Breathing in an Iron Lung

A true story in six short parts.
**trigger warning**


Since the beginning of the year, I have been attending group therapy sessions for women with post-traumatic stress disorder. The group meets every other Wednesday and consists of six women, including myself, and the mediating therapist.

Last Wednesday evening, a group member said, “This is a safe space.” But, I hadn’t felt less safe in a long time; I had tried again to say something and it had so completely backfired that no one—not even Cindie, the therapist—seemed to notice or realize how shell-shocked I was. It hurts to think about it even now, and I don’t know why I can write about it and not talk about it.

It’s… it’s a compulsion to write it, but when I try to talk about it face-to-face with someone, I choke and panic and can’t even admit aloud that it was rape. I brush it off as something to deal with later, but there is no later, only putting it off and putting it off until it overwhelms me and I can’t go out or let anyone touch me or near me and the definition of a successful day narrows itself to “I got out of bed and showered before collapsing again. I think I probably ate something at some point.”

I know in my head that the other women meant no harm, but sometimes it’s the accidental blade that cuts the deepest. I can’t go back. At least, not for a while.


First, I told part of my story—the part wherein Nathan drunk-dialed me, we went to Waffle House, and on the way back he took me to see his desk in the geology department offices. I felt terrible talking about it and honestly didn’t feel any different about it afterward, except possibly more vulnerable, which Cindie said was to be expected.

I cried and it was gross with my tears and phlegm everywhere, and I didn’t even… really say anything at all. One woman said that my body language seemed more open than before I had said anything, but I just felt exhausted and all my limbs were so heavy, like I was trying to walk on the ocean floor. But, the important thing was that the other group members believed me. There was still a tiny piece in the back of my mind telling me, “They’re only saying they believe you to get close to you.” I don’t know why I’m like that—that I think everyone’s actually lying to me and being so deceitful.

Actually, yes, I do. It’s partly paranoia and partly a symptom of post-traumatic stress. Nathan broke my trust, and the paranoid tendencies I had been so strenuously trying to avoid during high school (ask me about Dave and Cassie sometime… or, y’know, don’t) came at me full force in such a great wave that I was pulled under and nearly drowned. At some point in my life between What Happened and now, I subconsciously decided that the only way to keep my head above water, so to speak, was to specifically not trust anyone at least as far as I could throw them. I had trusted Nathan—it had never occurred to me to be afraid of him before that night—and look where it had gotten me. Now, there is a rather large part of me that can’t trust. Like, can’t. I don’t even know how I’d begin to do that.


What happened next was somewhat related to the first in my mind, but in reality, neither had anything to do with the other. Still, affected me so deeply that I don’t know if I can go to another group meeting, at least not without some serious self-preparation.

Cindie said that any given person wouldn’t do something while under the influence that they wouldn’t do while sober. In my experience, however, being under the influence of alcohol or another mind-altering drug encourages people to do things they might want to do (or have, at least, thought about doing) but don’t do without a little so-called social lubrication. That is, for example, a guy works up the nerve to approach a pretty lady only after two or three drinks. It’s not called “liquid courage” for nothing, after all.

Simply put, I think that a person is more likely to do something they’ve thought of (and perhaps want to do) while under the influence rather than actually do the same while sober or not. If that even makes sense at all. I assume it’s similar with other mind-altering substances, and I tend to lump them together under one umbrella.

I had just finished telling what part of my story I could when the woman sitting directly across from me joked about the teddy bear in her lap raping the stuffed panda that the woman next to her was holding.

Everything stopped for me; my heart rate went up, I started sweating, and everything around me narrowed down to a single point in my field of vision. I wanted to bolt out of the room in that instant, but I was sitting furthest from the door (something I had done on purpose so that the urge to flee wouldn’t become too great—you can believe I cursed my foresight right then, no doubt).

To her credit, she immediately apologized, saying, “I’m so sorry; that was completely inappropriate.” And she was right.

Despite her apology, she was laughing and everyone was laughing with her and then another group member—the same woman who later told me that the group was a safe place—said the worst thing to me that anyone could’ve said to me at that moment (though her comment was not directed specifically toward me).

