*Trigger warning- this post includes discussion of sexual assault and suicidal thoughts
I am one of many, many people who is a survivor of sexual assault and had a really horrible week last week. I thought I’d be writing a fancy pre-amble to find the nerve to get to that sentence I just wrote, but walking around the issue doesn’t make it any easier to talk about, so there it is. It happened to me and I was in a dark, dark place for a very long time. For years, I thought that if I wasn’t ready to relive my trauma and open up about details then I better keep it hidden and not talk about it at all; but after the past week and the way I felt like I was barely hanging on even with the support systems I have in place, I felt the need to write this and share it. If you are a survivor of assault and you are still processing, I want you to know it will get better. I know it doesn’t feel that way, but please hold on.
This entry is written to those fellow survivors out there, but I really believe it might be helpful for those who know and love survivors too– and odds are good that applies to you whether you know it or not.
*To begin- Friendly reminder- It’s not your fault. and sexual assault is not a “normal phase” for males to go through. There’s been a lot of bullshit commentary coming up in the national conversation of assault this week, and I think there aren’t enough times for me to scream out into the world what my time in therapy and those around me who support me have told me more times than I can count: IT’S. NOT. YOUR. FAULT.
*It DOES get better and this doesn’t define you. I recently wrote a letter to one of my oldest friends, thanking them for saving my life when this happened to me and I couldn’t see a way out of the darkness. This was part of what I wrote: “You told me I wasn’t weak. You told me this seemed like my whole story right now, but it wasn’t what would define me. I loved you too much to tell you I thought you were completely wrong about that. You loved me too much to stop saying it as many times as you needed to get it through my trauma damaged brain.” That piece of wisdom, which has proven true, has been really hard to remember this week. This aspect of my life has felt all consuming and inescapable. And while it is horribly unchangeable, it is no longer all consuming. I am not just a victim or a survivor, I am a friend. I am an intelligent woman with a masters degree. I am a mother. I am a wife. I am fighting to make sure that this permissive culture of violence changes so my children have a statistically smaller chance of anything like this happening to them. I am so much more than one horrible night. I have an easier time seeing that now. I’ve even had full days or weeks where I didn’t think about what happened to me and I have faith that will be the case again in the future (though sadly, if I’m being honest, I’m not sure that’s happened since before 2016 so if that’s been the case for you too… you aren’t alone.)
*It’s OK if you aren’t ready to share your story. It took me a long, long time to start opening up to people about what happened to me. And as I said at the beginning of this post, I am still not at a place where it would be a healthy choice to open up and relive my trauma in detail. When this first happened to me, there were only 3-5 people who knew and at least half of them just knew I’d been through something awful but had to guess at what that might be. I hid and hid and hid out of fear of other people- and I wasn’t even in a position of people sending me death threats. It’s only recently, since I’ve started sharing my story more. And it’s almost a decade in the past now.
*Sometimes the keeping it a secret is what hurts the most. I wrote a few months ago about how much I admire the work of Brene Brown and I’m particularly fascinated with her work on shame. Keeping something that heavy inside me for so long bred more and more shame and a whole other level of pain than what I was already experiencing. It was a huge weight lifted when I told my husband (though at the time we weren’t even engaged yet) and he has learned how to support me better in the times since then when I feel like I can’t talk about what is happening, he patiently waits until I’m ready to speak again and he shows support int he meantime. I was only able to get to a place where I could tell him though because I got help from a neutral third party which brings me to what I’d like to shout from the rooftops as much as my first statement:
*GET THERAPY. Please. I’m so thankful for the friends who told me this was a non negotiable. It wasn’t until I told my experience to someone who is used to working with trauma that I some of my reactions and pieces of my story started to make more sense. I had to try out a few methods to cope with post traumatic dreams and flashbacks so don’t despair if it takes many sessions. It’s worth reaching out to several therapists about if they have a sliding scale or pro bono sessions available as I certainly could not afford therapy as a poor grad student. I can’t even begin to express how much this helped me and continues to help me when I’m going through a triggering time.
