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On Sexual Assault and Healing

If I can’t write for myself, I’ll write for others.

When I was fifteen years old, two boys who were in my sophomore class raped me at a party. It was after the first home football game of the year. The details of the night and the following days are burned into my mind. My life was permanently changed from that night forward.

I use the word rape throughout this essay because for many years following my assault, the word rape was painful for me. I refused to say it. I would wince every time I would hear or read the word. I use the word rape now because it is an action that changed the rest of my life. More importantly, it is a sharp, single syllable word that I am now capable of saying and writing. I use the word rape as a sign of growth and development after all these years.

I’ve told this story time and time again to close friends in intimate settings, but I have never shared it on a public platform. Fear of judgment from others has been my silencer for nearly seven years. When the news of my assault—presented in different ways, depending on who was telling it—circulated at school, I was met with a number of different reactions. My friends, aside from a select few, stood strong by my side. They showed me the deepest love and most genuine support. I am eternally grateful to the people who stood up for me in my absence or when I didn’t have the courage to stand up for myself.

Attending school was one of the more painful aspects after the assault. Friends of my assailants would taunt me when they saw me in the lunchroom or passed me in the halls. They would say my assailants’ names and laugh, ugly smirks plastered across their jeering faces. A photo mocking my assault circulated Facebook. The older sister of one of my assailants came up to me after a pep assembly and threatened to beat me up if she heard of me telling people that I had been raped. She reminded me that I was “just a slut” and needed to stop lying.

A girl who claimed to be my best friend betrayed me. In hushed whispers that spread like wildfire, she spread a distorted version of my assault. I remember calling her the Monday after I had been violated. I remember crying to her on the phone and telling her how I had been hurt, that I would not be at school that day. Around three o’clock the same day, my mother burst into the room where I was watching television. She began yelling at me about how she had heard from someone that I had snuck out and gone to a party that weekend and had sex with someone. The news had spread all over school. I would later find out that the person my mother heard this news from was the mother of my best friend. The girl who I thought was my best friend told her mother her own version of the story, making it sound like I had consented to sex. Even later, I would find out the many ways in which she twisted the story of my rape to her advantage, to make me look untrustworthy and irresponsible. She used it as leverage over me.

At the age of fifteen, I had a limited understanding of what consent was. I thought that because I never explicitly said the words “no,” somehow it was still my fault. It never really made sense to me until I went to college. During freshman orientation, a woman shared her story of sexual assault with an auditorium full of young adults and educated us on what consent was. It was there, as I sat quietly with tears streaming down my face, that I finally was able to allow myself to understand that my silence that night did not equate to consent. It was not my fault.

My parents took all the necessary steps to help me heal—I was put in counseling as soon as possible and was offered the opportunity to switch schools at the semester. I refused to switch schools, at least not immediately. In my mind, switching schools would be my sign of defeat. I was not defeated; I have not been defeated; I will not be defeated. I had attended the local school system since I was a four-year-old and I had no intention of allowing anyone to coerce me into leaving. It was not until the spring semester, when I went in-patient at a mental health facility and doctors strongly recommended it, that I decided to attend a different school in the fall. Prior to that decision being made, I was determined to stay where I was. To help ease the stress of remaining at school with my assailants, I switched around some classes and changed my locker so I would be near them as little as possible. Even then, I still saw them in the halls. My whole body still burned with shame and anger when I passed by them or heard their names. I was still hurting, but I was trying to cope and trying to prove my strength.

I’ve never felt so alone or in such a dark, numbing place as I felt in the months following my rape. No matter the number of women in my life—women I’d known my entire life, women I saw as role models, women I loved—who stepped forward and shared their stories of assault, I still felt like no one else could fully understand my pain. I still believe that. Each situation of assault is unique to the survivor. Every survivor copes in his or her own way; every survivor feels pain differently. No matter the outpouring of love and support, there’s a chance you will still feel alone as you walk the long, arduous path to healing.

I used to distract myself by spending time with friends. I self-medicated for a long time. I used alcohol as a way to convince myself that everything was okay. It temporarily numbed the pain. At the time, though, that’s all I wanted, a distraction. I didn’t want to feel any more pain. I was tired of hurting. However, it was in the moments of solitude, when I was lying in my room staring at my ceiling fan, that I was able to allow myself to focus on my omnipresent pain. It was then that I would take my slow, shaky steps toward healing.

Solitude and reflection are both integral parts in my healing process. I use the word “are” because I am still healing. It’s been roughly ten years and I still hurt. The degree to which I hurt has lessened. I no longer feel like I’m living in a world of darkness or that my senses are numbed and muted. I don’t cry at the drop of a hat like I used to. The word rape no longer feels like a bright, stinging slap across my face.

September 19th will be the eleven-year anniversary of the night I was raped. I have come a long way since then, but that does not mean I no longer feel the emotional and psychological effects. Rape leaves a deep, painful scar on the heart and mind of the survivor, a brand of sorts. Rape does have a large effect on your growth and development as a person. It can change your mindset, your outlook on life. But despite all that, rape does not control you; even though surviving a rape changes your life, it does not mean it will control your life. Dealing with the after-effects of my sexual assault taught me exactly how strong I am. It taught me that I am a survivor, not a victim. It taught me that I am the embodiment of strength.

I have survived a heinous act against my body and I am capable of flourishing, despite the copious amounts of pain and self-loathing I felt as a result.

Time and time again, I’ve tried to write this for myself. I’ve tried to put my story into words in an attempt to help me heal. I have a number of unfinished short stories stored away in files on my laptop, hashing out the gory details of the night I was raped. I’ve written the story from a number of different approaches, in a number of different styles. All of them felt forced and were difficult for me to write. I couldn’t write for myself. So today I have decided that if I can’t write for myself, I will write for others.

I share the pain I went through, and am still going through, with the understanding that each survivor has their own unique story. They grapple with the pain in different ways. I write knowing my words can’t right the wrongs and heal the pain caused by selfish people who take what is not being offered. I write knowing that no matter how many times I tell you “it’s not your fault,” that’s something you have to come to terms with on your own. I write knowing the pain of silence. I write for those who are searching for their voice as I once did. I write knowing that it took me a long time to find the courage to speak out, and someday, on your own time, you will too.

I write in love and in solidarity. You are stronger than you give yourself credit for being. You are a survivor. 

-C

Carmen Wiley

Carmen Wiley

Carmen is a professional bartender, avocational writer, and proud Ivy League drop-out.

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