'I Choose Elena: on trauma, recovery, and the true cost of sexual violence' By Lucia Osborne-Crowley

Image by Raphael Goetter, reproduced under the Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.

CW: rape, sexual assault, suicidal thoughts, chronic illness

I. Beginnings

I have so much beautiful time.
— Olivia Gatwood, “Alternate universe in which I am unfazed by the men who do not love me.”

Growing up, I was a gymnast. The serious kind. The train-six-times-a-week-and-never-do-anything-else kind. By the time I was ten, I had represented New South Wales at national championships and won. I represented Australia by the time I was twelve.

By fifteen, I was preparing for my second World Championships. I had been training relentlessly; day in, day out. I visualised my routines every night as I fell asleep, ensuring I had the mental strength for the impossible stunts I would be called on to perform the next day.

Every morning I would drink raw eggs mixed with protein powder and milk. I was training so much that my body had started using my muscle mass for energy, and I needed to be consuming as much protein as possible to avoid getting weaker.

Weakness was the one thing we were all taught to avoid, and I took this lesson seriously. No amount of eggs, protein bars, crunches, toe-points, handstand push-ups or weightlifts could deter me. I would push my body right to its limits, then further. I felt invincible.

I assumed my body would be the driving force of my life, my greatest source of pride. I would grow up to be a professional gymnast, and when inevitably my career ended at thirty, I would join a professional circus. My body was a weapon.

The kind of gymnastics I was doing also required immense mental precision. I needed to synchronise wholly with my body, to pick up on every signal it sent me. It was the level of mindfulness you needed in order to step onto a velvet floor on a world stage, with five international judges ready to pick apart your every movement. My mind had to be so still that it could communicate with every pointed toe, every carefully balanced leg, every perfectly-positioned finger.

I had to be perfect, and it had to seem effortless. I had to be strong and powerful and graceful and light, all at the same time. I had to smile. To do all these things at once takes a kind of mind/body alignment that I have been dreaming of regaining, ever since I stepped off the floor for the last time. My body and my mind, it seemed then, belonged wholly to me.

I was obsessed with this feeling. When I wasn’t training, I would take ballet classes to fill the time.

But the thing about being a teenage girl is that at a certain point, the outside world intrudes on this internal narrative, the one in which you are strong, and powerful, and whole, and it reconstructs your perception of your body without your knowledge or permission.

II. Endings

Why would anyone want to leave their body? He asked,
And in that moment,
We had nothing in the world in common.

— Blythe Baird, “For the rapists who call themselves feminists”

It was 2007. I was out on a Saturday night with three friends, at a dingy karaoke bar in the city that smelled of must and damp and, crucially, sold over-priced vodka cruisers to underage girls like us.

We didn’t drink very much; we were too absorbed in the frivolity of singing nasty songs about boys we liked who were playing hard-to-get. I sang a truly awful rendition of Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me a River’ and, with exactly no subtlety, tact or poetic integrity, inserted the name of the boy I was chasing into the end of every chorus. My friends joined in. It felt so good, as girls, to find a space in which we could safely scream about the boys who had wronged us with no-one watching.

We left the karaoke bar not long after the Justin Timberlake rendition because we’d run out of money. It was only about 9pm.

Emerging at the top of the creaky stairs, we found ourselves in the glow of Pitt Street on a Saturday night. In front of us stood the towering McDonalds on the corner. We were hungry from all that singing. We crossed the road towards it.

A group of four grown men approach us and started talking to us. Purposefully, I realised later, they distracted my three friends as a fifth, out of nowhere, appeared behind me and slipped his hand into mine. Come with me, he whispered.

The four remaining men closed in on my three friends and no-one noticed us leave. He was gripping my hand so tightly I thought he might break my fingers. He marched me toward a door on the left-hand side of the room, towards the bathrooms. We went up one flight of stairs, where the public bathrooms were. But still, he kept going.

He walked me up another flight of stairs to a dusty, disused bathroom. Perhaps it had once been for staff, or just an extra men’s toilets the franchise no longer needed. It was empty, and deathly quiet.

He took me into a stall, locked the door and violently assaulted me, again, and again, and again. I had never had sex consensually so I had no reference point for any of what was happening to me apart from what I’d seen in movies, but I knew for certain that it was the sharpest and most severe pain I had ever, and would ever, experience.

