* This is a trigger warning. The following contains a frank discussion about the realities of sexual assault and the aftermath.
When I was 12 years old I was kidnapped and raped. I was lucky. I survived. 20 years later I found out that not all victims of my rapist did. In 2011 he was convicted of murdering a young woman by strangulation. He killed her 2 years before he assaulted me. I don’t know why I survived and she didn’t.
But let’s rewind to the moment he dropped me off blocks from my home after hours of assault- this is where I lend you my shoes for a bit. Let’s start when the sound and the air changed as I closed the car door behind me and I started the walk to my house, where I knew my mother would be awake and worried. Because I was still in shock I did not feel the physical pain yet. I didn’t feel my broken nose from when he hit me after challenging me to get out of the car- because if I didn’t try, it must have meant that I liked what he was doing. I didn’t feel the pain between my legs. Not yet. I knew that everything had changed but I also knew that I would never tell. At least that is the one thing that I thought I knew that night. So on that walk a few short blocks to home I needed to figure out something to tell my mom about where I had been, so I concocted a story that I was so “stressed out” about the new school year starting the following week that I needed to clear my head so I went out walking the neighborhood. And just like that- minutes after surviving a predator- a rapist and murderer, I was choosing to take the blame. I was a child prepared to accept punishment for an infraction I didn’t do and I felt that suffering alone and in silence was preferable to people knowing that I was now defiled. I. was. a. child. And even as a child, some part of me understood the explicit and implicit societal ramifications of reporting sexual assault.
I walked up to my porch where my mother was crying with my stepfather. They were frantically making calls trying to find me. My stepfather told me to hug my mother, I had worried her so, and to go to bed. The next morning I showered through the fogginess of my brain and afterwards snuggled on my mother’s bed with my 10 month old sister. My mother walked in and did what I only now as a mother can appreciate as being perhaps one of the most difficult things she has ever had to do- she confronted me and told me that she knew something happened and she demanded that I tell her. So I did. I was lucky that I have a mother who followed her gut and didn’t accept everything at face value.
The detective that came to interview me and then drove me to the hospital for my rape exam was so kind. The nurses who assisted me and my battered and violated body explained everything that would be happening so I would be less afraid. And then they provided me the morning after pill just in case. I was 12 years old and had never even kissed a boy and I was taking the morning after pill. I was lucky I was provided that so I didn’t have to agonize about a possible pregnancy.
I testified in a packed court room. It’s not like it is on tv where the attorney asks the rape victim what happened, she breaks down and cries and says, “He raped me,” and that is that. Nope- it is the most detailed, graphic play by play of what happened. It is the victim describing what her rapist’s penis looks like, where he put it and how many times he put it in each place. It is having to answer questions suggesting that you made up the allegations to avoid a punishment, or to cover for being sexually active. Oh, and all of that happens in front of your rapist. And that is what A CHILD has to testify about when they are in court as victims of rape.
He was convicted. He was sentenced to life for the kidnapping charge and received 7 different 60 year sentences for sexual battery and one 60 year sentence for charges of lewd and lascivious acts- all to be served consecutively. He is never getting out of prison. But I was lucky. That is a highly unusual result. For every 100 rapes that occur only 3 perpetrators ever see even a single day in jail. And we don’t have to reach far back into our collective memories to recall a convicted rapist who was sentenced to 6 months because of how a longer sentence would affect HIM.
During the 8 months between when I was raped to the trial I had some relatively minor trauma reactions, but overall I felt ok- numb but ok. My brain was protecting me as it knew I wasn’t done yet- I still had work to do before I could start healing. After the trial the flood gates opened. That’s when the flashbacks really started. And the nightmares and I stopped eating for days at a time. And I had panic attacks and I slept on the floor of my parents’ bedroom. And I cried- a lot and seemingly randomly, though now I know they probably weren’t random and I was experiencing a PTSD trigger. I was officially diagnosed with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and I started medication that I called my happy pills. I resented those happy pills because all I wanted to be was “normal” and I felt weak that I needed them because I couldn’t handle my emotions. People told me that I was so strong for surviving and going through the trial, but I felt weaker than I ever had. I felt fragile. I now understand that my tears and my paralyzing fear and panic have nothing to do with strength or weakness, or my character- but everything to do with my trauma.
I had a very difficult time making it through each school day, something that I dealt with off and on until I graduated high school. I often missed school or had to be signed out because I just could not make it through the day. But I was in therapy and I had lots of support and those who knew what happened believed me without question. I still struggled with immense feelings of shame and guilt. I was trying to feel safe again at home. Safe again at school. Safe again when I knew I was with safe people. I was lucky- I had safe people and people who believed me.
One day in 8th grade I had to make up a math test after one of my many missed school days because of my PTSD. My teacher sent me to sit in the back of the classroom next door as she was going over the answers to the test with the rest of my class. Almost as soon as I sat down, the 9th grade boy sitting next to me leaned over and started whispering what he was going to do to me. There I was in a classroom of 30 people, some mere inches away from me, who didn’t see or hear what was happening to me. That this person was describing in graphic detail how he was going to sexually brutalize me. How he was going to cut off his own dick and feed it to me. And while I got up and went back into my classroom explaining to my teacher that one of the kids was bothering me, I never told anyone what he said to me. Not until today.
