This is not easy. No, in fact every part of me rejected the idea of publishing this. But this is why I started a blog in the first place. To be vulnerable. To express that vulnerability and brokenness is real. And to tell others that it's okay to step into your vulnerability and that it is most likely required of you, in order to transform your life.
I have found that once you are able to be authentically real with yourself, that's when true healing begins. My intention is not to draw unnecessary attention to the details of my life. It is not to prove to myself or others that I triumphed over my 'sad story'. Because this is not a sad story. This is my hope story.
I want to expose the truth to those who are reading this and to tell you that life can be really difficult and that it is okay to not be okay sometimes. We were taught from a young age to conceal our emotions, appear strong in the face of adversity, and to not crumble under emotional distress. But the great flaw in this approach is that we are human and at some point in our lives we will all fall apart and suffer greatly. Suffering comes in many forms; the death of a loved one, a broken heart, a traumatic life event, a change in environment, etc. We are much more alike than we perceive ourselves to be, yet we fight so valiantly to remain separate; to fight our battles alone. There is truth that our interconnected-ness can be found in our weaknesses. My hope story is about how something tragic brought me closer to my faith in God, closer to the people I love, and inspired me to change and renew my life. I have found that sometimes we need to allow ourselves to be completely vulnerable in front of others in order to transform into the person we were truly meant to be. This story is my personal expression of vulnerability. A story I buried deep within and never had any intention of sharing with anyone. But now it's time for me to let it go.
When I was 19 years old, I was raped by the person I had been in a relationship with for over five years.
I had not consented. I verbally said no.
It happened in my own home. I was sober. And just like that the foundation of my life, which was based on security and trust, was shaken.
I thought I could trust this person. Our relationship in high school was awkward, loving, and good. But when I went to college and realized many of our values no longer aligned, our exchanges became unhealthy and destructive. There were no respectful boundaries established and when I attempted to distance myself from him, I found myself trapped in a series of his insecurities and rage.
No part of me felt comfortable disclosing this information to anyone. Especially the people I loved. My parents knew something was wrong, but at the time I didn't have the courage to tell them the truth. I just told them I needed their help and without probing, they did what parents do best, and they protected me. We changed our garage code. I changed my passwords. If he came to the door, my mother would answer and tell him I wasn't home. He would unexpectedly show up at my workplace. My co-workers would cover for me and we'd awkwardly laugh it off, despite the fact that it was much more serious than I made it seem. He would knock on my ground-floor window at night, leave threatening voice-mails and take advantage of my compassion and empathy. I felt obligated to respond because I thought he was a threat to himself and those around him. I didn't want him to be in pain, despite the fact that he had caused turmoil in my life. I was forced to cut all ties and communication with him.
For over two years, I was in denial that the rape was real, because I refused to believe it had happened to me.
These are the stereotypes our culture had taught me and reinforced over the years:
Sexual assault happens with strangers. It occurs if you are promiscuous or put yourself in dangerous situations. If you are assaulted, it's your fault, because you wanted it, or because you allowed yourself to be in that kind of a relationship. If you report it, it’s because you feel guilty about what happened and you want revenge. And by 'you', I mean the hundreds of thousands of women and men whose lives have been affected by the devastating consequences of sexual assault and intimate partner violence.
Let me give you some sobering statistics:
Sexual assault affects 1 in 4 women and 1 in 33 men in their lifetime. The false reporting of sexual assault crimes only happens 1-4% of the time, which is consistent with the false reporting rates for all other felonies. 31% of cases are reported, 6% of cases lead to arrest, and only .7% lead to a felony conviction. Meaning nearly 99% of abusers will walk free. Perpetrators of sexual trauma are less likely to go to prison than other criminals as nearly 70% of all cases are never reported to the police.
