The popcorn ceiling. When I think of the time I was sexually assaulted in my dorm bed in 2016, that’s what I remember. Every ridge and groove, and how close it all was. That’s what I was looking at when he was on top of me.
This image came to mind in the weeks after the assault happened, too. I couldn’t stop replaying it in my head. Feeling triggered, I spent many nights on my suite mate’s futon in the room next door. However, I knew I couldn’t sleep there forever.
I thought rearranging my side of the room could help, so I got my suite mate’s and the guys next door to help me de-loft my bed. This is something I’d wanted to do for a while — it was already up too high anyway — and it would put some distance between me and the popcorn ceiling, between me and that November night.
To my surprise, this helped tremendously.
It didn’t “cure” my trauma by any means (if only it were that easy), but it made my space feel totally different. I knew, logically, it was the same bed I was assaulted in, but at least it didn’t feel that way as much. The memories weren’t as prominent.
Experts back this up. “Flashbacks can be triggered by reminders of the traumatic incident, so visual cues like your bedding pattern or the layout of furniture can trigger this,” says Claire Plumbly, a clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma, self-esteem, and anxiety. In fact, she recommends her clients rearrange their bedroom, too.
Moving things around can also help you feel more empowered. “Rearranging the way a bedroom is laid out after a sexual assault can help the survivor to feel empowered and in control after that was taken away from them,” says Megan Harcourt, a licensed clinical social worker with Thriveworks in Dayton, Ohio who specializes in trauma and reprocessing therapy. “Rearranging a room can also help to relieve anxiety and depression, as it helps to ‘declutter,’ clear the old, and bring in the new.”
And hey, the ways to rearrange your bedroom are almost endless. Plumbly lists changing the layout of the furniture, getting a throw blanket to put over your bed or getting new bedding, putting new photos or posters on the wall or taking the current ones down, and buying a rug. Wearing different clothes and avoiding smells that could remind you of the assault (like a certain type of laundry detergent or perfume) can also help, she says.
Both therapists believe this is a good first step in recovery. “While the assault should not be avoided by the survivor in order to heal from the trauma, it could be helpful to do this with a few things to again feel in control of the environment, or to do this at least until the survivor is ready to work through the trauma in a stable state of mind,” she says.
At least for me, getting through the aftermath of sexual assault has been all about taking things one step at a time. De-lofting the bed today. Moving some photos around tomorrow. Talking to a therapist the next day. Healing takes time, and there’s no need to rush.