If you’ve done any reading about trauma you’ll know that the human body’s autonomic nervous system gives it three options in this kind of situation: fight, flight, or freeze.

I lunged once at the latch of the stall door but he moved his heavy body in front of it and didn’t move from that position. Flight, my body instantly recognised, was not an option.

Next, fight. The man was about thirty-five, and made almost entirely of muscle. He looked like he went to the gym every day and had spent most of his twenties alternating between bulking for the gym and shredding for stereo. I was still just a little over 40 kilos, true to my sport’s dreams.

I tried once to push myself far enough away from him that I could reach around him for the door. At this point, he pulled out a Swiss army knife and held it against my throat. Fight, it seemed, was also out of the question.

When the first two options fail and the danger is still present, the autonomic nervous system sends a signal to the brain that death is imminent and the body begins to prepare itself.

It releases the most powerful natural analgesic known to the body and essentially cuts off signals from all major nerve endings. At the same moment that the body numbs, the major muscle groups shut down as well, and go into a state known to neuroscientists as ‘collapse’. Once entirely loosened, the muscles will cease to resist whatever is trying to hurt you and death will come faster, more mercifully.

The brain then sends itself into a state of total dissociation. In this state, one feels distinctly as though one is floating above one’s body, patiently watching, waiting, feeling nothing at all.

In these calm moments the brain surveys the scenario one final time for possible escape routes. In most traumatic situations, it is the moment in which the body resigns itself to death that the mind finds a way to survive.

I noticed a glass bottle sitting to the right of the toilet bowl, leaning slightly against the door. Without any conscious thought, I bent over – feeling, in that moment, not an ounce of the searing pain in my body – grabbed the bottle, and smashed it over the porcelain lid of the toilet bowl.

This startled my attacker for only a few seconds, but it was enough. As he drunkenly tried to figure out the source of the loud smash, the flying glass, the reverberations as my elbow hit the door of the stall as it recoiled from the effort of breaking the glass, I reached for the door, unlocked it, and ran away as fast as my tiny legs could carry me.

I ran down the first flight of stairs, the second, the third. I found my friends looking desperate, casting their eyes around the street wildly, panicked and wondering where I could have gone. Together, the four of us ran around the corner onto Pitt Street and I collapsed into a nook next to what was then a Hungry Jacks.

All I remember from those moments is the sound of my gasping breath, the strength of my hands as I clutched my stomach, my pitchy sobs, and the only words I could muster: It hurts.

When I got home, I collapsed in the shower, bleeding everywhere, staring blankly into a tiled abyss and thinking only of the sound that thick glass makes when it smashes.

I got up the next morning as usual. I washed the stale cigarette smell out of my hair. I faked an injury the next day at training as a cover for the now-bright purple bruises that snaked across my stomach.

I went to school on the Monday and shared stories about the cheesy pop songs we sang about the embarrassing crushes we couldn’t let go of. I waited for the bruises to heal and went back to training. I told no-one. I was fifteen.

Recently I read The Body Keeps The Score, by Dr Bessel van der Kolk. The culmination of a life’s work, the book gives a neurobiological, psychosocial and psychiatric account of post-traumatic stress. It outlines the ways in which traumatic events have lasting impacts on the immune system, the nervous system, the muscular system, and the brain.

There is now an authoritative body of research that shows that it is possible to heal almost all physical symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder — but this, of course, requires that the person seek help. For the most stigmatised of traumas – sexual violence, of course, being the preeminent example – it might be years before patients get medical treatment, if at all.

The mind, it turns out, is very skilled at protecting us from painful memories. It stores them away where we cannot reach them; where they cannot scare us. But the body keeps the score.

About eighteen months after the assault – eighteen long months of avoiding any conscious thoughts about it, any memories, any nightmares – I was struck down suddenly by unbearable abdominal pain. I threw up from the sheer force of it. I started to bleed everywhere. I passed out.

Over the next few years my body started to break down, physically, in a way that I assumed to be entirely unconnected to the event I had tried so hard to forget. I lost my sense of balance and any degree of connection to my body. I stopped being able to perform gym routines I had long ago perfected.

