My experience of healing as a survivor living with a disability.
© Pandora's Project 2010
All survivors of rape or sexual abuse face a variety of challenges on a regular basis. Such challenges include trying to process what happened to them through intensive therapy and through resurfacing memories over a period of time, depression, anxiety, insomnia, PTSD, feelings of isolation, loneliness, and many more. A great deal of survivors, including myself, have felt abnormal when faced with these challenges but in actuality all of these emotions and challenges are part of the process of healing and they are all normal. However, survivors with disabilities face different challenges that can lead them to feel perhaps more isolated and alone than non-disabled survivors. I know this first-hand because I am visually impaired with optic nerve hypoplasia, which is a rare disease that does not allow the optic nerve to grow to its full size, thus not allowing enough light to get to the eyes and making me blind all of my life.
One of the challenges that survivors with disabilities may face is dealing with a lack of people there to support them through the healing process. Some people are popular and have a ton of friends that they can count on to confide in and seek out advice but others, like myself, are not so lucky. I have found with my own experience of having a disability that it is more difficult to make friends than if you don’t have a disability. All during my school years before I went to college the only reason that my peers wanted to associate with me was because they were ridden with questions about my blindness - hanging out with me was just a way of getting their questions answered. A great many of my peers found great amusement in the challenges I faced, like walking in an area with a lot of stairs as a person with a visual impairment. They would often tell me that there were no stairs when there really were, or put objects in front of me when I was walking to trip me up. Basically I gave up on making friends at a very young age and now that I am almost twenty I only really have two friends that I can talk to and none of them know about what happened to me.
I have found that not having many friends has been very hard because there is nobody there outside of my family to support me through the healing process, which we all know is anything but easy. Fortunately I have some members in my family who are supportive and will listen to me when I need to talk. My number of supportive family is limited but it is way better than not having any at all.
Another challenge I faced was getting to therapy sessions, as I am unable to drive myself. The first tricky part is trying to figure out the schedule of a family member or friend who is able to drive me to the therapist’s office, wait until the session is over, and then drive me home afterward. Not only does that put a cramp on the driver but it can bring up a lot of guilty feelings for making the friend or family member take time out of their day for therapy. There are buses that run and there is always the option of taking a cab but for some people, like me, transportation services are very limited, therefore causing me to be fully dependent on family who are willing to drive me where I need to go.
The second tricky part is dealing with guilt on transportation issues when someone lays a guilt trip on you about it. I know from my own personal experience that the guilt trip can be extremely powerful, debilitating and discouraging, especially if it is laid upon you on a regular basis. My mother was the only one who was willing to take me to therapy, or so I thought she was willing to take me. As it turns out, I had only gotten through about five sessions before she began screaming at me about gas money, time taken out of her day for therapy that she accused me of not taking seriously not fully understanding how slow and painful the healing process can be, and, as a result of all the guilt she laid upon me, I was forced to stop seeing my therapist. I desperately would like to attend more therapy but I am unable to get there and the transportation system here in Washington is not the greatest in the world, especially if you live in the country. I have noticed that quite a large number of people, especially non-survivors don’t think that therapy is a necessary means of healing and dealing with emotions and memories. Therapy became a last priority on my mother’s list when really it should have been one of the top choices on the list. It may be easier for survivors with disabilities to be able to get a ride to therapy if they don’t depend on transportation too much for other needs outside of therapy, such as extra-curricular activities, school, and so on, but if like me you do, there is a chance the driver will get burnt out and may not be willing to get you to a session.
There is always this nagging thought that I have in the back of my head that I may not have been sexually assaulted if I wasn’t blind. This thought has haunted me for two years now and I am quite sure that I am not alone in this. The possibility of survivors with disabilities having this thought is highly likely because it really could have been the case that our perpetrators might not have chosen to target us if we hadn't been disabled. It may be possible that our perpetrators thought since we were disabled we were small, weak, and an easy target to take advantage of. They may also have told themselves there was a slimmer chance of us telling on them because of fear, and of our disability – for example, that we wouldn't want to tell in case people blamed us for being weak, or because they didn't think we physically would be able to tell.
