BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
Wedge your arm into someone's intestines, place a bomb, and watch it explode; that is exactly how any survivor feels. All loss, no matter how trivial, is destructive; as Elizabeth Bishop gracefully yet ironically states in her villanelle One Art: "the art of losing isn’t hard to master." While it may become an art to become accustomed to loss (or rather, the art of desensitization) there is no art in grieving a lost identity, and consequently, having to discover it again. Sometimes, we never do discover it, we merely create a new one.
A trauma is a funeral for one; there is no one to mourn you but yourself. The coffin is empty, since you are still alive, but you must fill it with something, and that becomes your former self. Personally, the question that was always on my mind after my assault always seemed so simple yet impossible: can I be happy as a whole self? Will I believe that I am beautiful? At first, I wasn't even concerned about being in control, claiming dominance; it seemed strange to worry about being dominant if I wasn't even sure who I was. I needed to shed my outer skin, that layer of ugliness I had somehow acquired. I lost beauty and gained something else--not ugliness, not even despair. I gained doubt.
When people learn about someone being assaulted, they often don't know how to react; how can someone react to a situation we haven't been taught to understand? We understand death, all humans die. For thousands of years, humans have refined the way we mourn and celebrate death; we hold funerals where loved ones can "say goodbye" with even the smallest of gestures--throwing roses on a grave, telling stories. How do you help someone when they are grieving for something intangible? Mourning something corporeal is bad enough.
Rape isn't just a violation of someone's physical body, it is the robbery of someone's very being. What survivors and supporters alike should always remember is this: with every assault, there is a process of recovery, which includes a sexual re-awakening, an evolution of identity, residual grief, a learned lack of trust. This reality, however gloomy, can be slowly undone, dissipated like a bad storm.
For me, there are five "rules" we should always remember & respect:
1. Never make anyone feel guilty for not pressing charges. It's none of your business.
2. There is no timeline for when someone should or shouldn't have sex. All you can do is be supportive, regardless of what you think is "right."
3. While wounds fade with time, memory does not. Always be willing to listen. Even if you feel someone should just "move on," it is never that simple.
4. Allow someone to open up on their own time, not yours. I've had a surprising number of people ask me questions when I simply wasn't ready to answer, or was tired of talking about it. That said, always encourage someone to share how they feel, just don't force it.
5. Remind everyone, every single day, that they are beautiful. Remind yourself, too. Our lives are too short and mired with too much drama to feel anything less than extraordinary, mentally and physically.