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July-August 2018

What the #MeToo movement hasn’t said about mental health and sexual assault

The movement has largely focused on male entitlement and toxic masculinity. But failing to discuss, support, and connect the patriarchy-endorsed violence against women with its long-term mental health effects is problematic

Lori Fox

Created in support of Ryerson University’s Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education, We Believe You is a colouring book for survivors of sexual violence. Toronto speaker and educator Farrah Khan and artist Karen Campos Castillo are behind the project, offering affirmations for those affected by sexual and gender violence.

When Krista Dale was 11 years old, she awoke from a sleepwalking episode to find her stepfather on the couch next to her.

“He was trying to have sex with me,” she remembers, 18 years after the incident. “I freaked out.” She ran to the bathroom, locked herself in, and began yelling for her mother, who was sleeping next door.

Dale, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, told her mother what happened, but her stepfather suggested Dale dreamed it all. Dale insisted that wasn’t what happened, but her stepfather was adamant. Eventually, Dale caved under the pressure and, against her gut instincts, agreed she had probably imagined the whole thing.

“In the morning, I was so embarrassed. I thought I had been sleepwalking and accused this man, who was like a father to me,” she says. “I apologized to him.”

In the weeks and months that followed, however, Dale’s stepfather continued his visits, this time in her bedroom. Sometimes he would touch her, sometimes not—sometimes, she says, she would wake and he would be in her room, watching her. “You’re a kid. You don’t even understand what’s happening. I just assumed this was something girls had to deal with,” she says.

In her early teens, Dale became increasingly depressed, even suicidal. At 15, she began drinking heavily, staying out all night to avoid sleeping in her own bed. “It’s pretty fucked that, at 13, I was thinking about killing myself,” she says. As time passed, the abuse continued.

Some of these encounters took on a “hazy, surreal” quality. She caught him, once, trying to put something in her drink. She began to suspect he was drugging her. That same night, Dale decided to try to catch her stepfather in the act. She waited, pretending to sleep. He opened the door to her bedroom. She sat up, and her stepfather, stunned, stopped in his tracks. He turned away and left, shutting the door behind him. Dale confronted him the next day but he denied his actions. Her mother and five other siblings continued to stay silent. A week later, he emptied the bank account her mother and he shared, and disappeared.

Dale never reported the abuse, nor did her mother, including the missing money. “I think we were all just happy he was gone.”

***

Now 29, Dale is a fast-talking, kind-eyed, funny young woman who loves music. Although her stepfather is gone from her life, Dale says the impact his actions had on her mental health was deep and long-lasting. She attributes her mental health issues, including depression and severe anxiety, to the trauma of the abuse. “It just broke me down, I guess. Sex with men was really terrible for a long time,” she says. “I felt like a pretty useless human being. I felt like a piece of meat.”

Stories like Dale’s are unfortunately common among women. A 2015 study from the journal Psychology Medicine found that, compared to 12 percent of men and seven percent of women in a control group from the general population, a staggering 40 percent of surveyed women with severe mental illness reported being sexually assaulted. Meanwhile, a 2006 paper by the National Resource Centre on Domestic Violence noted that victims of childhood sexual assault were five times more likely to be diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) than non-victims, and up to 65 percent of women who experienced sexual trauma as adults reported symptoms of PTSD.

It happened to me, too. I was sexually assaulted in the fall of 2016 by a man I trusted, someone I thought was my friend.

The assault itself was the culmination of several months of verbal, emotional and, at times, physical abuse by a man who was emotionally and mentally unstable. Following that act of violence, I suffered a clinical nervous breakdown.

The breakdown manifested itself in a depression so thick it had a physical weight that made each step and each breath a gruelling act of will. Anxiety and chronic insomnia dominated my nights. I suffered panic attacks, dreams that the man who harmed me was in my house, hunting me down. I drank constantly, spiralling into outright alcoholism. The thought of suicide dogged me, a ghoul that whispered unceasingly in my ear.

The #MeToo movement has done a lot to bring attention to sexual assault, but not enough has been said about the long-term effects of that violence. The movement has largely focused on male entitlement and toxic masculinity, which manifests itself in acts of sexual assault and harassment. Failing to discuss, support, and connect the patriarchy-endorsed violence against women with its long-term mental health effects is a sign of how deeply entrenched male dominance is: We focus on the immediate male-centric acts of violence and harassment, and downplay the emotional, female-centric suffering it creates.

