Crossroads Conference

I cannot express how overjoyed I was to be a part of this conference. But I will give you a warning, I did not expect to get the experience I received.

When I got the call to be a part of the crossroads conference, I was so excited! I was just excited to share my story with others in hopes of helping one person. It didn’t matter that I only had 5 minutes to speak. I began to prepare my presentation with the help of a board member from the Women and Girls foundation. I had it down to a T.

The night before the conference, they had a semi-dress rehearsal. I went down to the Sheraton at Station Square. When I got there, I was able to hear the empowering story of one mother and how she discovered her son was addicted to Herione. Her story brought tears to my eyes and I made sure to give a great big hug after she was done. (This truly makes me think, that you never know what is going on in a persons life EVER. So take the time to be kind.) I didn’t even know her name and I told her how empowering she was and I was so proud of her son to be where he is today. I found out her name was Kathy.

On my way out, I was heading to pay my parking lot ticket, when I went to try to grab the door for a women in a wheelchair. I just missed it and she said, “I’m tough on these things.” I laughed and said have a good night. Little did I know that was the amazing Madonna Long, whom I would meet the next day.

As I walked to my car, I ran into Kathy, and I told her I hoped she had a good night and that she would do great tomorrow! She mentioned she had received some emotional news and it was a rough week, and she hoped she could get through her speech. I gave her my condolences and reassured her that she would do fabulous.

The next day came. I headed down to Station Square and was greeted by the wonderful greeters from the conference. They pointed me in the right direction. There I ran into Shirley, who helped me prepare my speech. She handed me a box and inside was a gift. It was a bracelet that read, “Well-Behaved women never make history.” Then I was able to meet Christine Mohammed, Connie Capiotis, and Emma Sandoval. Kathy came in shortly after. It was great to meet and see everyone. But soon enough everything was underway.

The conference was set up in chunks. The first part was introductions by the Women’s and Girl’s foundation president which included Senator Jay Costa, and the Emcee for the day, Latasha Wilson Batch, Charlie Batch’s wife. Afterwards, the first part of speakers went. This included Christine, Connie, and Emma, all whom I met. They were so inspiring. Here is a little about what each of them spoke about:

Christine: In a post 9/11 world, being a Muslim in America forces you to face many crossroads of unfair stereotypes and prejudices. So, imagine converting to Islam in this world and what you may face from family, friends and co-workers. Christine made this bold decision in 2008, and for her, religious freedom is a right that she is grateful for and one that has given her a new appreciation for diversity in America.

Connie: Her fiancee was arrested a few days before their wedding.  He had a mental breakdown and committed a robbery and was incarcerated.  She had to deal with both the emotional aftermath and the business repercussions since they had been partners in business, as well.  Her fiancee’s story is still undecided, but they’re doing everything they can to rebuild their lives.  She found strength she didn’t know she had, and is currently back in business and moving forward to be strong for their family.

Emma: Growing up in a low-income, Latino community, Emma thought being poor was normal, that drug addictions were common, and being smart meant she was an outsider. It wasn’t until high school, when she was homeless and ready to drop out of school, that Emma realized the problems impacting her family and community where much bigger than those closest to her. She learned that institutionalized racism, classism, and internalized oppression where barriers that didn’t have to hold her or her community back. Emma realized that communities like hers had a long history of resistance and fighting back against oppression, and that if they united and organized, they could reclaim their communities. Now as a mother Emma has dedicated her life to leading that vision, not just for her own family but for entire communities, families, and for future generations.

They all have such amazing spirits and hearts and I was so glad that I was able to hear their stories. One that I also was able to hear in that first “chunk” was Madonna Long.

Madonna Long: Madonna is a survivor with a positive attitude and has refused to allow herself to be considered a “victim.”  She is a wife, mother of three, entrepreneur and activist, who at 18 was in an accident that killed her best friend and left her wheelchair bound.  She hasn’t allowed set backs to define or destroy her.  Instead she chose to seize opportunities and where there were none she created them.

Madonna story was also so inspiring. After hearing her story, it made me even want to make a bigger change and help our world to be free of sexual violence. I ran into Madonna in the hallway after the first set of speakers and spoke with her for a few minutes. I heard more about her story and she gave me some insight on how to get more involved. She mentioned about learning what our State is doing to prevent sexual violence and what bills are attempting to be passed.

