This article was originally published in March 27, 2016.
Exactly four years ago, my friend with benefits physically and sexually assaulted me. Those four years encompass one college graduation, eight moves in two cities, two jobs, one relationship, six months of therapy, and two unexpected run-ins with my attacker. Time has elapsed, but my memory remains fresh and, sometimes, when I close my eyes, I see the blankness that lived in his that night.
The morning after he assaulted me, I awoke into spring sunshine. Gold light crept up the foot of my bed. I had been up late, escaping from his dorm room while he snored, fleeing through St. Patrick’s Day revelers with my shoes untied. Even in my haze of shock, I knew going to the police wouldn’t help. Our text messages showed me asking to come over. There were no marks and no witnesses. There was no case. The last thing I wanted was a he-said-she-said fight in Ohio, a state not known for being survivor-friendly.
That morning after, I felt nothing as I walked into my bathroom and closed the door. I searched in the mirror for something changed, something different. There was nothing physical that marked the events of the night before. My eyes were still my eyes, my face was calm.
I stepped into the shower. I soaped my back and thighs. I washed behind my ears. And then I curled into a ball under the water and sobbed until my stomach clenched and I was sure I would vomit out every emotion I didn’t want to be feeling. I took a deep breath. I stood up. I turned off the shower. I went to work.
In high school biology, we did an assignment that involved soaking an egg in vinegar overnight and recording the results. I don’t remember what it was supposed to teach us, but I remember my overwhelming empathy for the egg when I pulled it from the vinegar. Its shell had dissolved, leaving a leathery, brown membrane that held it in shape. I grew up with an abusive parent, and the egg was a perfect reflection of my constant emotional state.
The morning after he hurt me, it seemed my membrane had dissolved, too. I was yolk and albumen, held together by willpower and rage, unable to realize that my shell was gone and that I should have splattered wetly on the ground.
At work, we held our morning meeting outside. I wore sunglasses and worried about slow-developing bruises. My coworkers — his friends — sat around me as we discussed our tasks for the day. I only half-listened, instead replaying the events of the night before in my head, reassuring myself of my worth, and taking slow, deep breaths.
That afternoon, I met with him. I wanted him to understand what he had done. I wanted to show him I was stronger than the trauma he had put me through.
We sat on my back door stoop, looking out at the parking lot and the chickens in the community garden. I told him that he was sick, that he needed help, and that we were over. I told him I wouldn’t go to the police if he went to therapy. He didn’t know I didn’t have a case, or even if he did, he agreed to go — then begged me not to tell anyone what had happened.
“No,” I said. “That isn’t something you have the right to ask.”
“I know,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“No, you don’t know. You have no right to ask for my silence. You have no right to ask anything of me. This is my story. And your feelings will not be taken into account.”
After our conversation, he left. I hid in my closet and cried beneath my dresses until I couldn’t breathe. Through my tears, I realized that his request had shown me what to do next. I would do the opposite of what he had asked. I would speak out. I would tell everyone what had happened. His name wouldn’t fit into my story, because his role in the rest of my life didn’t matter. He had trapped me in his room, beat me until I saw stars, penetrated me, and almost broke something in me, but he would not dictate my story.
And so I spoke out. I never hid that night. I told my friends and family, and they have been my greatest sources of support.
One year ago, I wrote publicly about my experience on Facebook, then Twitter. The vulnerability was terrifying; the onslaught of messages and support I received was unexpected and overwhelming. People I barely knew and people I didn’t know at all shared their stories, their histories of silence, their paths to healing. I hunched over my laptop, hiding tears from my coworkers as message after message, little snippets of love and support, poured in from people I had no idea were aware of my existence.
Being assaulted or raped or hurt can feel like the end, like you will never be whole enough again to find love or happiness. It isn’t the end. Everyone’s experience and journey is different, and what worked for me may not work for everyone. But what I want to say to my fellow survivors is this:
When I spoke out, I reclaimed my story. That night stopped being something that happened to me and began to become an experience I had — a part of my narrative and just one more obstacle I’m overcoming to reach my goals.
When we survivors speak out, we reject the idea that we should be somehow ashamed for what happened. The people who hurt us should feel ashamed; we should be proud we survived. The best part of speaking out was finding others like me — a community of survivors who support me and whom I can now support. I’m not alone, and neither are you. You may feel lonely, but you are not alone.
In speaking out, I created for myself a new reality — one in which every day after March 17, 2012 is a badge of courage. I survived that night, yes, but my true badge of courage is from surviving every day following that night. It’s from getting help when I need it and allowing myself to be vulnerable again, this time with a man who loves and treats me right.
It’s only been four years since that night — I’m still learning how to heal, and yet, my life is good. Actually, it’s better than good. I have a partner who loves me, even at my worst, friends who lift me up, and an unwavering champion: myself. Life gets better, the healing gets easier, and while I know the memories will never go away, I also know that speaking out has made me stronger than they are.
To my fellow survivors, I love you all (and me).
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This article was originally published in March 27, 2016.