A different kind of battleground

Caitlin McMenamin discusses post traumatic stress following sexual assault

Blurred images of people walking. Blurred images of people walking.

When you’re diagnosed with a mental illness, one of the first suggestions that you’re given is to open up to your friends and family. “It’s important they know, so that they can help you heal,” the doctor said to fourteen-year-old me, sitting shocked in an unfamiliar practice in Gordon.

A few months prior, the male lead of the school musical had declared his attraction to me. I was charmed – the lead wanted to go out with me. Next thing I know, he’s in my bright pink bedroom shoving his tongue down my throat, forcing his hand down my shorts, and forcing my hand down his. He went further every date. None of my friends had been with a boy before. I didn’t know much about sex yet, and although it felt off, I couldn’t pinpoint why.

Then one day it was his birthday. “Please, it’s my 16thth…don’t I deserve a special birthday gift? Don’t you love me at all?” He begged. What followed is seared into my brain, sewn in with needles, and will be there forever.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is one of the most prevalent anxiety disorders, affecting 8.3% of women and 4.6% of men. Sexual assault is one of the leading causes of PTSD in Australia. Why, then, as I’ve tried to take the doctor’s advice and open up over the years, have I been repeatedly met with a confused, “Isn’t PTSD what soldiers get?”

When I say that I suffer from PTSD, I have to validate my claim, which feels humiliating and demeaning. I have to try to explain that what I went through was so awful it affects me in the same way a soldier is affected by wartime atrocities. It’s almost as if my experience needs to reach a certain standard of terrible to be legitimate.

This exercise recalls the images in my head that I am constantly trying to avoid. I have to bite my tongue and try to convey that life after assault is a different kind of battleground; that every day I’m on edge, looking over my shoulder, vacillating between fight and flight. The difficulty of this exercise quickly caused me to stop telling anyone. Perhaps people are so hesitant to accept the fact that PTSD is linked to sexual assault because there is still a simplistic conception of sexual assault in the first place.

Earlier this year I was sexually assaulted again, once more by someone I trusted. Thankfully, I’m older now and I have a better support network around me. I quickly confided in my close friends and told them what happened. I was disappointed when the flashbacks started; I thought I’d be fine this time because I’m in a totally different period of my life, and I was doing everything I didn’t do when I was 14. But PTSD is something very difficult to control. Talking is one of the only things that helps me – so the conversation needs to change.

Instead of “Isn’t PTSD what soldiers get?”, I need to hear “I’m always here if you need someone to talk to, or just to listen. I can’t understand, but I’ll try my best.” I need compassion and respect. I shouldn’t need to justify why I get nightmares, why the simple things make me anxious sometimes, and why some days I’m ready to take on the world and others I just want to cry. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is something I and many others will have to deal with for the rest of our lives. We should be able to talk about it.