Senator Jay Acosta was at the event, so I took the opportunity to reach out to him afterwards to learn what was going in Pennsylvania.

I have to say, that I was beginning to get nervous once we had a break, before the next set of speakers came forward, which included me. After I spoke with Madonna, I was trying to run somewhere to pump. (I have a 10 month old son at home, whom I breastfeed and it was past my pumping time, so I was starting to have a little bit of pain). Oh, mommy life. Anyway, while finding somewhere to pump, I ran into my MOTHER! She was trying to hide from me but she didn’t do a good job. She and her friend had bought tickets and came to the conference to surprise. It was so great to have her there!!! This would be the first time that she heard me speak.

I then went and got my mic on and waited for the other speakers to begin. Kathy was a few speakers ahead of me, and her story is so powerful. I hope we are able to connect again and help each other for both of our fights.

My husband also was able to sneak in. He stopped by my table and gave me a quick kiss before I went on stage. I honestly do not know what I would do with out his support.

And then it was my turn. This was the largest audience I have ever spoke in front of. Probably around 300+ people maybe? But to get up there, and hear the audience reactions while a spoke. People cheered when  I told them that I finally was able to kick my eating disorder, and they reacted when I told them I was raped and left on the side of the road. I have people that I don’t even know reacting to my story, and cheering me on. IT was truly a powerful moment.

I excited the stage, and gave a hug to Madonna. I also was stopped by a few other people including my mom and my husband and received BIG hugs.

I had to leave shortly after lunch but before I did, I had a couple of individuals come up to me and share their story. This is what really gets to me. When someone comes up to me and says “It happen to me.” They don’t have to tell me the details, they have to say those 4 words, and I immediately give them hug. They are such a huge inspiration to me because they came forward and shared with someone. I usually don’t know if this is their first time sharing it or not, and I don’t ask because that doesn’t matter. What matters is that they shared it with someone and they trusted me enough to do so.

I have always wanted to inspire people. But I know now that if if I help or encourage one person, my existence is justified.

 

The Process of Healing

After being sexually assaulted, the largest struggles anyone faces are healing and gaining the ability to trust again. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have been asked the question, “How did you learn to trust again?” Usually, I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know how to say that I learned to trust again, but when I was asked that question, I was still trying to figure it out.

Trust can be very hard to gain, but also can be very easy given when one is naive.

That was the case for me when I was raped almost 12 years ago. I thought that I could trust the acquaintance that I was with, and as I unfortunately learned, I could not…because he left my underwear and socks in a garbage bag and then left me on the side of the road.  I have no recollection of these events.

The day after my assault, I looked at the world in a whole new light, or lack thereof. What was once bright was now dark and depressing. Honestly, before I was raped, I don’t even know if I knew what the term rape even meant. I will say that the year afterward, I went into denial. I turned to alcohol and went in search of a man I could trust. Years later, however, I realized that I was not searching for that man, but rather, searching for myself. I had to find the ability to love myself after what I had endured. For an entire year, I just twirled around in my non-existant world pretending that nothing had ever happened…But it did…and when it hit me, I knew that I needed to move forward from this. So here are some of my steps in my healing process.

a. Speak to someone about what has happened to you. I started by telling some friends that didn’t know. This led me to realize that talking about my experience made me feel better. You might choose to only tell one person. I will admit that when I first began telling people that I was sexually assaulted, I tried to minimize what had happened. Rape seemed like an even worse word for what had happened to me.
b. Eat healthy food and exercise. For me, this was essential as I was also working on healing from an eating disorder. It took about four years after the rape but I finally quit purging and have been relapse free since 2008. Eating disorder or not, you need to nourish your body to recover from trauma.
c. Go to your local Rape Crisis Center. For me that was PAAR, Pittsburgh’s Action Against Rape. Sitting in a recovery group was and can be scary at first. When I left that first time, I felt my story was inferior to the ones which I had heard that evening. Maybe this is a common reaction to minimize what happened, but it is so important to remember that no story is ever inferior. My eyes were opened to the real issue of rape and sexual violence. What PAAR does for the victims in the community is truly amazing. They have a variety of services to fit a variety of personalities and needs.
d. Learn to love and forgive yourself. When you have been violated in such a profoundly personal way, it’s natural to struggle with shame and poor self-esteem. It’s natural to struggle with intimacy. I felt no one would want me and I could only to be intimate if I was bolstered by a few drinks.

In the early stages of recovery I thought I was searching for a man I could trust enough to eventually call my husband. Now I realize that I was searching to learn that I was loveable and could love myself. I needed—as we all need—to accept myself, bruises, brokenness and all. No one else can make us loveable or love-worthy. We have to believe it ourselves and love ourselves. Only then does intimacy become a healthy possibility.

I went through some serious relationships, 3 big ones that at the time either helped me heal or helped me digress. With my first real “boyfriend” after the incident, I felt like I could only be intimate with him after a few drinks. I became engaged to the 2nd boyfriend, but he was not supportive of my initiative of speaking publicly about my rape. He felt I should be silent. My 3rd relationship was with a girl, because after the last two, a same sex relationship made me feel safe, and non-threatened. Finally, I met my husband. I was up front with him about everything. The rape, my eating disorder, and my previous relationships. He accepted me for who I was at the time that we met and who I am today. That is how I knew he was not only going to be my husband, but my best friend, my soulmate.

e. Allow your relationship with family and friends to change throughout the years. To start, I didn’t talk about what happened except to explain it once to each person I told. That was the end of each discussion about my experience. In the last two years, what has been therapeutic for me has been talking with my family and friends and asking what they went through after they found out what had happened to me. It was only a year ago that I began to openly talk to my own mother about the situation. She has given me a lot of insight into parts of the story that I don’t remember because I wanted to move on as quickly as possible. I give her and my father so much credit for everything that went through regarding the rape. Not everyone, of course, has supportive parents.

Allow your relationships to change in ways that make sense for your own healing. I actually turned my conversations with family and friends into a project called Voices of Hope. Currently it is a blog and a social media page on Facebook. Right now, I am using them to create awareness, educate and empower. Eventually, it will turn into an extended memoir in hopes of helping those that know someone who has gone through this. If you’re interested in hearing more about my project, please feel free to stay afterwards to chat.
f. Find hobbies and interests. When Lady Gaga initially entered the music scene, I immersed myself in her music. She arrived at a time in my life when my relationship with the girl was ending and I was just starting out my first full year of being completely on my own. I saw Lady Gaga 7 times within a year and half and made a costume for every show. Yes, I know it’s a little quirky, but it was a form of healing for me…and I will say that when I went to those shows, no one could read my poker face. The message Lady Gaga sent out at the shows helped me to learn to love myself again.
g. Open yourself to spiritual healing. It took me time, but my husband truly helped me find God. I know my dad struggles with this question: If there is God, how could he let this happen to me? From Genesis 50:20, “You intended to harm me but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, saving of many lives.” I feel this happened to me for a reason. As my husband always says, God chose me because he knew I was strong enough to endure the pain and come out a better person.
h. Make your own choice about prosecution. The choice is yours. I had to start the process because the police were immediately involved and it was a long, hard process.

Everyone has their own way of healing, and must take their own steps, but these worked for me. I have come to the conclusion that healing will always be a part of who I am. I won’t let the rape define me because there are so many positive attributes in my life that define me,  but being an advocate still heals me  and defines a part of who I am.

In the past 8 months, I have had the opportunity to speak at the University of Pittsburgh twice, and will speak again at their Candle Light Vigil on April 14th. I have spoken at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, and will attend an event at West Virginia University in April as well. I must say that these schools and students are making huge steps to change the culture of sexual violence on their campuses and as a survivor, I commend them for that. While my rape did not happen on campus, nor was it perpetrated by another student, I know this is an extremely pressing issue for universities and students are the ones that can lead the charge for change.

So when it comes to trust, trust is earned and each person’s trust is different. When it comes to being in a relationship, there are ways that trust is earned. When it comes to acquaintances that you are out with for an evening, surround yourself with the friends you trust most.

I would say that for me it was hard to trust any man after the assault because I didn’t know who would take advantage of me. When it came to my friends, I was more open to trusting as our relationship grew. So when my friends and I went out to a party or to bar, we stayed together. By having our circle of trust, we were able to protect each other.

Another instance of trust would be jogging alone on a trail and running into a suspicious person. This happened once, and I became guarded. But since then, I ensure I carry some form of protection such as mace.

The healing process can be very long and incredibly trying. And while no one ever fully recovers, the only thing that I can hope for anyone that has gone through this, is that they find the courage inside of them to stand up and work through their steps so they can get to a better place.

