I always stopped. It hurt too much. I hated writing about myself, feeling hopeless; I wanted to go back to writing about other people.
“I’m going to need you to write through it,” she told me, suggesting that we conspire a constructive way for me to process, rather than repress, whatever was trying to get out.
Weeks earlier Rebecca taught me about transference and how therapy patients often project roles onto their therapists. We had identified the role I came to project onto her as that of a mentor, so I made what felt to be an outlandish request for transference role-play. I asked Rebecca if she’d pretend to be my editor, if I could bring my writing to her, have her read it outside our meetings and return with comments.
She obliged. I was so surprised and appreciative to learn that my therapist would spend time to help me outside of our meetings that I started writing every day.
I wrote without aspirations for publication, using time at my retail job to let my mind wander without fear for where it might go. I honored the flow of feelings I would have been forced to insulate while working a fast-paced office position. I engaged with poetic catharsis as revelations came to light through my expanded emotional vocabulary. My energy returned as I learned to refine and manage my emotions by finding words for all of them first and later editing down to simplicity, journalistic in my approach to my own story. Weeks and months passed and the words kept flowing, deeper than ever but less painful to distill.
On my twenty-fifth birthday I showed up at therapy with 40 pages of potential. My partner named the paper packet for what it had become: a manuscript.
I noticed an influx of deeply personal essays appearing in reputable publications. This could be a publishing goal to work towards, I ambitiously reckoned, now that I had learned to love writing as something pure. I started drafting this piece knowing it might not make it any further than Rebecca’s office.
“What if they don’t publish it?” she asked, more therapist than editor on the day she handed back a draft I felt ready to submit. I smiled, realizing I’d found the words to give myself hope.