Before you read this article, I want to provide you with a content warning if you are someone who might be affected by reading about sexual assault. I wrote this article after I got to a point where I stopped blaming myself. Through it, however, I work through my own negative and destructive experience with graphic self-blame. So if you’re someone who can relate, I hope reading this can help you — but please make sure you’re at a place where you feel like it will help and not hurt you.
Two years ago, I wrote an article identifying myself as a victim of childhood sexual molestation. When I wrote that article, it had been 12 years since the first incident and six years since the second. Still, I felt like a victim. Not a survivor. Not yet at least.
It wasn’t that I intentionally avoided the word “survivor.” I just didn’t put it and my identity together. In some part of my mind, I felt like I hadn’t overcome it yet, like I was still holding on to so much, like I was still the victim cowering in denial. Writing that article was a step out of that denial — making it public and putting it out in the open for the world to see.
And as soon as I did, the messages started flooding my inbox. People supported me, they told me about their experiences, they wanted me to know I could come to them if I ever needed to. They leaned on me. Over the years since that article, people close to me have felt more and more comfortable sharing these dark pieces of their past with me, because the darkest piece of mine was already cast into the light. Often, I felt like I wasn’t ready.
What made me capable of helping? Why did I deserve to know? Why did I deserve your trust? Why me?
But people kept reaching out, and as they did, I tried my best just to listen. I never felt like I could help. How could I? For 12 years, I couldn’t even help myself. For three years, I let my abuser occupy the same space as me. He was in my house. He was in my room. And I did nothing. I was in very real danger, and I just shrank into my own denial, where it was comfortable.
So I did all I could. I listened. As you blamed yourselves, I convinced you not to. I convinced you it was them and not you. It couldn’t have been you. You never asked for this. And I got really good at listening.
That’s how “On Their Own” started. People would just come to me. Reading my article from sophomore spring, they knew I’d understand, so they’d talk to me and I’d listen. And slowly, I started to see a pattern. Reporting at this school was re-traumatizing people who had experienced sexual violence. So I explored it.
Eight sources. Three months. People would talk, and I would listen. I’d hold my own emotions in while they told their stories because I didn’t want to make it harder for them to talk about it. I’d listen, I’d be a mirror for them. Back home and on my way back from those interviews, I’d break down.
The weekend “On Their Own” came out was one of the worst of my life. A lot of other things went wrong, so it was a disaster on its own, but to top it all off, I experienced one of the strongest and most graphic flashbacks I’d ever had. The images started coming back to me — in pieces at first and then whole in all of their jarring detail.
Eventually, I got through it. I pushed those images back, deep into my mind where no one could find them, not even me. And at the same time, I felt like I had to do something to help people going through similar things.
I joined TurnAround and became a Victim Advocate. I staffed the helplines and I started to talk people through different stages in their coping with sexual or domestic violence. I remember countless conversations when I would sit there in my room at 4 a.m. and convince people that it wasn’t their fault, that eventually it would get better, that they just needed to trust themselves.
And all that time, I don’t think I ever managed to convince myself. There was one particular call one night that lasted 32 minutes, I remember. After it, I couldn’t go back to sleep for two hours. Swimming around my head, there was the voice I’d been trying to block out for so long.
You should have seen the signs. Why were you so stupid? How could you let it happen? How could you let it get this bad? How could you let him keep touching you for days, for weeks, when you’d already been through this five years ago? When you knew you should have said something, why did you have to keep your mouth shut? Why did you let it get that bad? Why were you so goddamn stupid?
It’s weird. When you’re trained to work with survivors, you’re told to do everything you can to give them the sense of control that was taken from them. But what I was doing to myself was strange. I was taking the control away from him. In my memories of the past, I was giving that control back to myself. And in the present, I was wrenching it away from myself.
I always reported on sexual violence, worked with people who experienced it, and without hesitation, I referred to them as survivors unless they self-identified otherwise. But I never did that for myself.
Eight-year-old me — I forgave her. She didn’t know. She didn’t even understand what was happening to her. Thirteen-year-old me, though, I never did. She knew. She could have escaped the situation months before it escalated. But she didn’t. And she’s the reason I’m paranoid. She’s the reason I get into a cab with a male driver and immediately map out my escape route. She’s the reason I go to a male professor’s office hours and sit as close to the door as I can, so I can run if he touches me. She’s the reason I’m always scared. She’s the reason I have trust issues. It’s all her fault.
But you know what, I think it’s time I gave her a break. I think it’s time I forgave her. She deserves every ounce of support I give everybody else. Because she survived, in the best way she possibly could.
So I stopped asking myself why I let it happen and instead I tried to ask myself why he would do that; why he would do that to a child; why he would do that to anybody. I don’t think I’m ever going to find an answer for that. But I think if nothing else, I can start to call myself a survivor.