Sexual assault: my first story

*** TRIGGER WARNING*** 

Things get broken, sometimes forever...

A new documentary came out last week on Netflix. Audrie and Daisey, a story of teen girls surviving (and not surviving) sexual assault. I'm always a little weary of watching these stories, because I am not exactly sure how my insides will react. I might feel nothing, or experience a rush of images that I can't shake for days. You might call it a crap shoot. In this case, I was willing to gamble with the hopes this film would provide an insightful and "true to life" depiction of what it feels like to survive something so personally invading, that it would be seen by the masses, and de-stigmatize all the blame that goes on. Like "she was asking for it," or "she was dressed the wrong way."  I'm not sure if that hope was entirely quenched, but it did a wonderful job at telling a story about how a teen's innocence can change in a moment, and things get broken. Sometimes forever.

One day I'm a person, the next- I'm someone to be cat-called to...

Being a girl is a challenge. One moment, you're little, playing with Barbies and giggling about boys in your class, and the next your body totally betrays you. Puberty marks an unfortunate change for many young girls. In essence, you're still a child, but your body announces to the world that you're much older. With this, comes attention of all varieties. One day I'm a person, the next- I'm someone to be cat-called to. It doesn't compute. Some of the attention was exciting at first. I mean, I was the essence of an ugly duckling. As a child, I was chubby and awkward. Then, somewhere between 12-14, I became something of a young woman- taller and less weird, without the metal mouth. People started telling me I was pretty. It was a welcome change from the chanting "fat slurs" at me during recess. I soaked it up. Who wouldn't? I didn't know there could ever be something dark there. My head was full of 90's power ballads and expressions of romance through Shakespeare's prose. Boys didn't seem to be a threat. At their worst, they were just insensitive and oblivious. At their best- they might dish out left-handed flattery by accident. The only depiction of sexual violence I had seen in my life was a Little House on the Prairie episode, where a girl was attacked by a masked man in a barn. I had no reason to think I was at risk. 

 Little House on the Prairie season 7, Episode: 17, Sylvia (Part 1).

Little House on the Prairie season 7, Episode: 17, Sylvia (Part 1).

My friend had left, and he offered to drive me home...

In the 90's, everything cool was associated with grunge fashion, depression, mosh pits, and long hair. Or at least the crowd I hung with. There was a trashy music venue downtown that looked a lot like the bathroom scene in Trainspotting. Nirvana played there before their big break, and homeless teen junkies would hang out on the sidewalk panhandling, and begging for smokes. One weekend night, my good friend (at the time) told me she wanted to meet a love interest at a gig there, and he was bringing a friend for me. I didn't care at all about this unknown boy, but when I met him I thought he was cute enough. He had long blonde hair, and dressed kind of cool. He was raised somewhere like Sweden, or Denmark. I don't know- where blondes come from. He had an odd name that seemed mysterious, and he gave me attention. We watched the band for a few hours, when I went to visit the bathroom. Upon my return, blondie boy informed me that my friend had left, and he had offered to drive me home. It made me uncomfortable and kind of mad, but I chose to hope for the best. 

It was aggressive and unwelcome...

I wasn't familiar with downtown because my parents never drove there. One way streets made my mom nervous. I didn't know landmarks, or directions. Now-a-days I could find my way through downtown blindfolded, but not on this night. The boy led me down dark allies, stating it was "faster" to his van. I was a kid. I didn't know what to do or how to challenge him. I didn't have a voice. He had just bought these Doc Martin boots that laced up his calf, and they squeaked with every step he took. That sound just echoed down the empty dark alley when she slammed me against a brick wall- out of nowhere. It was aggressive and unwelcome. I tried to shove him off of me, but my 95 pound frame was nothing but an annoying gnat to swat at. He pressed himself against me with intention and shoved his tongue in my mouth. I remember thinking- I can't believe this is happening to me. I'm so stupid. How can I be here? I'm not sure how, or why a police officer was walking down the alley at this moment, but he interrupted this scene to ask me if I was OK. In retrospect, he should have asked for ID's, because I was just a freshman and the boy with squeaky boots was much older. I said he was supposed to be driving me home, and we were walking to his van. The officer encouraged us to get moving. My body was hurt from his violent attempts-everywhere, and I was beyond shaken. I was fearful of the ride home. That he would attack me again. But he didn't- yet. 

Romance doesn't hurt my body, or feel like fear...

Women hurt each other. I don't think it's always a conscientious effort, but the outcome is the same. My "friend" (I use the term loosely) dug for juicy details when she called me the next day. I told her what happened, embarrassed and pained. She minimized it, stating that she had already talked to him and he totally liked me. She said that I had misinterpreted his actions, that he was just attracted to me, and interested in getting to know me better. My intuition told me she was full of it. That romance doesn't actually hurt my body or feel like fear. This is where things get hazy in the world of sexual assault. In my wheelhouse, I believed sexual assault was the act of intercourse or rape. It seemed to me, that if anything else happened, it was mostly my fault  for putting myself in that situation, and to thank my lucky stars that it wasn't worse. It was literally decades before I was able to accept the larger umbrella it represents. According to the Department of Justice, sexual assault can be defined  as any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities such as forced sexual intercourse, incest, fondling, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, and attempted rape. This definition is clear, I was absolutely assaulted. How could I actually not know? Well, in my young teen head, I was trying to navigate this new world of interpersonal relationships with teen boys. I had the skewed belief that other people had good intentions. I was a kind and optimistic (so far) person, and why wouldn't other people treat me the same way? 

