I was raped at a party when I was in high school. He did it very publicly, in a yard, while people I didn’t know sat around watching.
Stories about sexual assault have been prevalent in the news the past few years, sparked in part by the #MeToo movement. Inevitably someone asks, “if it was so bad, why didn’t she come forward sooner?” This question infuriates me. There are so many possible answers to this question.
For me it was self-preservation. My brain wasn’t ready to look at it. I was young and very insecure, and consequently completely inexperienced. I had not yet had a boyfriend, or dated anyone, or known what it was like to be in love. I had never seen a man’s penis outside of pictures in sex ed class. My assault was so far outside my understanding of “normal”, that my brain literally didn’t know how to react. So it didn’t. It shut down. I shut down. It also happened during a time in my life that was full of other challenges, challenges that left me full of self-doubt, unprotected, and alone. Only years later after I was able to extract myself from some of those other challenges was I even able to see the event for what it was, something abnormally awful, even for me, even for that time in my life.
But by that time, I had moved on. I didn’t want to be the girl that got raped. Admitting that you were raped is admitting that your life will never be the same. Your friends and family won’t see you through the same eyes. You won’t see yourself through the same eyes. There is so much shame and doubt that comes with this particular stigma. Who would want to take that on? Who wants their life to change and be made more complicated? More difficult? More frightening? Instead, I told myself that what happened to me didn’t count because I didn’t struggle and scream.
At the time it happened I was physically very small and surrounded by people I didn’t know. I was intoxicated. He was an adult and he was sober. He sat there passing me bottle after bottle, watching as I got myself so drunk I didn’t even notice him pull out his penis. I don’t remember feeling afraid. What I remember feeling first was surprise, and then confusion, and then shame. He was talking to people around us while he was putting himself inside me. All these strangers. He was talking to them about my body like I wasn’t there. Like I didn’t matter. I remember telling myself that it wasn’t real, that it was just in my head. And I did nothing. All I could think about was the people watching us. I could feel them judging me and I wanted to become invisible. Later, I told myself that it had been my fault. I had let it happen instead of trying to stop it. It was far easier to deny and self-blame than to see what happened for what it was.
And I had moved on. I was living on my own in a big city. I had left all of my baggage behind and for the first time I was free to define myself as the person I wanted to be instead of the person that my circumstances had made me. I wanted to live my life. So I did. I went to school. I made new friends and went on new adventures. I traveled the world and jumped out of an airplane and ran a marathon. I started a career. Along the way I fell in love and adopted cats and then had children to chase the cats around the apartment. I bought a house. I changed careers. I put up a very high wall in my mind that hid what happened. So high that I could not see over it. I was afraid of what was on the other side. I was afraid that if I even looked at what was there it would consume me. I worked hard to build a life that did not include that trauma and I would not let it in. I thought if I refused to acknowledge what happened, it wouldn’t affect me.
But anyone who has experienced trauma knows that you can’t hide from it completely. Your body knows what happened even when your brain won’t admit it. Trauma causes your muscles to tighten involuntarily while you sleep, and your stomach to turn on you. It makes you question yourself, over and over again, and sometimes turns you into a person you don’t even recognize. My trauma has not defined me. But it has impacted me. It has impacted me my entire adult life.
I had tension headaches and migraines and IBS and chronic heartburn. I clenched my jaw so tight that it ached before I even realized I was doing it. I struggled with intimacy. I took medication for anxiety.
Throughout my twenties, I used alcohol as both an escape and a punishment. During the night I needed to forget my past, but in the morning I would wake in a panic, terrified of what might have happened the night before. It didn’t matter if I had had one glass or several. I would question my roommates incessantly, making sure every detail in my head lined up with every detail in theirs, that no holes remained where bad things could have happened. I carry this habit with me still today – I cannot go to a party in the night and not wake up feeling ashamed the next day over something invisible that didn’t happen.
