Rape Trauma Syndrome (RTS) is a way of describing the post-traumatic stress symptoms that occur after a sexual assault. However, everyone responds differently, and the stages may vary from person to person.
This is usually the initial phase after an individual is raped–from the first moments after the event to weeks after the assault. Symptoms can range from crying to flat affect to uncontrollable laughter to anger. However, inwardly the individual is in chaos and may be in shock, experiencing disorganized thoughts and/or have difficulty concentrating. It may be difficult to make decisions, and the individual may refuse to deal with the traumatic event. This is one reason many people delay reporting their assault.
After the shock of the initial crisis wears off, the body and mind start piecing things back together. The individual may move to a new place, develop a strategy for avoiding their attacker or the location of the assault, or seek support from friends or professionals. They may learn new coping strategies and/or process their assault.
This phase has been called the “new normal.” After survivors have worked hard toward recovery, they are able to create meaning from their experience. Trauma triggers become less frequent and frequent, and individuals may choose to speak, write, or volunteer as steps toward empowerment and healing.
THE FACE OF RTS
In the first months following my sexual assault when I was nineteen, I lived in a dissociative state, although I didn’t know the term for the “fog” that descended over me. I transferred to a college near home and eventually dropped out. (I did go back and complete my degree several years later.) I slept with the lights on, refused to be in a house alone after dark, was haunted my nightmares, and found it impossible to sleep at night.
Within a year after my assault, I married my hero, the man I still adore thirty-eight years later. He was the man who raced to my side the night of my assault like a knight in shining armor. In the five years or so after I was assaulted, we moved to a new town, where I enlisted the support of local law enforcement. (My attacker was a serial rapist who was still at large.) I began to process my experience by writing a novel.
Before long, I was speaking and writing about my experience on a regular basis. Both my first and second novels dealt with themes of victimization and forgiveness. Today I speak in prisons across the country and consult on post-traumatic stress disorder after seeking treatment for my assault, as well as other trauma that influenced my life.
If you know someone who has experienced a sexual assault, learn about trauma, PTSD, and become an informed and compassionate advocate.
If you have experienced abuse, it’s never too late to seek treatment. For help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE.