*First published by Wear Your Voice Magazine, April 18, 2017.*
It’s been almost a year since my “coming out” as a survivor of rape and sexual assault. The changes I’ve experienced have been remarkable.
(Content warning: discussion of rape.)
Just about a year ago, the Brock Turner/Stanford rape case hit the news because of his lenient sentencing and his father’s comments about the “20 minutes of action” that ruined his son’s life. In response, the survivor of his rape penned a powerful victim impact statement that brought home the far-reaching damage those 20 minutes did to her life and to everyone who loves her.
As I read, her letter I knew I could no longer be silent about what had happened to me. The lump of shame and silence I had carried for almost decades grew to the point where I couldn’t swallow, I couldn’t eat or drink, until I excised it with words.
Wear Your Voice was brave enough to publish my raw and unflinching account of the time I was sexually assaulted and almost lost my virginity to a known serial sexual predator, the many times I was raped and sexually abused by my first boyfriend, and the time my second boyfriend raped me because I was leaving him. I had never been so scared to speak these secrets I had carried for so long. What should have been these three males’ shame had transferred to me.
Inspired by Stanford’s Jane Doe, I took a deep breath and stepped into the light, that place where shame goes to wither and die. It’s been almost a year since my “coming out” as a survivor. The changes I’ve experienced have been remarkable.
1. I have fewer thoughts about self-harming and suicidal ideation.
When you carry so much secret trauma, it bubbles under your skin and needs outlets. When I had bouts of PTSD I would rake my nails across my body, as if that would let some of it out. I would sit for hours visualizing my suicide down to the last details. These things comforted me.
No longer are these my go-to coping methods. I still have secrets under my skin, but they are manageable for the moment. Life is different now that I’m not longer fixated on checking out or hurting myself because of other people’s violence. I’m fully present in my life. I might even be happy.
2. My stomach issues resolved.
It’s common for rape survivors to develop irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, Crohn’s Disease and other chronic stomach and gynecological ailments. In When the Body Says No, Dr. Gabor Maté links this to an unconscious clenching that happens in our midsection after the trauma of being physically violated in this way. While I do still find that I clench my belly when I’m stressed out, that is not the natural state of my insides anymore. I even poop better. I had no idea that the “simple” act of holding in and holding on to these horrible things that happened to me were affecting my biology in such horrible ways. It has been amazing to let that shit go, pun intended.
3. My sex life improved.
Because the bulk of the sexual abuse and rape I survived took place when I was 19 and 20, and with my first-ever long-term boyfriend, my sexuality and sexual development had been stunted. Sex frightened me. Being alone and naked with a man was a special and tailored kind of potential horror movie. And as much as I wished I could be, I’m not gay.
Sex became something I never really wanted to do. It became a means to an end: A hope that it would lead to the kind of intimacy I craved, a long-term relationship where sex didn’t necessarily have to be The Focus. Also, because I had already experienced so much violent trauma to my lady garden, the moment any kind of pain became part of the sex equation, I was immediately done. Worse, many times I’d force myself to grit through the pain, even though I wanted to stop. Sex was not something I enjoyed. It was an obligation, and often painful and triggering. The long-term sexual abuse had stunted more than just my sexuality.
But since I’ve “come out” as a survivor — and seen how loving and supportive my husband has been of my own healing even in such public spheres — sex has become something new for me. I have felt a kind of blossoming, an awakening in the aftermath of “coming out.” I actually initiate sex now, and not because I feel that it’s something my partner wants or needs. It is finally something I want and I need to share with him. And because I’m not clenching my midsection as a matter of course during the day, it’s much easier to engage in intercourse in a way that doesn’t hurt at all. We used to have this specific dialogue in order to relax my vaginismus enough move forward. Now I can’t even remember the last time that dialogue was necessary. Sometime around a year ago.
This side effect alone has been worth all the many emotions and internal debates I had about whether or not I should share my survivor’s story.
4. I no longer dwell on the abuse.
Writing and publishing my open letter to the Stanford survivor was like an exorcism. Before, these horrible things I was never supposed to speak about were always on my mind. And in my nightmares. They aren’t now. Case in point: When I found out April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, it took me two weeks to come up with my perspective — because I quite simply don’t spend all those hours and downtime and insomnia minutes reliving those horrors. They are separate from me now.
I survived monsters. I lived to tell. I have scars, but those scars do not define me. From “coming out,” I learned that they never will. I’m Wonder Woman. But real.
5. I’m more outspoken in a personal way.
I’ve always been an advocate for assault survivors, but without going into how personal the issue is for me. Now, when I hear someone saying stupid shit about rape survivors, domestic violence survivors and others who have been sexually abused, I will straight up bring my own story into it.
I’m not scared anymore. I don’t feel shame anymore. Because once I realized the shame I was carrying belonged to the males who fucked me without my permission, it was a weight off my soul. And the stunning thing is that every time I make it personal, it changes how the ignorant person I’m calling out responds to it. It humanizes the inhuman cruelty of sexual assault for them. It brings them into a place of empathy and compassion, instead of judgement.
Because I “came out” as a sexual assault survivor I now stand up for myself in ways that I never felt strong enough to before. I feel whole in new ways. I’ve finally internalized the fact that none of the “Big Bads” that happened to me were my fault. I guess it really does get better. I just had to shine a light on it first by saying it all out loud. And I highly recommend it to anyone who thinks they might be ready.