U.S.A. Juanita* often has panic attacks and wakes up from vivid nightmares in the middle of the night. Sometimes she experiences flashbacks and periods of depression. At times, she feels overwhelmed by suicidal thoughts and urges. She is tired of being strong and fighting, but Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) doesn’t just go away, and neither do misperceptions associated with the disorder.

Juanita is not a veteran. She’s never been in combat or worn a military uniform, but PTSD doesn’t discriminate. PTSD is so closely associated with veterans, especially men in combat, that it was called Soldier’s Heart following the US Civil War and Shell Shock during WWI.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), PTSD has also been termed “battle shock,…war neurosis,…combat neurosis, combat exhaustion and battle fatigue.” In fact, the most useful information for this article came from the Department of Veterans Affairs or other military-related organizations. Without seeking to minimize the gravity of PTSD prevalence among members of the military, this article seeks to reveal a different face of PTSD.

In addition to combat exposure, the Mayo Clinic lists sexual assault, physical attack, childhood abuse, natural disaster, kidnapping, and other traumatic life experiences as potential PTSD-triggers. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 7.8% of the U.S.population experiences PTSD. The VA reports that 10.4% of women in the U.S., compared to 5% of men in the U.S., suffer from PTSD. The VA webpage devoted to sexual assault against females explains,“Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) involves a pattern of symptoms that some individuals develop after experiencing a traumatic event…Symptoms of PTSD include repeated thoughts of the assault; memories and nightmares; avoidance of thoughts, feelings, and situations related to the assault; negative changes in thought and feelings; and increased arousal (for example difficulty sleeping and concentrating, jumpiness, irritability)…The National Women’s Study reported that almost one of every three all rape victims develop PTSD sometime during their lives.”

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, women who are sexually abused as minors are twice as likely to report being raped during adulthood. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that in 2012, 865,478 cases of child abuse were reported in the U.S. 678,810 of these cases were unique victims, and 62,936 were instances of sexual abuse. RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, explains that adult survivors of sexual abuse during childhood often experience many complications associated with PTSD, including eating disorders, depression, flashbacks, dissociation, sleep disturbances, self-injury, alcohol and drug abuse, low self-esteem, and shame. This has been Juanita’s experience, and she is not alone. PTSD is not just a veteran’s condition. Misunderstandings about PTSD and sexual assault increase the victims’ pain and prevent them from getting the treatment they need. Granted, PTSD was only recognized as a diagnosable disorder in 1980, and research on treatment is in relatively early stages at this time. Current treatment options include animal therapy, talk therapy, some medications, and trial studies. Consult the National Institute of Health for more information on the history and treatment of PTSD.

Read the interview below to learn more about Juanita’s experiences. Please note that some of the responses below are fairly graphic.


How old were you when the sexual abuse began?

Juanita: I honestly don’t remember, maybe 13. I just remember always walking around the house with layers of clothing on even in the summer just to avoid his [her step-father’s] lewd commentary on my body. I always felt naked…objectified. I knew something was wrong, but had no idea how to tell my mother.

How did you put an end to the abuse?

I finally said that I wasn’t going to come home so long as he was in the house. Turns out they [her mother and her step-father] were already mid-divorce.

What happened when you told your family what your step-father did?

My family still doesn’t even believe me. My step-dad told them that I had initiated things. That was not true, but regardless, that would not absolve a forty-year-old man of sexual misconduct with a minor. He used to walk around the house masturbating when I got home from school. Whenever he ran out of material, he would ask me sexual questions, complain about his relationship with my mother, and insist I was his only sexual outlet, that he had to “live through” me.

You told me that your boyfriend in high school raped you. How did your relationship morph into abuse?

I told him what was happening at home. At first he was so supportive and made me feel brave. But then, he started minimizing my abuse and even beginning to become uncomfortably aggressive himself. I broke up with him and then he raped me. I feel like I was victimized at such a young vulnerable age, and then this friend of eight years set in. Turns out psychiatrists actually think he may have antisocial personality disorder with sexually violent tendencies.

Was this rape during high school the experience that led you to develop PTSD?

Yeah, I would have a panic attack anytime someone touched my knee. I knew it reminded me of him but could not remember exactly what. It turns out that I was suffering dissociative amnesia. Basically, my body suppressed memory pathways so that I could begin to heal. Recent studies show that severe trauma can actually alter the brain similarly to a Traumatic Brain Injury.

Why did you stay with this boyfriend for a while even when he became aggressive towards you?

I was scared. Telling my family about my step-dad had gone so poorly. I believed it was normal to feel sexually uncomfortable. I was always afraid at home, so my teenage self knew nothing different.

What happened when you did break up with him?

Stalking. We broke up right when university started.

You have told me that he later found his way back into your life. How did he do that?

He lied about to me where he was attending university. He had actually been attending the university that I had deferred my first year for financial reasons, so I didn’t know that he went there. It was my dream school.

So you began studying at the same university only to discover that he attended the same university and was even a Residential Assistant (RA) with a universal-access key to the dorms. How did the university handle your complaints about his behavior?

My RA was actually fined for documenting the neighboring male RA stalking and sexually harassing me. It was terrifying knowing he had a key to my bedroom. He was an RA until we graduated and even won awards for it in spite of sexual misconduct allegations from other students, including one of his housing co-workers.

How would you rate the university’s counseling center in providing you care?

Mostly incompetent.

Do you know of other students at your university who had similar experiences?

I know a handful of other assault victims–male and female–on campus, but nobody wants to talk about it because they saw how horrid my experience was. It was a nightmare.

You were raped again at the university by a different male student, and this time the case went to the university’s disciplinary court. How did that turn out?

They had to withdraw the “found responsible” [judgement] because they incorrectly ran the hearing.

You contacted a sexual assault and child abuse recovery center. How was your experience there?

They actually believed me! I’ve been to so many psychiatrists asking, “Am I psycho? This is all so awful. It can’t be real.” And they have always responded with “Sorry, sweetheart, it is all very, very real.” No doctor had ever doubted my perception of reality, and the recovery center showed me that my story wasn’t all that abnormal.Abused children make abused adults, unless they can break the cycle. But you can’t just want to stop being abused, you have to advocate for yourself, heal yourself, and maintain your public credibility while seeking justice. Lose any of those for even a moment, and you become a discredited target. The system makes us vulnerable.

You are now considering filing a Title IX suit against your university. What do you hope to achieve through this?

I just want to ensure that no other student there–regardless of gender–experiences the re-victimization and ridicule I faced. My rapist continued to live in the on-campus apartment next to me even after he was found responsible for the break-in and assault. When I voiced that I felt uncomfortable with the situation, I was told I could be placed in a temporary dorm. He had virtually no consequences–and his alleged consequences were often conceived in ignorance. The university demanded he go to the recovery center where I had sought help to learn about women’s rights and to work with rape victims to gain sensitivity. It’s illegal for anyone accused of any sexual violence to step onto rape crisis property. The university also alleged that he was not a threat to other female students, so he was not suspended or expelled, nor was the federally mandated Clery email sent out.

When were you diagnosed?

About four years ago.

What was the official diagnosis?

Chronic PTSD.

What kind of treatment have you received?

Medicine and talk therapy.

What problems have you had accessing treatment?

Finding non-VA treatment centers.

Would you explain to people who do not understand why you can’t just “get over it”?

Because I still wake up almost every night fighting a ghost. Such vivid nightmares. Also, sometimes, I can still feel them touching me. I remember what his hands felt like around my neck.

Are people skeptical of the authenticity of your PTSD since you are not a veteran?


Have you faced discrimination because of your PTSD?

Yes. One night after I had to go to the emergency room for a dissociative flashback, a university official told me that I was “invited to reflect on my choices and behavior.” Another university official accused me of sucking people into my story.

What are some of your PTSD triggers?

Hospital beds and police stations because of the invasive rape kit process. I even had one cop tell me he thought the assault had been a misunderstanding because “it wasn’t a normal rape position.”

How are you doing today?

Running helps a lot. I have a lot of steam to blow off. I had a really bad panic attack yesterday when my aunt told me that she didn’t believe I had ever been assaulted.

For help recovering from sexual assault, call the RAINN sexual assault hotline at 1.800.656.HOPE(4673).

*The name has been changed to protect the identity of the victim.