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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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

not okay 

Fall is in full swing and I haven’t written a blog post since August. This summer was particularly intense for a lot of us, with the election and so many social issues catching fire. I have been in a season of serious soul searching and have mostly steered clear of my blog of late. But right now, I need to write and share about an important subject that has recently gained traction. I need to connect.

We all heard Donald Trump boasting about his fame affording him the ability to do whatever he wants with women and “grab them by the pussy” and I’m not sure many of us were shocked. Appalled, disgusted and angry, but not shocked. I’ve heard a number of people, including the offender himself, repeatedly say that these are “just words” and they have assigned it the charming label, “locker room talk.” As many of us know all too well, these are not just words.

We are talking about real actions of assault and violation. It was real for me when I was grabbed in the “pussy” by a famous baseball star.

{Using this word absolutely makes me cringe, but let’s be consistent with the language that triggered this discussion. As I’ve said before about other topics, getting uncomfortable with the things we discuss is the best way to change the status quo, so I guess that’s true of the vernacular within the discussion itself.}

I was a 22 year old waitress and college student. I had just moved to Chicago from my small town roots and was still finding my footing but thought a job at a sports bar in my well-lit, populated neighborhood was a safe bet. Like every other young woman I knew, I regularly secured my keys between my knuckles when I walked home alone – I thought that was the most likely time and place for an assault, so I was on my guard at all times.

I’ll never forget that night the Cubs clinched the division and the infamous slugger who thought it was okay to do whatever he wanted with my body, as I served him the drink he’d ordered. I shot him a horrified look and hit his hand away from between my legs. Without flinching or skipping a beat, he did it a second time, this time even more aggressively. I hit his hand again and bolted.

This is where the story gets even better. I went straight to the manager, a nice guy who always looked out for the waitresses and bartenders when customers got aggressive or inappropriate. How quaint and naive of me to think that he would be equally horrified and kick him out, because guys had been kicked out for much less in the past. But this wasn’t just any random guy. The manager said, “there isn’t anything I can do because he’s a celebrity.” And there you have it.

Men in power think they can get away with whatever they want because they CAN.

This power doesn’t just apply to famous men. Men can gain power over women in other ways. For instance: The college professor who regularly ogled me and touched me inappropriately while I was seated at my desk or handing in an assignment – but he was my teacher and elder. The former boyfriend who sexually assaulted me and left both physical and emotional bruises – but he was my boyfriend. Sure, I could have filed a complaint against the professor or broken up with the boyfriend much sooner, but I felt powerless and afraid. I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers or make the situation worse. The idea that women do not have agency over their own bodies is rape culture. Sometimes rape culture is actual rape and assault and other times it’s an unwelcome touch or demeaning language, whether in or outside of the presence of a woman. This culture leads to offenders like Brock Turner and those who justified his actions and lightened his sentence.

Rape culture goes further, with the overwhelming emphasis on making oneself desirable and sexy in the eyes of a man. There are entire magazines devoted to teaching young women and girls 27 ways to blow his mind and a step by step guide to make sure you successfully transform yourself to fit his idea of what you should look like, what you should wear, how you should act and who you should be, because only then will you have value. For your convenience, 45-51% of those magazines are ads for the products that will help you to achieve the goal of desirable vixen. It took me years to deprogram myself from that mentality. What’s more, because my husband never asked me to change anything about my appearance and never expected me to fit this mold that I had learned, I thought something must be wrong when we were first dating.

Watching this campaign has been difficult for many of us and has elicited a visceral response in me. That response has only grown more intense as the insults and “othering” have compounded, but it wasn’t until I read a piece about domestic abuse victims being triggered by Trump and his campaign, that it finally hit me: for months, this has been a trigger for me as well and I didn’t even realize it. I just thought I was going mildly crazy. Watching him has made me feel raw, vulnerable and absolutely terrified. It’s made me angry, it’s made me want to hide and it’s made me want to fight back. I’ve had panic attacks and one utter meltdown.

There was a 33% increase in calls to the National Sexual Assault Hotline with domestic violence and sexual assault survivors being triggered by Trump during the second presidential debate and the onslaught of media coverage of the Access Hollywood tape. Liz Plank with Vox, posted an excellent video {highly recommend!} that went viral on social media last week. Plank concisely illustrates why Trump isn’t actually a bully, as he is often described, but that he has consistently exhibited many classic traits of an abuser, such as gaslighting, humiliation, deflection and making threats.

Writer, Kelly Oxford asked women to tweet her about their first assaults 10 days ago. She has since received millions of tweets from women, describing their experiences with sexual assault.



There is now widespread acknowledgment for this broadly defined culture of disrespect and abuse, that we have been taught to shrug off because it’s just the way things are. Women are voicing their outrage with the realization that it is not actually their fault. Men share in this outrage, but several men have associated their outrage with the chivalrous need to defend their wives, daughters, mothers and sisters. Rather, shouldn’t men be outraged, not for the sake of women but for the sake of human dignity? Not outrage on behalf of women, but also on behalf of men. Last night, my husband said that it is easy for a man to be outraged when thinking about this culture and its effect on his own loved ones, but the next step is to go beyond that personal scope and feel that same level of outrage when considering the impact of rape culture on society at large. Further still, to feel outrage for the boys who are taught these behaviors in the first place.

The resounding message from so many voices telling their stories, is that it is no longer our burden to carry this shame. Let the shame fall to those who perpetuate rape culture and those who deny dignity to women. It is not okay. We can and MUST do better.

 

If you are a survivor of sexual assault, please visit RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) for support.

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800.656.HOPE

get over it: anxiety

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Flying: one of my biggest sources of anxiety. Panic attack level anxiety. I absolutely love to travel so I don’t let it keep me from flying!

More than 20 years ago, I was formally diagnosed with anxiety. When it got really bad in high school, I felt broken. I worked very hard to overcome it and I came out on the other side feeling like a stronger and much more complete person. That’s it, right? Buh-bye anxiety!!! Not so fast, honey.

A few months ago, I realized that I never really “got over it.” Struggling with anxiety is one of those things that once you start talking about, you quickly realize you’re in good company. That said, it doesn’t come up often and can be a bit of a taboo topic, but apparently I like writing about taboo topics, so why not!

I think anxiety is something you never really get over but that you learn coping mechanisms, whether or not you’re conscious that you’re doing it. My coping mechanisms have taken a hit since I became a mother, so my anxiety has been sneaking up on me a bit more than usual. Thanks to my two littles, I am waaaay too tired to stay up into the wee hours cleaning the house, organizing and reorganizing. Taking time for yoga has also fallen by the wayside. The internet says that getting enough sleep is important for keeping anxiety in check, so it’s probably safe to add that to my list! Combine these changes with some environmental stressors and you have a perfect recipe for your pot to boil over.
Anxiety manifests itself differently for everyone and it’s a perfectly normal response to stress. However, for some people it can color even neutral experiences. Some days, I feel anxious about the normal things that everyone feels anxious about and other days, it doesn’t feel so normal. Each person has different anxiety triggers. For me, it seems to be connected to the ability to control my surroundings and being in environments where I feel comfortable enough to be myself.

My husband brought up a really interesting point the other day – I have built my career around what can be one of the most stressful times in life, but planning weddings isn’t an anxiety trigger for me. One would think that my nerves would be through the roof with the responsibilities of a wedding planner, but I’m cool, calm and collected. Now the stress over work/life balance is another thing entirely, but the actual wedding planning process is almost relaxing. I think that’s because it’s my job to plan, to organize, to control what can be controlled. {All the love, pretty things, creativity and the warm and fuzzies probably don’t hurt either!}

Writing this blog has been helpful, for a few reasons:

  1. The writing process, in and of itself, is therapeutic, especially when I write about things that feed my anxiety.
  2. Posting those writings in a public forum is a great way to connect with people who can relate or who appreciate my perspective, so there’s no longer room to feel alone with my thoughts. It gives me a voice when I feel my voice is lost.
  3. Writing publicly and putting it all out there keeps me accountable to myself. It keeps me from floating back to my old habit of trying to be someone else in an effort to fit in and be liked.
  4. Writing about things that I love helps me to focus on the fun adventures in life and give those things emphasis.

So, for anyone who has ever wondered why I write publicly about personal things and touchy subjects, in addition to the fun stuff, there you have it. Life isn’t all fluff and prettiness for anyone. Part of being real is acknowledging and learning from the less than pretty. When I started this blog, I set out to keep from falling into to the look-how-fab-my-life-is kind of trap. I wanted to be sure I was open and honest, so writing this post is important for me to stay authentic.

This video popped up in my newsfeed via Upworthy {if you don’t follow them you should!} as a repost from The Mighty. It’s excellent and totally with the minute and a half. {No sound needed.}

Even though I sometimes try to convince myself otherwise… Having anxiety doesn’t mean that I’m weak. It doesn’t mean that my voice isn’t valid. It doesn’t mean that I’m not capable. It doesn’t mean that I’m not good at my job. It doesn’t mean that I’m not driven and focused. It certainly doesn’t mean that I am not a happy and bubbly person. {Because I am super bubbly, sometimes maybe to a fault!} Having anxiety just means that sometimes there’s a lot going on in my head and it’s harder for me to turn the volume down.

Understanding my triggers is essential. I know that if I’m approaching a situation that I can’t control, like flying, I need to do certain things to help me manage and get on with my travels. In that same regard, I’ve learned that it’s imperative to surround myself with people who bring the positive vibes so that I don’t sink into my own insecurity and defensiveness – I mean, who wants to hang out with Debbie Downer!? I certainly don’t want to hang with that girl, let alone BE that girl. Positive vibes and support are key.

I know I’m not perfect and I’m okay with that, but I think I’m finally done trying to be perfect.

xoxo