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By: Devan Penegar with Camille Dalke
My name is Devan Penegar. I’m a writer, DIY filmmaker and part of RAINN’s Speakers Bureau. The following is an essay on trauma I wrote with my creative partner Camille.
My life didn't start out so strange. When I was eight years old my parents lived in this magical place called Oakridge Acres. The roads weren't paved and it was deep in the woods, perfect in its isolation. The rest of the world didn't seem to matter out there. Who could be concerned with scandals in the news when ducks and geese and goats ran freely across the yard? It was Heaven.
That all felt like a lifetime ago as I sat in my psychiatrist's office at age 15. He gave me an extra dose of Depakote. He said something about how my dosage needed to be increased. It should have occurred to me how unusual it was to be asked to take a pill during the session, especially without parental consent but, in hindsight, many of his oddities were overlooked. It sickens me to say now, but I thought of him as cultured and worldly. I looked up to the devil.
I should have asked why he got up to lock the door. I should have run, fought or done something. Anything. But I felt like I was in a trance. It was becoming a struggle to hold onto a single thought. The realization hit me: The pill he gave me had a different taste than Depakote. It was something else. What was happening?
The drug kicked into full gear.
Everything went black.
I was asleep yet awake enough to know that I was asleep. I could think semi-coherent, cloudy thoughts and was aware of my surroundings. I felt myself being moved but could do nothing to stop it.
"If I didn't break you, someone or something else would."
He said that as if it were his noble duty. Like he did me a favor.
My mind went black again.
This isn’t how virginity is meant to be lost. It was in this particular moment, a light burned out in my mind. I became something not quite human. In the years since The Incident, I have often thought of myself as an actor from another world cast in the role of a human, hoping no one sees through the facade.
I imagined a simpler time, an age without prescriptions and vague labels of personality disorders forced upon me.
I dreamed I was in Oakridge Acres.
I dreamed I was playing with goats.
Fast forward to sometime in my early 20s. After a hazy night, I woke up to find the bathroom of the hotel I was staying in to have dried blood in the sink. A lot of it. I checked the mirror and feigned a toothy grin. I looked like hell.
This had happened before as a teenager. Memories of The Psychiatrist having been in my mouth constantly resurfacing. When I attempted to floss or brush my teeth, a flashback would hit, followed by an unclean feeling washing over me as I spaced out. By the time I snapped out of it, the sink would be splattered with blood. For a while I just avoided dental maintenance altogether, hoping these episodes would stop.
In my early 20s, nearly every night was a wild, drunken party. I was having fun, right? I thought these detached mental outbursts were finally over.
More recently, last year to be exact, I got into an argument with my mom about something. We have a great relationship, the kind in which conversations can escalate into heated overlapping rants and then we’re fine with each other a minute later as if the verbal sparring never happened. After an argument settled down, my mother calmly said, “You know, sometimes it’s like you’re stuck in a period of your life and haven’t caught up to the present.”
After a moment, I cleared my throat and said, “Well, that’s what PTSD is.”
She had no reply. At least not verbally. An uneasy expression settled in and I could tell she was starting to get it. The problem is, most people don’t “get it.” PTSD isn’t like a broken leg or something visible that people can immediately empathize with.
A research study conducted by the University of Alabama on the effects of stress revealed that people who experienced sexual assault at a tender age had physical alteration to the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that handles stress, learning ability and memory. When somebody suffers from the PTSD, their brain becomes so active that the hippocampus' volume or size can reduce by eight to ten percent. The rate of shrinkage in victims of sexual violence was concluded to be five percent higher than that of people who suffered from PTSD caused by other factors.
After reading about this research I couldn't help but wonder, “What would a scan of my brain show? How much damage has been done?”
I’m sharing my experiences with PTSD because usually when the topic is discussed in the media it only is in relation to war veterans and yet the overwhelming amount of people who have PTSD in this country are actually sexual assault survivors. And sexual assault often isn’t mentioned in the press as a contributing factor to this country’s increasing suicide rate.
When I was 22 years old I attempted to kill myself by getting hammered, getting behind the wheel of my first car and driving into the bridge above the interstate. In the passenger seat was a note confessing for the first time that The Psychiatrist had raped me. When I woke, as an ambulance was on its way, I found the car had been totaled and yet I was completely unharmed. The confessional note must have made its way, along with chunks of my car, down to the interstate below.
I’m 27 now and am definitely not a corpse, so clearly you can get better. But I’m not going to lie to you and say that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will be able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. When writing the first draft of this, my desire was to talk about recovery, in case anyone reading has been through a sexual assault and is wondering about a future in which they will feel “recovered.” My desire was to talk about trauma as if it were a distant memory, something that has been overcome. But that would make me a fraud.
Some days I feel great, sociable - charismatic even - and I find myself thinking “so, this is it. THIS is being recovered.” And other days it can be a struggle to get it together to even leave the house in a timely manner and, when I do, I feel like an empty vessel, communicating on autopilot while my brain ruminates over memories. Just when we think we are healed, our brains can torment us like a tongue perseverating over a chipped tooth.
Recovery is kind of a lie.
You can definitely get better but some things you don’t fully recover from.
You simply survive.
Dyana Michele, a former member of RAINN’s Speakers Bureau told me that part of “the stigma comes from us being referred to as victims as opposed to survivors. Victim can be very demeaning and people feel sorry for you. If you refer to us as survivor it is empowering.”
RAINN is an organization that is all about empowering survivors. Volunteering with RAINN, writing for them and speaking at events like this - it’s meaningful. And that’s part of what RAINN does, they help survivors find a sense of purpose.
RAINN has a dedicated policy department that works to improve the criminal justice system to ensure more rapists are brought to justice and their hotline 1-800-656-HOPE and RAINN.org helped nearly 400 people PER DAY last year.
For those who don’t want to verbalize their experience, RAINN’s new online chat platform gives survivors who many not feel comfortable on the phone another way to seek help. It has an instant-messaging format, basically online texting, that has proved to be popular among survivors in their teens and twenties, especially males. The first person I ever talked to about my rape was my friend Micaela and it was done over text because I wasn’t ready yet to say it out loud. So for RAINN to provide an online texting format is a smart move.
Of the first five people I told, my father might have been the hardest person for me to talk to about being raped. This difficulty had more to do with me than him. Me and the misconceptions I had on what it means to be a man. The buildup of fear over telling others is often far worse than that moment of actually telling them what happened.
Don’t let a secret burn you up inside.