by Karyn L. Freedman
I like the sound of quiet, but it is not the noise of the city that bothers me. It’s the activity in my head, the piercing images and intrusive thoughts that took root in the summer of 1990, when I was raped at the age of twenty-two while backpacking through Europe, and that appear to be mine for life. Over the years, I have come to understand that the recurring din in my head is just one of the consequences of psychological trauma, of being held captive and rendered helpless in the face of a terrorizing life event. When that happens, our biological impulse to flee or fight is blocked, which invites a kind of disorder to settle into the body. Like all forms of anxiety, trauma can be an occupying force, and the trauma that laid claim to me close to three decades ago has been relentless. Ill-equipped to deal with the violence of that summer night, I spent my twenties pretending that what had happened to me was no big deal. Awash with shame, I kept the story of my rape a secret, as if not talking about it would make it go away, but my body has always known better. For years my nervous system was caught in an elevated state of arousal, easily startled, just waiting for the next catastrophe. After nearly a decade of struggling in silence I had had enough, and as I entered my thirties I decided to face the aftermath of my rape. I began to see a therapist, a privilege that has been my saving grace. But it was a decision that I made some years later, in September 2005, when I was thirty-seven years old, that helped me find the elusive sound of quiet in my head. That fall I joined a women’s hockey league.
It is just after 4 pm on a Saturday and I’ve got an early game tonight, which means that I have only one more hour to kill before it’s time to leave my house for the rink across town. It hasn’t been a great afternoon, following a crappy night. I went to bed early, tired from a busy day of work. I poured myself some Scotch and read for a bit before turning out the lights, but two long hours of listening to my own heartbeat later, I flipped the lights back on. That woke up my partner, who stumbled out of bed and headed, half-awake, for the guest bedroom. Watching him leave, I resigned myself to the fact that it was going to be one of those nights. I sat up and took a pill for anxiety. While I waited for that to kick in, I poured some more Scotch, picked up my book, and began all over again. As a result, my head hurts and my chest has been tight all day. But none of that will matter soon. I decide to get to the game a bit early.
While the others trickle in, I unzip my hockey bag and begin the ritual of putting on my gear. The room fills up and gets louder, everybody happy to be there and looking forward to the game. Already I am feeling better, and by the time I take my first warm-up lap around the rink, the distractions of the day have all but disappeared. I am gliding effortlessly through a refreshing, cool breeze, and as I round the corners all I can hear is the glorious grinding sound of my skate blades biting the ice. It’s just about time to play.
The trauma that results from terrifying life events over which we have no control is profound. It changes us in fundamental ways. The paralyzing helplessness of being trapped in a threatening situation results in a severe disruption of the nervous system. This extreme stress affects how the brain works and makes it difficult for survivors of traumatic events to regulate their everyday biological functions—sleeping, breathing, talking, even eating. Psychologically traumatic experiences are harmful to the body in ways that are belied by the fact that in some instances we can escape these events with no physical wounds. I had spent the better part of a decade bracing for what was coming next as the trauma that had taken root within me expanded into a crushing anxiety that ultimately became impossible to ignore. My body, it seemed, was no longer my own, its recalcitrant movements reflexively attuned to events of the past.
This was never more conspicuous than when I was having sex. The notion that rape is about power and not sex is misleading. It is true that people who rape often do so to exert power over their victims, but for rape survivors, whose bodies have been used sexually without their consent, the transgression can live on in their sex lives. At least, that’s what happened to me. Sex had become a series of triggers that prevented me from intimacy, my inhospitable body populated by land mines sensitive to the touch. This situation became particularly acute as I entered a new relationship in my early thirties. Prior to that I had been able to have sex and occasionally even enjoy it, but now every caress threw me back to an unwanted memory. I struggled through a trial of panic attacks while attempting to ignore the suffocating memory of my rapist’s sweaty flesh draped on top of me, behind me, in front of me. I couldn’t breathe. These images colonized my thoughts and kept me up at night. I began to lean on alcohol to trick my body into relaxing, but that was its own trial. And besides, the unwanted images returned in my dreams. At some point, I broke. Unable to move forward, I decided it was time to get help. With financial backing from my parents, I sought out a therapist and began the long process of healing.
The chance to work on my own recovery has been one of the great privileges of my life, and I was lucky to find an exceptional therapist. She helped me to see the far-reaching influence of traumatic experiences. With the benefit of her insight, I came to understand that in order to dull the force of the images in my head I had to first live in them.
Repressing them was not going to work, at least not for me, not in the long run. Traumatic memories stick with us, in one way or another, whether or not we invite them to do so. Facing them head on gave me a chance to deflate the power they had over me. In the safety of my therapist’s office, I would close my eyes and return to that high-rise apartment in the thirteenth arrondissement of Paris where a man named Robert Dinges, who I had first met earlier that night, had raped me at knifepoint.