It is clear that the prevalence of sexual assault and intimate partner violence is unfathomably common. But the real question I was faced with was this: Why is it so difficult for survivors like me to step forward? Before I shared my story with anyone, I was a health educator on my college campus speaking out about these issues. I became president of the student health organization that was leading the national campaigns 'Step Up' and 'It's On Us' for bystander intervention and sexual assault prevention. I wanted to help create awareness about this epidemic and help others feel safe and supported, even when I did not. No one was aware it had also happened to me. I sat through countless board and committee meetings with other students and faculty members to collaborate on how the university could create better policies, programs, and awareness campaigns. It became apparent that whenever someone's personal experiences were brought into a conversation, a daunting silence and awkwardness filled the room. Did a personal account of sexual assault somehow make a person less competent or credible while trying to create sustainable policy change? Did we not know how to support survivors, or did we simply forget how to empress empathy and compassion towards one another?
I quickly realized we weren’t just fighting a battle trying to prevent the issue, as survivors we were also fighting the shame, guilt and cultural stigmas that made people so uncomfortable and intolerant of survivors speaking out. I was raised in a Catholic home and saw the value in sharing intimacy with only one person in marriage. At my very core, I believed in being united with one person in intimacy. The problem is that I was too immature to understand why waiting until marriage had extreme merit and value. And after the rape occurred, my entire spiritual foundation was shaken. I realized I had remained in an abusive relationship because I intended to marry the person I gave my virginity to. And now I felt like I had failed God and my future spouse.
By coming forward, I also didn't want to be labeled as 'sexually deviant', 'promiscuous', 'stupid' or 'weak'.
So I buried the secret deep within. Away from exposure. Away from reality. Away from the truth. I made the subconscious choice to live in denial and avoidance. I was a high-achiever and learned that if I could achieve my way through life, there was never a reason for me to be considered a failure in the eyes of others. In fact, I knew I could draw attention away from this tragedy in my life by dazzling others with my accolades. And it worked for while...
Until I met the love of my life.
When I met him, everything changed. Instantly, I became vulnerable all over again. I exposed to him my scars because I knew he had pain of his own. I wanted him to accept me as I was, and he did. It was a relief to finally be able to tell someone else the truth. He made me feel bright once again, and very slowly I gained the courage to expose my scars to others as well. In the spring of my senior year of college, we marched in a parade together in solidarity with other survivors. It was the first time I openly attended an event for my own healing. Everyone thought I was there to oversee the event, but in reality I was there for myself. And so was he. And that meant the world to me.
And I thought it would end there. We would march until the demonstration was over. I'd let the tears continue to fall to the pavement over my grief and I could leave the past behind. It was over now. And together we would live happily ever after. The end.
But that's when the PTSD symptoms started kicking in. And then everything fell apart.
At first it came on slowly. But then there was an onset all at once. I began experiencing hyper arousal disturbances, exaggerated startle response, night terrors, and physiological reactivity to trauma cues that caused cognitive disturbances. I didn’t know it was possible for memories I had buried so deeply to resurface so vividly and intrusively, let alone that PTSD symptoms could arise years after a trauma has occurred. But according to the National Women’s Study, about 33 percent of rape victims develop PTSD at any point during their lifetime. It felt like someone had taken over my mind and body and was re-playing a video reel of intrusive images. Every day presented an onset of new triggers and emotional/physical reactions. Loud noises brought on panic attacks, stressful situations made me want to lie down and give up, and I couldn’t find the words to communicate to others what was happening to me. Why was I suffering the consequences of something that happened two years ago in the present day? Why did I feel ashamed, guilty, and broken when I wasn't the person that had caused this pain to begin with?
For a month, I had to sleep with a light on in my room because I would wake up from night terrors and forget where I was. I was jumpy and easily startled. I became extremely paranoid and fearful that my perpetrator was going to show up unannounced like he had done many times before. If I overheard a couple loudly arguing in a public space, I would have nervous breakdown. I became overly-sensitive to criticism, unresponsive to suggestions or encouragement, and was verbally abusive when I felt attacked. When I drank alcohol, the symptoms and my reactions only grew worse. On the night of my graduation, I remember running down the street to my house with my significant other close behind me. I turned around and started screaming at him in sheer panic not to hurt me. Of course he wasn't going to hurt me. But my brain couldn't understand the context of the situation. In my mind, I was right there, experiencing the trauma all over again. I can't imagine the pure heartbreak he felt, time and time again when I pushed him away. No one told him it was okay to feel the way that he did. Because in many ways, he was being traumatized too. He was fighting off ghosts and tried appearing like it wasn't affecting him also. But he continued fighting my battles and held my hand through the worst of it. Because he knew I needed help. The truth is, there was a lot of help available, but I was far too prideful to consider it. Which is why I don't blame him for leaving. Because I knew why he had to get away. It still burned my heart from the inside out and I fell into an even deeper depression than I was before.