In my case I feel like I was a fairly easy target for my perpetrator because A: I only weigh eighty pounds so it was easy for him to launch the attack without much of a fight on his hands and B: I was unable to run away really fast because he put obstacles in my way, which tripped me up and caused me many falls as I tried to escape. I often wonder if I had more sight, would I have found an object to hurt him with, could I have gotten away faster, or could I have gotten into my car and left the situation? Instead I was only able to go two floors down from his condo where my grandmother lives and I had to stay there for two nights before my mom came home to get me. So yes, I feel like I was an easy target and that things could have been prevented if I had been able to see visual cues in the beginning, perhaps a look in his eyes maybe, or if he was drinking, anything at all to give me some kind of warning. By the time I sensed things were a bit odd it was too late. However, I realise also that these feelings aren't unique to survivors with a disability – it's very normal to wonder about all the ways the attack could have been prevented, had we been able to somehow know what the attacker was going to do!
It is no fun feeling like easy targets because of a disability - it diminishes the level of self-confidence as well as power that we felt we once had before we were hurt. Some people with disabilities don’t feel like they have much power to begin with, so when a traumatic event like sexual assault happens and the little bit of power that they felt they had is taken away it can lead survivors with disabilities to feel extremely vulnerable, helpless, hopeless, and weak.
Like all survivors, being unable to trust people after an assault is another challenge that those of us with disabilities may be dealing with. In my case, after it all went down I have not had much of a desire to hang out with men. My perpetrator had been a family friend for five entire years when he decided to take advantage of me and so now I am extremely leery of people, particularly men. I do not go out on dates anymore, I don’t go to parties where drinking may occur, and I just basically concentrate on my schoolwork and if a guy says hello I will respond but nothing past that. I did go on one date after the assault and found that I still felt very uncomfortable, vulnerable, and awkward. I wished so much that I could see what was happening and I found that I spent so much time on the date feeling suspicious that I forgot to really relax and have a good time. It wasn’t a bad date but I wouldn’t do it again.
For people who have other disabilities other than blindness it may be a little easier to trust the world around them because they are able to pick up on visual cues but it is most likely difficult for them to have total trust in people around them. This is not a very satisfying way of living because it often feels like us survivors are way more hyper-vigilant than we really should be, but due to the fact that we are disabled and we have gone through such a terrifying experience it is not hard to understand why we are like this.
The next challenge may not be a big concern for most survivors with disabilities because it involves using screen readers on the computer but I think that it is an important, valid challenge that I often face – perhaps you have a unique challenge due to your disability as well. Due to the lack of support that I have available to me the only real place I have to turn to is Pandora's Aquarium, an online support board. However, I am not able to access it fully day and night like so many other survivors on here are able to because I have to use a screen reader called JAWS on my computer that reads everything out loud to me, since I can't read the posts. I really have to be wise and observe what my family is doing before I log onto here. It is a daily challenge to keep my time here confidential because of my computer’s software.
Not being able to access some online chat groups for survivors is another frustrating challenge that some survivors with disabilities may be faced with. I tried to access an online crisis support website, with counselors who chat to you one on one via chat - my computer was not compatible with the chat software and so my computer froze up and would not talk to me at all. I felt discouraged and the same old, depressing feeling of loneliness set in again. As much as I am able to post on Pandora’s Aquarium, I am unable to get into the chat rooms and have live chats with the other members on the board as a result of my screen reader not being compatible with the chat-room software. I’m not too bothered about that anymore, though, because I feel lucky that this website is accessible with JAWS and that I am able to post at all considering a variety of other websites for survivors out there that aren’t accessible with my computer at all.
The next challenge that I am about to write may sound odd and maybe even a bit paranoid but it is something that I have been dealing with ever since my attack and I feel like it deserves to be recognized. After the attack I began realizing that I was experiencing many symptoms of PTSD. My family was seeing a great change in my moods and my behaviors as well. The more I began observing my changes the more fearful I became and I was haunted with this thought:
“I already have a disability, visual impairment. As of right now it is a permanent disability and I face enough challenges with it on a regular basis. The last thing I need is for another disability to develop in me, meaning PTSD.”
After pondering this thought more carefully I began to realize that I must not be the only one with this thought. I began noticing that not only was I facing more challenges than usual in school because of my blindness and transitioning into college, but I also started noticing that I was developing new difficulties in school that weren’t related to blindness at all, but were instead caused by PTSD. So now I was faced with two challenges, PTSD and blindness, and they both had a huge impact on how I functioned in society and in school and I tell you, it was not a good mix. The majority of PTSD challenges that I faced were occurring before I thankfully found Pandy's. Now it is more under control and manageable and I am doing better in school and, although I still face trouble concentrating due to PTSD I find it easier to get through the quarters as time goes by and the more I heal.