Because of my own journey- where my shoes have taken me, I understand how it can be possible that a woman might be sexually assaulted in a public place, say an airplane, and NOT say anything and NOT fight back or scream or move away. Because of what I know about what it means to be a woman and how we as a society view sexual assault and sexually aggressive behaviors and where we place the blame- How even other women sometimes judge the trauma responses in other women either because they have never experienced it and assume they would react a certain way, or because they did and their reaction was different- because of this I can think of several different psychological explanations for why women might come forward decades after an alleged sexual assault by a powerful man, that have nothing to do with money or an attention grab.
I was lucky. What happened to me is very close to the classic, and much feared, stranger rape scenario so it is very easy for people to accept my trauma and not challenge my account. My “victimhood” is obvious and unquestioned. I was a child. It was violent. This was “real rape.” But even so, the shame and guilt and secrecy that I have felt to varying degrees in the 26 years since that night when my whole world changed were at times unbearable. And even today, when I told a friend that I was going to do it- I was going to self disclose on this blog and share my story she checked to make sure that I was sure. Because she knows what that might mean for me- to be so open and honest about being raped. That at the VERY least I will have some people that will view me differently. And the truth is that I am not sure that I want to do this. But I am open and honest about most everything in my life, except this one thing. I guess that’s the shame and responsibility and stigma attached to being a survivor of sexual assault. So while part of me feels that I need to share because it might help even one other survivor of sexual assault, it also feels like I need to do this for me- to shed the last of any shame I might have about it.
Before you give me my shoes back, I want you to walk with me through today. It started like any day, but suddenly and randomly in the shower I started crying. I thought about how my 61 year old mother was aggressively called an ignorant cunt by a stranger on her way to work on Tuesday because of her Bernie and her “I’m Ready for Hillary” bumper stickers. And I cried because of what happened to me years ago, and I cried for my fears of what this election might mean for women. It turns out that these tears were not “sudden” and “random,” but the result of a trauma trigger- or multiple trauma triggers that I have been successfully managing all election cycle.
Trauma triggers are tricky things sometimes. They can be tricky to identify and difficult to explain to someone else why they are a trigger. The experience is visceral and physiological. So while I cannot fully articulate what my triggers were today the best I can do is say that the thought I keep coming back to is that I cannot understand how and why it is not shocking enough or troubling enough for multiple allegations of sexual assault and a taped admission to engaging in sexual assault to prevent people from electing this man to essentially be one of the, if not the, most powerful person on this planet.
But I did what trauma survivors do. I reached out to someone who I knew would support me. I pulled myself together, put on some lipstick and I put one foot in front of the other (ok- maybe not ALL trauma survivors put on lipstick- but its a metaphor people- in part because I’m not sure I know what the hell these boot straps are that people keep telling others to pull up). My shoes took me to my job that I love. And as my computer was booting up I perused Facebook and read some personal accounts of other people’s trauma reactions. I spoke with my colleague about some preparations for our round table discussion we have scheduled with other mental health therapists to discuss ways we can assist our clients who have been reporting increased trauma responses, anxiety and depression related to the election (lead up to and results of). But I broke down again reading about how those that are crying about the results should suck it up. People used terms like douchebag, idiot, and Un-American. People saying the problem with people today is that are just too sensitive, that they need to get over it, that it is laughable for them to be that upset. People being shamed for expressing their emotions in a, frankly, healthy way and hurting no one by doing so.
Since you are in my shoes you can see that today I wasn’t sobbing because my candidate didn’t win and I can’t handle disappointment. I was sobbing because of ALL of the above. You can see that I already do know that life will go on and there is no need to panic, but I needed that release. While in my shoes you can see the skills I have been developing for years for myself and others to help manage trauma and stress and anxiety and disappointment and abject terror, etc, etc, etc. You can see how I keep kinetic sand on my desk for a tactile coping skill- I find it better than playdoh when I just want something to kneed as it doesn’t dry out. You can see how I have coloring books on hand- that I often share with others. You can see that I keep a candy jar stocked in my office because sometimes chocolate is just what someone needs (It worked for Harry Potter with the Dementors and it works for stressed out counselors). You can see that when I moved into a new administrative office with glass walls I positioned my chairs just so- so that someone just walking by won’t happen to see if one of my peers needs a safe place to talk and maybe cry. You can see my Wonder Woman collection as my visual reminder not only of my strength, but also of my need to accept the help of others. You can see (or smell) that I keep a soothing scent in my plug-in. You can see that I have multiple music and podcast play lists ready to go at any time for any mood. You can see that one of my greatest fears in sharing this post is that people will feel sorry for me and feel that they are obligated to offer supportive words or feel the need to soothe me or take some burden from me. I manage my burdens pretty well and I have plenty of safe people that help me carry them when I need to. I wrote this NOT to share my own burden but to perhaps help someone feel safe to share theirs with someone. I wrote this so that others might be given a perspective they had not considered when assessing responses in others.
And now I want my shoes back….
If you are the survivor of a sexual assault and need help- there is help to be had. Here is a link to the National Sexual Assault hotline- which is free, confidential and available 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Or the number is 1-800-656-HOPE.