But this time, there was no threat of the knife against my neck, though it didn’t always feel that way. It was scary at first, but in time I allowed myself to remember that hour of terror in all its vividness, and to say and think and feel everything that I couldn’t at the time. This was some of the hardest work I have ever done, but eventually, I started to feel lighter, freer. Not all at once, and not completely, but incrementally, here and there. But there remained times when my body felt sluggish and pinned down, as if Robert were still on top of me. In these moments, my legs were heavy and there was a constricting weight on my chest. It was as if certain elements of the trauma had remained inaccessible through traditional psychotherapy. Talking about feeling had taken me a long way, but because the trauma had settled in my body, it seemed that I needed to physically move about to thoroughly process it. I was desperate to shake my legs free and push Robert off of me. I needed to scream and punch and kick and shout and get rid of the lingering anger and pain. My therapist suggested we take our work to a local trauma resource center. It had sound- proof rooms, gym mats, and other props all geared to the idea that physical movement is essential to processing body memories. Here, with the lights dimmed, I would put on boxing gloves and try to move around. This was a new kind of hard, but at some point, I found my strength. And then, session after session, I pounded away at the unwanted images of that night, my movements finally under my command. Recovery is not a linear process, but I could feel myself moving forward, becoming less blocked. I had been given the chance to redefine my body, which was once again my own. There remained only one thing left for me to do.
I bought some equipment and signed up for a Saturday night women’s league.
That first year wasn’t easy. I wasn’t always comfortable getting changed in front of other people, a vulnerability made worse because I didn’t know anyone on my team—or in the league, for that matter. Also, I was a real beginner. I knew the rules as well as anyone, but playing was different than watching. I was shaky on skates, and I couldn’t make a good line change to save my life. Yet it was clear to me from the start that I was onto something. Although I wasn’t any good, I worked hard, and that intense physical effort coupled with the sharp mental focus that the game demands helped dull the noise in my head. And the better I got, the more focused I became, and the more control I had over my body. I could not have predicted it, but playing hockey turned out to be the way to quiet the persistent images in my head. Playing hockey helped me become unstuck. And now, after many years of playing, it has become much more than that.
I am sitting on the bench, breathing heavily after my last shift, my face red hot with effort, watching the play as it goes up and down the ice, and anticipating the moment when I get to jump back into the game. Fortunately, we have a short bench tonight, so I know it won’t be long. The time comes, and once again I am free. My body moves in sync with the game, and for the time being, there is nothing else in the world I care about. The sounds of the arena fade away and the quiet in my head returns as my focus narrows in on the play. I’m on left wing tonight, holding my position on my own blue line as the play moves dangerously around our net. Our goalie deflects a shot that lands deep in the corner behind her goal line, and my eyes are trained on my teammate, who retrieves the puck and sends it up the boards, where I am waiting to receive it. The hard sound of it landing on my stick has me pivoting forward. I am thinking of nothing but moving the puck up the ice. I’ve got some room, so I begin to carry it through the neutral zone before passing it across the ice to an open winger, who successfully dumps it into the offensive zone. It is the right move, and the momentum is on our side. I chase down the play and regain control of the puck behind the other team’s net. At that moment, time slows right down.
Tonight, we’re lucky. We’re a bit faster than the other team, and that edge means I’ve got some time with the puck. For at least a few seconds, I can see the ice clearly. I spot an open player in front of the net. We lock eyes. I send the puck her way and watch it cut a clean line through a mess of skates and land on her stick. It’s a good pass. It doesn’t matter that we didn’t score, and it doesn’t matter that we didn’t win the game. The unmitigated joy of being able to see that play, and then move the puck to where I know it ought to go, leaves me exhilarated and at peace.
For a long time, the search for stillness in this fast game was the main reason I played hockey. I am not a great player. I am not the fastest skater or the most skilled, and I will never possess the gracefulness of those women who grew up on skates. But I fight hard for the puck and I look to make the play. And then, of course, there is the rush of the game. The scraping of skates on hard ice and the surge of cool air that washes over you as you chase down the puck or fight for it in the corners. The divine feeling you get when you make a good pass or when you hear the almost inaudible whoosh as the puck you fired hits the back of the net.
I now have three games a week in leagues and arenas all around town. Because I am on the ice a lot, I watch less hockey than I used to, and that’s fine with me. Although I live in Toronto, the Winnipeg Jets are my team, and with the arrival of another Finnish superstar, they are finally looking good. Watching players of all skill levels move up and down the ice makes it clear to me that the release I get from playing is something many people experience. You do not need to have lived through a traumatic experience to find tranquility on the ice. And, for me, over the years, the game has become even more than that. I now belong to a glorious hockey community, one that is bursting with the most incredible women, women of all ages and sizes and occupations. It is an open and welcoming community, and I can’t believe my good luck in finding it.
But I try not to dwell on that. My worry is that if I get lost in a happy thought, I might miss an important clue, some signal that danger is just around the corner. In those moments, I begin to feel the familiar creep of that anxious dread and the expectation of catastrophe that comes with it, and the very images that I play the game to forget come back to me. I see myself losing an edge and crashing headfirst into the boards, or slamming hard against another player, or my legs twisting beneath me, a heap of broken bones, after a terrible fall, and I have to tell myself to breathe. When the panic returns, I am reminded that the experience of being raped has left me permanently wounded. I think back to that night in Paris, and I wonder how I could have missed the warning signs, how it was that I didn’t see what was coming next. I know I am not to blame for what happened to me, even if sometimes my body tells me otherwise.
The struggle between how I feel and what I know to be true is mine for life, but once I am back on the ice, all I care about is making the play, and the quiet in my head returns.
Karyn L. Freedman is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph. Her book, One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery, won the 2015 BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction.
Adapted with permission of the publisher from the essay collection Whatever Gets You Through: Twelve Survivors on Life After Sexual Assault
edited by Stacey May Fowles and Jen Sookfong Lee and published by Greystone Books in April 2019.