As I moved into adulthood I began to notice that being around teenagers made me start to panic. I would feel light-headed and nauseous and start looking for a way to flee wherever I was. If it was a situation that I couldn’t readily extract myself from I would instead try to literally shrink into myself. It’s like I wanted to make myself so small that they could not look at me. I would feel their eyes judging me, like they could see me with my pants pulled down in the yard all over again. I began avoiding situations where there might be teenagers. I would cross the street if I saw a group of them coming. At the time, I could not explain to myself why I was doing this. It was not a conscious decision. It was pure instinct and fear.
Periodically something would happen, a News story, or a post on a social media feed, which would make the memories start bubbling up. I would spend several days or weeks feeling like I’d lost my sense of self. Like I didn’t know who I was or what to think or what to do. I would be so angry at myself for even thinking about events that took place years before. Clearly that was the past. It was irrelevant. How could I be so weak as to still be affected by anything that happened so long ago. Eventually, I would manage to push the memories back down. To rebuild my wall.
Until one day I decided not to. I made a very deliberate decision in the fall of 2018 to carefully start unboxing the events I had hidden away. I realized that being around teenagers is not something I will be able to avoid forever. I have young children, who will one day be teenagers. They will need me to be there for them, to help them deal with whatever shit life throws at them. I will not have the luxury of melting every time they have the audacity to want to have friends to the house. This is something I need to get control over, instead of letting it continue to control me. So with help from some amazing girl friends, and an equally amazing professional therapist, I allowed myself to slowly start looking over the wall. And my world didn’t end. But looking at what happened has impacted me.
In the beginning, talking about what happened to me was devastating. Even discussing it with my therapist would leave me drained and weepy. I would find myself staring at the same spot on my computer screen at work for long periods of time, not working at all. I would replay what happened, over and over again in my mind, like a broken record. I was jumpy and irritable, and I screamed at my kids too much. I was more prone than usual to getting triggered into panic attacks. And every time I did the episode would mess with my head for weeks.
But slowly it became easier and less exhausting to talk about it. I told more people what happened to me. Mostly not the details, but those don’t really matter anyway. What matters is that something bad happened to me and it has impacted my life.
I still have tension headaches, migraines, IBS, and heartburn. I still clench my jaw and have trouble with intimacy. I still take medication for anxiety. I have days when all I want to do is cry.
But mostly, I’m ok. I am better than ok. I get up every morning and go to work. I get my kids to school, most days even on time. I laugh at jokes and sing ridiculous songs at karaoke. I can go to the grocery store across from our local high school at a time I know it will be packed with teenagers if I have to, though I still choose not to if there isn’t a pressing need. Nearly two and a half decades later, I am finally at a point in my journey where I can look back at that night and see it as something that happened to me, instead of something that happened because of me.
I have more compassion and patience now for people around me, because I realize that most of us are struggling with something, struggling in silence. We are all impacted by our past, by the good and the bad things that have happened to us. And those impacts affect who we are and how we behave today, even when we’re not aware of it.
I recently read Chanel Miller’s book “Know My Name.” What I was struck by most was not all the injustices she faced, those were no surprise. What struck me was how familiar all the ways her assault impacted her were. It was uniquely her story and the details were uniquely hers but the high-level impacts she describes are almost universal among people who have experienced this type of trauma. Those parts of the book could have been anyone’s story. And my story could have been anyone’s story. It is not unique either in what happened to me or in how it has affected my life.
In many ways, I am fortunate. I have a loving, supportive family and amazing friends. I have good health insurance. I have a job that is flexible enough that I can push my schedule back 2 hours once a week to go trauma therapy. Not everyone has this level of emotional and financial support. But it doesn’t mean they haven’t been impacted by what happened to them. It doesn’t mean their voices don’t matter just because they don’t have a dedicated safe space to talk about it. Everyone deserves this space. Because what I have learned is that until you process what happened to you, that part of your brain and your body can never truly move forward. Sexual assault makes the victim feel so alone and so full of shame in a way that most crimes do not. But we must remember that we are not alone, and we do not need to keep feeling ashamed while we sit in silence.