Frozen in place: Student sexual assault survivors share what life is like dealing with PTSD

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Editor’s note: Julia and Sarah’s names have been changed to protect their anonymity.

When Julia is having a bad day, she may be in class, but, for more than half of the day, she’s mentally checked out. 

“My body would be in this frozen mode, (and) I would not recall any of the major points that had been made in class,” Julia said.

Julia suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, caused by sexual violence, making her one of roughly 50 percent of all sexual assault survivors who suffer from PTSD following their assault. 

The term PTSD first appeared in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a guide for psychologists, in 1980 and was typically a diagnosis reserved for soldiers returning from combat. Recently, the scientific community has begun to recognize that anyone who suffers from a traumatic experience can develop symptoms of PTSD. 

Dr. Michael Telch, an internationally renowned psychologist and UT professor who studies anxiety disorders, said the likelihood of a person — man or woman — developing PTSD after sexual trauma is much higher than it is for other traumatic events.

“Not all traumas are created equal (in terms of likelihood of developing PTSD),” Telch said. “Sexual trauma has the highest conditional probability. For women, that is the single most potent event that can lead to full-blown PTSD.”

The pain of Julia’s sexual trauma spilled over into her personal life, making it hard for her to connect with people.

She experiences dissociation, or an involuntary disconnection between a person’s thoughts, identity, consciousness or memory, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Julia’s trauma has since caused a “fracture” in her identity.

“It’s like a complete disconnection from my body,” Julia said. “It feels like I’m not in it.”

Telch said he would not even describe experiences such as dissociation as a symptom, but as a reaction.

“For most of us, the reactions start to die down within the first 30 days or so (following the event),” Telch said. “We call this digestion of trauma.”

But this isn’t the case for everyone.

“For a smaller percentage, let’s say 30 percent, people get stuck,” Telch said. “The reactions don’t die down.”

Julia said her disassociation can happen at any moment. If she is walking to class and sees a car that looks like her abuser’s, it takes her back to the day of her trauma. When triggered, she may enter into a trance-like state and mentally check out for the remainder of the day.

“I’ll hear my voice and I’ll be doing something … and I don’t feel like (it’s) me,” Julia said.

Since trauma encodes memories differently, something that may be considered mundane or normal by someone who has not experienced trauma may be triggering or cause extreme distress for someone with PTSD, said T’shana McCain, a researcher at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work.

Sarah, another survivor, said she was dissociated during her sexual trauma, which makes recalling the event in detail difficult.

“I closed my eyes and pretended to be somewhere else,” Sarah said.

Mental fragmentation can also occur due to the victims’ dissociation during the trauma and make it difficult to recall the details of the event, Telch said. 

This fragmentation explains why sometimes survivors cannot remember how they got home the night of their assault or the exact location where it took place.

University of Texas Police Department Sgt. Samantha Stanford said for these reasons, UTPD waits at least two sleep cycles to interview survivors.

“After sexual assault, there can be a lot going on,” Stanford said. “We want to allow them time to take care of themselves physically and give them time to process. Studies have shown they might be able to recall better if they’ve had time to process everything.”

Sarah also said she experiences difficulty maintaining focus and suffers from paranoia due to her PTSD, making her school-life balance more difficult.

“I try and focus and I try and study and … I don’t feel like a person anymore sometimes,” she said. “I am still paranoid a lot of the time.”

Sarah also suffered from night terrors and nightmares following the trauma, waking up in the middle of the night screaming.

Julia, like Sarah, has experienced multiple sexual traumas. She said, at this point, she has so many triggers and memories that her life with PTSD is like walking in a hall of mirrors.

“Everything (in your life) becomes related to what happened,” she said.

Both survivors said classroom conversations about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s September confirmation hearing made coping with their trauma even more difficult.  

One way to be an ally to people dealing with trauma and symptoms of PTSD is to debunk the “perfect victim myth,” said McCain, the researcher at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work.

“They’re told they need to act like this, or else they’re not being truthful,” she said. 

It’s also important to understand the neurobiology of trauma, McCain said. The body could respond to trauma by fighting, fleeing or freezing. 

“You’re more in your primitive nature, in a sense,” McCain said. “You might freeze because you just don’t know what to do. That’s called tonic immobility.”

But the most detrimental thing for PTSD is self-blame, McCain said.

“People who have a lot of self-blame have more PTSD symptoms. While at the same time, PTSD symptoms tend to make people have more self-blame,” McCain said.

Julia said she attends therapy and takes antidepressants to try to cope, but she wishes more people understood the “absolute hell” of PTSD.

“It’s something I would never wish upon anyone,” she said.