I lost all sense of my physical self. I started injuring myself at training as a consequence of being unable to know precisely where the different parts of me begun and ended.

I remember picking myself up after disastrously under-rotating on a round off-flip-layout and casting my eyes around the gym in search of something that could explain the fall. Had the mats shifted underneath me? Had I tripped on another athlete’s abandoned ankle strap? No answers presented themselves.

In trauma discourse, this is described as a loss of proprioception: the ability of the mind to effectively gauge the relationship between the body and the world. Proprioception is how the mind tells the body how to move through the world; how to control its most delicate movements; how much space it takes up.

I read once that the reason cats can shape-shift to fit themselves into remarkably small spaces is that the tips of their whiskers are biologically coded to be exactly the same width as the widest parts of their body. They use them as a kind of proprioceptive radar.

All of a sudden I was without that sense, unable to orient myself, never quite sure which parts of the world I could fit into and which I couldn’t.

I had a major fall in the try-outs for my second World Championships. I injured my ankle so badly that my sports doctor told me I would be lucky if I went for a jog again. I have barely set foot on a gym floor since.

I then experienced a series of organic failures that grew, developed and shape-shifted over the seven years that followed. First my bladder, then my appendix, then my uterus, then my bowel. Finally, I was diagnosed with a disease called endometriosis.

This diagnosis came after a frustrating process of trying to convince doctors that my pain was real and that I needed help. My gynaecological surgeon is the first doctor who believed me, and it is no exaggeration to say that his understanding of the disease has changed my life. He and I have been working together on my illness for eight years now.

Some years later I was also diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. My body, it seemed, was in full-scale revolt.

When an everyday event concludes, the brain places it in a sequence, understanding how each moment, each event, led to the next, and analysing the experience based on this narrative.

Traumatic memories, however, get stuck. They cannot be rearranged into logical narratives, and instead remain trapped in the brain as flashes of light, sound, and smell — rogue fragments of an unbearable memory that leak out at the mind’s weakest moments. As a result, instead of understanding these stimuli as past events, the brain reacts to these fragments of memory as though it is still happening. The brain dutifully re-enters fight, flight or freeze, even if there’s no actual danger present.

Activating this response repeatedly wreaks havoc on the body. It suspends all physical functions not considered necessary for escape, and sends blood and oxygen to the major muscle groups, ready to run. The constant stagnation of these ‘non-essential’ functions such as digestion, hormone regulation, and the upkeep of the liver and kidneys eventually causes long-term damage to these organs.

The longer a physical assault or accident is held in the nervous system, the muscles and the brain, without being addressed or treated, the more likely it is that it will eventually manifest as a systemic physical dysfunction. This sentences the patient to a future defined by a life-long illness as penance for being unable to integrate traumatic experiences into the narrative of their lives.

Medical professionals now believe that the digestive system’s dysfunctional response to untreated trauma is one of the causes of abdominal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, and endometriosis. It’s also now believed to cause migraines, fibromyalgia, and generalised chronic pain.

It had never occurred to me that my physical ailments, all appearing in the same part of me, at the same time, could have a common cause.

And perhaps they don’t. There is no exact formula for causation, no matter how desperately we might wish for one. My chronic physical illnesses could have been caused by any number of things, or an intricate combination of several factors, or just bad luck. I’ll never know for sure.

But one thing I now know to be true is that, in one way or another, the body keeps the score.

It’s strange that the body’s dissociative fight, flight or freeze response can be so destructive, because its evolutionary purpose is a very sensible one: it is designed to protect us from experiencing the pain of our dying moments; moments the brain does not think it will ever have to fold into any kind of narrative because it does not think it will live to tell the story at all.

Unfortunately this means that the act of living through these moments is a subversion with which the brain cannot fully cope, and it tortures us physically as it tries to make sense of it.

Image by Maria Eklind, reproduced under the Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.

III. Reincarnations

This home is what I came into this world with,
Was the first home,
Will be the last home,
You can’t take it.

— Rupi Kaur, “I’m taking my body back”

One Monday night, I ended up in emergency after avoiding having a major endometriosis surgery for too long. My surgeon came to my bedside with a kind but stern look on his face and said, I know you think you can outrun this thing, but you can’t.

