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.