Rape, Trauma, PTSD and Bill Cosby

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This essay was written for The Fix • The Bill Cosby scandal has triggered memories. Before my rape, I had voluntarily drunk rum and smoked a few hits of pot. Afterward, I was afraid people wouldn’t believe anything I said because I was high.

Asking, “Why am I an addict?” is a waste of time. I am because I am. The only pertinent question is: What am I going to do about it? Addiction thrives on secrets. Keeping secrets raises a wall between the addict and the rest of the world. It is a protection against the judgment of society. That’s where addicts and rape victims have something in common. Not telling becomes its own survival system. Shame keeps the wall up; the solution is to take it down and let others in.

I can trace my drug use back to the trauma I sustained at the age of 13. As the Bill Cosby stories unfold in the media, they’ve brought my own rape to the fore. In Andrea Constand’s 2005 civil suit against Cosby for drugging and raping her, she had 13 witnesses willing to testify that Cosby had committed similar acts of depravity to them; 13 was a “lucky” number for Constand. She and the 13 women that stood by her were part of the solution; they had the courage to fight. Thirteen was an unlucky number for me—that’s how old I was when I was raped and that’s how many years I waited to tell.

At age 26, I woke up out of a blackout in a Florida drug rehab. My counselor told me, “Healing begins when you tell someone your most shameful secrets.” She asked me to write down something negative that happened while I was high. My pen wanted to wriggle out of my fingers but I forced it to write two words: Gang rape.

This Cosby scandal has triggered memories. Five junior high school boys — my classmates — overpowered me. Laughing, they pinned me down and took turns entering my mouth and vagina with penises, hands, tongues. They hurt and humiliated me. At the time, I confided in one friend about my attack but when she remained friends with the boys who’d violated me, I felt betrayed. I was already horrified that another “friend” was one of the rapists.

I know only too well why women don’t tell about rape — especially when they are under the influence of drugs. Giving a woman sedatives that render her unconscious, serves two purposes: power over the woman’s limp body and guaranteeing unreliability as a witness.

Before my rape, I had voluntarily drunk rum and smoked a few hits of pot. Afterward, I was afraid people wouldn’t believe anything I said because I was high. But there were other reasons I didn’t tell. I was petrified I’d be labeled a rat and bullied or ostracized for it. Here again, the secret survives by telling the victim that it is protection against further trauma.

In the Cosby case, many of the 45 women who have come forward to report sexual assaults waited decades before going public. Last November, Cosby’s attorney Martin Singer released a statement:

“The new, never-before-heard claims from women who have come forward in the past two weeks with unsubstantiated, fantastical stories about things they say occurred 30, 40 or even 50 years ago have escalated past the point of absurdity…. It is completely illogical that so many people would have said nothing, done nothing and made no reports to law enforcement or asserted civil claims if they thought they had been assaulted over a span of so many years.”

Well, Mr. Singer, it took me 38 years to tell my story publicly. I had felt shame about being raped, ashamed I couldn’t stop them; stupid, because my parents warned me these were the wrong people to hang out with. Worst of all, I felt like it was all my fault because I’d worn a sexy shirt hoping a boy would notice me.

There was no Law & Order: SVU yet. I had no idea what a rape victim was supposed to do. All I knew was that I was petrified to tell my parents because my mother had forbidden me to wear that sexy shirt. She’d even gone to the trouble of hiding it from me because she said it was “age inappropriate.” I was the one who snooped around in the attic until I found it.

I was afraid of talking to the police about my vagina. Remember how horrifying a pimple could be at that age? Imagine having to disclose something like that? My father was an Army Captain in World War II and I’d heard so many stories filled with wartime machismo. I was afraid if I told him, he’d go find the boys and kill them and go to jail. So I kept my mouth shut.

When I made my rape public, I experienced a new freedom. I received mostly supportive reactions but there were a few who blamed me for not disclosing the rape sooner to protect other women. I was 13, for Pete’s sake. I can only imagine the criticism the Cosby accusers have been forced to endure.

I, like so many other rape victims, turned into a raging alcoholic and drug addict from that night on. I thought I could pretend it never happened if I blocked it from my mind. Not a tactic I recommend.

Since Bill Cosby rape accusers didn’t report the rapes sooner, he is protected by the statute of limitations. It seems time to change laws that protect the perpetrators more than the victims.

Big massive hands over my mouth, boys kneeling on my arms and legs, knees digging into me. It hurt. When they finally got off of me, I was shaking and began running in a circle screaming, “NOOO!” The moon looked so big and round in the September night sky and I asked it, “Why?”

I wanted to know why this had happened and why it happened to me? It felt like a punishment from the universe so I became convinced it was my fault. Before that awful night, I had dabbled in drugs and alcohol, but after the rape I became a daily user. My reaction to the trauma of being overpowered by a “friend” and the others was to take enough drugs and alcohol to blank out the memory. Like a child sticking fingers in my ears and singing, “La, la, la, I can’t hear you,” I would erase the rape. That faulty thinking fueled a path of self-annihilation.

The memory was unbearable. It could pop up suddenly and make me flee from a room full of people. I’d lost trust in others and could not tolerate closeness or intimacy. I chose prospective boyfriends based on how unlikely it would be to sustain a relationship with them, thus keeping me alone with my wall up. PTSD not only devastated my life but snowballed exponentially by effecting the lives of people close to me.

Bill Cosby admitted in 2005 that he secured Quaaludes with the intent of giving them to young women he wanted to have sex with, and that he gave the sedative to at least one woman and “other people,” according to documents obtained July 1 by The Associated Press.

I ache for the women Cosby slipped powerful sedatives to. The one and only time I took a Quaalude it knocked me out. My friends and I took ’ludes before a Led Zeppelin concert at Madison Square Garden. I felt dizzy and shaky. I went to the bathroom to put water on my face, but once there my legs turned to jello. I leaned against the bathroom wall and slid down. I must’ve passed out because the next thing I remember the two-hour concert was over and somebody was asking me if I was alright and helping me to my feet.

Remember that Oscar-worthy performance by Leo DiCaprio playing “Jordan Belfort” wasted on Quaaludes in The Wolf of Wall Street? Thank you, Marty Scorsese, that illustrates the loss of motor skills perfectly.

Attorneys for women suing Cosby seized on his testimony as powerful corroboration of what they have been saying all along: that he drugged and raped women. When the APwent to court to compel the release of the deposition from Constand’s civil suit, Cosby’s lawyers objected to the release of the material, arguing it would embarrass him. Embarrass him?! This guy has run over the lives of numerous women and now he’s worried about being embarrassed? The irony is that the deposition was unsealed because Cosby had made himself a moral icon of family values.

Sexual abuse victims are three times more likely to suffer depression, six times more likely to suffer PTSD, 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol and 26 times more likely to abuse drugs than those who haven’t been violated. And they have higher rates of thinking about, attempting, and successfully, committing suicide.

Yay for all the women who tell. As the old adage goes, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.”

Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in book anthologies and numerous publications including The New York Times. She last wrote about Bob Zappa for The Fix.