Watch me, I thought.

He was talking about my endometriosis, but I was determined to outrun it all: I had spent ten years running from this memory, as if it still had the power to catch me. It was like one of those dreams where you are constantly running, but never move; you’re gasping and exhausted, but never catch your breath.

My attacker’s violence had trapped me in the body of a fifteen-year-old girl, running for her life, too young to understand this kind of danger, but old enough to be deeply ashamed.

I am twenty-six now, and I have finally realised that strength does not always mean feigning indifference. It had already happened, and that fight was over. The bravest thing to do was to let him catch me. It was the only way to process that I did not have to run anymore.

So I began to heal. I found a medical psychotherapist who has helped me more than I could have imagined. He is the first person I ever told this story to in full, from start to finish. To my great surprise, it was the first thing I told him about myself.

I have learned to identify the sensations that enliven the fragments of the memory in my mind – the sound of a glass bottle smashed accidentally at a house party, the smell of a particular mix of whiskey and cigarettes on a man’s breath, the faint echo you hear when you inadvertently knock an elbow against a wall in a public bathroom.

I have trusted him with my life. He has led me through sessions of a painful treatment called Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing; an intense therapy using rapid eye movements that forces the brain to recall a traumatic memory in full – not in fragments, not in flashes – in a safe environment, after which it can be processed as something already lived through, rather than still occurring.

I found a sex therapist who has dedicated herself to the sexual trauma aspects of my care. She taught me about a condition called vaginismus. My gynaecological surgeon referred me to a highly-skilled women’s health physiotherapist who is trained in dealing with the physical effects of severe sexual trauma. She has been using internal and external manual therapy techniques to release the muscle dysfunction this experience left me with. Through breathing exercises, stretching, mindfulness, pelvic floor ‘down training’ and massage, I have been retraining my body not to freeze up every time it is touched. This process has been painful and exhausting, but it’s working.

The psychological impacts of my treatment have been severe, too. Reliving moments of total helplessness can produce strong suicidal ideations, as it did in me. It seems cruel that your mind convinces you that you want to die after your body had done so much to keep you alive.

As I was trying to heal, I gradually learned to withdraw myself from the people who were hurting or draining me, and turned all of my energy inward. In some cases this required me telling them explicitly that this is what I was doing, a prospect that felt nearly impossible. I cringed at the thought that everyone would know that I was too fragile to handle fair-weather friends or careless lovers. I am usually a very extroverted person (read: chatty, annoying, prone to oversharing) but I was unable to communicate the physical and psychological pain I was in. I needed to be careful.

There is strength in vulnerability. There is also strength in honesty: I really was too fragile. I really couldn’t handle it.

I dedicated all of my time and my space to myself and kept the world out. I struggled through the end of a taxing law degree — I finished a few weeks ago! — and found a private bathroom near my office where I could cry unnoticed. I never knew who or what might upset me in public, so I perfected the art of leaving the party without saying goodbye. I would slip away before anyone could see me break down, slink into the safety of an Uber, comforted only by the unexpected kindness of the stranger behind the wheel.

In the back seat, I would have the uneasy sense of being both frozen and melting; half terror, half tears. I would call a trusted friend and ask them to meet me at home and stay with me until I fell asleep.

A few months ago I became physically sicker than I have ever been. The pain became unbearable and more difficult to hide. I lost seven kilos in four weeks. I was inexplicably throwing up half of what I ate and I started shaking so much I had to get friends to help me put on make-up. My blood pressure dropped dramatically and I started passing out at random intervals.

When it occurred to me that the physical and psychological therapy I was undergoing would making things worse before they got better, I wanted to rewind. To return to the body of the girl who had not acknowledged the gravity of her experience.

I went to a close friend’s wedding, in a quaint coastal town, and collapsed on the morning of the ceremony. As I lay on the floor of the apartment, I imagined myself approaching one of those big red signs on single-lane highways that says WRONG WAY, GO BACK. But every time I came close to giving up, I thought of the comforting words my best friend offers me when she notices that I’m in trouble: the only way out of it is through it.

So I kept going.

Crohn’s disease and endometriosis are life-long illnesses. They can be managed, but not cured. I will never have the physical capacity I had as a teenager; my body will never again be the driving force of my life.

