taking back control after 20 years: a survivor’s story of teen dating violence and sexual assault

Trigger Warning. The following contains descriptions of rape, sexual assault and domestic violence.

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network 24 hour hotline: 800.656.HOPE

If you scroll through my Instagram feed, you might see me as a bubbly wedding planner with a big heart, an honest mother with charming kiddos, and a lucky gal whose husband is essentially a dashing, grown up Beaver Cleaver with a dry sense of humor. Picture perfect, right? But last month, I opened up to my social network about sexual assault trauma that I experienced when I was in high school. See what I did there, I was vague and referred to it as “sexual assault trauma” because I’m still not comfortable saying it directly. I was raped.

In my post, I intentionally simplified my assault story and implied that I was raped one time, by one person, however that is not the case. If you knew me when I was in high school, you might remember that I was “troubled” but you probably didn’t know why, because I didn’t really know why. I’ve touched on my personal experience in glancing  statements before digging into broader issues within society.

Rape culture is masterful in the way survivors feel we must blame ourselves and stay silent, which is exactly the hospitable environment that allows those abuses to continue, so I feel like I must speak out. I am finally beginning to unburden myself of the shame that I’ve been carrying for 20 years and it feels a bit like an out of body experience, like I’m writing about someone else, but it happened to me when I was 17. I’ve spent much of my adult life attempting to craft layers of polish to hide the trauma, but the broken pieces are still alive underneath, like an old textured wall covered by wallpaper and several coats of paint.

So, here it is; all of my broken pieces for everyone to see.

In high school, I struggled to fit in. I don’t pretend that many teenagers don’t similarly struggle, but my crippling case of low self-esteem was often all-consuming. My sense of self began to hinge on the validation of having a boyfriend and what that boyfriend thought of me. I’ve been re-reading old diaries and poetry from my formative years and revisiting memories with a focused lens, instead of the blurred perspective I had at the time. Many of my early relationships were full of coercion and actions that minimized my self-worth. The boy who broke up with me and immediately began going out with my friend, after I told him I wasn’t ready for him to put his hands up my shirt. The boyfriend who regularly belittled me in front of friends for the sake of a joke or in an attempt to assert some kind of intellectual upper hand, all while physically pressuring me in private. The jealous boyfriend who viewed me as his property. And then there was the older boy who I thought really saw me, but in reality he only saw me as an opportunity.

COERCION IS NOT CONSENT

After he pursued me, we dated for several weeks. I thought we were at the beginning of a long-term relationship, one where we would sit next to each other at family dinners, go for walks while holding hands, fall in love, and eventually my first time might be with him.

I remember the weirdest things about the weekend it happened. He took me to a place I had never been before, about 30 miles away from home and I only know this place now because of a distinctive architectural feature that is burned into my memory. I can’t tell you the exact date, but I remember getting gummy orange slices from a gas station and eating them in the car. I voluntarily went there with him and when it became clear that his expectation was that we take things further than we had before, I panicked. I was like a duck on the water – paddling frantically underneath while trying to remain calm on the surface. I think I was aware that this might have been his expectation all along, but ultimately, I was not ready to lose my virginity.

In that moment, I wasn’t sure what to do because I didn’t want to lose all of the promise I thought the future held. In that moment, I was worried about embarrassing him or being a disappointment. After all, my previous relationships taught me that my value as a person was contingent upon how a boyfriend saw me, so I stopped seeing myself. There’s a lot I don’t remember about those moments, but I remember shaking uncontrollably and the things I said in protest. I said, “But, I want my first time to be with someone who loves me and you don’t love me. You don’t love me.” I thought he would stop and say something like ‘we don’t have to if you’re not ready,’ or ‘let’s wait,’ but he said neither. I don’t remember how many times we went back and forth with this exchange or how it ultimately happened – it’s like I closed my eyes and detached from myself. I still shake now when I think about it.

consent_infographic_-_planned_parenthood

Via Planned Parenthood

I often minimize the experience, telling myself that he probably didn’t know what he was doing, though the act of taking me far away suggests otherwise. According to RAINN {the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network}, force, as it relates to rape, is defined as not simply physical pressure, but also “emotional coercion, psychological force or manipulation to coerce a victim into non-consensual sex.” RAINN also states that 7 out of 10 sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim, such as an intimate partner. Many survivors of sexual assault experience self-blame and denial as a coping mechanism and I still struggle to understand why I reacted the way I did.

