Debilitating effects of rape, finances

Two months after handing in my dissertation, awaiting my second degree in construction, I was violently raped by a senior male in my field. He was 10 years older and vastly better connected, professionally, in a city where I was just starting out. He was drunk and angry and caught me off guard while I napped on a couch; I was sober. He was 6-foot and around 190 pounds worth of rugby player. I’m 5-foot-3 and around 120 pounds. Other than a few snapshots of the following few hours, I don’t remember much of that night, nor most of the five weeks after. It was the beginning of the recession, and most of the construction industry were losing their jobs—women, notoriously, at a higher rate than men. Knowing I would be blacklisted from working in my field (nearly 90 percent men) if I reported a rape or my name got leaked from a police report, I kept my mouth shut to protect my career. He took what he took; I wasn’t giving him my sole means of income too.

The expectation I had with the published salaries at the time of my enrollment was that I should have been able to pay off all my student debt within eight years. My federal student loan payments were instead more than half of my salary upon graduation, because the only jobs available in the recession paid a fraction of pre-recession jobs. They didn’t have income-based repayments or much in the way of deferments back then. There was no forgiveness. Those first few months drained my emergency fund to nothing. I decided that I would pay down tens of thousands I had in federal student debt as fast as humanly possible and then get out of the industry I’d only just mortgaged myself into. The career I’d envisioned working in until old age imploded before it even started. I didn’t save—I just drilled down the debt as fast as I could. The recession stagnated salaries, eliminated benefits, and my salary never came near the expectation set when I enrolled in the two degrees.

I learned something about post-traumatic stress disorder, too—it can make your memories shift, like the goo inside a lava lamp. Parts of the memory will grow or shrink or combine with others in a fluid manner which is hard to pin down into a linear sequence of events. I was able to recount the full encounter only once in the last 10 years. It was during a therapy session, and I spent the following four hours vomiting, and most of the next week, too. I knew I could never press charges against this man. The combination of trauma and shifting memories meant I could neither survive the process, nor would I be a reliable witness in securing a conviction. I also learned that PTSD can be triggered from a wide range of related emotions and sensations connected back to the event, such as when someone acts menacing, a person behaving in a controlling manner, or feeling trapped. They can all trigger a wave of terror. For me, it feels like a blowtorch blasting my face whilst someone pours ice water down my arms and neck. Construction is somewhat notorious for menacing characters and controlling behaviour. Most days are blowtorches and ice water, for me.

Whilst I’ve knocked my loans down considerably, I’m not even close to paying them off more than 10 years later, and it’s repeatedly come at a horrendous price. I skipped meals to make extra payments. I lived in cheap, unsafe housing to free up money—both of which piled stress on stress. I liquidated my pension to pile that onto the debt; it was so small it hardly made a dent. I’ve attempted suicide three times, because the combination of being trapped in debt and trapped in the industry was sometimes unbearable and death was the only sure-fire way to both clear the debt and escape the industry. The flashbacks sometimes mean I can’t work for weeks at a time—again, impacting my income and the speed at which I can change careers. I graduated at the top of my class—I am exceptional at what I do … on the days I’m mentally capable of doing it at all.

Rape isn’t an accepted excuse for defaulting on student debt and abandoning your modestly paid career for one that pays a fraction of that, and a smaller fraction of what you expected to make when you were 17 or 22. Rape doesn’t get you a scholarship or pay your bills so you can re-train in a different field. And, not everyone would want to put themselves through a meat-grinder of a legal process to even attempt to recover some of the financial loss.

I’ve done nearly everything I could to try and get out from under that debt so that I could leave this industry and build a new life, doing something more therapeutic, supportive, and far-removed from a cut-throat, macho environment. After 10 years, I finally have to accept that I am likely to fail in that endeavour. At greater than 7.5 percent interest, I cannot get out fast enough to save myself financially and emotionally. I have to chose one or the other. Either irrecoverable financial ruin, by defaulting on debt I can’t discharge in bankruptcy, that has limited forgiveness, and retraining for a lower-paid position which won’t even cover half the interest; or risking a terminal breakdown whilst attempting to function in an environment which became unbearable before I even got the second diploma in my hand.

This is a message for those of you taking on massive debt to launch yourself into your chosen field, with the hope of a bright and shiny future. Please remember, that there are things that may happen which are entirely outside your control. The behavior of others is outside your control. Global financial realignments are outside your control. Rapidly increasing automation and shifting employment landscapes are outside your control. While how you handle those situations is entirely up to you, sometimes—for whatever reason—your choices for remedial action may be limited. Your future has no guarantees—it’s always a risk. Having debt which is stripped of considerable consumer protections, with interest rates at the mercy of a chaotic Congress, and which is leveraged on the expectation of a salary of a previous generation which the following may never achieve, just adds to that risk. I hope you heed this as a warning, so that what has become a nightmare for me and many others in my generation does not turn into a nightmare for you too.

Be very careful about taking on debt to get an education that may or may not pay your way for the foreseeable future. Federal loans, while better than private ones, are terrible traps in their current state, and a devastating financial mechanism which has obliterated the future for many in my generation who were foolish enough to believe the advice we were given by our parents: “It’s the best debt you’ll ever have.” They were wrong; it’s the worst. It’s the only debt you can never, ever, escape. Not all women can leverage their gender into a nine-million-dollar a year salary—for some of us it will be a devastating financial liability.

RPI Alumnus