April 1, 2017
Yesterday I heard the term “tonic immobility” for the first time when researching this awesome nonprofit The Joyful Heart Foundation. Ever heard of this term before? Me neither.
I googled “tonic immobility” to make sure I understood what this piece I was reading was referencing, and it is the technical term for “freezing” in the fight/flight/freeze trifecta in response to trauma. The term “tonic immobility” seems to be more frequently used to describe when animals play dead to protect themselves from predators; apparently sharks are big on this, and another good example is when a person is mauled by a bear. But it’s also applied when rape victims “freeze” instead of fighting back or trying to escape, which is how I reacted when I was raped.
I was 18, it was my first semester of college, and I was super drunk and hanging out with a crew of newly-made friends, including one guy who I’d been flirty with off and on for a couple weeks. He had a girlfriend away at some other college that he didn’t want to break up with, and I didn’t want to be the girl on the side, so we had recently agreed to be friends. He was kind of the “too cool” bad boy type and I remember noticing that he’d been putting me down and making disparaging “jokes” about me since we’d agreed to be friends, while also acting like I was somehow the bad guy for turning his oh-so-romantic “we should either have sex or just be friends” proposal down a few days earlier. Like I’d hurt his feelings so much and ruined something that could have been so great. The truth is, I was embarrassed that he hadn’t chosen me over his girlfriend, but in my effort to play it cool that fateful night, consumed WAY too much alcohol to the point I was throwing up, falling down drunk, and desperately in need of a place to pass out. I was scared of getting caught by the dorm police for drinking if I went back to my own dorm, and so in the middle of a party with 12-15 others in his dorm room, he suggested I crash on his bed. I did exactly that while everyone partied around me. I never felt unsafe or thought twice about that decision.
The next thing I remember was waking up in pitch darkness hours later to someone kissing my neck and realizing it was him. The room was spinning, I smelled and tasted of vomit, and I feebly tried to sit up and asked him to stop. He didn’t. It only took him holding me down with one forearm across my collar bone and I was like a turtle stuck on my back as he removed my pants and underwear with his other hand. I remember saying to him “please don’t do this” in a final plea of desperation, like “hey, remember, it’s me, we’re friends, you don’t want to do this” but instead he raped me. I sort of dissociated and watched the whole assault happen to my body from across the room, like a rag doll, and vaguely remember passing out when it was over.
I have always hated myself for freezing, and saw it as one of many bad choices I made that night that contributed to me being assaulted by someone who was not the friend I thought he was. All these years later, I still feel shame about it. I have always felt so unsafe knowing that in a moment of danger, my reaction was to freeze. What if I were raped again? Would I freeze again? It’s a scary feeling to know your instincts to fight back or flee danger don’t kick in like you’d expect.
I felt a wave of nausea come over me and broke out in a full body sweat when I read the following words: “But sometimes, the sudden release of high levels of stress hormones triggers an entirely different reaction: freeze. When this happens, the body can’t move and won’t move, arms and legs don’t fight back and they don’t carry the body away to safety.”
In that moment, I saw things that have haunted me for 20+ years in a new light, and a small shift in thinking occurred after reading that word “can’t”. I didn’t actually CHOOSE to freeze, and I had very little control over how or why my body instinctively reacted that way. I couldn’t even begin to quantify the number of times that I have felt so foolish and blamed myself for “letting it happen”, “not yelling for help” (this is a major one, because someone would have heard me if I’d yelled, but I didn’t), “just lying there and taking it.”
I re-read that sentence over and over: When this happens, the body can’t move and won’t move, arms and legs don’t fight back and they don’t carry the body away to safety. When this happens, the body can’t move and won’t move. Can’t move. Can’t.
I also learned that researchers don’t know why animals or humans respond with the fight, flight, or freeze in different situations, but that there is no question that all three responses are “normal, biological responses to threatening encounters.” The response one’s brain selects is automatic, hard-wired. That is, we don’t pause to choose an option, there is no conscious thought or decision-making involved – our brain chooses one for us because in that moment of terror, there is no time for weighing the pluses and minuses.