All survivors face the horrible despair and dismay that loneliness haunts us with. When you have a disability, though, and are not able to easily move yourself around, the loneliness can be a hundred times worse. There were some instances where the loneliness was so incredibly horrible that I called RAINN to talk about it because I had nobody else. I live in the country so there are very few stores and places that I could go to for peace and entertainment so I felt like I was trapped inside of my house – it did help just to be able to talk to somebody. Some people with disabilities are very limited as to where they are able to go outside of their home and some are forced to stay inside of their home due to physical or mental disabilities. I am not necessarily forced to stay in but I have this fear of getting lost and not being able to find my way back and so for this reason I get so lonely staying in and having nobody to talk to.
When you have a disability such as a sight impairment or a physical disability and you experience flare-ups of panic disorder like I do it can be difficult to discretely walk out of a restaurant, meeting, classroom, etc, and get to a bathroom or outside for fresh air to regroup and get one’s bearings. It can be so hugely humiliating to have an episode of extreme fear due to a flashback or a panic attack and not be able to get out of a crowded situation before people notice. It is hard enough getting society to accept us with our disabilities let alone when they see us having such episodes of fear for no apparent reason, according to onlookers who do not know what it is like to be a survivor.
Getting lost in a public place is always alarming to people with or without a disability and whether they are a survivor or not. For survivors who do have a disability, though, getting lost in a public place is way more than just an “Oh my gosh” moment: it is traumatic, at least that’s how I feel about it. Not being able to see and having that fear of being attacked is almost unbearable for me to fathom and when I get lost, especially if the public unfamiliar place is crowded, I am faced with this unbelievable urge to run and somehow escape. All train of logical, calming thought is lost in the madness of panic and I really have to work hard to get it back before I totally embarrass myself. It has gotten a little easier to reach out to someone and ask for help finding where you need to go but then there’s the thought of “Oh my gosh, I am following this perfect stranger to where they tell me is the right place to go but is it really? I am depending on them, what if their intentions aren’t good?” It is frightening depending on others for help but it is something I am coming to terms with.
Survivors with disabilities face a number of fearful, very real challenges on a regular basis that have quite an impact on our lives. At first I thought that I would never be able to face the new challenges of being a survivor as well as dealing with the old ones of being blind but I have discovered that I can get through the challenges - so can all of us, disabled or not. The more I heal and the more I process what has happened to me the more I realize that facing these challenges, as much of a pain as they are, have made me a stronger person and have given me more power and self-confidence, which has helped me to heal. You, too, can let the power within yourself grow if you are willing to face challenges in a positive way and not allow them to disrupt life in an unhealthy, self-destructive way. And once you feel yourself regaining your self-confidence and power it often helps fuel you to carry on and continue with the long, arduous process of healing. These challenges have made me believe that where there is a will there is a way and that it is possible to do anything that you put your mind to, no matter how large the challenge may seem at first. This doesn’t just pertain to survivors with disabilities, it pertains to ALL survivors.
Over the past two years that I have struggled with challenges of being a survivor I have also come to realize that not everybody in the world is evil and that, although it may be extremely difficult, it is best to try to be as calm as possible. The more at peace with your surroundings and yourself you are the easier it is to work through problems, such as getting lost, asking for help, and getting to where you really need to go without panicking immensely. And if you do panic and embarrass yourself, so what? I have come to realize that the majority of plans we make never turn out the way we wanted them to and that we really have no control of what happens, so if we panic and get embarrassed it’s not our fault at all. It’s all just a matter of healing, getting through it, and building each other up with great support, encouragement, and sympathy as well as advice on how to get through our embarrassing experiences. We are all strong people and we should be proud that we survived such experiences and, with a little help from each other, we are bound to make a humungous leap in the healing process because we all have each other to lean on.
One last thought before I wrap this article up is this:
When we see that we have conquered a victory, no matter if it is big or small, it is important to reward ourselves. Healing takes a lot of time, effort, and energy so when we do something that gives a boost forward we should take time to recognize our victory and take a walk, eat something chocolatey, or buy yourself something that you have wanted for a long time or that you really like, bubble bath stuff, candles, whatever you want. And it is always good when you are facing a challenge to remind yourself that you are strong, that you can do this, and to always remember to reach out for help and encouragement when times seem too much to bear. All of this really works wonders, especially the reaching out part and the rewarding yourself part.
Thank you for reading my thoughts, I hope that you find some of them helpful and encouraging.