How PTSD affects survivors before they know it

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Navigating trauma is hard when you don’t know it’s there

By Andrea Josic

When Vanessa Chen* was sexually assaulted in her university dorm room during frosh in 2015, she was living in a city without a support system and had to deal with the trauma all on her own. After experiencing flashbacks and having trouble sleeping, a school nurse prescribed her anxiety medication. 

But then, Chen had two overdoses. The first was in November, two months after her sexual assault. She had taken nine times more than her recommended half-dose and drank an entire bottle of wine. Her friend took her to the hospital. The second overdose happened the following day, when she took a dose of her medication and mixed it with cannabis. She ended up back in the hospital and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

This is when Chen finally told her parents about the sexual assault. She decided to drop out and move back home. Although leaving wasn’t easy, Chen knew it was best to get out of the environment where the sexual assault occurred and take some time off before transferring to Ryerson.

In the year after the incident, Chen had to visit a doctor every three months, then six, and now, yearly visits. Although therapy helped, it was also one of the hardest parts—sessions were often re-traumatizing. The now-third-year Ted Rogers School of Management student still experiences PTSD symptoms when she comes across her triggers.

Survivors may be triggered when they come across a sensation that was present during the assault. Chen’s perpetrator had bad body odour, so whenever she comes across the smell or sees someone who looks like him, it can bring back the memory. “Smells trigger everything. I have PTSD for the rest of my life, and I have anxiety for the rest of my life.”

Although sexual assault is being increasingly talked about, there is still little dialogue about survivors and healing processes. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, PTSD can be defined as an anxiety disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing of a traumatic event. In order for somebody to be diagnosed with PTSD, symptoms like flashbacks, distress, nightmares and memory loss have to occur for at least one month. 

There is little new data on how PTSD affects sexual assault survivors in Canada. According to the PTSD Association of Canada, 9.2 per cent of Canadians suffer from the disorder, most commonly caused by the death of a loved one, seeing somebody get killed or sexual assault. According to the U.S. National Centre of PTSD, 94 per cent of sexual assault survivors experience it. These statistics come from survivors who have visited a licensed health care practitioner and have been diagnosed with PTSD.

Celine Williams-Tracey, a social worker who specializes in PTSD and sexual trauma, says some survivors may never learn exactly what their triggers are—this can lead to bouts of depression or invoke anxiety. It can be difficult for survivors to navigate and heal from their traumas when they aren’t able to pinpoint their triggers.

“Until you’re at that point where you’re fully healed, which I doubt happens for everybody, you’re always dealing with it,” says Chen.

“Smells trigger everything. I have anxiety for the rest of my life”

Emily Peotto first learned about consent through a school play. Instead of teaching anything useful, the play conveyed that sexual assault isn’t necessarily the perpetrator’s fault. From the play, Peotto learned that if a man sexually assaults a woman, it’s because he had uncontrollable urges.

Peotto was sexually assaulted for three years throughout high school. She didn’t know it was assault because of the lack of sex education she had. She repressed her experience and tried to convince herself it was nothing.

It was only after sharing her story with a few friends that she realized what had happened to her. Before she moved to Toronto for university, Peotto was seeing a therapist who helped her with anxiety and depression from the trauma, and now she experiences fewer triggers. By moving away from the city where the assault occurred, it offered her an opportunity to start over. 

When her perpetrator comes up in her mind, she sits with her experience. Though she can’t always identify what triggered it, she reminds herself that it wasn’t her fault until the thoughts pass. “I kind of just remember thinking, ‘Nothing that ever happens to me could’ve been this guy’s fault.’ It’s so hard to heal from something you don’t understand is happening,” says Peotto.

Williams-Tracey says that trauma often comes up through the five senses. If survivors encounter anything that reminds them of their trauma, this can trigger flashbacks, memories or invoke feelings of guilt, anger or shame. 

In 2018, Canadian magazine Maclean’ssurveyed 23,000 undergraduate students and found that one in five women had been sexually assaulted in their lifetime. Reports from Statistics Canada show that there were 636,000 self-reported cases of sexual assault in 2014. More often than not, sexual assaults are not reported to the police. 

Zaynab Dhalla, a coordinator for Ryerson’s Sexual Assault Survivor Support Line, highlights that sex can also be a trigger. Other times, survivors might not be comfortable sharing their stories with their partner. 

“Part of healing is finding pleasure again. When you’ve associated sex with something that was scary for you, it’s hard to backtrack and think ‘Okay, this is something that can be pleasurable for me,’” says Dhalla. Survivors can establish boundaries with partners by having conversations about consent and identifying triggers when they can. 

“It’s definitely a process of coming to terms with being my own person and liking sex,” says Peotto. “Some things will send you all the way back and some things send you so forward.” 

Sophia Smith, a second-year RTA student, has been navigating her sexual assault by identifying her triggers. Part of Smith’s healing process has been avoiding spaces that are mentally harmful to her, including parties. Another aspect has been self care.

She travels and is able to take time to herself away from her day-to-day life. Processing her thoughts has been therapeutic for Smith. While Smith knows what most of her triggers are, there are times when she dissociates or has panic attacks and isn’t able to pinpoint why—she assumes it has to do with her trauma. 

As a part of frosh at her previous university in 2015, Chen watched a consent education video in her residence. It used tea as a metaphor for sex, stating things like, “If your friend doesn’t want tea, don’t make them tea.” Most people on Chen’s floor burst into laughter, as the video used stick figures and light-hearted narration to show tea being forced onto somebody.

Prior to this, Chen never learned about sexual assault. She had gone to a private, Christian school which taught abstinence until marriage. Chen woke up the morning after her sexual assault, not knowing what happened. She brushed off the incident as the man just “trying to get some.” Her friend had to say that it was sexual assault for Chen to know.

 While healing is often a complicated and unpredictable process, survivors like Peotto, Smith and Chen say it gets easier to navigate with time.

“Before, I was lost,” Chen says. “It took me about three and a half years to get to where I am now, but I don’t think I’m moving backwards. I’m definitely moving forward.”

*Names changed for anonymity.

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