In 2004 I was raped by my (now ex) husband. I say “rape”, because he didn’t stop; he continued to have sex with me even though I was crying and saying no. It happened several more times, until I finally broke down one day and left him. I think back on it now and wonder why I didn’t leave him the 1st, 2nd or even the 5th time? I think it’s because I was 17 and scared.
Anyway, I’m now 26 years old, and have a string of broken marriages and relationships. When I start dating someone it’s okay, but after (almost exactly) 3 months I feel disgusted, sick, and dirty anytime he wants to have sex. It gets to the point that I cringe and physically push the person away when they even try to touch me. I don’t understand it. They are nothing like him, but I can’t help mentally ‘reliving’ what happened to me whenever a significant other tries to touch me or to have sex with me.
I can’t believe it’s still affecting me this way. I feel like it’s ‘messed’ me up in many other aspects of my life too. Its hard for me to really connect with people socially at a party or other get-together, and I find it hard to keep a job at times, because I feel very ‘numb’ to everything and anything.
What can I do to start feeling and acting normal again? (I have no insurance, so going to a psychologist isn’t possible, sadly.)
Our Clinical Psychologist’s Reply
I am sorry that you have been through this difficult experience. I agree that you experienced rape, because your ex-husband continued with non-consensual sex. I want to emphasize that as a survivor of rape, or sexual assault, you are not alone. There are many others who have had similar reactions and problems following similar experiences. It is not uncommon to avoid relationships, and especially sexual intimacy, after experiencing rape.
You mentioned that you are feeling numbness and having difficulty connecting with others. Additionally, the memories of what sex was like with your ex-husband are interfering with sexual intimacy with a current partner. These are very common experiences following trauma: numbness, social withdrawal, reliving or re-experiencing memories, and avoidance of situations that trigger the feelings associated with the trauma. If you were to be seen by a medical or mental health professional, he or she might explore with you whether you meet the criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Acute Stress Disorder. These disorders are characterized by anxiety following a traumatic experience. The treatment for these problems usually includes discussing and processing what has happened to you.
You mentioned that you are not able to seek help from a psychologist right now due to financial constraints. If you are open to seeking professional help, you might try searching for low-cost resources for survivors of sexual assault/domestic violence in your local area. Some agencies have counseling available on a sliding scale, support groups, or psychological education materials that are focused on women’s issues or recovery from sexual assault. There are also a number of self-help books and informational websites that are available. You might find that you need to skim a few to find a resource that feels like it fits for you right now. Some provide information, such as the National Center for Victims of Crime. Others provide specific steps to take, such as the book The Rape Recovery Handbook: Step By Step Help For Survivors of Sexual Assault, by Aphrodite Matsakis, PhD [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]. Finally, others offer stories from women who have been through similar experiences, for example, an online support group that offers survivors a chance to share stories and support.
In the meantime, my advice is to be gentle and patient with yourself. You expressed some frustration with yourself for not leaving after the first time it happened. Let’s assume you did the best you could at that time. Let’s also assume that your mind and body have good reasons for reacting the way they do.
The US’s largest anti-sexual violence association is The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN). RAINN offers a helpful list of ideas for self-care for survivors of sexual abuse, and a national sexual assault hotline that is free, confidential, and available 24/7, at (800) 656 HOPE (4673). If you are outside of the US, you might try searching for a crisis hotline in your area. They may be able to assist you in finding information, support, and help as you explore ways of healing from sexual assault.