This is a theft for which I will never be compensated. Living with that reality has been a difficult process, but I have come to accept it. It is no longer a source of anger, or fear, or resentment. It just is. As Cheryl Strayed wisely wrote: Acceptance is a small, quiet room. I won’t pretend: not everything can be healed.

My recovery has not been easy. It has been slow, and at times excruciatingly painful and demoralising. But I’m making progress. I have finally placed this memory into the narrative of my life in a way that makes sense. It’s not the story I would have chosen, or would choose for anyone. But I’ve found a way to live with that.

What I can choose, however, is how I respond to it, and how I can use it to help others. In one of her now-famous ‘Dear Sugar’ columns, Cheryl Strayed recounted the following anecdote when giving advice to a rape victim:

I have a friend who is twenty years older than me who was raped three different times over the course of her life… I asked her how she recovered from them, how she continued having healthy sexual relationships with men. She told me that at a certain point we get to decide who it is we allow to influence us. She said “I could allow myself to be influenced by three men who screwed me against my will or I could allow myself to be influenced by Van Gogh. I chose Van Gogh.”

When I read these words, I thought of all of the women writers who kept me company during the darkest moments of the last twelve months. The women whose strength pushed me ever on, convincing me that there was a world out there that was beautiful and kind and safe and that it would be waiting for me if I were brave enough to choose it.

I thought of my favourite author, Elena Ferrante, and the way her exquisite stories of female friendship showed me that women can be both soft and powerful; tenderness and strength are not antithetical, but equivalent. It takes vulnerability and resilience for women like her protagonist, Elena Greco, to overcome their dangerous pasts and possess their own narratives, in all of their complexity.

For myself, I can choose to be influenced by a violent man in an abandoned bathroom or I can choose to be influenced by the strength and vulnerability and honesty of Elena.

I am choosing Elena.

Last month, I went to a ballet class for the first time in years. It was devastating to see how stiff my body had become in the years I’d neglected it; how profoundly damaged it was. But it was also an unparalleled joy to be reminded, even for a moment, of the feeling of being strong and powerful and poised and graceful and beautiful all at once.

Last week I went to a private gymnastics lesson with one of the athletes I used to compete with. As she watched me re-learn my tricks, she scanned her eyes over my body and I heard in her words the echo of every coach, every athlete, and every judge I’d ever trained with. They had noticed the same things she was noticing now: my impressively high arches, my hyperextended knees, my stubborn hamstrings. She promised me everything would come back to me quickly, and it did. The memory of how to move like I used to was still there, in my muscles.

My body had kept everything in its rightful place, waiting for me to come back to it.

Image by Marco Verch, reproduced under the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).

IV. Revolutions

When I talk about my trauma
I am not asking you to carry it or relieve me from it;
I am just asking for it not to be too heavy for a conversation.

— Blythe Baird, “Yet another rape poem”

I am profoundly lucky that recovery was possible for me. I have a job and support network that has allowed me to scrape together enough money to see all the specialists I need, in a system that is prohibitively expensive for the majority of survivors. I’ve had colleagues buy me lunch on the days they knew I needed to see my psychotherapist so I wouldn’t have to sacrifice one for the other.

I have specialists who make allowances when I need a few extra weeks to pay, who consistently invent ways to reduce the cost of my care. I have a workplace that gives me all the sick leave I need and offers me unconditional support. I am also lucky enough to work in an environment so focused on creating a supportive culture that my colleagues are also my closest friends. I have a best friend who loves and supports me unconditionally and a network of friends and family who are endlessly loving, generous and kind.

I am also fortunate that what happened to me was a blinding anomaly. A random act of violence committed by a stranger in the night. Statistically, most acts of sexual violence are not isolated; they’re visited upon us by people we know and trust, in circumstances where social and interpersonal dynamics may complicate a survivor’s understanding of their trauma, or the boundaries of consent may feel harder to clearly determine.

If just one of these factors had not aligned in my favour, I might not have been able to get better.

In Sally Rooney’s novel Conversations With Friends the last thing the narrator says to the reader is:

You have to live through things before you understand them. You can’t always take the analytical position.