I didn’t think sexual assault looked like this so it just didn’t occur to me. It didn’t occur to me that while I didn’t scream the word “NO,” I did not freely consent and his disregard of my protest fits the definition of date rape. I just knew I felt violated and uncomfortable, but I thought it was my fault for so many reasons. My fault for going to that place with him, consenting to other things, not leaving, not fighting and being confused. And when he wanted more, I obliged because I thought if I was congenial, we could still have that relationship I envisioned. If he became my boyfriend, then it would make it all okay and I could rewrite the story. Instead, the whispers began at school and a few people even called me a “slut” in the hallway and the girls locker room. And then he was gone. My fault.

CYCLE OF ABUSE + SHAME

In an effort to find stability a few months later, I got back together with an ex-boyfriend. The jealous one. He told me that he was the only one who could ever really understand me or love me, but that love was conditional, because he couldn’t be with me if I didn’t do with him what I had done with someone else. I owed him a debt. My fault. Even when he actually said that his goal was to physically hurt me so I wouldn’t forget ‘where he had been,’ it was my fault. When things turned violent he never hit me, so I convinced myself that it was okay, but it wasn’t love, it was ownership.

My memories of the abuse aren’t linear and we frequently broke up and got back together, so I don’t know in what order each assault took place or the events that lead to them. In fact, I can’t pinpoint if any of it started during the first part of our relationship, when I was 16. Once during English class, I laughed at another boy’s joke, so he scowled at me from across the room and after class, quietly walked me to an empty stairwell and shoved me against the beige cinderblock wall, before hissing that I was an embarrassment and a slut. Once we were fighting in my kitchen, during open campus lunch, and he tossed me to the floor near the breakfast nook. In another fight, he slammed me into a built-in spice cabinet with a tiny knob that sent a searing pain into my spine between my shoulders. Most of the assaults took place in my own house while my mom was at work. I would often go on “cleaning binges” and rearrange my bedroom furniture, as though I could clear the slate, and most nights I slept next to my mom to feel safe. She desperately tried to pull me back from the edge, but I was ashamed so I hid the abuse from my parents, community and friends. I internalized all of the horrible things he said. I was a whore, I was dumb, I wasn’t pretty and I was nothing without him. I stopped eating much and got so thin that my French teacher brought in a scale to weigh me before class each week. Toward the end of our relationship, he was simultaneously involved with another girl and would tell me the details of their intimate activity, saying that if I really loved him, I would try harder. I don’t think I ever would have voluntarily left him, despite months of heartache and utter degradation, so our relationship ended when he chose her.

I was absolutely shattered and legitimately thought I would never deserve anything more. So, I cried for help, in the form of a handful of Advil, and voluntarily walked into a mental health hospital, hoping for a reprieve. After feeling unsafe and un-helped, my mom got them to release me sometime after 10:00 PM a few days later. As we drove home, we listened to Cher and we talked about how things were going to get better. I was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety, but I never divulged the reality of any of the abuse in therapy.

With all of the therapy I received, NOT ONE professional ever explored my relationship history – I was just a broken girl with depression and low self-esteem, who was devastated by a breakup. I didn’t get the help I needed. 

Almost 1.5 million high school students experience relationship violence each year, yet only 33% report. That’s approximately 1 million victims of domestic violence who don’t say a word every year. Half of these young victims of both relationship violence and rape attempt suicide. Based on the statistics, I couldn’t have been the only one in my school: One in three teens reports knowing a peer who has been physically hurt by a partner, while 45% of teenage girls report knowing a peer who has been sexually assaulted.

teen-dating-violence1

ON THE OTHER SIDE

In the next year, I firmly cut ties with my abuser, but still desperately looked for solace and stability in other relationships. I cut my hair in a pixie cut, phased off the anti-depressants and stopped going to therapy. I was still drowning in shame, so I threw myself into music, got active in a local youth group, and prepared to go to the Big Ten university in my hometown. What I needed was a fresh start.

It was on the floor of my freshman dorm room when I was 19, that I finally began to realize what had happened to me. I recounted my relationship experiences in rather intimate detail to my new best friend and roommate, when she explained that what I had experienced was date rape and assault. I thought she was crazy, but something about this acknowledgement changed everything and I started to find myself. When I was 21, I ran into the boy who raped me 30 miles from home four years earlier and he insisted on taking me out for ice cream to apologize. Ultimately, the fresh start of college wasn’t fresh enough, so just before my 22nd birthday I cut my hair again, cut ties with almost everyone who knew me in high school, changed my phone number and transferred to a school in Chicago. Less than a year after my move, I was sitting in the passenger seat next to my new boyfriend, who would later become my husband, when I received an unexpected phone call from my abuser. He had a singular purpose in getting in touch after five years – to extend an apology.

