You too may be like me, a fellow rape survivor, essentially a member of a club that no one ever really plans on joining. As you probably know, this club is not really that elite. It is common knowledge that 1 in every 6 women has been sexually assaulted. If you have successfully survived the ordeal that is sexual assault, then by the dictionary definition of survivor if you “continue to function or prosper in spite of opposition, hardship, or setbacks,” you too may be able to count yourself as one.
I did not always realize the significance of the term ‘rape survivor.’ Not until almost a decade after my assaults occurred. It’s not uncommon for a sexual assault victim to suffer silently for years. In fact, 95% of rape victims never report their rape to officials. A victim’s repression of sexual assault is actually a very common occurrence. Often victims wait a decade or more before ever speaking about what happened. In my case, almost one full decade later, I finally had to deal with the assaults because as my life continued onwards it became less and less functional. I was always weighed down by this trauma whether I realized it or not. I began to resent the people around me. They didn’t understand my constant turmoil or why I seemed to be having issues. How could they understand? I’d never told them or anyone what happened.
After my ordeal, I’d heard the term ‘rape survivor’ in passing and identified with it. Of course, I considered myself a ‘rape survivor.’ I was here, still breathing, still talking, still living. Or was I? I’d survived. I went on with my life, sort of. Things were a little different though. I was barely making it through the day, which then turned into barely making it through the years. I hid behind a newly contrived persona, a protective armor, complete with canned reactions, sentences, and gestures which were prepared for any confrontation, harmless or offensive, for the purpose of not actually having to live in the moment and react to what was being said to me. Not to say I wasn’t a kind or pleasant person—nobody ever accuses a woman with Stepford wife qualities of being mean, merely vacant.
For years my automatic responses and cheerful false persona allowed me to remain emotionally unattached from others. They allowed me ruminate to my own space which was full of confusion and guilt. You could hardly call what I was doing living. I continued to run from the pain of the assault, the ambush, by way of a debilitating eating disorder, substance abuse, abusive relationships, unhealthy friendships, poor choices, and a variety of other bad habits.
Somehow in this mess I managed, though barely, to graduate from high school and college, still running full speed away from any real connections or forms of intimacy. I still participated in the hateful cycle of an eating disorder and other forms of self-abuse, inflicted on me by me. This continued until finally, I was forced to stop.
It began as a series of unfortunate accidents ensued, seemingly out of my control. I woke up to find the windows smashed out of my car, clearly a result of my latest relationship. My body began to give out on me from all the years of abuse and malnourishment. I almost died from pneumonia. I realized that many of my friendships were clearly toxic, and a lot of my friends were in fact trying to control me. Then finally, I left my job, because I just couldn’t stand pretending that I liked being there any longer.
For a few months, I tried to detoxify myself and make the best of my situation. I eliminated my toxic acquaintances, which turned into a fullblown revolution leaving few people standing. Then I tried hard to kick the last of my addictions, the one that I hadn’t been able to leave behind me—my eating disorder. I just couldn’t do it. It seemed impossible. Even when my lungs and major organs seemed to be threatened by this disease, I still couldn’t stop. It isn’t uncommon for rape victims to have addiction issues. Sexual assault victims are 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol, and 26 times more likely to abuse drugs than people who have not been sexually assaulted.
Then one night I read in a book that you must get to the root of an addiction to cure it. I paused for a moment. Root? Well, I’d already broken up with my abusive boyfriend. I’d stopped talking to my controlling friends. What else was there? Oh. I paused. There was that. I thought about it for a moment while looking around the room suspiciously, thinking of the painful secret I’d been harboring all these years. I knew what the book meant by root. It meant that I might have to tell someone about what happened.
The next morning, my whole family was conveniently snowed in. A blizzard had hit, and no one had been able to leave to go to work. Before I could tell my family, they heard me crying. I was scared to talk really. If I hadn’t been so afraid, I may have spoken sooner. They heard me crying and came to me, and then I told them. Then they were crying too.