By this point, my head was swimming in white noise, but I kept reading and was even more astonished with what came next. Because I struggle to remember many of the details of the assault other than in flashes, I’ve always blamed these disjointed memories on being super drunk. That is, until I read, victims who experience tonic immobility during the assault freeze… and after the trauma, a person can have difficulty remembering specific details of the event, especially when they freeze while it’s happening. This light bulb went off: my brain knew I was too drunk to cope with the situation and so I dissociated or maybe tried to appear passed out at some point as a form of playing dead, hoping that he’d stop once he realized I wasn’t participating, but also to protect myself from remembering the awfulness of it all. As if it was some other body being assaulted and not mine. The piece continued:
Tonic immobility can be extremely frightening and confusing to rape and sexual assault victims. Why did I freeze? Why couldn’t I move? Why couldn’t I scream? Why didn’t I fight back? Why was I just stuck there? It’s not uncommon for victims to blame themselves for this response, often because they don’t understand why they did what they did… In my career as a research psychologist, I have had an opportunity to interview many rape survivors who experienced tonic immobility during the assault. None of them ever knew why they froze and because of that, they carried within them tremendous guilt and confusion… Unfortunately, there are still too many instances where our helping professionals blame victims for tonic immobility and add to victims’ shame, guilt, and self-blame.
I kept googling for a long time, and came across another interesting write-up on tonic immobility by Jim Hopper from Harvard Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry
Simultaneously with the freeze response, the fear circuitry unleashes a surge of “stress chemicals” into the prefrontal cortex, the brain region that allows us to think rationally – to recall the bedroom door is open, or that people are in the dorm room next door, for example, and to make use of that information. But the surge of chemicals rapidly impairs the prefrontal cortex.
Hopper goes on to explain that this is why repetition is so critical to having an effectively trained military – when faced with extreme danger, soldiers can fall back on repetitive habits they have learned for how to function in high stress situations because stopping to think can and is fatal on the battlefield. And then he drops another bombshell that I hadn’t even been able to articulate or understand until it was presented by him like this:
But what if you’re being sexually assaulted and there’s no effective habit learning to fall back on? What if you’re a woman and the only habits your brain cues up are those you’ve always relied upon to ward off unwanted sexual advances – like saying, “I have to go home now” or “Your girlfriend will find out”? Those phrases, and passive behaviors that go with them, may be your only responses, until it’s too late.
Countless victims of sexual assault describe just such responses. Too often police officers, college administrators, even friends and family think to themselves – and say out loud – “Why didn’t you run out of the room?” “Why didn’t you scream?”
For those who assume a functional prefrontal cortex – including many victims as they look back on what happened – passive habit responses can be baffling. They seem exactly the opposite of how they surely would – or should – have responded… Some people describe feeling “like a rag doll” as the perpetrator did whatever he wanted. And thanks to rapid drops in heart rate and blood pressure, some become faint and may even pass out. Some describe feeling “sleepy.”
Another, more common reflexive response is dissociation: spacing out, feeling unreal, disconnected from the horrible emotions and sensations of such an intimate violation. They blame themselves for “failing” to resist. They feel ashamed.
Hopper concludes that neither freezing nor dissociation entails consent or cowardice, and that these are responses we should in fact expect from humans facing extreme fear, just as we should expect rape victims to experience fragmented memories of their assault. “None is evidence of resistance too insufficient to warrant our respect and compassion.”
Yesterday, I found a new, much-needed compassion for my 18 year old self, and I’m still digesting it all today. Another link in the self-blame chain snapped for me. I absolutely KNOW that there are others out there who can relate to these feelings that I’m having and who could use a dose of forgiveness for not responding to sexual assault “the right way.” It’s amazing what a simple google search can lead to, isn’t it.