Finding My Way Back: Surviving Sexual Assault

*** This post is deeply emotional and talks about subjects that are not appropriate for young readers. There may be triggers to deeply emotional wounds, please note that the title is a depiction of the topics discussed in this post***

I was in junior high school when I first learned about sexual assault and rape. I was 12 at the time and the school thought that teaching us to be aware of our surroundings when walking home, or to always travel in groups and use the buddy system would be enough to help us protect ourselves from the horrors of being violently assaulted. We were told that it was not always girls, that boys could be victims too. We were told that we should report it, that we should never wash ourselves of the evidence, that we should go straight to the hospital to get tested for transmittable diseases, get DNA samples, and to do whatever we can to make sure our assailant would be caught and put to justice. We were told to be careful, we were told that we could be targets, and we were told to speak up for ourselves.

What we weren’t told were the statistics, and that as we got older our risk would get higher. We were never told that 2 of us in every row would probably end up victims. We were never told that it didn’t matter your hair color, your eye color, your skin color or religion, that there was no discrimination about your height, size or sexual orientation. That even the way you dressed won’t matter because the majority of victims know their perpetrator and the reality is only 6 out of every 1000 offenders will end up in prison.

What they never want to tell you is that most often, its someone you’re close to, someone you trust, and someone that throws you so far out of your element, you don’t know what to do, how to feel, or if you are the victim or if it was your fault and deserved.

I remember saying to myself at 12 years old, at 14 years old, again at 17 years old, that I would never be so stupid as to not report it, but better yet, I would never let that happen. I remember thinking after every assembly where we learned about sexual assault prevention to lock away the details of how to prevent it, how to be aware of my surroundings and what to do if it happened. I saw the pamphlets around my college campus, I remember seeing the advocates tabling in the plaza, rallying for members of their club, wanting to push information on me that I already knew and didn’t think I needed a refresher about. I remember thinking confidently that it would never happen to me. That I would never be in a situation where it could happen. I would never be weak, or naive. I remember thinking there was some invisible cloak that protected me because of my religion and the way I dressed. I remember thinking maybe others made themselves victims because they were provocative or doing something they shouldn’t have been. I remember thinking no man of my religion would ever commit such a crime, and I believed I was always safe, as long as I stayed within the safe walls of the religion that I chose for myself.

I was wrong, I was naive, I became a victim of sexual assault.

My attacker wasn’t a stranger. I didn’t wake up in the middle of the night and find someone in my bed. It wasn’t some dark alley, I wasn’t drugged, and I wasn’t forcibly taken somewhere I didn’t know. I didn’t dress provocatively, I wasn’t at a club, and I wasn’t being a spontaneous college student bringing someone I barely knew home. I wasn’t inebriated, and I didn’t feel threatened before it happened.

Instead my attacker was someone I thought I was in love with. I was in my own apartment, and I had just finished eating a dinner I had prepared with him. We were sitting on opposite ends of the couch having a discussion that began to get heated. This wasn’t our first disagreement, and this wasn’t the first year of our relationship.

My attacker was someone I was in a relationship with. My attacker went to church with me every Sunday, sat on the council, and was an upstanding pillar of the community. He was known for his kindness, his chivalry, his good looks, and his continued commitment to service. He was the man I thought I would have children with. He was the man who I thought I would spend the rest of my life with. He was the man who took away my innocence, my trust of the opposite gender, my fear of human interactions, and my trust in humanity.

I invited my attacker into my home. I trusted my attacker, with my heart, with my secrets, with my fears and goals. I could almost say I trusted him with my life.

Our discussion became heated, and turned into an argument with frustrated screams and name calling. We argued over a difference of opinion, and difference of timelines. We threw out cruel blows at each other, using secret knowledge we shared to hurt the other. Never in my mind as we argued did I ever think that things would result to violence, never did I think that I would end up in my own bed, pushed there forcibly, being stripped of my garments.

I thought I knew my attacker. I thought I knew the person I was staring at before he took a hold of me, before he laid his hands on me. I thought I knew the man that was now forcing himself on me, but I didn’t know the person who was inches from me. I didn’t recognize this cruel human being before me.

I thought I was a strong, independent woman before that moment. I thought I was a warrior who could fight off her assailant if the time arose. But in that moment I was weak, scared, curled up into a ball, listening to rants of apologies, justifications, and excuses from my attacker.

The thoughts that circled in my head after he had left, as I cried to myself under the hot water in the shower, sitting there until the water ran cold, were not ones of revenge and retribution. I did not think to crawl from my bed to a phone to report the incident. I didn’t think about anything but about how dirty I was when he kissed me on top of the head before he left, apologizing one last time. Instead of thinking of all the things that I had told myself to lock away as a teenager, I sought blame upon myself, wondering in the moment what I had done to set him off, pondering over his justifications for the incident, his words and half apologies. I wondered as I trekked through the hall from my bedroom to the couch, if I had really done this to myself, if I had just told him yes, if I had just listened to what he had to say, if I could have prevented this.

I woke up the next morning to a kiss on my cheek and no apology from my attacker. He had picked up the fallen items from the night before, he had put the forgotten dishes from dinner into the dishwasher, and he was acting like nothing had happened, like nothing had changed, like the night before was just a nightmare in a dream. For a brief moment I thought it was a dream, and that he stood before me as my knight in shining armor again. But as I looked at the light purple tint on my arm, the broken capillaries a reminder of what had happened the night before, I flinched away when he tried to touch my shoulder.

