Traveling, specifically traveling alone, has been the single most important source of healing for me since I was raped. It gives me a sense of independence and personal empowerment. My problems seem smaller, my dreams get bigger, I open myself to new experiences and manage to connect with people in a way I don’t feel capable of at home.
My first solo trip was to New Orleans at age 19. Throughout my twenties I visited several cities throughout Europe, and just before I turned 30 I spent two weeks in India. I am now in Mendoza, Argentina and have been traveling in South America for a month; I have about eight weeks to go.
This trip is the longest I have taken, my first one a backpacker’s budget, and the first time I don’t have a plan. So far, it is everything I had hoped for. I have made friends, I have challenged myself physically, and I have said yes when I was inclined to say no. But no matter how deep into the jungle, or far out into the desert I go, I can not actually escape my real life. And my real life includes PTSD.
I started my trip in Bogotá and spent a week in a hostel full of wonderful people. On my second night there, I woke myself up around 3am crying loudly. I noticed that I had woken my roommates as well, but they were gracious enough to pretend it had not happened. I could not fall back asleep because I was ashamed.
A few days later I went out with those same roommates, looking for a party. I am more than capable of having a good time, and I have been known to enjoy a few too many drinks. But all I could think about that night was that I shouldn’t “put myself in that position” again. Those are words used by people I love to describe the night I was raped. I had been drinking, so it was partially my fault. I have been advocating for survivors for a few years, I tell all of them it is not their fault. I should listen to myself, but my voice is drowned out by so many others telling me I should have prevented it from happening to me.
Our group split into two, and I ended up with a group of five men – all of whom seemed like great people – enjoying a few beers in a bar that wasn’t too crowded. In my peripheral vision I noticed one of the guys pick up my beer. He put it back down next to me and I asked what he was doing. He told me he thought it was his, and apologized. Someone made a joke about date rape, not knowing how it feels to someone who has been drugged and raped. With a joking demeanour, I insisted that he drink my beer. He didn’t want to (I would not want to drink a stranger’s beer) but I teased him until he did. He took a tiny sip and put it down and said he wasn’t thirsty. I don’t know if there were drugs in the drink, or if he just thought I was a crazy person. But my reaction killed the mood and we all went home soon after. I lay in bed awake that night, embarrassed by my behaviour.
A few nights later in Medellín, I went out again. One of the guys in our group made me feel uneasy, but I went along anyway. I had travelled from Bogotá with R, and I trusted him. I pulled him aside and asked if he would look out for me, making sure I wasn’t left alone with the others. He said of course, as if it was a given, and he didn’t seem at all surprised by my concern. His reaction was validating, but that night I lay in bed awake again, wondering why I stayed out despite a feeling that I was not safe.
Last night in Mendoza was the worst I have had so far, I didn’t sleep at all. I am staying in a 6 bed dorm in a hostel and yesterday, two new guys arrived: one from Turkey and one from Colorado. They are both friendly and interesting, we have traveled to many of the same places. But something is wrong. The man from Colorado scares me. It is nothing he said or did, but my gut is screaming at me that something is just…off.
He is sleeping on the top bunk, above me. Last night, he got up to go to the bathroom and I had a full blown panic attack. Sixteen years ago, and again 13 years ago, I was raped while I slept, both times by men I knew. I have been staying in hostel dorms for a month now, one night I even slept in a train station. Before this, I have not been scared. Last night I lay awake all night, I wanted to sleep but flashbacks haunted me whether me eyes were open or closed. Every time the man above me shifted in his sleep and the bed moved, my body tensed and I could not breathe.
I know, logically, he is not going to rape me; but it is impossible to reason with myself in these moments because I am not even here. I am 6,000 miles away. I am not a confident, independent, experienced traveler. I am a sixteen year old girl who blames herself for what happened.
In all of the trips I have taken, to countries all over the world including those known for high rates of sexual violence, I have never been scared like this. I will be in this hostel for two more nights. I considered moving to a private room, or even another hostel, but I can’t let fear push me around like that. I will listen to my gut and stay away from the man, to the extent I can. And I will sleep during the day and spend my nights awake in bed, wondering what other ways PTSD has yet to affect my life. Just when I think I have it under control, it manages to surprise me.
This post also appears on The When You’re Ready Project blog. I couldn’t decide where it fits, but I think the whole point is that you can’t separate being a survivor with being…well…anything else.
The When You’re Ready Project is a community for survivors of sexual violence to share their stories and have their voices heard, finding strength in one another.