Q&A: Regina author shares story of sexual assault and recovery in new memoir
D.M. Ditson says a sexual assault at age 18 made her vulnerable to further sexual assaults
A Regina author wants to offer sexual assault survivors hope — and maybe even proof — that they too can heal.
D.M. Ditson is officially launching her award-winning memoir, Wide Open, on Wednesday. It's an account of her unravelling in the wake of a series of sexual assaults by several men that left her with post-traumatic stress disorder.
For Ditson, breaking her silence and sharing her story by writing the memoir has been vital for her road to recovery.
Morning Edition host Stefani Langenegger sat down with Ditson to discuss her memoir, Wide Open.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why was it important for you to tell your story?
I think it's just so important to not have secrets anymore because I think so many of us have similar stories.
When I was going through my recovery, I kept looking for other stories of people who had gone through similar things and had recovered. I wanted to know exactly how they got better, so that I could see how I could get better, and that wasn't something that I was really able to find. The recovery part seemed to be something that was kind of glossed over.
So I made a big effort in my story to show what the recovery part actually looks like, how it went, how I kind of got myself out, because I was really starving for it and I couldn't find very much at the time.
What experiences do you share in the book?
There were a series of assaults by several men. There was one particular situation that I say kind of broke my brain. I share about that, and then I share about how these things impacted me. I share about how I was so vulnerable to assault in the first place.
I was raised very fundamentalist evangelical Christian. Because of that, I was quite naive. I stopped believing everything at 18 and then was kind of all a sudden alone in the world. It was very easy, I think, for me to be targeted.
Then, when I ended up getting post-traumatic stress disorder, it was very hard for me to defend myself against people that would do me harm because I would physically freeze and not be capable of saying "no, stop," and pushing them away.
How did you know that you had post-traumatic stress disorder?
I didn't get diagnosed until I was almost already better. I'm 36 now. The worst thing that happened to me was when I was 18 years old, and it took me a very long time to even start getting help because I didn't want to believe it was real. I thought it was too terrible for anyone to know about and still be able to love me.
By the time I got my actual diagnosis it was just so exciting to have these words that explained me to myself.
You came to realize later that the [initial sexual assault] made you more vulnerable to more experiences like it. What's your understanding of that process?
When we're in a situation that's really bad or really scary, we want to make whatever is happening stop. We have the option of fight or flight, but there's one more option that humans have. If you can't get away, and if you can't fight back, you can shut down entirely — and that's a kind of system the body has.
It's a pretty nice thing to not have to fully experience a terrible thing that's happening to you at the time, so in this particular assault, my body shut down. I remember I was fighting this man off and at one point I realized that I was not going to succeed. I remember pushing against him and all of a sudden my arm just stopped and went limp. That's where I would say that my brain turned off too.
In the future, when I would get into situations with men I was dating, if they wanted things to progress and it was past what I had articulated that I had wanted, there would come a point where I couldn't physically defend myself from them.
There was one instance where I was with a guy that I had been seeing for a while. We were together in a consensual situation. I had my hands up on his chest. It was great, until all of a sudden it wasn't great. It was beyond what we had agreed to.
And I could not make it stop. It was the scariest thing ever. I had my hands against his chest and I was pushing as hard as I could but nothing was happening. My wrist was physically not moving. I was trying to yell and my voice was stuck. Nothing that my body wanted to do was actually happening. I just couldn't execute on it.
For a long time I thought that was my fault. I thought that I was just doing a really bad job of being human.
That's part of why I wanted to share the story — so that people know what can happen, and so that men know why it's so important to ask someone like me if they are sure that [they] want to proceed or not.
How did you come to write the book that you had wanted to read about recovering from this kind of trauma?
I just had all of these symptoms and they just kept growing and growing. I thought I was just crazy, weird or just bad at everything.
I was in this relationship. It was wonderful. It was perfect. But something happened where I stopped feeling safe in the relationship. It was absolutely not my partner's fault. I just could not settle into a relationship. That relationship fell apart. When it fell apart, I realized if I don't get better, I'm not going to have the kind of life that I would want to have.
My therapist told me that I needed to rewrite the ending to my story. Being a writer myself, that was exactly what I needed to hear. She said that I needed to do something to make myself realize that I was safe now and that I could handle things differently now. I don't think she meant literally for me to rewrite an ending, but that's what I did.
What do you hope other survivors of sexual assault take from your journey?
I've given a couple of talks on post-traumatic stress disorder and recovery. One woman came up to me after one of my talks and she said that I made her realize that she's not crazy. That was so incredible for me to hear.
I just want to build empathy both for survivors to feel towards themselves, and for the people who love them. The people who love me have gone through an awful lot as well.
You mentioned that a lot of this has taken place in the shadows, that we haven't necessarily wanted to be super open about this. How do you see that changing?
I think we're making huge progress already. I started writing my book before #MeToo happened. Now there's all of these women saying, "This happened to me." It's reducing the amount of shame that people feel around what's happened to them.
From here, now what we need to do is talk about recovery. I think that there's an opportunity now for people's stories to be heard, and there's a huge opportunity to start saying, "Here's how I got better, and here are some resources that helped me."