You know those things in your life that sit in the pit of your stomach and stay buried in the back of your mind? Those things you carry with you always and are afraid to share with others? That’s what this is.
I’ve tried to write this countless times over the past three years. I’ve sat down at a desk with pen and paper, had my computer open in my lap, and drafted sentences in my head. There is never an easy way to write about the hard stuff, but as June 20, 2011 looms ahead of me, I’ve decided to try again with what has been the hardest step.
“I am a Survivor.”
I’ve never liked saying that. Acknowledging it. Admitting it. In saying those four words I have to own the fact that what happened, actually happened. But as the three-year-mark of my sexual assault fast approaches, I think I’m finally ready to believe that I am a survivor. There were days and moments that I never thought those words would be true. Times when I wanted to give up and say, “I can’t do this.” In those moments, I really did feel that way.
In the weeks after my assault I wasn’t living. I was alive, breathing and making some sort of attempt at coping with it. But often it was not in the healthiest of ways. I didn’t know how to deal with who I was. I’ve always been independent and strong-willed (some would say hard-headed) but before my assault I was also pretty happy. I had struggled with anxiety and depression in high school and my first year of college but overall I felt like I was living in a good place. I had just finished another semester of college, was working a great job and spending my free time with family and friends. Then in one night I was no longer me. I became what someone else made me. I was made a victim because of a choice someone else decided to make. And coping with that wasn’t something I knew how to do.
So I did what I could. I woke up each day. I walked my dog. I read. I breathed.
I’ve never been a big fan of labels but have happily worn “daughter,” “student,” “friend,” “girlfriend,” etc. in my life. “Victim” and “survivor” were certainly two I never wanted to add to that list. Unfortunately, in life we don’t always have control over the things that happen to us. I have always been the kind of person who owns my decisions and faces their consequences (good or bad). The fact that having my choice taken away from me was completely outside of my control is something I’ve struggled with by myself, in counseling, and in sharing with others.
Two months after my assault I got a phone call. It was an invitation to come to Florida. I had applied for the TWLOHA internship in January and was being invited to join their second intern group. Given everything I had going on I probably should have stayed home. But I knew in my heart that I got that call for a reason and I was meant to go. The first few months in Florida reminded me of the person I had been before the attack. I was able to actually share what happened to me, and acknowledge the fear I felt in doing so.
As you are reading this, know that many of my friends and family will be finding out for the first time. Part of what took me so long to share this was the fear of how they would see me. Will they think I’m fragile? Broken? Damaged goods? Unfortunately that is a possibility, but most likely they will still see me as me and love me unconditionally. I learned I had to stop treating myself like a glass shell if I didn’t want other people to either. On a regular basis I debate sharing my assault with the new people who come into my life. When is it appropriate to let a new friend in on a painful part of your past? How many dates do I wait to tell the guy sitting across from me what happened? Right away? After six months? In two years?
I haven’t figured the answers out to those questions, but I have been truly amazed at the kindness of strangers and new friends I’ve opened up to. They don’t see me as damaged goods. They don’t see me as broken. They see a girl who is trying to make peace with a horrible thing she had no control over. And while June 20 is something that I wish with everything in me had never happened, I work each day to make peace with the past. I try to find comfort in knowing each new day brings me further from it.
To say that walking through my assault was a battle is an understatement. But I have been able to with the help of family, close friends and my counselor. If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted please know that help is out there and that it does get better. This is not your fault. Those words don’t change what happened, but they are true. In the aftermath, the outcome seemed pretty bleak, but as I slowly allowed myself to fall back into a routine and talk to a counselor things got better. I started to be comfortable again in things that had never bothered me previously. I stopped being afraid to walk alone outside at night. I could sleep in a house alone. My panic attacks subsided. It didn’t happen over night, but it did happen. If this is something that has happened to you please, please talk to someone. Don’t hide this. Don’t live in the pain. We have resources on our find help section, or you can visit RAINN.
There are days where it feels like it happened yesterday, and days where it feels like it was three years ago. But then there is today, and it feels like a quote from one of my favorite books:
“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees – just as things grow in fast movies – I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”
-F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby