Note: this essay was originally published on our career advice column featured on Inside Higher Ed (here). The anonymous author is now a tenured professor at a small liberal arts college.
Surviving Rape and PTSD in Academe
I came to my current institution as a sexual assault survivor. A newly minted Ph.D., I had undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Together, they transformed the most ordinary tasks into overwhelming obstacles.
I experienced everything that a first-year professor experiences: the daunting task of creating new classes, the dizzying dance of whether to go hard or soft on my students, the effort of forging collegial relationships and the search for friends and community in a new town. And yet I was also in pain, lost amid a whirlwind of flashbacks and panic attacks, hypervigilance and battered self-esteem.
I only confided in one friend about what was going on. The social stigma surrounding rape was such that I worried others would reject and isolate me if they knew. Certainly, the daily news was full of stories of the price women paid for naming their experience. I was also deeply afraid that I would lose my job and my colleagues would see me as a hazard, rather than as someone deserving of their support.
Being hypervigilant meant that there was no place in which I felt safe, least of on all my new campus. Raised voices — even the general, positive hubbub of students in class — led me to dissociate. Loud noises would cause me to panic. Sometimes I could not identify what triggered me but would experience sensory processing difficulties all the same. Every day was a battle: to get out the door, to prepare for class, to be the professor that my students needed me to be. I was constantly exhausted, anxious and fearful that someone would notice the cracks at the heart of my being.
Every aspect of my job proved difficult, but research most of all. Archival work required that I get in my car and drive for hours to a city far from my rural home. It required the confidence to talk to archivists and the wherewithal to be around people without feeling unsafe. It required concentration that I did not have, self-assurance that I had long since shed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my performance was affected. My pretenure review went badly.
By then, I had finally found a therapist who had delivered my diagnoses, and I decided that I should tell my colleagues and dean what was happening. When I did so, one member of my department reared back and exclaimed, “I don’t need to know that sort of thing!” I left their office frightened and ashamed. Another colleague decided my PTSD was to blame for my lack of response to their unsolicited line edit of a paper I had submitted with my file and chided me for letting my illness get the better of me. A third colleague neglected to warn me of a film’s graphic rape scene in a class we were teaching. Intensely triggered, I completely shut down for the next two days. The dean expressed sympathy about my PTSD but told me to just push on through. I could take an extra year on my tenure clock, they offered, but urged me to gather up all my willpower and do it in the original time I was allotted.
No one said, “I’m not sure what PTSD is — let me educate myself.” No one said, “I’m sorry that happened to you” or “We’re concerned about you.” No one said, “How can we help?”
It came as no surprise, then, that my institution handled student sexual assaults poorly. Stories burned through campus: the survivor who’d been told to think about how her attacker felt; the young woman who was counseled not to make a “big deal” out of things by demanding redress; the several students who were sent from one campus office to the next with their reports, no one believing it was their responsibility to deal with the situation. When one incident blew up into a campuswide issue, faculty members came together to take action. They decided that they should write a letter saying they opposed rape. I asked what the letter was intended to achieve, since no one, surely, would come out and say they advocated for rape. I didn’t get an answer.
What my colleagues did not see was that we were all complicit in the rape culture of our campus. By not demanding real change — clear policies, accountability and consequences for violent actions — we implicitly said that rape was acceptable, public letters notwithstanding. And I was struck by the fact that the same colleagues advocating for the letter were the colleagues who had refused to accommodate my disability or treat me with empathy and respect. I began telling more people that I was a survivor, naïvely believing that my colleagues’ response to sexual violence would perhaps change if they personally knew someone who had been raped. But it didn’t. If anything, it weakened my position. It would not be the first or last time gossip on the campus charged that I was acting out of victimhood and should not be indulged.
I privately contemplated suicide, although it was teaching that saved me. As I sat on a campus bench one morning, eating yogurt and tallying reasons to live or die, I realized I was close to running late for class. I went to the classroom out of a sense that it was necessary to show up, to be present, to listen to what my students had to say. By the end of class, I could see my situation clearly enough to call my therapist and admit how bad things were. I didn’t tell anyone at my university. Again, I was afraid that I would lose my job.
I got tenure on the regular tenure clock — an achievement that even now feels surreal given everything that I was battling. I was elated when I heard and when a friend said, “You did all of this with PTSD.” And then I got angry at the fact that I had had to meet not only the explicit expectations of publications, good teaching and thoughtful service but also the implicit ones: I would do so as if I were neurotypical, rather than someone with a disability protected by the Americans With Disabilities Act. I was expected to make tenure without necessary accommodations for my success, safety and well-being. An extra year on the clock would have helped. Expecting me to teach fewer new courses would have helped. Allowing me to submit documentation of my disability to the faculty in charge of tenure review would have helped. But most of all, if I had received other people’s understanding, I would have been a healthier colleague and teacher all around.
Cause for Hope
Happily, my personal recovery accelerated after finding a therapist who performed a technique that, month by month, replaced the feelings of terror associated with my traumatic memories with calm and coping. That, along with the increased security of tenure, encouraged me to out myself as a survivor to my students. By then, aided and abetted by word of mouth and an unofficial network of survivors who recognized one another, I knew too many people who had faced the withering indifference of their peers, professors and administrators when they tried to articulate the pain of having survived a sexual assault. I wanted to show my students they were not alone and that it was possible to survive and even flourish after experiencing such hurt.
A turning point arrived unexpectedly. On the campus, resistance to seeing rape culture for what it was eventually spilled out into the debate about trigger warnings. Trigger warnings coddled already spoiled students, argued some of my colleagues. No one would protect students from “real life” after college, so why should we do it now? Art was supposed to be a place where students could process their feelings, not hide from them. Science was allegedly a field in which sexual assault had no bearing on the subject of the day. As article after article about our “coddled” students made the rounds on the faculty mailing list, I stepped in to give a first-person account of what typically happened when a person with PTSD was triggered. For the first time, I had colleagues who responded positively, who heard what I was saying and took it into account as they decided where they stood on trigger warnings themselves. I was hopeful.
Student activism also gave me cause for hope. Empowered by the revamped Title IX process under the Obama administration, students demanded change in our institution’s policies and procedures for reporting assault. They demanded that the campus become a friendlier place for survivors and tirelessly articulated that those who had been assaulted were not somehow to blame if they later developed symptoms of PTSD. It was this activism that gave me new language for my own situation. Such efforts allowed me to see clearly that I was not a burden on anyone unless the system that surrounded me was broken. When our workplace demands that we be something other than we are in order to carve out a place for ourselves in the academy, the problem is not us but rather the workplace itself.
I continue to heal. It is not so much that I grow stronger everyday as it is that that strength demands less active labor on my part to be realized. I have always been strong, as have all survivors. The idea that any of us are overprotected and overindulged is a lie told by individuals comfortable in their privilege — be it the privilege of never being assaulted or the privilege provided by their power and position to ignore the very real pain of those around them. There are surely people, too, who cannot yet speak up or speak out, whose indifference is a mask they must adopt to survive the effects of the trauma visited upon them. I hope they find a more welcoming academic home than I did.