Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Well, it's nearly December 31st and I'm saying a relieved "good bye" to 2010, to my 22nd year. (Yes, us Capricorns can handily mark our ages by the calendar year...but, I digress). Age twenty-two will be remembered as my most difficult so far, but not for the most obvious reasons. No, not because my college graduation has still not borne the fruit of full-time employment. No, not because I found myself moving back to my parents' house upon my supposed entry into adulthood. No...these are what my friend Evan calls "First World Problems" and, as such, I can at least find rueful humor in them. Honestly, in thirty years when I am finally established and employed (Please, Karma?), I will remember economic woes hardly at all. So then, why was 22 so painful that I will toast its departure? Because, dear reader, in thirty years I will still remember this as the age when I experienced "secondary traumatic stress."

It has taken me nearly the entire year to know that what I have been feeling is called "secondary traumatic stress." For most of the time I have just been bewildered as to why I find it so difficult to get out of bed every morning, why I'm always tired, why I've gained weight, why I have so drastically lost the ability to control my temper so that I end up screaming at my parents over the slightest irritation.

I tried to write off these symptoms as mere side effects of the job search, of frustration with the instability of my post college life, but this is not true. In fact, quite the opposite. This stress is the shit I brought home from college and St. Louis is where it really surfaced because St. Louis is a safe place for me. School was no longer safe because it was the place where everyone was questioning whether it all really happened, whether the events had even ever happened. When you are continually trying to prove your reality, there is little time to feel anything. But now I'm home, and I can step back and reread the newspaper article I wrote and all the emails I received afterwards and I can recall conversations...and I see the enormity of what was done and how we reacted and how it all felt.

And now that I can remember all of this, now that it is finally just that, a memory, now I know that what I have felt is secondary traumatic stress. STS is the phenomenon in which those close to a trauma react in a traumatized manner even though they were not the direct victim themselves. For a more technical definition, please google the term for some excellent journal articles. Suffice to say, STS is often explained as a less severe version of PTSD, which would explain why I cannot read an article or even view a TV clip on rape without feeling my breath become very shallow and my chest tense.

For the longest time I felt guilty for feeling so bad because these specific rapes did not happen to me. But, pretending I didn't feel so bad didn't make the feelings go away. It made it worse. I know now that whether or not I was raped, I have still been scarred. And, in order to heal, I must admit that I am in recovery.

True healing is being able to say what happened without reliving it. So now, in honor of healing in 2011, I want to say what happened in 2010:
Someone I was friends with was brutally raped and I wrote a newspaper article about how no one really did anything about it. She wanted us to write it so we did and we quoted hospital reports and police reports and recorded how insensitive and retrogade the police department still is and how brusque the emergency room nurses can be. And I read and wrote about blood and tearing and bruising and a hand over a mouth and a thumb clamped firmly around a neck. And then lots of women started writing and speaking stories and told me some of them, but many people kept saying it hadn't happened like that. He said/she said/gray area. Burden of proof. How could you kick him out of school and ruin his life like that? Yes, this was all really said. And the school brought in a lawyer to intimidate my editor, yes, really and restraining orders were broken and people said we were using "shock value" as if rape is not shocking in itself. A shock to the system, to our own small system, if not to the larger one that may be entirely based on rape to begin with, yes I said that. For me it became so obvious that I was living in a rape culture, so I am not sorry if that term makes you cringe or roll your eyes, because for me it feels so real.

2010 was the year it became so real. So, fuck you 2010. Don't let the door hit you on the way out. I turn away from you and raise a glass to 2011, propose a toast to learning to live happily--even amidst a "rape culture." Here's to facing trauma without absorbing it. Here's to continuing the fight and here's to knowing when to rest and how to laugh. Cheers. Namaste. L'Chaim.

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