Steps you can take to prevent Sexual Violence

 

There are definitely steps that you can take to prevent a sexual assault. RAINN, rape, abuse, incest national network, has a great idea called CARE. Learn about CARE below:

Everyone has a role to play in preventing sexual assault. There are many different ways that you can step in or make a difference if you see someone at risk. This approach to preventing sexual assault is referred to as “bystander intervention.”

How can I play a role in preventing sexual assault?
The key to keeping your friends safe is learning how to intervene in a way that fits the situation and your comfort level. Having this knowledge on hand can give you the confidence to step in when something isn’t right. Stepping in can make all the difference, but it should never put your own safety at risk.

Care is Create a distraction, Ask directly, Refer to an authority, Enlist others.

Create a distraction.
Do what you can to interrupt the situation. A distraction can give the person at risk a chance to get to a safe place.

  • Cut off the conversation with a diversion like, “Let’s get pizza, I’m starving,” or “This party is lame. Let’s try somewhere else.”
  • Bring out fresh food or drinks and offer them to everyone at the party, including the people you are concerned about.
  • Start an activity that is draws other people in, like a game, a debate, or a dance party.

Ask directly.
Talk directly to the person who might be in trouble.

  • Ask questions like “Who did you come here with?” or “Would you like me to stay with you?”

Refer to an authority.
Sometimes the safest way to intervene is to refer to a neutral party with the authority to change the situation, like an RA or security guard.

  • Talk to a security guard, bartender, or another employee about your concerns. It’s in their best interest to ensure that their patrons are safe, and they will usually be willing to step in.
  • Don’t hesitate to call 911 if you are concerned for someone else’s safety.

Enlist others.
It can be intimidating to approach a situation alone. Enlist another person to support you.

  • Ask someone come with you to approach the person at risk. When it comes to expressing concern, sometimes there is power in numbers.
  • Ask someone to intervene in your place. For example, you could ask someone who knows the person at risk to escort them to the bathroom.
  • Enlist the friend of the person you’re concerned about. “Your friend looks like they’ve had a lot to drink. Can you check on them?”

Your actions matter
Whether or not you were able to change the outcome, by stepping in you are helping to change the way people think about their role in preventing sexual assault. If you suspect that someone you know has been sexually assaulted, there are steps you can take to support that person and show you care.

 

Information is  at RAINN.org

 

Sexual Assault Awareness Month

Happy April 1st!!! Not April Fools……surprised I even remembered that!!!

 

Today is the first day of Sexual Assault Awareness Month!!! So excited for this month because this is the month out of the year that some great organizations come out and really spread the word about sexual violence. Now we should do this all year, not just April, but April gives me a reason to post on my Facebook page every day with awareness and education.

So how can you be involved in Sexual Assault awareness month, you ask? There is soooo many ways!!!! And today I will share them with you.

  • First, you can join the movement called, “Red My Lips”. Which their website is www.redmylips.org. “Red My Lips is an international nonprofit organization designed to raise visibility and awareness about the realities and prevalence of sexual violence, while combating rape myths and victim-blaming. We run an annual global awareness and action campaign where our fierce and fearless supporters rock red lipstick all throughout the month of April (Sexual Assault Awareness Month) to demonstrate solidarity and support for survivors and start important conversations with people in their lives.” This is directly from their site.
  • The goal is to wear red lipstick for the entire month of April. If you can’t wear Red Lipstick, you can support in other ways by wearing red, or wearing a fabulous Red My Lips shirt. Which you can check out here: T-shirts.
  • Another way to get involved is to wear the color teal. Teal is the color for sexual assault awareness month. You can also change your facebook profile picture to represent teal. Check it out http://twibbon.com/support/sexual-assault-awareness-6
  • Find out what your community is doing this month in honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
  • Urge Congress to allow common sense rape survivor rights. Sign the petition here
  • Take the It’s on Us Pledge: ItonUs
  • Talk about sexual violence. Start a conversation about it.
  • Share resources if you know someone that has been a victim of sexual violence, and let them know they are not alone.

So I ask that if you have not taken a stance already, get involved someway. No matter how long, short, big or small the stance is that you take, you are part of movement, a movement that hopefully one day we live in a world where sexual violence is not the issue that it is today. Where we can freely discuss these topics, we truly understand and teach our children about consent, and victims no longer feel alone or shamed.

#SAAM, #VOH, #Voicesofhope #Redmylips