Dale and I are excellent examples of this: We both lived in Whitehorse, a small town of about 21,000 people, and knew each other well enough to give the other a nod at the grocery store. She was a bartender at one of my favourite watering holes, but it wasn’t until we chatted for this story that I had any idea what she had experienced. Likewise, Dale couldn’t have known, as she poured me pints of IPA, that I had recently been sexually assaulted myself.

I’m not exactly sure what that means about human beings in general, except to say that perhaps we should be gentler with each other.

***

How the medical system deals in the aftermath of sexual assault with the resulting mental health effects is “quite complex,” says Bailey Reid, the sexual assault services coordinator for Carleton University in Ottawa. “We medicalize trauma response to the violence, which results in mental health issues that are a normal response to this kind of violence,” says Reid. “Physiologically, this is how our bodies respond to this kind of trauma.”

When a woman seeks treatment for a mental health issue following a sexual assault, the focus is identifying and categorizing symptoms caused by the trauma—depression, anxiety, dissociation—so they can be treated like any other mental illness. While this is practical from a health care perspective, it puts effect before cause and assumes that all mental health issues, regardless of their root, should be treated in the same way. It’s akin to treating a patient with brain cancer the same way as someone who has a concussion; the symptoms of headaches, memory loss, and behaviour change may be similar, but the treatment required to make a patient well again is very different.

As Diane Pétrin, a women’s advocate with the Victoria Faulkner Women’s Centre in Whitehorse, notes, an assault— and, if reported, the legal battle that may follow—are sources of extreme emotional stress: A woman who “was fine, who had a life” prior to an assault might develop depression afterward. If a woman was already experiencing mental health issues prior to the assault, she “might find them intensified.”

“There are assessments, phone calls, appointments, court appearances, they’re dealing with trauma… there’s no one to keep [women who report] going and [the police] aren’t really good at explaining what is going to happen [after an assault is reported],” Pétrin says.

Even more troublingly, if a woman is diagnosed with a mental health issue and decides to press charges against her assailant, the defence for the accused may use it to make her look unstable, says Pétrin. The use of drugs or alcohol prior to an assault can also be used to discredit their reliability.

When it comes to reporting sexual assaults, Reid says, the legal system can be problematic for survivors. “It’s heavy on this burden of proof [on the victim], which is really impossible,” she says. “If you’re outside this perfect legal paradigm of what a victim looks like… the legal system has a way of warping around you [that] is not really respectful.” As Pétrin says, “People think [accessing the legal system] is about whether or not a woman has suffered. It’s not; it’s about the legal system’s version of the law, and whether that law has been broken. It has nothing to do with the suffering of the individual.”

This burden deters some women, like me, Dale, and Shonagh McCrindle, from pursuing charges. McCrindle says she was sexually assaulted by a man she knew casually during the 2016 Dawson City Music Festival, an annual Yukon event known for its heavy drinking and drug use. She says she can’t remember much from the time of the assault, possibly due to trauma. Although she had a rape kit done, she decided not to pursue charges; she didn’t feel strong enough to undergo such public scrutiny. “I wasn’t stable enough [to go to court],” she says. “It definitely changed my mental state. I definitely suffered very hard for over a year.”

***

WeBelieve_RU_ColouringBook2

If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t have reported my assault, either.

My experience with the justice system was a major factor in my nervous breakdown. Interactions with the police were pointless and disempowering at best; at worst they were combative, intrusive, and accusatory.

In early 2017, I attempted to get a peace bond against my assailant. Although the assault happened in B.C., procedure dictates that you must first file with police in the jurisdiction where you are presently living; for me, that was Montreal. When I called and said I had been sexually assaulted, I was informed that, whether I wanted to or not, an investigation had to take place. Shortly thereafter, two male police officers showed up at my Plateau-area apartment, fully armed. Neither officer spoke passable English, which meant I had to repeat traumatic and highly personal details multiple times. During questioning, the elder of the two officers asked me—over and over, as if hoping to catch me in a lie—why, if things were as bad as I claimed they were, it had taken me several months to file a report. He asked this so many times his partner finally had to tell him to stop.

Once I had reported to the Montreal police, I found I also had to give a statement to RCMP in Whistler, this time on a recorded phone call. It meant telling another strange man the intimate, sexually explicit details of my assault. To add insult to injury, there was a delay of nearly a month between the time I filed with the Montreal police and the time the RCMP contacted me. The Montreal police had recorded my phone number incorrectly.

In addition to these highly personal statements, I also provided the name of someone I had called in a panic after the assault, text messages between me and my assailant, and pages from my private journal to help create my case. I did all that was asked of me. I waited.

And nothing happened.

Months passed. I was told my attacker could not be found in the small coastal B.C. community where he lived, which meant the peace bond could not be served.

