‘I Was Raped. Doctors Thought I Was Hysterical’

I arrived in Oakland, California at around 8 p.m. after coming home from work in San Francisco. The parking lot was always poorly lit and I had left my car in the area furthest away from the subway station.

The entire area was dark. As I approached my car I suddenly felt a man holding a knife against my neck.

“Get in the car,” he said.

Deborah Acosta told Newsweek about how doctors treated her following a sexual assault that took place in 1985 as she walked back to her car in the dark. Stock image.

I wasn’t about to argue with someone holding a knife against my neck, so I got in the car. He told me to give him my keys. But I said that whatever was about to happen would do so right there.

I had a manual window, which I immediately rolled down and threw the keys into the bushes.

Then he raped me, right there and then, with a knife against my neck.

It was 1985 but I still have scars; he didn’t cut me on purpose, he was just careless.

Eventually, after giving me some sob story about how badly his girlfriend treated him and threatening to kill me if I reported his crime to the police, he left. I got my keys, got back into my car, drove home, and called the cops.

The first thing the police said was: “Why did you leave the car? Why did you leave the spot?”

I told them it was because it was dark and I had just been raped. They told me I was wrong to leave—I should have stayed there and walked across the dark parking lot to the parking attendant.

This man said he would kill me if I told anyone, and the cops expected me to walk across the parking lot, in the dark, moments after I had been raped. I asked the officers whether they would have said the same thing to their mother or their daughter.

They didn’t say anything.

The cops took me to the hospital where I was given a rape kit to collect physical evidence and undergo sexual health tests. Several weeks later, I was diagnosed with gonorrhea as a result of that incident.

After the incident, a description of the rapist was put up at the police station, but a week later it was taken down. I called the detective on the case and said: “It’s Christmas time. Women are going out late, they’re coming home late. Why did you take that down?”

Deborah is the founder and CEO of WeAccel and the host of the Smart City Diaries podcast.
Courtesy of Deborah Acosta

The description was never put back up.

It felt that outwardly they were sympathetic, but that nobody in the system really wanted to know what was going on—and that if the same thing had happened to a man, the reaction would have been different.

As a woman, I felt expendable. I was very young, only just turned 30 years old, and I didn’t know what to do. I felt helpless and powerless.

My assault was often brought up by doctors as I began moving through the medical system over the years. They asked me questions about the situation—which I’d had therapy for—that had nothing to do with whatever my medical problem was. It was interesting to me, that distrust in my experience.

Often it really was subtle. They would reference back to the assault and ask things like: “How are you feeling now?” I could come in with anything physical and they would talk about this one event that took place in 1985 and ask: “Do you think this could have anything to do with the pain you’re feeling here today?”

It felt like to them, because I was assaulted, I was hysterical and so everything I said would always be related to the fact that I was so fragile. I knew what they were doing, but didn’t feel able to call them out on it.

I would compare the experience to an overweight person going to the hospital, and regardless of what the problem is, doctors telling that person they need to lose 15 lbs—for me, everything came back to mental health issues.

I still find it bewildering because I am not a hysterical woman.

In 2016, I had a hip replacement. For years prior to the surgery, I had terrible sciatica and back pain, but was never given any medication, aside from ibuprofen. I was in such excruciating pain I had to use a cane.

Not only was I unable to alleviate my pain, the pity I received for using a cane was awful. I’m a vibrant person who at the time was the chief innovation officer for the city of San Leandro. I found having to hobble on stage to speak using a cane embarrassing and not the image I wanted for myself.

If I’d had adequate medication, perhaps I could have walked on that stage without the cane. I was extremely frustrated. For a long time, doctors were saying: “Eventually something’s going to have to happen, but we’re not giving you anything. Take ibuprofen.”

At that stage, I knew it was not my history as a rape survivor, but the fear from doctors of prescribing any opioids. And while that was not the case in my stage, I certainly feel a patient’s history as a sexual assault survivor is a factor in many of these scenarios.

I suspect many doctors, just like those who treated me, believe women in pain are hysterical—just glum about what happened to them in the past and incapable of putting the incident behind them.

I have always found older men to be very uncomfortable talking about this subject. For example, at the time of my assault, my boss could not talk to me about what happened. He just asked how much time I needed.

Women, however, came into my office and started crying to me, revealing they had been raped but had never felt able to tell anyone before. There must have been three or four women who came into my office and cried.

Deborah is pictured with her daughter, Anna.
Courtesy of Deborah Acosta

After my hip surgery, I was given five days’ worth of pain medication. After five days I called and they said that if I wanted any more I would have to make a 12-mile journey to get the prescription, but I was immobile and could not drive

I understand the risk of opioids, but feel that the medical industry has gone from one extreme to the other and now those who need pain medication are not able to get it.

I believe that my experience in the medical industry as a sexual assault survivor reflects those of female chronic pain patients who are in need of medication they cannot access.

I feel generally that women in the United States are not being given the care that they need within the healthcare system. It’s bad enough for me as a white woman, but I believe that if you are a woman of color, like my daughter is—you’re totally invisible.

We need more women within the healthcare system. I’ve had amazing female doctors who have said to me: “Let’s do all the tests to get to the bottom of this.” And I think it all comes down to the empathy women can bring to the table.

Deborah Acosta is the founder and CEO of WeAccel and the host of the Smart City Diaries podcast.

All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

As told to Newsweek’s My Turn associate editor, Monica Greep.

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