The next day, I decided to go get help at the Rape Crisis Center, a fabulous non-profit organization that helps people who’ve been sexually assaulted. They assigned me a wonderful counselor. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have health insurance, because their services were free and open to the public. However, it was still very daunting as I sat in that waiting room on this cold February morning by myself. As I waited, I noticed a little poem on the bulletin board called The Survivor’s Psalm.
The Survivor’s Psalm
I have been victimized.
I was in a fight that was not a fair fight.
I did not ask for the fight.
There is no shame in losing such fights.
I have reached the stage of survivor.
And am no longer a slave of victim status.
I look back with sadness.
Rather than hate.
I look forward with hope rather than despair.
I may never forget but I need not constantly remember.
I was a victim.
I am a survivor.
As I read that poem I realized that considering myself a rape survivor was laughable. Up until this point I hadn’t been thinking like a survivor, but like a victim. I was a victim as I ran from addiction to addiction, numbing the pain, running from one abuser to the next, all the while barely getting what I needed to get done in life, going through the motions in zombie-like fashion. Certainly I was surviving, but I was barely a survivor. Every interaction with every person was plagued by my secret. I was always kind and helpful. I’d pretend to be cheerful, not wanting anyone to know how much I was really hurting. I didn’t want anyone to find out the truth, to find out what happened to me, because at the time, I was still blaming myself.
Soon I found that the three steps that must be realized to truly emerge from a sexual assault as a healthy, functioning survivor parallel the dictionary’s three definitions for the term.
1. A person or thing that survives. If you are still living and breathing after your assault, you have been lucky enough to survive, although you may not feel lucky. Many people don’t make it this far. Although it is difficult rebounding from a sexual assault, it is important to appreciate that you are still on this Earth for a reason.
2. Law. The one of two or more designated persons, as joint tenants or others having a joint interest, who outlives the other or others. This too is true. If you are still living and breathing, you are a survivor by this definition. You have outlived many. Many people who survive their assault, often die at their own hands through addiction or otherwise, forever tortured by their assault and never moving past it. Rape victims are four times more likely to contemplate suicide.
3. A person who continues to function or prosper in spite of opposition, hardship, or setbacks. This is the final and hardest part of meeting the definition of a survivor and will ultimately dictate how functional your life will be in the future. You must get past the pain in order to live out the dreams and goals you were meant to accomplish.
It was like a war zone, those last ten years. The last battle, the hardest, was getting away from myself. The old me. For the last decade I’d been existing on the level of the second definition of survivor, functioning, surviving, but not prospering or moving forward. I was always ready to turn to drink or food. From one negative friend to the next, each providing me with the right put-downs and the least acknowledgement, just enough to help keep me down in the place where I thought I belonged. The hardest part was admitting what happened, talking about it, and then grieving.
To be a survivor you must put your past in perspective and stop letting your past traumas weigh down your present life. All that unhealthy stuff and addiction I’d been going through all those years were just avoidance tactics. I used these tactics to avoid sitting down with someone to work through the pain. The thought of talking about and reliving those experiences was truly frightening. I guess I feared that stirring them up again would truly make me fall apart, as if I hadn’t already. When it happened I was so young that I kept my mouth shut because I was afraid that I would get in trouble. I guess somehow I still felt like I was the one who was going to be blamed, just like I did when I was a young naïve girl. Well, I guess sexual assault can do that to you, skew your perception of reality. In the end though, when I was sitting in the Rape Crisis Center’s waiting room, and I read that Psalm, I really did feel like a survivor, like a weight had finally been lifted off my shoulders and it was time to move on.
This is the first in a series of posts by Hayley about coping with sexual assault. Check back on July 7 to read more of her story.
Hayley Rose is a writer, photographer, artist, and jewelry designer. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing and a Studio Art minor from Johnson State College. She just finished her first novel, a work of literary fiction about a young woman’s attempt to find her place in this world. Visit her flickr page here.