For quite awhile, I didn’t know if I would ever publicly share this story. I didn’t even know how much I’d personally share it. Part of that is because I felt so very, very ashamed.
Another reason is because I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to feel any better after telling it, largely because people don’t know how to appropriately respond.
The more I noticed how much I feared other people’s reactions to my story, the more I saw that I needed to share it—when I was ready.
In the networking, research, and self-help I’ve encountered since long before I realized the assault, one thing I’ve learned is that too many people don’t understand.
I want people to understand what is going on inside a person’s mind days, months, or years after he or she has been sexually assaulted so that the humans hearing these stories can be empathetic, not judgmental or dismissive.
I want other survivors to know that they are not alone, and it is important that we talk about it.
Too many people think that the assault was an isolated incident. It happened, it was horrible, and that was the end of it.
Too many people don’t realize that the incident, the memory, the trauma, lasts for years. Relocation doesn’t solve the problem. Addiction doesn’t sweep the issue under the rug. Staying busy doesn’t block it all out.
Too many people question the strength and integrity of a woman who let herself get into a situation in which she could be once, twice, repeatedly sexually assaulted.
Too many people don’t realize that it is often strong, loving, giving people with good hearts who find themselves in these situations, who hear that it’s their fault, always their fault, and so they try to do better because that’s the humans they are. But nothing was ever their fault in the first place.
Too often these people are the victims themselves.
I didn’t do anything wrong. But I was told I did. I collected stones in an invisible backpack with each transgression. I collected stones each time I did something I didn’t want to do because I was coerced, manipulated, humiliated, and dominated into doing it. I collected stones until the weight held me down and the only way to pick myself up was to start unloading those stones until my bag was empty.
Sexual assault commonly results in post-traumatic stress disorder. The realization, acceptance, and effects are not always immediate.
In my case, it took me more than a year to realize I was sexually assaulted. And it didn’t occur to me on my own.
The effects of a past relationship slowly started to trouble me. I became nauseous when I heard his name or saw something tangible that reminded me of him. I began to flinch when men gingerly put a hand on my shoulder, making a move. I became hypervigilant and hyperaware, lending toward a constant state of anxiety and subsequent depression. I had nightmares that were only memories. And yet, I still obsessively thought about him.
My mind concluded there was something wrong with me. It didn’t help that this is what most of the world was telling me.
But one day I couldn’t take it anymore. One day I picked up the phone and told my story to someone, with as many painful details as I could remember, from beginning to end. That conversation positively changed the course of my healing, because I felt for the first time in a very long time that I was not alone. I felt listened to and respected. I felt empathy instead of judgment.
I had been carrying this burden that I didn’t fully understand and I just couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t carry it alone.
But understanding the truth of my past relationship was only the beginning. From there, I had to go through heartache all over again. I had to break up with the memories—all while continuing to function in my daily life: go to work, cook food, make new friends, sleep. Most importantly, I had to forgive myself, because in the first months of the healing process, I blamed no one but me.
I thought I was weak for getting myself stuck in this situation in the first place, for being blind to the red flags. I felt guilty and shameful, dirty and disgraceful. In my mind, I had become infinitesimal.
The man who assaulted me took my virginity. I lost something I can never get back. For a very long time, I felt that this man took with him a piece of my spirit.
Since realizing the assault, I have been trying to redefine what intimacy means—without being intimate with anyone. That’s a very hard thing to do.
But by opening up to a select few people and sharing my deepest, darkest, most vulnerable secret, I am learning. I am understanding that romantic passion between two people is not supposed to be selfish. It is not supposed to cause you gut-wrenching, incapacitating pain that leaves you unable to walk for a week. It is not supposed to make you feel like you are merely a body—inadequate, disposable. It is not supposed to make you feel like you are just an ant crawling across this great big earth, trying to escape the magnifying glass that taunts you.
I have wanted so much to forget the man who assaulted me. I have wanted to never hear his name or see his face again. On the other hand, I have wanted to stare him hard in the eyes and show him what a strong and capable woman I’ve not only become but have always been.
Sometimes what we want doesn’t really matter. Sometimes it’s what we need that counts, and what I really need is peace in my heart. The only way I know how to do this is with forgiveness.
He doesn’t deserve my forgiveness, but I won’t be doing it for him. I’ll be doing it for me.
Now, when I look in the mirror, I don’t see a woman who feels helpless, unworthy, or ashamed. I see a woman who is confident and self-aware, who is not afraid of men or love but who is learning what it means to be respected and dignified in a relationship and most importantly, within herself.
Too many people put a timeline on someone else’s healing. We often even do it to ourselves. But the truth is, time is irrelevant to matters of the heart. And sometimes, we never fully heal.
Sometimes, fresh wounds become scabs that shrink in size but remain intact, picked at accidentally on rare occasions down the road. But those wounds, those scars, make us human. Those broken pieces of us somehow make us whole.
We cannot change the past. We can wish a thousand times over that the past never happened to us, or we can learn from our unique experiences. We can be open about them so that we invite healing scabs into our wounded hearts, so that we don’t live our lives in fear of love or other people’s reactions, and so that we realize no matter how much it feels like it, we are never truly alone.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I’ve written and revised these words in an ongoing draft over the past year, knowing that I would only publish this story when I was ready. I am ready. This article isn’t about pointing fingers. It’s about sharing vulnerabilities in an effort to inform, unite, understand, and—ultimately—heal. Thank you for letting me tell my story, and for being there for me on the other side.
**This is a public post. If you feel this story speaks to you or can help someone, feel free to share it.