Abby Carson is learning the importance of vulnerability.
Carson, a sixth-year physiology major, has been sexually assaulted twice during her time at SPU. Both assaults were off campus and by people not affiliated with SPU.
With the first assault, she had a hard time recognizing what happened and neglected to immediately report it. But with the second assault she recognized it and reported it immediately.
For Carson, that has made all the difference.
“I am a different person, I have learned from my mistakes, and I decided to do this for myself,” Carson said.
This is why Carson contacted The Falcon in early November — she wants others who have experienced sex assault to know that support is available.
Carson is confronting her trauma, speaking out and sharing her story.
Back in 2013, Carson was sexually assaulted when she went home to Salem, Oregon for winter break.
“I recognized that it was assault, but I was also a pretty sex-positive individual,” Carson said, noting that she liked to have fun and didn’t mind participating in casual relationships. “I knew that this was different, and deep down I was too scared to do anything.”
As a junior, all Carson could think about was police, interrogation and the legal process in sex assault cases.
“I was already in my own head, thinking of excuses that I had for myself,” Carson said. “I thought, ‘How could I handle interrogation if I can’t even respect myself and my values.’ I was essentially already victim-blaming myself when I was alone.”
At the time, Carson thought of reporting her assault as a sign of weakness.
“I think we are taught that the image of strength in hardship is resiliency, to get back up and to go on with your life and to say, ‘It wasn’t that big of a deal, right?’ I thought that’s what I had to do,” Carson said.
“I had heard stories of sexual assault cases where women’s lives were pulled apart,” Carson said noting the more recent Stanford sex assault case involving Brock Turner last spring.
The case gained wide public attention after Buzzfeed posted the survivor’s impact statement, which she read in court. Turner was sentenced to six-months in prison for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman and only served three of them. The case drew public outrage across the country after the survivor’s letter went viral.
Back in 2013, Carson was overwhelmed by the prospect of having to report her first assault and undergo the whole legal process.
“It sounded like a nightmare,” Carson said. “I thought, ‘I’m strong, I can handle this,’ and I was also extremely depressed because I thought it was something I could have prevented. I let the evidence slip away and I basically isolated myself for days.”
Wanting to exhibit strength, Carson neglected her mental health, told no one about the assault and went back to SPU for winter quarter 2014.
“I’m learning now in therapy about what I did then,” said Carson, now at age 24.
As a physiology major with human biology experience, Carson said hearing about the processes that take place in her body from her doctors has helped her. She now understands that after experiencing trauma she was in a high stress state where fight or flight responses were the only options.
“Trauma is different,” Carson said. “When you experience something that your body perceives as too much, as too dangerous, it shuts down into a parasympathetic state where you are basically numb.”
Carson said her doctors called her past experience a parasympathetic imbalance in which she looked fine on the outside but any little trigger sent her off into a highly stressful and anxious state. Upon returning to SPU this had a large impact on her academics.
“I regret now the fact that I wasn’t open with professors,” Carson said. “I, just last quarter [Spring of 2016], decided to be open with one professor in particular, and just knowing that he knew what I was going through really eased everything.”
But back in early 2014 Carson didn’t feel ready to share her story with professors. She remained numb and did all she could to just get by in school.
When she did not need anything else to stress her out she found herself in Otto Miller Hall on June 5, 2014, when Aaron Ybarra fired gunshots, killing one SPU student and injuring two others. Being inside the building that later became a crime scene, Carson heard and saw things that put her in shock.
Undergoing another traumatic experience, Carson began to internalize everything.
“My body shut down completely,” Carson said. “I experienced lethargy and I would go through what I know now as a cycle of sympathetic and parasympathetic states where any trigger of PTSD puts you in a heightened arousal state and you’re just freaking out, experiencing anxiety. Then you return to parasympathetic where you’re just chronically fatigued, you don’t care about anything, you don’t feel anything. It can be easily diagnosed as depression.”
Following the shooting, Carson had the opportunity to study at Blakely Island with a biology class, giving her a chance to get away and reset. Despite that time, Carson said she didn’t start addressing any mental health issues until early 2016.
“I realized that I wasn’t going to graduate, that I’d have to go back for a sixth year and that this was affecting me,” Carson said.
Carson felt that what she experiencing was not fair because she had not done anything wrong and started to think there might be a way to recover from it.
“I felt like it became a part of my identity, that I was just this anxious person or this tired person when it actually stemmed from an event,” Carson said.
In winter quarter 2016, something triggered her trauma to re-emerge in one of her classes.
“I was so distraught that I decided to meet with that professor,” Carson said. “I was struggling academically and I felt like he deserved a reason why. The minute I felt that relief of telling someone I knew that it was good.”
At the time, Carson didn’t trust therapy, she had been seeing therapists and treated for PTSD medicinally by a psychiatrist but didn’t open up about why.
Choosing how often she was able and willing to see a therapist was hard for Carson, especially while in school.
“The timeline for therapy is really slow,” Carson said. “There are so many little things you have to go through to get back to yourself.”
Recognizing a need for a finer focus on her mental health, Carson started seeing a trauma therapist near the end of winter quarter 2016.
She appreciated having someone who specialized in the dissociative state she found herself in, and felt ready to open up.
Now, she has come to appreciate therapy.
“They are there to carry your problems and you can leave and not worry about the giving and receiving of the conversation,” Carson said. “They challenge you with mindful exercises.”
To continue focusing on her mental health Carson took this fall quarter off so she could work and undergo intense trauma therapy.
She noted a process she is currently working through called prolonged exposure therapy.
“It’s like an exponential growth line, and the trauma is above the states of anxiety and depression,” Carson said. “So you essentially have to work backwards to re-associate with what you went through to finally go back to your normal self, and it’s exhausting because you have to feel those feelings again.”
With a little bit of therapy behind her, Carson felt like she was making healthy progress in life.
Then, just last month she underwent yet another traumatic experience.
During her time off, Carson was sexually assaulted a second time.
In early October, she went out dancing by herself and ended up going home with someone. He made her a drink and she doesn’t remember what happened after that.
Waking up in his apartment disoriented and in a lot of pain, she recognized she had been assaulted.
“You have an instinctual feeling,” Carson said.
Carson immediately called her best friend and asked her to drive her to the Emergency Department at Harborview Medical Center.
“That’s what I wish I had done the first time,” Carson said. “I recognized the symptoms I was feeling and I knew it wasn’t right. I wanted to be in control of the situation and it’s hard to make that decision, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Even though she was initially in shock, Carson learned later that she had bleeding and bruises all over her body.
“With trauma, sexual assault is very particular in that it’s your body that is hurt, so your body is the trigger and you’re walking with the memory of this,” Carson said. “You have to love your own body but you are still ashamed that it happened to you. So choosing to go get treatment was really hard when instinctually you just want to go run and hide. It’s almost like you want to crawl out of your own skin.”
“The first time I thought I would be stronger by not going and being a victim, but in reality going to get help makes you less of a victim,” Carson said.
Carson spent six hours at Harborview being examined by medical personnel gathering and preserving physical evidence of her assault.
“The evidence kit is not easy, my friend had to hold my hand,” Carson said. “But it is essential to your physical health, and getting help is the braver thing to do.”
Carson said she was amazed by the way those at Harborview treated her to prevent any further consequence to her sexual health.
Carson was first met by a medical social worker from the Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress.
The social worker took Carson’s story and told her that a nurse would conduct the sexual assault exam, essentially a sexual assault kit.
“I went straight there without brushing my teeth, showering, washing my hands because I knew I had to do it right away but I learned that there is a five-day window where you can get a rape kit done … they will try their best to get as much evidence as they can,” Carson said.
In addition to the sexual assault kit, Carson was given medications to prevent her from contracting any sexually transmitted diseases. With her permission, she was put on a 28-day treatment to prevent HIV, and received other shots, antibiotics and tests to ensure whole-body health.
“There’s absolutely no judgment in the hospital, they just want to take care of you,” Carson said. “Harborview has a sexual assault response team and they are so good and you can tell even with their word usage.”
A month later, she had a follow-up appointment to confirm no contraction of HIV, hepatitis C or syphilis, and, thanks to a law protecting victims of sexual assault, it was all free.
The day after her initial visit to Harborview, Carson met with a trauma specialist. As noted by Carson, the first appointment with a trauma specialist for victims of sexual assault is free as well.
The specialist helped Carson find a therapist that her insurance covered, and the following day she met with a psychiatrist to get on short-term antidepressants and PTSD medication.
“If you have never taken medication or had issues with mental health, that can be hard,” Carson said. “You don’t want to be that medicated person, but if you see it as a temporary thing, taking care of your body and your mental health, you can do it.”
Not only did Carson know from her first experience of sexual assault that subduing anxiety and depression in any way would inhibit her health, but she also knew that experiencing those feelings was essential to her recovery.
“I wish I would have known then what I know now, and that is why I have decided to be outspoken about it now,” Carson said. “I’m sure you can read about what to do if you find yourself in this situation somewhere online, but that is completely different than talking to someone, especially someone who tells you you’re brave, you won’t lose your dignity and that you’re a survivor, not a victim.”
Carson was told she had three months to decide if she wants to prosecute or not, and she is still deciding what to do. Even though she doesn’t really want to go through the process, she knows it would mean something to her loved ones.
In deciding to tell the people she trusted, Carson used words like, “What I am about to tell you is pretty serious, but I am OK now,” and she said she received immediate support.
Carson plans to graduate this spring, and through her therapy work said she is being taught to reprogram her emotional response to situations. Rather than neglect them, she has learned to work and struggle through them.
“I am actually being taught to cry,” Carson said, “because it is a natural biological response, not a sign of weakness.”
She works with kids at Queen Anne Community Center, and she will leave to cry or take off work if necessary. Having just completed a half-marathon, Carson also runs and writes when she feels stressed.
Her doctors advise her to utilize distractions but not rely on them.
In moments that she does feel pain, Carson works through the emotions and leans on her best friend for support.
Recognizing that the trauma that has led to academic struggles is not completely gone, Carson feels nervous to come back to SPU.
“I want to be prepared because one little stressor can send me back to that dissociative state, but I just have to recognize early symptoms of it and communicate to people how I’m feeling,” she said.
Carson also noted that a support or advocacy group on campus would be a big help to her and others who have similar experiences.
When Carson looks back she sees herself as a different person who learned from not telling anyone about her first assault three years ago and who chose to get help for no one else but herself.
“I’m not 100 percent yet, and maybe I never will be, and that’s OK. I’m different,” Carson said. “I’m just going to remember that vulnerability is strength, and I am going to choose to be more open with my professors.”