On the value of testimony.

Almost exactly three years ago, I published an anonymous feature article in Honi Soit. Three weeks ago, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for the events described in that article. I didn’t know it at the time, but my nervous system was immobilised at the time of writing. Since then, my brain has ping-pong’ed between anxiety and shutdown. Today — six years into my undergraduate studies — I have whiplash. 

In a nutshell, the article described the experience of having my drink spiked, hooking up with three guys, and emerging from a blackout on the Story Bridge. The police found me walking into oncoming traffic, braless and not wearing any underwear or boots. 

When I collected a print copy of my story in Honi, I was surprised by an inclusion from the editors, “cw: sexual assault.” I didn’t know the editors would label my experience “sexual assault.” Sure, the night I wrote about involved some form of sexual conduct (I still don’t know the specifics). A content warning made sense. But I did not set out to write a “sexual assault” article.  

I set out to write about leaving a hospital in donated sandals. Of going through the motions after life-threatening trauma. About why the legalisation of same-sex marriage reminds me of the worst day of my life. And how it feels to rely on your friends, without asking too much. The purpose of narrating my experience was to resist simplification.   

It took the next three years for someone to convince me that I had been the victim of a serious offence. There was no point conducting a drug test or rape kit at the hospital because there was no case. I know my case would not hold up in a court of law. The ethical definition of consent never crossed my mind. Since then, the most revolutionary thing my therapist said to me is: “Proof doesn’t matter. Your body knows what happened.” 

Three years ago, I wrote:

On Sunday, I re-order my favourite leather boots — the ones I was wearing that night and never would have removed of my own accord. They arrive three days later. Wearing them when I return to the police station weeks later feels like a stupid, stamping victory.

In those boots, I have travelled solo, earned a Bachelor of Arts, and moved house twice. But I haven’t trusted myself to function since 2018. In the original article, I asked whether autopilot or stoicism is the healthiest reaction to trauma. Unsurprisingly, volunteering at a refugee camp in northern France wasn’t the ideal response. I have deflected, compounded, and ultimately failed to effectively process my trauma. 

Perhaps this is why the events of 2018-19 surfaced with such force after lockdown.

At the start of this semester, social interactions began to spark intense dissociation. I would scan the Seymour Centre foyer before an identity revue and shut down. Everyone I saw reminded me of a precursor, a missing memory. What happened? Micro and macro-traumas converge. I try to connect the milestones:

2015… High school, accepting that I don’t like boys, so love is not for me.

2016… Telling my best friend I love her in the Cellar Theatre.

2017… Returning a bag of belongings, blank stare: ‘I feel no urgency to be your friend again.’

2018… The police shake me from a drug haze on the Bridge and drive me to the hospital.

2019… A warehouse in Calais, learning that a young Eritrean boy from our camp froze to death on a lorry last night.

Returning to Sydney. Returning to the motions. To a global pandemic.

I don’t remember signing up for this timeline. 

When I spell out this sequence, it becomes clear that every moment of reckoning is connected. My psychologist changed everything by confirming that PTSD is compounded by developmental and vicarious trauma. She explains the polyvagal theory, which suggests why individuals with PTSD end up “ping-ponging” between shutdown and anxiety. Clinical psychologist Dr Peter Levine, author of Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, explains why individuals can experience “shutdown” and dissociation in response to a life-threatening trauma. For me, feeling “shutdown” meant feeling frozen in time: despite everything that has happened in the last five years, in many ways I still feel 19 years old. As I write this, I realise that time is starting to un-freeze.

Levine advises that emerging from the shutdown response can require a “shudder” to awaken the nervous system. My psychologist has warned me that this “shudder” means transitioning up the ladder from depression, to anxiety, to eventually feeling “normal” again. I like the “ladder” metaphor, and I like the “ping pong” metaphor. They make the mental fuckery of PTSD seem universal and manageable.  

“Ping-pong” explains why I still loiter around Courtyard Café and resent my corporate job. 

“Ping-pong” explains the envy of watching my peers from 2016-17 start their lives.

“Ping-pong” explains the self-doubt, the impulsive decisions.

Every 20-something plays ping-pong.

My experiences may be unique but my feelings are not. Everyone carries baggage. Self-pity is unproductive. One must rationalise, refuse to wallow.

And yet… some nights are hard. Some nights I cry myself to sleep, unable to breathe or explain my pain to my partner. After nights like these, I read my original article in search of something solid. In search of “proof” of the events that changed my brain.

Today, I add this postscript. This feels important because, unlike law courts and hospitals, nuance is guaranteed in these pages. If I get the words right, the lived experience stays on the record. This is the value of testimony.

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