In NSW in 2018, the crime of sexual assault is listed in the statute books but only 5% of prosecutions result in conviction. In the legal profession, we refer to this as a crime that is formally illegal, but socially accepted. Making the law tougher on perpetrators and would-be perpetrators is the first step to changing that.

I watch as we launch inquiries into reforming consent laws and getting tougher on prosecuting sexual violence. I listen as we analyse how women could better protect themselves while walking home alone; while we pick apart the logic of streetlights, well-populated areas and always carrying a mobile phone.

All of this analysis is necessary, but none of it pays enough attention to the lived experience of victims of sexual violence. None of it takes on the more difficult task of trying to empathise with us; to see the world as we see it.

It does not consider the fact that viewing consent as the norm and requiring non-consent to be communicated puts trauma survivors in the untenable position of being asked to vocalise non-consent when they have likely already entered fight, flight, or freeze. When they are too terrified to say anything at all.

Presuming consent is fundamentally antithetical to the concept that women are an autonomous and dignified role in our sexual lives. That we are entitled to our boundaries, our pleasure, our pain. Saxon Mullins: If it’s not an enthusiastic yes, it’s not enough. If it’s not an enthusiastic yes, it’s a no.

If we listen to the stories of survivors, it’s evident how damaging it is to expose women to a public conversation in which we are held responsible for our own safety.

It’s a pragmatic approach, they tell us. Boys will be boys. Not all of us have the luxury of taking a pragmatic position. My response to these conversations is not rational but biological: I am being told that I must always be ready for run for my life. That if I fail to follow these rules, I might not be so lucky next time.

Just as traumatic memory evades narrative, a culture of victim-blaming and shame disrupts a survivor’s ability to comprehend traumatic experiences. Survivors are condemned not only to live through trauma and its pervasive psychological and physical effects, but also to suffer the indignity of being unable to clearly understand what is happening to us.

This post-traumatic response is replicated in victim-blaming media coverage. If this happens to me again and I do not escape, the story of my death will be taken from me and placed in a narrative about whether or not I chose a sufficiently well-lit park to walk home through.

The constant reminder of how unsafe the world is for us triggers our autonomic nervous system. It makes us fragile. It makes us scared. And as I have found, eventually, it makes us sick.

It also keeps us quiet. Every time we blame victims for the crimes of their perpetrators we construct a world in which traumatised people are too ashamed to seek help. Our society is so convinced that victims are complicit in their trauma that we are scared to admit what happened to us, in case it transpires that we did not follow the rules.

I wrote this essay because creating a safer world needs not only to be an exercise in logic but also in empathy.

If my experience of the world was not one in which I knew I would be blamed for the violence committed against me — in which my primary reaction to suffering trauma is shame — the last ten years of my life would have been profoundly different. I would have gone to the police that night, covered in DNA evidence, bruises, scratches, injuries.

Perhaps, eventually I would have been compensated by my assailant for the tens of thousands of dollars I’ve lost to medical bills, hospital bills, forgone wages, therapy. Perhaps I would have helped secure a criminal conviction that would have protected the potentially countless women he has assaulted in the ten years that I have remained silent.

If we lived in a world where this kind of experience was treated, both by the law and by our culture, like any other physical trauma or violent crime – a car accident, a severe sports injury – it would not have taken me ten years to ask for help.

It would not have caused me to spend years of my life running from it, hoping it might never catch up with me. It would not have left me with irrevocable physical damage.

It would not have taken me ten years to choose Elena, to choose recovery, to choose to speak. It might sound shocking, but the process of repossessing my narrative has left me feeling as though I might now be able to enjoy my life.

It is harder to bear witness to suffering than it is to analyse it, and until we are ready to do that, real change will evade us. You have to live through things before you can understand them. You can’t always take the analytical position.

Lifeline offers crisis support services if you need to speak with someone. You can call on 13 11 14.

If you are a survivor of sexual violence and need assistance, call the 24-hour Rape Crisis Centre on 1800 424 017.

If you are suffering from a chronic illness and need assistance, please call Pain Link Australia on 1300 340 357.

Lucia Osborne-Crowley is a freelance journalist and writer and works as a paralegal at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers. She tweets at @LuciaOC_.