Owning My Reality

By Abby YankowskiJanuary 17, 2023

This piece talks about sexual assault and suicidal ideation. Please use your discretion. 


I can already hear you saying, “You did all the work.” Yes—and without you, I would not have any work to do. You believing me will always be the most empowering gift I ever receive. Thank you for being part of my story.

Thank you.
Thank you.
Thank you.

I am often questioned about whose reality I am living in: mine or my parents’. Most days, I find myself trapped inside my parents’ version of my childhood. It is one in which I never disclosed to my mother, in which I was never raped, and in which my parents did not place me directly into the hands of a predator.

My parents’ invalidation of my experiences was made with such hand-crafted precision that I only began to notice cracks in its foundation a few years ago. It is not that I do not believe my own trauma occurred, but it is simply terrifying to dive headfirst into a reality where it does.

Victor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, wrote: “…the last of the human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

I am encouraged to choose my own reality: a reality in which I told my mother I was raped and bore witness to her tears, in which my parents both failed to protect me, and in which my parents continue to invalidate my experience. When I find myself wandering in their reality, I remind myself:

At 9 years old, I became fearful of swallowing food, of choking. My parents forced my mouth shut—so I became terrified of opening it.

At 12 years old, I developed a tic that lasted two years. Blinking was my body’s way of trying to simultaneously release and withhold the memories trapped inside. Open. Close tight. Repeat.

At 14 years old, I stopped eating. My friends, teachers, and coaches noticed, but not the two people who mattered most, whose attention I craved ravenously. I starved myself to ease my heartbreak, my pain. I was compelled to numb the discomfort of knowing my parents’ love for me was deeply flawed.

At 16 years old, I began to self-injure. I felt unloved and unloveable. I was something, not someone. I was a character crafted by my parents’ tools. The pain of self-injuring numbed my emotions and instead ignited a physical sensation that reminded me I was real.

At 18 years old, I isolated and denied myself intimate relationships because I was taught that people could not handle my truth. I was taught I could not trust others with my body.

At 26 years old, I was sexually harassed by a professor while in nursing school. The school claimed they could not find evidence to support my accusations, despite witnesses validating my experience. The school offered money in lieu of my threat to escalate the case, but I refused: content with knowing that this time, my silence would not be taken. However, the duality of my experience included the reinforcement that my words held no meaning. No one believed me.

At 27 years old, thoughts of suicide signaled my primal instinct for self-preservation. While on a walk during the days of social distancing, I looked toward the sky and an image of myself hanging from a tree appeared in my mind’s eye. I did not feel scared. It felt right. Strangely hopeful. I channeled all of that hope left inside of me and concluded that not being afraid of suicide was not normal. I needed help.

Two and a half years later, I am still in therapy. My therapist often jokes that she isn’t “God’s gift to therapists,” but I disagree. Working with her has allowed living in my own reality to be easier. No, not easier. It is hardly easy.

But my reality feels less heavy because, finally, I am not walking alone.

Over the past few years, I wrote my therapist my story in flashbacks, in pieces of myself that I knew were real but still doubted. She believed me.

She believed me.
She believed me.
She believed me. 

My therapist’s blind faith in me is what kept, and keeps, my feet on solid ground. Her belief in my story is helping me acknowledge that my true reality does exist: even though it is painful, it is mine.

It is not easy living in reality, and my mind’s ability to close the curtains on my trauma remains unmatched. But with my therapist’s help, I am getting there: not towards an ending, but towards a new beginning. A beginning where I can live in the reality of my trauma and of my parents’ failure, and survive. A reality where I can eat, respect my body, and acknowledge my past without fear of being invalidated by myself or others. And, eventually, a reality where I feel empowered (my therapist’s favorite word) to use my experiences to help others honor their own stories.

Victor Frankl also wrote, “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state, but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”

I often complain to my therapist, “this is not easy,” challenging her wisdom and encouragement by raising her an annoyed and defeated tone—secretly hoping, without success, that she will allow me to be complacent in my parents’ world instead of fighting for my own.

“No,” she confirms, “it isn’t easy. But it will be worth it.”

You’re more than your pain, more than what happened. You are strong enough to heal from the heavy you carry. We encourage you to use TWLOHA’s FIND HELP Tool to locate professional help and to read more stories like this one here. If you reside outside of the US, please browse our growing International Resources database. You can also text TWLOHA to 741741 to be connected for free, 24/7 to a trained Crisis Text Line counselor. If it’s encouragement or a listening ear that you need, email our team at [email protected].

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Comments (3)

  1. Mel B.

    Dear Abby,
    thank you for being brave and sharing these words.

    Even if our stories differ in some parts, I deeply feel some of your experiences resonate within me.
    Especially when you write about your own reality versus the reality of your parents. This is also something I struggle with, but your words encourage me to choose my view of my childhood and to validate my experiences by myself. Even if others – and worse: family members who carry fault in the circumstances – won´t or can´t understand our similar realities and what happened within them.

    You are incredible brave for speaking up years later in a public setting and that you didn´t allow silence to reign – no matter the outcome. You did it for you which is a powerful statement in itself.

    I am glad you found a therapist who encourages you to live in your reality. And I understand from own experience that this can be the hardest thing to do. But with help from professionals and other people in our lives we are allowed and able to do exactly that.
    And your therapist is right (sound like mine): “It isn´t easy. But it will be worth it.”

    I wish you all the best and the courage to continue to accept your reality and to make the most of what you have. And to continue to have the hope that – even with all that you experienced – you can have and build a life out of this reality. However it will look, it will be yours.

    Take care my friend,

    Reply  |  
  2. Sarah Brecht

    Your story made me cry. Thank you so much for sharing.

    Reply  |  
  3. Karon


    Thank you so much for sharing. Your words echo many of my thoughts. I find myself hoping that all this pain and hard work really will be worth it in the end. Sometimes the temptation to go back to my family’s reality is so strong. There would be no pain because there are no emotions. There was no trauma in their reality.
    Thank you for spreading hope.

    Reply  |  
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