I often find myself travelling alone as it teaches me to step outside my comfort zone and be comfortable in my own space. I have had amazing experiences along the way. But it would be unfair if I wasn’t honest about the bad experiences too. Hopefully, others can learn from my mistakes and avoid them.
After experiencing sexual assault on one of my solo travels, I ended up developing PTSD. This is how I took ownership of my feelings, and embarked on a journey towards healing and recovery.
I was living in Malaysia at the time and needed a break from the city. I found a cheap flight to Kota Kinabalu that arrived at midnight. (Note: That’s why it is cheap. Please don’t arrive at a location after dark if you are travelling alone.) I took an airport shuttle into town. While walking to my accommodation, I was sexually assaulted by two men.
That night, I lay in bed feeling terrified, utterly helpless… and also embarrassed. Embarrassed that I had put myself in this situation, embarrassed that these men had access to intimate parts of my body. I didn’t tell anyone for a long, long time because I thought, to some extent, that it was my fault. I had put myself in danger and compromised my safety. I threw myself into work, bottled it up and hoped all the shame and fear would go away.
It did, but only for a while.
About a year later, I started getting sleepless nights. I felt angry all the time. I put it down to being stressed at work. Every time I felt like I wasn’t in control of something, I would overreact. Then I started getting anxiety attacks. I would be sitting in my car and suddenly not be able to breathe. I would feel dizzy and nauseous. I kept having to fight the urge to scream. It felt like something inside me was fighting to break out.
I lost a few friends over my anger. After all, there is only so much verbal abuse a person can take. I felt so much rage at myself, my assailants and everyone around me. The final straw was when I threw my laptop across the room after an argument with a family member. There I was, a fully grown woman smashing valuable objects because I couldn’t deal with my anger appropriately. Something had to change, and it was me.
The first step was taking ownership of my negative feelings and actions. I googled ‘how to overcome anger’ and one article I read listed anger and anxiety as symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a scary, shocking, or dangerous event. I finally accepted that I had an issue, and now I had to try and fix it.
Talking about the incident felt like such a release. But initially, I made the mistake of talking to people who had experienced the same trauma but hadn’t actually healed yet.* As a result, we ended up dwelling on our cases, feeling miserable and angry at the unfairness of the world together.
But when I began talking to people who had recovered and were channelling their energy into the right places, their positive energy and mindset uplifted me, and gave me hope and strength. I ended up copying them and started noticing changes.
*Disclaimer: This isn’t to say it’s wrong to talk to others in a similar situation. Just be aware of the impact it is having on you. If you find it helps and is a positive mechanism to overcome your trauma, stick at it. Only you know yourself and whether it will help you.
The biggest source of anxiety and anger for me was not being in control of my situation or surroundings. Perhaps it brought me back to the incident when I had no control over the harmful actions those men did to me. Any reminder of that feeling of helplessness made me react irrationally and unreasonably. So, the best thing I could do was plan for my safety, to the best of my ability.
Now when I travel, I plan my trips carefully and consider any mishaps and how to mitigate them. I research common risks, the nearest hospital and police station, and the safest transport option. It helps me feel in control of my situation and calmer. I also plan for a worst-case scenario, and run through what I can do if I am lost, robbed or injured.
It has been scientifically proven that physical activity can be an effective coping strategy for PTSD. Plus, when you exercise, your body releases ‘happy’ chemicals called endorphins. They give you a natural high. I started hiking mountains and I also took up martial arts. I am now a brown belt in karate and feel in complete control of my body. It has also helped me regain my confidence.
Martial arts also taught me how to assert my authority and demand respect in a calm manner. It guided me to exude inner confidence and be more aware of my surroundings. My sensei shared the example of a sleeping cat.
If we see a cute cat sleeping, we have the urge to stroke it as it looks harmless and we think there may be no consequences. However, if we see a cat that is wary and alert, we may think twice about disturbing it, as we think it may scratch us. Humans are the same. When we travel alone, we need to be alert and careful about our safety. Watch out for pickpockets or potential assailants. It may not necessarily eliminate the risk of harm but it may reduce the opportunity of harm.
It has been a long journey to recovery from PTSD after sexual assault and I am still learning more along the way. If you have experienced anything similar, my advice is to remember that while we can’t control what life throws at us, we can control how we react to it.
All opinions in this article are the contributor’s own; the contents are not reflective of or intended to substitute professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
If you have faced sexual assault or rape and are looking for help, please call AWARE’s Sexual Assault Care Centre at 6779 0282 (Monday to Friday, 10am to midnight).
Cover: Anthony Tran/Unsplash