I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know who I could talk to. This wasn’t a stranger who had broken me, this wasn’t some random attack by a crazed person who broke into my home. This was the man I loved, this was man I enjoyed waking up to. This was the person who I and so many others trusted with their secrets and lives. This couldn’t be happening.

The thoughts that swirled in my head started to take control over my life. I doubted everything I did, every breath I took, every comment I made, every thought that I had. I doubted my existence and started to believe that everything was my fault, that everything was my doing and what happened was because I wished it to. Sometimes I wondered if I was imagining it because he acted like nothing had happened, because he played it as if nothing ever happened. He acted like we were perfect, like things were normal, and that my skittishness and fear of touch was just because I was cold, or stressed or off in la-la-land. Looking back, he was discrediting me slowly, so that if it ever came out, I would be a liar, I would be making him the victim.

Our relationship deteriorated after that and we went our separate ways. It was my fault he said, and it was my lack of ability to fight back that made be believe that maybe I had deserved it, maybe I really did dream it up. However, it was not the broken relationship or the fact that the incident went ignored as unspoken between us, it was the resulting crumble of my world, of my trust in the system, that destroyed me slowly from within. It’s not that I didn’t ever think to report him, it’s not that I never told a soul, it’s that I sought guidance in religious leaders who were appalled that I would even bring it to their attention.

I sought out help, I sought out advice, and in return, I was told I was at fault. I was told to sit down and think it over, think it through, think about what my accusations would mean to the community. I was asked if I was just making excuses for my promiscuity. I was told to consider the way I dress, the way I act, the way I parade myself in front of the Y chromosome bearing individuals. I was stripped of my position, I was told that I was no longer worthy, and every time  I looked at the steeple upon the hill, I questioned my value, my stance, my sanity. Maybe I really was overreacting, maybe I really wasn’t virtuous, maybe I did ask for this, demand for this, hope this would happen.

I lost more than my innocence that spring. I lost a piece of myself that I will never be able to get back. I lost the religion I believed in, I lost the friends I thought would always stand beside me, I lost my belief in humanity, and worst of all, I lost myself. Everything I thought I knew about the world and myself went up in flames with my reputation and innocence that season.

Losing belief in yourself has to be the hardest thing to overcome. Learning to trust others, lean on others, and start over seemed to come easier than learning to trust in my own instincts, in my own value, in my own sense of self.

I went through the many stages of overcoming my attack. I was in denial for longer than I wanted to believe. I  was angry about everything, at everyone, and trusted nobody, even those who were trying to save me. I bargained my life to the edge and back. I was depressed for longer than I want to admit to. Eventually I did overcome it all, and eventually I learned to accept the difference between one person’s mistakes and my imposed blame on a culture and society.

For so long I blamed an entire cultural society, instead of blaming the people who were actually at fault. I wanted someone to blame, but could I blame a person of authority for making me feel like a living, walking failure? Could it be possible that a man who served the Lord could possibly been mistaken in the way he treated me? Could it really be that those who were ordained could make mistakes? Yes. And that was a challenge I had to overcome. Learning to de-pillar a pillar of society in order to heal was part of the process of me finding myself again, trusting myself again, and learning that my instincts and I mattered.

It was 6 days after I had decided I was no longer going to follow the religious teachings I had come to trust and believe in that I took my first sip of beer. It was not to my liking, and I may have spit it out in the napkin in my lap, but it felt like freedom, and in a way it was the first step to figuring out “my shit” (pardon the vulgarity). Aside from skipping church, I never truly felt that my religion betrayed me, I never felt like I had to rebel or go the opposite of what my heart told me was right for me. It was the conclusion of a year being ‘the rebel’ that I was, for me to understand that the mistakes of those who betrayed me are not the teachings of the church. It was the urge to pray before bed, bless my meals, and seek comfort in scripture that helped me reach the stage of acceptance. For I was right all along, my instincts were right all along, and what happened to me wasn’t my fault.

The hardest thing to learn from the most lonely and heartbreaking time of my life is that “rape culture” is a real thing that my generation is still facing and that it still prevails amongst the most intelligent and considered upstanding pillars of society. My assault was belittled, I was told that I was at fault, I was stripped of my stake in society, and told to reconsider the ramifications of my false accusations. I was not consoled, I was not told that everything was going to be okay, instead my feelings were being discredited, and I began to doubt in myself.

How can it be that in a society in which women are considered equal to men, in an area where being a feminist is being normal, and being outspoken, strong, and independent is revered, did I become the perpetrator of my own assault. How is it that my attacker got away with it, and I became the one to blame?

Looking back to what rumors would get spread through the school hallways, what defamatory things would be considered funny by my peers, and what is perceived as justifications for the lifestyle constraints thrusted upon young women in my religion of choice, how is it that I didn’t see that the culture I was growing up in, took part in, was simply one where rape is normalized? Rape culture is real, and until society fights back, learns from our mistakes, and takes the bold move to punish those accordingly for their crimes, victims like myself will continue to be voiceless, and the numbers of victims will continue to be notches on a societal ticker tape that will forever be ignored.

 

 

 

 

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