05/19/2020 17:33 EDT | Updated 05/19/2020 17:40 EDT

As A Survivor Of Sexual Assault, The Pandemic Is An Unexpected Break From Trauma

While crowds can leave me sobbing, social distancing feels like a miracle.

The week before Canada started social distancing, I was in a hospital emergency room. I had collapsed on a park bench, dizzy and slurring my words, and had trouble understanding where I was. The paramedics feared a stroke, but five hours later I was told nothing was medically wrong with me. I left feeling confused. The next day I was back to work, having told no one what had happened.

This was not the first time. As a survivor of sexual assault living with post-traumatic stress disorder, the last few years have felt like tripping from one landmine to another.  

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The author was living in a high level of crisis until recently.

I have been slipping in and out of burnout, working 12- to 16-hour days trying to make ends meet in an expensive city. My work as an emerging theatre artist and community organizer always focused on other peoples’ needs, and often on how they perceived me. I feared taking a break, like if I stopped hustling the world would move on without me. It also made it easier not to face the parts of me that needed care.

This combination of workaholism and people-pleasing often took a toll on my physical and mental health, never offering me enough room to address my trauma. A few months after the last time I was raped, I was in hospital with kidney stones, something that usually happens to middle-aged people. The next day I went to an audition, led a workshop and brought supplies to a group holding a sit-in.

I am a survivor in a few ways — several sexual assaults, and a lifetime of living in a body that was sexualised early and often.

I repeated this cycle for years, recovering only enough to get by and putting on a positive face to avoid making people worry. I went to therapy when I could afford it, consumed the “right” books and podcasts, practised yoga. In reality, it felt like I had survived the trauma, but I would not survive the recovery. 

Then the COVID-19 pandemic started and the world stopped — and I feel calm for the first time.

I don’t wake in a panic in the morning, like finally having permission to feel panicked took the anxiety away. I no longer feel judgment for not leaving the house or not looking put-together. I can do things based on what I want, not pressure or guilt. With everything out of my control, I am no longer wearing myself out managing my reactions.

Space to heal

In a sense, it feels like the rest of the world finally caught up with the level of crisis I was living in all the time.

I am a survivor in a few ways — several sexual assaults, and a lifetime of living in a body that was sexualised early and often. In 2015, I found myself in a relationship with a man I thought I was in love with, but who was raping me.

When someone unexpectedly enters my personal space it can bring me back to times when I was touched without wanting to be. Of three responses to trauma — fight, flight and freeze — I tend toward dissociation, part of the “freeze” response. My mind shuts down to protect itself from too much information. It feels like I’m drowning, overwhelmed by my body’s response to the dangers it perceives around me.

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Crowds and unexpected situations can trigger the author's panic attacks.

Like the time crowds of strangers at the Richmond Night Market triggered a panic attack, reducing me to tears. Or the time a woman asking for money unexpectedly startled me outside of a poetry show — I shook and sobbed for half an hour. Or when I spent sleepless nights imagining that my downstairs neighbours might break into my room for revenge after I asked them to turn down their music. Or when a belligerent stranger cornered me and my roommate when we were buying bagels in the first week of March. Every time, I put myself back together and pressed on.

Daily, vivid sensory memories (especially scent and touch) come as flashbacks, and I have frequent nightmares. I am left drowsy and forgetful, and have even fallen asleep in public for weeks after. What amount of time or space does a person even need to recover from things like this?

I never could have imagined a world in which all strangers must stay six feet away from me.

Over the last couple years, I have kept track of “firsts” that felt particularly important to my healing: when I said “no” to my therapist asking if she could move her chair closer to me in a session; when I said “no” to a hug from a strange man at a friend’s funeral in 2018; when I told a man that he had done something non-consensual during a hookup this past winter.

Starting with these small steps, I never could have imagined a world in which all strangers must stay six feet away from me. Not needing to be constantly alert to possible dangers feels like a miracle for my alert, chronically panicked body. And new research says I’m not the only one.

Other people complain about missing physical touch, but I feel safer than I thought possible. No strange men can stand too close to me at bus stops, no one can grab me at bars or on transit. I went for a run in the evening and I didn’t feel panicked to make it home before dark — something would have sent me spiralling for days. The store where I bought bagels before now has a sign dictating only two customers allowed at a time. Getting the time to pick my order as slowly as I want feels luxurious.

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These days, the author experiences fewer situations that make her feel unsafe.

I acknowledge the great privilege I have in this moment — being laid off from a salaried job, qualifying for government support, having a rental that is mostly stable, not being part of the essential workforce or the street economy— but my nervous system has never had two full months of rest like this. I hope I can hold onto this slow lifestyle, listening to my needs better, allowing myself to honour what locations and people feel safe.

It’s becoming more obvious to everyone that this world was not built for all of us, and living this slowly was never an option for me before. In many ways, this is the sabbatical I always dreamed of but would never financially have been able to take.

I feel guilty for enjoying my life so much right now, and I wish I had had a break under better circumstances. I shouldn’t have needed a pandemic to take time to do some healing. I wish many things were different — including the reality of sexism and rape culture — but for now I’ll settle for a six-foot bubble.

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