*If the people you tell make it about them or think less of you- that is THEIR problem, not yours. This goes back to the secret keeping I mentioned earlier. I didn’t tell anyone for so long because I was horrified that maybe I could no longer be thought of as a good catholic. What if no one would want to be my friend because they thought they might catch my bad luck? What if they would just be ashamed of me and not want to be friends anymore? What if they could no longer look up to me? I thought all those things would be on me. But it’s not. It’s on them. And I have been through some less than optimal receptions of my story. But I have found so much more support. If there’s one silver lining in the awful, inescapable talk about this subject it’s that each time it resurfaces I felt the need and the freedom to tell a few more people. And if you need to talk to someone that you know will be supportive first then you can 1) call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 2) talk to a therapist 3) find someone who has been through it too. There’s more of us than you think.
*It’s OK if you don’t want to report. I told my husband this week that I have never been so thankful I don’t even know the full name of my attacker. It means I will never have to make the incredibly difficult choice some women do when they see their attackers gain more and more power or prominence. For a long time I agonized over not reporting my assault. I thought it made me a terrible woman. I thought it made me complicit in any future attacks this person might make. But I was also deeply familiar with friends who had been through similar situations and how law enforcement treated them. I could barely share about with those I trusted the most, there was no way I could even form the words of a testimony and I truly believe the experience would have killed me. I was so close to wanting to just end it all anyway and going through that… I would not have survived. And here’s the thing that I can say with confidence now- I am not culpable for a system that does not serve survivors of this crime. I am not culpable for the horrible decisions that man might have made again. I am responsible for keeping myself alive and sane to fight another day, to raise my kids in a way that they value the dignity of human life and sexuality, and I truly could not have done that if I had reported what happened to me.
*It’s OK if you do want to report and its been years. The heroes who are strong enough to tell their story and go through the steps of reporting their assault can make a difference. Please be sure you find advocates and take care of yourself. You are not alone in your longing for justice. You are not alone in needing time.
*It’s OK to fall apart. I feel like I’ve learned a lot of coping mechanisms and have a very strong support network at this point in my life. I still found myself crying inconsolably. I have found myself having intrusive thoughts, nightmares, unknowingly biting my cuticles or my lip or the inside of my mouth until they bled to try to keep myself from crying. I had a moment where I was taking a relaxing bath and ended up feeling overwhelmed with panic and a need to throw up and then sat shaking and sobbing on the bathroom floor for thirty minutes before I could get up again. I have felt the shame rise up again and the desire to run away and hide. I have checked in with other friends who are going through the same thing, and it was helpful just to know I wasn’t alone. So I hope you know if this week has just sucked… has just… something way worse than sucked that I can’t even find the vocabulary for int he moment… you aren’t alone. I just implore you to find a way or a community to help put you back together again afterward… in other words…
*Take care of yourself. For me, this has meant baking, gardening, throwing to do lists out the window and just snuggling my kids, taking deep breaths and doing some yoga- all things that remind me of what miraculous acts of creation my body can be responsible for, things that I get a choice in, things that I find miraculous. Those things might be different for you. For you, taking care of yourself may be NOT doing something and resting- my phone had about 30 something text messages unanswered over the last few days… that number is never that high. I couldn’t bring myself to get online or look at instagram or even check email much. Here’s a great article with more details on how you can care for yourself.
PS: Sorry for any nonsensical sentences or grammar/spelling errors. This was definitely one of those entries that I knew I’d delete if I went back to edit… I also want to make it clear here that I am just sharing my own experience in the hopes that it will help someone. It was incredibly scary for me to write about this, but I know lots of women have made stands that are even scarier this week. At this time, I’m not interested in talking about burden of proof or how laws should or should not be changed, or about the very small number of people who falsely report trauma. I’m not saying I’m never open to these conversations or that I resent them taking place, I’m saying I can not have them right now. Thanks for understanding as I take care of my mental health.