The uncanny thing is that they both said the exact same thing when they apologized. They each said “I’m sorry for everything I put you through.” I wonder how much they were actually apologizing for. Was the first vague “everything” only meant to cover the messy aftermath that left me isolated and labeled a slut; was the second for the thumbprint bruises on my arms and the humiliation? Looking back on the details of how it all unfolded, I wonder if they each targeted me because I was particularly vulnerable. Did either realize that what happened between us was not consensual, or did they both think that they just successfully “convinced” me. {Pro Tip: if you have to convince someone, that is not consent.} Did their apologies give them absolution or have they lived their lives with the same ghosts that have haunted me for two decades? Will either of them read this, recognizing themselves and be shocked at their impact on my life? *These are all rhetorical questions. Please don’t contact me. I don’t really need these answers. It’s okay.*

HEALING + ACCEPTANCE

Soon after the final apology, I finally told both of my parents what I had experienced, I did a senior project about my trauma and then I packed it away. Three years after my move to Chicago, when I was 25, a friend/roommate suddenly passed away. In my grief, I physically felt that sharp pain between my shoulders from the spice cabinet knob, so I sought help. In those therapy sessions, we focused mostly on the grieving process but when I briefly addressed my relationship history, I felt ashamed, so I stopped going to therapy, neatly packed my trauma back into its vault and threw another few coats of paint and polish on top of it. I continued building my career, got married when I was 27, became a mother just before my 31st birthday and kept moving forward. Life happened, so now I am 37 and I’ve never really addressed my trauma with a therapist. In the last two and a half years, I’ve experienced panic attacks stemming from the onslaught of headlines about sexual assault and the embodiment of rape culture by public figures and political leaders.

Trauma changes the way your body responds to stress and certain triggers. Studies have found that cortisol levels were more elevated in survivors of rape, in comparison to survivors of other types of trauma. Other studies have shown that rape survivors experience higher rates of PTSD than combat veterans. Triggers for rape survivors are pervasive and the very nature of how society treats those who speak out is in stark contrast to the lack of accountability for perpetrators. My trauma fully came to the surface in 2016, though I didn’t appreciate how profoundly it was affecting me at the time. I unceremoniously decided that I was done living my life consumed by making other people comfortable to my own detriment.

For years, I ceded control of my life by hiding from my trauma and trying to fit into a mold of who I thought I should be. When I stopped pretending that I was a polished version of myself, it had a dramatic impact across all aspects of my life: I lost a few friends, but solidified other friendships and gained many new ones grounded in authenticity. I quit my job, but then I started a business and have never been happier and I’m doing some of my best work. Just a few weeks ago, I finally unfriended my abuser on Facebook, though I’m not sure why I accepted the friend request years ago in the first place. I’ve learned a lot about behaviors of survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence – we take both healthy and unhealthy steps to regain control in our lives.

Speaking openly and accepting my experience as a part of who I am, is the healthiest thing I’ve ever done and doing so in such a public way is just another step of taking back control.

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories.” – Anne Lamott

I don’t need to simply be an insta-ready version of myself so I’m learning to love the broken pieces too and I won’t allow them to define me. It now feels like there is a reckoning to be had and I believe if we shine a light on our experiences, then we can start to breakdown the system of silence that allows rape and abuse to continue. Even though I may not know you, thank you for helping me break the silence and take back control.

 

light

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

RAINN: 800.656.4673

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800.799.7233

One Love: 10 Signs of an Unhealthy Relationship {All 10 of these applied in my case}

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence: Teen Dating Abuse and Violence Stats

Pacific Standard: Lifelong Consequences of Rape {duplicate reference, because it’s that good}

Futures Without Violence {another duplicate reference}

CDC: Teen Dating Violence

2 thoughts on “taking back control after 20 years: a survivor’s story of teen dating violence and sexual assault

  1. Colette Clancy says:

    Thank you for sharing….I so admire you for your bravery and honesty.

    “The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” Hemingway

    You are so strong to me. XOXO Colette

    Like

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