“…It was my mattress, too:” one student’s story of healing

Trigger warning: This piece contains descriptions of dealing with sexual assault and trauma.


On the first day of classes in September, Emma Sulkowicz, a student at Columbia, began her performance art project of carrying her mattress everywhere she went on campus for as long as the acquitted serial rapist who had sexually assaulted her still attended the same school.

When the news reports were first released, I was shocked beyond words—and not just because it is such a powerful act, but also because it was my mattress, too.

After my assault happened (and I still have trouble calling it that), I would rearrange my room in fits and starts, moving my desk and bed around, and putting up new photographs. I even installed curtains, slept with earplugs and an eye mask every night. Feeling instinctively self-protective, I cocooned myself inside my room, as though it was the outside world that was scary and threatening. However, the person who betrayed my sense of safety was a partner I had invited inside my life, my room and my bed, on which I still continued to sleep.

As psychologists have noted, the brain processes trauma in a strange way. Because things may be too painful to remember, the brain tends to suppress those memories in many forms and cannot reconstruct a coherent sequence of events that one can easily piece together. Trauma survivors are thus often easily triggered by seemingly insignificant reminders of trauma, experiencing heightened feelings of panic and a return to body sensations they felt during the traumatic incident. In my case, my mind and body learned to associate the spatio-temporal awareness of sleeping and being on my bed with the assault. Consequently, I woke at the same time in the wee hours of the morning every day for a whole year.

It took more than a month for me to realize that the sexual assault had happened. By that point, I was tossing and turning in bed, sleepless for entire nights. On a whim, I decided to try sleeping on the floor instead. I did sleep better there: In my room on the ground floor, it felt like the earth always had my back even when nothing else did. As for my bed, it remained next to my window. Even sitting on it felt indescribably unsettling. It slowly became a receptacle for messy piles of clothing and books. When friends visited, I offered the bed to them half-courteously, brushing it off that I liked sleeping on the floor better (true) and that it was good for my spine (also true). I never told any of them what happened. Who would have wanted to sleep in that bed after I had told my story, confession-style, as though I was the one who had done something wrong?

I left hurriedly that winter break, even before finals were due to begin. When I came back to campus in January, I immediately crumpled on the bed, unable to stop crying. I had wanted to run away from the trauma, but all of the reminders were still around me. I could see, touch and feel them: everything from the mattress I was sitting on to my oversized suitcase and the innocuous bottle of lotion sitting on my desk. I was overcome by the urge to throw all of my possessions away. Never mind that they had no direct connection to the trauma, they were still markers of everything I wanted to forget and would not let me simply ‘get over it’ like I, echoing my internalized victim-blaming, desperately wished I could.

That night, with the help of a friend, I moved the bed out of my room. Methodically, I discarded the old sheets for different ones and removed the foam topper, finally coming face-to-face with the mattress, the locus of my trauma. It was gray, scratchy and slightly torn, the way these old standard-issue Vassar mattresses are. Nothing about the mattress itself held clues to its role in the complicated story of my assault and its aftermath.

It felt different placed on the floor, like I had a shot of starting all over on a metaphorical clean slate. I began sleeping on it again, baby steps I could take in rebuilding my sense of safety that was violated all those months ago. My friends called me quirky for sleeping on the floor yet again, and I simply smiled in return, not wanting to burden them with the story of how I ended up there.

No one, not the numerous psychologists I saw nor my close friends who watched me struggle with post-traumatic stress, made the now-obvious connection between my bed and my insomnia. While I recognize that at the time all I wanted was for someone to join the dots for me and hand me my personalized twelve-step roadmap to Being Okay Again, the lack of awareness around the pervasiveness of traumatic memories is still very telling. I wanted affirmation that there was some method to my brain’s madness: “Duh, of course you’re having trouble sleeping, your mattress and bed are constant reminders of what happened!” Instead, I felt like no one could understand what I was going through.

If, hypothetically, I had seen Emma Sulkowicz’s actions taking place at Vassar at that time, I know I would have had a breakdown. Joining the dots between her carrying the mattress everywhere she went and my own disused bed back in my dorm room would have made our worlds explode. The connections between our circumstances would have brought to the fore what is often invisible on Vassar’s campus and many other places. It would have meant according dignity to survivors, their pain and the reality that it does happen here despite institutional and other systemic erasures of our bodies and voices. Her performance art and the ‘Carrying the Weight’ solidarity movement that it sparked is doing precisely that.

Safety is fundamental for any kind of healing. If I were to retrace my steps I can see in hindsight the things I instinctively did out of sheer survival to help myself feel safe again on this campus. It has not been easy, and I am still working at it constantly. It is perhaps impossible to comprehend someone else’s pain especially if one has never experienced it before. This compels us to disengage, or at best, keep a polite distance from the issue even though we are very much a part of rape culture and the many types of violence it entails.

But we should not remain disengaged. There are no platitudes of sympathy or pity required from allies, simply a willingness to listen to those who have experienced sexual assault and personal violation, educate ourselves and take seriously the issue of rape culture. With that, we can bear the collective responsibility of changing our attitudes and behaviors, bearing in mind that change is neither easy nor comfortable. I challenge us to think about what building a safer and more supportive campus should look like, and to ask the question: Are we willing to carry that weight together?

—The author is a member of Break the Silence at Vassar.

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