Charm incarnate...

This "friend" started to lay into me, that I was frigid. That I should just calm down and give him a chance, to get together with him again and see how it went. I can't express to you how much other people's opinions matter at this age. He had been calling my house and trying to charm me. I started to believe that my memory of that night was somehow wrong. Perhaps I had given him some signal that I wanted him to do that. I mean, it's not like he raped me or anything. I didn't want to be frigid. So I asked him to go to the homecoming bonfire at my school. It was going to be a crowded place, with my friends all around. It was safe. I would have a chance to get to know him and make a better judgement about his character. He picked me up and my house, shook my parent's hands, he was literally charm incarnate. When we arrived at the bonfire, I felt safe and special to have this older cute guy with me. I let my guard down. I started to relax, enjoy the evening and all the school spirit oozing from the masses. This was a time to create memories related to awkward dates, first kisses, and embrace trust- in a hopeful future. He was a different person. He was innocently flirtatious, and made me laugh. He shared some vulnerability with me about his family and recent hardships. I felt for him. We were walking around the campus talking- away from the bonfire, and the crowd.  

My stomach sunk...

Before I had a chance to notice, we had walked into a dark area behind the janitor's shed. No one would be able to see me, or hear me over that crowd in the distance. My stomach sunk. He took his shot- and attacked me. In this honest place of reflection, I find it hard to write the words down to explain the events that took place. Though this happened decades ago, the nature of trauma itself keeps things fresh- like it's vacuum sealed in my head. I don't like the way it makes me feel to remember. The events, the way I felt after, the pain my body experienced and hid- from everyone. The silence that choked me into very dark place that I inhabited for years. The core beliefs I created about myself that continued to perpetuate over my lifetime. I invited him to the bonfire. Even after what had happened before. I felt entirely responsible, foolish, ashamed, tainted- so small. This was 1992. I held my silence about these events until 2008.

Imagine a rabid dog-that was me...

In grad school, I worked for the university, in the housing department. This was a great deal for me because I got free rent for my daughter and I, and I also loved the culture of living on campus. Every semester, we would go through training about how to manage emergencies that happen on college campus'. You know- suicide attempts, drug overdoses, fights, and sexual assault. I had handled most of these situations already, and been through all the trainings multiple times. This particular day, the counseling center decided to talk about sexual assault. I was fine with it. That is, until some 20 year old girl decided to say, "Sometimes it's the girl's fault though- she leads a guy on, or dresses slutty. I mean, what does she think is going to happen?" Enter trauma trigger. Holy hell. I lost my damn mind in front of a huge crowd of students. I couldn't breathe. I felt like I was having a heart attack, like I needed to fight for my life, and could have easily ripped someone's face off if they came near me. Imagine a rabid dog. That was me. I ran to the bathroom snotting and screaming- gasping for air. My housing team came after me- trying to put me together. I couldn't stop repeating- "It wasn't my fault. It wasn't my fault. I didn't ask for that. He didn't have the right." Yes, I got the help I needed. It was overdue, but not too late. 

Last summer, I was in a Verizon store with my daughter waiting for salesperson to help me. Someone was staring at me from across the store. It was him. Here I am, over twenty years later- looking at my attacker. He smiled at me, tried to start small talk. He was there with his small daughter, running around, inpatient. This man (if you can call him that), takes care of a child. He has a thriving business in this town. His life went on untainted. He even tried to friend me on Facebook. As I sit here writing, I'm looking at my sweet daughter playing Minecraft across the table from me, and I feel deeply overwhelmed with the desire to protect her from the ugliness that exists in the world. The truth is, 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted. The statistics are staggering. I will do anything to protect this child. I will tell my story. I will sit with the ugliness as I write these words. I called this my first story, because there are others. Many, I'm unable to tell. As a therapist, I hear too many stories of personal violation. Trauma. Woman and men. We can all be hurt by others. It's taken me so long to understand the importance of breaking the silence. To let go of shame and owning responsibility when someone else hurt me. That's not mine anymore. I offer myself compassion and tenderness. I've dedicated my life to offering this to others as well. From the pages of my history book, will come a harvest of healing. This life is quite a journey, and I am blessed daily- to take another step. 

If you need help coping with your own story, don't hesitate to reach out:

RAINN: 1-800-656-HOPE national sexual assault hotline 24/7 help available.

Suicide prevention hotline: 1-800-273-8255 

Be Well,

AM