Six months later, I received a phone call informing me the Crown had decided not to pursue charges. The Crown did not feel they could go forward with the case, due to an “inconsistency” in my testimony. This “inconsistency” amounted to the fact that, in my statement, I stated the accused had initiated anal sex against my will, but in a submitted text message between me and the accused, I said he had “tried” to “stick his dick in my ass” against my will.

If you really must know, he got about one-third of the way in—unlubricated, without a condom—before my yelling, pushing, and striking made him stop. This is apparently not the legal standard of “fucked in the ass” as the Crown defines it.

***

Shortly after my case was dropped, my attacker showed up unexpectedly in Whitehorse, where I was then living. I was having a beer with a colleague after work, and bam—there he was. This man, an emotionally volatile person with a history of criminal involvement, was standing at the bar holding a pitcher. Smiling.

I panicked.

I immediately went to the RCMP in Whitehorse. I pressed again for a peace bond, and considered appealing to a specialist regarding my case. The RCMP were sympathetic but told me it was outside of their jurisdiction; anything I claimed against him was being handled in B.C. They sent a pair of officers down to the bar, but when they arrived he was gone.

I saw my attacker twice more after that; I don’t think he saw me. I was afraid he would see my name in the newspaper I wrote for, wait for me outside the office and attack me. I was afraid he would do something to my dog, or sabotage my vehicle. I was afraid he would find out where I lived, come to my home at night, and murder me. He lurked, physically and mentally, beyond the edge of every shadow.

There was nothing I could do. At the advice of my doctor I took medical leave from work and went to stay outside of the territory with friends on a farm in the Okanagan. I was a nervous wreck, but the fresh air and trees helped. I lost wages and travel expenses, but I got a little better.

That was until I had to come back and resume my life, still not knowing where he was or when I might run into him. Then I got worse all over again. If a photograph of a “complete mental breakdown” might be taken, it could have been a candid shot of me, sitting in the messy backseat of my car on a Tuesday, frantically pounding cheap red wine from a used coffee cup in a Canadian Tire parking lot just to get through the day.

***

Following my breakdown, I found therapy a useful release valve. I received eight sessions of cognitive behavioural therapy as part of a victim services program in Whitehorse. When I had used up all those sessions, my work insurance did not cover additional therapy costs. I could either pay for treatment myself, cease treatment, or start over with a new therapist. Considering the high costs, I chose to discontinue treatment, although I feel I would have benefitted from more.

According to my doctor, my therapist, and several documents, what I was experiencing leading up to my breakdown was PTSD, brought on by abuse and the trauma of the sexual assault. It was comforting at first to have some kind of a label, to be able to box the bruises and the gaslighting, the shouting and the constant fear. Now that I’m doing better, though, I understand it my experience differently: some messed-up shit happened to me, and the people who were supposed to support and protect me—the police, legal system, and government, represented by the Crown—failed to help me in any meaningful way.

My assailant has never been charged, and neither Dale nor McCrindle pressed charges against their assailants. Dale, who is a server and bartender, paid for her therapy herself. She says her therapist never mentioned programs that might be available to help her pay for treatment. She has never completed treatment. McCrindle, meanwhile, had “extensive health benefits” through her job and received therapy. She also had a good support system of friends who helped her recover, she says.

The reality of many sex crimes is that, when charges are dropped or aren’t laid, survivors must find ways outside the system to protect themselves, often by restricting their own choices and movements, even as their attackers move freely. We live in a state of constant fear and hypervigilance; even if the threat is more perceived than actual, this is emotionally and physically draining.

I can’t publicly name my attacker without fear of libel or slander. Many assailants are protected by the legal bodies and social mores that have failed us.

At its core, being raped is less about the physical act and more about what it symbolizes. To be raped is to have agency over your own body taken away from you, a complex psychic attack completed through base physical violence. Someone else uses your body—sometimes goes inside your body— without your consent, demeaning the very will within you that otherwise defines you as a human being. Rape is a despicable act of violence, but the scar it leaves is in a quieter, deeper place in the country of the self than the mere crude physicality of the act would imply. It is the dirty bomb of the gender war; long after the blast is over, the dispersed pathogens remain.

And let me assure you, from the front lines, this is a war.

Lori Fox is a writer and journalist whose work focuses on seeing the world as it is, not as we would prefer it to be. Her reporting, fiction, and non-fiction have appeared in Yukon News, the Globe and Mail, Grain, and Vice. She lives off-grid—the majority of her feature was written by head lamp—in British Columbia and the Yukon with her pitbull, Herman. Her car is always fantastically dirty.

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