I was broken and brokenhearted in every way. My pride quickly dissolved and was replaced with extreme self-pity. The activities I once loved and found enjoyable turned grey. I stopped exercising. I gained weight. I didn't care anymore. No one loved me, so why should I? I couldn't make it through an 8 hour work day without several trips to a single stall bathroom, where I would allow myself 2-3 minutes to completely fall apart. Sometimes I’d numb myself out completely. I had developed a habit of self-harm in high school to deal with the emotional scars of rumors and the abuse I'd taken from teenage girls. I could hide it in discrete places along my leg or upper thigh and no one ever suspected a thing. It was my own unhealthy way of dealing with emotional stress. For the first time in years, I had resorted back to cutting to take the edge off the PTSD symptoms. When I was triggered, the world, for several minutes, would go fuzzy. There was an actual ringing noise I could hear inside my head. Sometimes just knowing that I was still capable of feeling pain would lessen the numbing. Suicidal thoughts became more concrete. What's the point? Why am I here? It doesn't matter anymore.
I became immobilized and spiteful towards the world around me. Fear and emotional instability was crippling my life. That was my reality. It was not pretty. It was down-right atrocious.
Until I reached out for help and allowed the pain to wash me clean.
It started with a three day trip to a psychiatric ward. Yes, I did, in fact, spend three days in one of these institutions. My parents picked me up from a Mustard Seed parking lot only a few miles away from my office after having a major anxiety attack. They found me curled up in the fetal position, shaking uncontrollably. I told them I couldn't go home, and I didn't trust myself to be left alone.
I had taken several stabs at my wrist with a pen the week before while waiting for a cab.
The only reason I got home safely was because I had called my best friend to tell her I loved her. I told her I couldn't handle the pain anymore and I just wanted it to be over.
I recognize now that it's not because I didn't want to live; I just wanted the pain to go away. No one wants to be in pain. That is completely human. We avoid pain at any cost, for all kinds of reasons. To avoid confrontation, humiliation, rejection, loneliness, and vulnerability. We would rather lay down and die then appear weak or vulnerable in the face of adversity. But that is also why pain is the ultimate paradox. Through suffering, we are purified and forced to grow into something new. We must learn to start over. To let go. We must die inside to let the light back in.
That night my best friend and my sister fought for me, when I wasn’t capable of fighting for myself. These two are the real heroes of this story. Without them, there wouldn't be a hope story. And they will never understand how grateful I am for the selfless love they both displayed so courageously to protect me. It was the kind of love that my parents displayed the day they took me to the hospital. The kind of love my significant other held me with in moments of despair. It was the kind of love that never fails.
So when I was in the hospital, I promised myself I had to get better for the people I loved. I wrote the word 'Excelsior' on a piece of paper and hung it up in my room in light of Silver Linings Playbook. It was my best friend’s favorite movie. I remembered the line, "This is what I learned in the hospital. You have to do everything you can, you have to work your hardest, and if you do, if you stay positive, you have a shot at a silver lining." I realized that I, too, had the choice to quit, or find the silver linings in my life. My sister and mom came to visit me every day, twice a day, and we would make light-hearted jokes about the cold coffee and the woman who wouldn't stop shouting at the telephone. I survived using humor and grace. I had several exhausting interviews with different doctors and nursing staff members and was required to attend a community group therapy session daily. The one thing that provided me the most relief was craft time. We weren't allowed to use scissors or glue, which was limiting in many ways. I did however find a way to collage ripped pieces of paper I had taken from a magazine and paste it together with gold paint. I formed a heart out of the magazine clippings and shockingly, it turned out quite beautiful. That day, I found an innate truth: that I am capable of making beautiful things out of hopeless situations.
I never wanted to forget what I had learned, so when I returned home I framed it and hung it up on my bedroom wall.
In my vulnerability and brokenness, I found an undeniable truth. In that truth, I found hope. And with hope, I began to heal my life.