The hardships we face in life emerge when we least expect them to and have the ability to eternally change who we are. For the unfortunate people who are well acquainted with life’s darker side, it can be difficult to find normalcy after the chaos. The things that cause us to stray from our traditional ways vary from person to person; sometimes it’s the death of a loved one, other times it’s moving to an unfamiliar city. Alongside these varying experiences are the differing approaches we take to try and move on. For me, sexual assault was the hardship in my life that shook my normalcy loose. The experience changed who I am, and at one point, I was convinced that I would never be able to let go of the memories that at the time defined who I was. I thought I’d be forever searching for that feeling of “normal” again, but eventually, I was able to let go and a new normal was found.
I can’t say exactly how long it takes us to let go of terrible experiences, but it took me around a year-and-a-half. I don’t think that I’ve fully said goodbye to the memory (I don’t think humans are capable of doing that), but I have, however, moved on from that part of my life because the story of my sexual assault no longer defines who I am.
It might take a few months, many years, therapy sessions, weeks of depression or weeks of joy, but it is possible to stand up and walk away from traumatic experiences like sexual assault. I’d like to share my story in hopes that it might give guidance and reassurance to those who need it, because I know I did.
It was during the spring of 2014 in Chicago. My life was pretty stable and fun; I had a caring boyfriend, school was going well and I lived with two of my closest friends. That semester I had an algebra class at 5 p.m., and about an hour before class I decided to walk to the gas station around the corner from my apartment to buy food and a drink. Nothing seemed off to me besides the fact that it was freezing and practically hailing in April. But that’s when it happened. On my walk home, in broad daylight, a stranger in a black jacket pushed me into an open garage, held a knife to my throat, and robbed and sexually assaulted me. In less than one minute, my life was jolted into an unrecognizable mess.
That part of my life felt like a rollercoaster. I pushed my boyfriend away until our relationship ended; I drank heavily and often; the sound of someone walking behind me on the street terrified me; sometimes I was angry; I had horrible dreams every night; I felt alone no matter how much people tried to console me. I wouldn’t even let myself cry about what had happened. And, although at the time denial seemed like the best way to deal with the problem, I could tell that I wasn’t moving forward from the experience or healing in any way. The only time I felt comfortable talking about what happened was at school with one of my professors. I have no idea why my mind chose her as a support, but it did. She was one of the first people I truly talked to about the assault; I remember arriving to class early to meet her on a bench, and when we sat down it poured out of me. It was unexpected, but I was fortunate enough to have found someone who I could speak to, knowing there would be no judgments.
The following autumn, something inside me changed. I dropped out of school for the semester, and, with the help of my professor, I began seeing a therapist. I talked and wrote about the assault all the time. Even the nightmares tapered off. The memory of the assault was always on my mind but I didn’t feel the need to escape like I had before. I opened my arms and began to bond with the experience. From then on, the healing process was a clear path that I could see, and although the path wasn’t always straight and sometimes curved, I kept walking.
I learned that the healing process is nothing short of a confusing and scary journey, but at the end of the road there is something waiting– something better and beautiful and strong and healthy.
To those who have experienced similar types of trauma, remember to do these things:
Accept what happened: It’s hard to avoid denial after a trauma; it’s the brain’s easiest way to comprehend the experience without overwhelming you. Something my friend said to me that helped me accept what happened was, “It’s not you; it’s something that happened to you.” I found that it’s easier to find peace with an experience when you separate yourself from it.
Find support: Whomever it ends up being, you need to find the person who makes you feel comfortable and heard. I’m not talking specifically about a support group, either. My first supporting friend was a teacher. Yours could be a therapist, a sibling, whomever.
Let yourself feel: It doesn’t matter if no one else understands why you don’t cry or why you’re so pissed off all the time. Allow yourself to feel your true emotions. Don’t fight them.
Find someone who can truly relate: The first time I felt 100 percent understood was when I read the book Lived Through This by Anne K. Ream. Even though I didn’t have a personal relationship with the author or the people who shared their stories of trauma in the book, it was the first time I felt a connection with another survivor. Try to find someone who went through what you went through. It feels good to be fully understood.
Don’t rush: Just because it’s been three years doesn’t mean you should be over your experience. It takes time. Have patience with yourself and your emotions. And don’t ever let someone tell you that you “should be over it by now.”
Know that you are not alone: It can feel like we are totally alone on our journeys, even when family and friends surround us, but we’re not. There are others who know what you’re experiencing, and the ones who love you really do care.
Lastly, don’t believe you can’t heal. When you’re emotionally ready, you will be able to move on.
Also by Marlee: A Mantra That Changed My Life
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Photo: Michael Hull via Unsplash