She said, “You have to forgive her, you guys; she’s high on three kinds of pain meds because of her migraine.” And she said it not once, but twice, as though we hadn’t heard it the first time.


Objectively speaking, she was probably right. The woman who had joked about teddy bear rape had been having serious migraines every night for weeks, and nothing seemed to help. She had tried everything she could think of, up to and including taking multiple types of pain medication at once, as she had that night.

After having explained what little I could about my situation before my words stuck in my throat, however, I wasn’t thinking logically or objectively. I wished to all the gods that I had never said anything at all. It’s one thing for someone to hurt me when they don’t know; I can forgive them because they don’t know. But when they know… I… can’t.

I know that the group members didn’t mean to offend, but what am I supposed to think about one person under the influence joking about rape when I was actually raped by a person under the influence? When that was so similar to what he said to me the next day?

“I would never do that,” he said. “You must have misunderstood. You have to forgive me; I was black out drunk! I don’t remember anything.

“It can’t be as bad as you’re telling me. Honestly, I’m not a bad person; are you sure you’re not exaggerating?

“Will you just sit down and talk to me like an adult? Why are you so jumpy? I’m not going to hurt you.”

To this day, I wish I had kicked him in the balls and then kicked him off the third-story landing outside my apartment door.

Everyone in that room but me was laughing at that moment, and I felt just like I had every other time I’ve tried to tell someone What Happened: despair. If these women were supposed to have gone through trauma, as I apparently have, how could they be laughing together about rape just after I’d given them part of my heart? It was completely inappropriate for that participant to say what she said, high or not, but I did what I’ve always done: I just went with it. I let them assume. I smiled and smoothed things over.


At the end of the meeting, the joker smiled at me warmly and said she felt trusted; she was happy I had trusted them with part of my story. My heart broke. She’s a good woman, I’m sure, and worth at least as much as the others say she is. I want so desperately to believe that, but right then I couldn’t even hold her gaze.

I tried to say I hadn’t gotten anything positive from the experience, as Cindie had said was okay to do in a previous session, but she insisted that I say something solid (and—dare I say it?—positive).

“Belief,” Cindie prompted me. “Do you feel believed?”

Honestly, yes, I did feel believed, I said. But I didn’t say what I wanted to scream: I was believed and still it seemed no one cared—how is that any better? There was no time to get into it then, anyway; the session was at its end.


Finally, when the group meeting was over, I went back up to where my best friend was waiting. He’d driven me there and had waited for me and some part of me, in some strange way, thinks that his being there was the only reason I didn’t bolt when I wanted to so much. Because I had an escape route, a safe place, I didn’t need to use it the way I might’ve if I hadn’t had that option.

I got in the car and shut the door. “You okay?” he asked.

“No. I’m not,” I said, and I couldn’t explain how betrayed I felt. Everything got stuck in my throat again, and I started sobbing. I tried to push everything back down into the abyss from which it had welled.

Through hitching gasps, I asked, “You—you believe me, don’t you? I know I’m not the most honest person—”

“I believe you,” he interrupted. “Yes, I believe you. You’re safe. You’re safe with me; I promise.”

He reminded me to breathe: “In… out,” he said gently. “In… out.”

When I had calmed a little bit, a manic laugh escaped my lips and I said, “I talked about you.”

“Good things, I hope,” he said, and there was just a bit of a question there in his voice.

“Yes,” I said. “Well. Yes, sort of.”

I explained that another woman in the group had had a completely chill and understanding boyfriend… until he’d broken up with her seemingly out of the blue.

“Oh, that’s just what you needed to hear,” he cut in sarcastically.

“Well, I mentioned that you’re that person for me… the person who is so understanding and supportive… and that’s exactly what I’m afraid of.”

My mind raced and I thought I might throw up but for all the despair already built up in my stomach. Waves crashed over me again without letting me breathe, and yet I was breathing in an iron lung—whether I wanted to or not. Everything on top of everything and I was drowning again.

Viannah E. Duncan

Viannah E. Duncan is a writer and activist hailing originally from Los Angeles. She lives outside of Baltimore, Maryland, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. She has a cat, Cleo.

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