Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a psychological disorder that can be developed after facing a traumatic event. Not everyone who has been through a trauma develops PTSD, but an estimated one in 11 people will be diagnosed with it in their lifetime.
I was seventeen, a senior in high school when I was diagnosed with PTSD after being sexually assaulted one year prior.
Coming into college I was still struggling with this diagnosis. I wasn’t sure how this would affect my college experience. You’re always told growing up that one in five girls will be assaulted during their college years, but I was assaulted in high school. I wasn’t a part of that statistic. I was a part of a more unknown statistic.
I was one of the one in ten high school girls who had been sexually assaulted.
Coming into college, I went to the first-year information meeting the first weekend everyone was on campus, which included a discussion about alcohol and sexual assault. This lecture alone caused me to be uneasy, but when the presenter used an example that was clearly an assault in my mind, hearing what my peers thought of it made me want to curl up into a ball.
Hearing people say that it wasn’t assault set me off, but I was in a new environment and felt that I had to be careful of what I did and how I reacted. I felt the need to keep it all inside, but I was taking note of what everyone said in my head.
When I went to counseling services for my first appointment Dr. Frank Kelemen, director of counseling services, said that he was worried about me being in that presentation. I told him that what was the most triggering to me was what came out of my roommate’s mouth after the lecture. She said that she believed that the example given wasn’t assault.
Later on in my freshman year, I dated a guy who would constantly use the analogy of rape whenever he was trying to express that something was hard. If he took a difficult exam or thought he didn’t do well on a paper, he would say things like, “That exam raped me,” or “That paper raped me.”
Even knowing my past, he would still make those comments to me, and his words made me feel as if that huge moment in my life was just something to joke about.
“We call it an off-colored joke, [and that] would be putting it very mildly,” said Kelemen. “And dealing with it can be something that is speaking to your experience or making fun of your experience, that can be very shocking and very emotionally upsetting, and it leaves you both angry and also stuck. In terms of PTSD, particularly when it comes to sexual assault, it recreates some of the experience of being in the situation where you were helpless to protect yourself. And here in this situation, you are unable to protect yourself from someone making humorous comments about something traumatic that happened to you so it can kind of stir up some of those same feelings.”
When jokes are made about someone’s traumatic experience, it can trigger the person to go back into the mindset they were in during the event.
“I would hope that anyone would be able to say that, whether they have experienced an assault or not, this is nothing to joke about,” said Kelemen. “I would hope that is something that would be in the same way that we expect if someone made a racial joke or a slur. They would be expected as a community that people would say, ‘Knock it off. This is not a joking matter.’ I think, unfortunately, when it comes to sexual assault, that doesn’t get the same kind of necessarily community awareness or community treatment that it should.”
Jokes in relation to PTSD don’t only exist with regard to the triggering event. People make jokes about the disorder itself, too.
My sophomore year, I joined the dive team. Diving is a very intense and painful sport if you hit the water just right. I once chipped my teeth from smacking the water so hard. That same year, I was at a meet, and I heard someone say to their coach that the smack on their last dive “gave them PTSD.”
However trivial it might seem to an outsider or someone who doesn’t know the difficulty of living with PTSD, this seemingly simple comment is way more complex than it initially seems. This comment made me feel like the struggles I went through facing PTSD on a daily basis weren’t a big deal.
My initial reaction was that they wish that was all PTSD was. I bet you, at this moment, they don’t even remember that smack at Calvin University or that they smacked their back. But the only reason I remember is because of how that comment made me feel about all the struggles I’ve faced. So, I remember the circumstances surrounding the event as well.
“Sometimes people will use PTSD or traumatic in synopsis with ‘hurtful,’ but that is not an equal diagnostic entity of PTSD,” said Kelemen. “You don’t have to go through the war to have PTSD, or go through combat to have PTSD, but also because you’re disappointed in something that doesn’t necessarily meet the criteria.”
I doubt the others remember all of these instances, but they’ve been stuck in my head ever since. All these comments are examples of many things I say to myself when I feel doubt about how strong I am.
Many girls, many you aren’t aware of, hold the secret of having been assaulted. Those comments are more than likely going to enter the wrong ears and make a girl who is facing hardships without your comment feel like she’s overreacting about a traumatic moment in her life. Please, watch what you say, because you never know who is around to hear it.
If you or anyone you know is struggling please reach out:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1(800) 273-8255 (https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org)
- Mental Health Association in Michigan: (248) 647-1711
- Summit Point – 24 Hour Crisis: 1(800) 632-5449
- Summit Point Youth Mobile Crisis Team: (269) 441-5945
- Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 74174
- National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1(800)656-4773
- National Domestic Abuse Hotline1(800)799-7233
Such an amazing and powerful piece! Thank you for sharing your story, Erin!