Trigger warning: this article consists of content concerning sexual assault and rape.
April is National Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and every April for the past three years, I’ve drafted up some kind of contrived post for Instagram that has never seen the cruel light of the internet. It wasn’t that I couldn’t bring myself to post it out of pain or fear of judgment. To be honest, I was more worried about sounding preachy.
But the sense of responsibility I feel to tell my story has finally outweighed the discomfort. I know not everyone will be able to relate to my experience or my emotions, and that’s OK. I’m not just sharing my story for other survivors; it’s also for people who don’t, can’t or won’t understand the reality of rape.
In July of 2019, a month after my 21st birthday and minutes I was raped, I stood outside on the deck overlooking the bay behind my assaulter’s family beach house. He had gone to work, and I was alone. The sunset was divine, and it was a beautiful, balmy midsummer evening. I took a picture of the view which I still have. I did not feel like a victim of sexual assault. In fact, I don’t really recall if I felt much at all.
One month and a long-overdue breakup later, I told my therapist about that evening. Her face immediately fell, and, very softly, she said, “I’m so sorry, Maddye. You were raped.” It might sound ridiculous, but until then I truly had not realized what had happened to me nor how much it had affected me.
The entire relationship had been bad, don’t get me wrong. I had lost 30 pounds in a few months and was so stressed I was barely eating. Still, nothing about my situation had struck me as particularly frightening. That changed the second those words left her mouth.
I had promised myself for years that I would never be part of that “one-in-
three women” statistic, which was just one of the many things I falsely believed were within my control. I once vehemently told my high school boyfriend I would rather be murdered than raped, and I stand by that to this day.
In the months that followed, I found myself talking about what happened in any situation where it was acceptable. I told my friends, who have all been similarly traumatized and helped me heal in a way I could not have done on my own. I told my partner, who immediately started crying when I hadn’t even shed a tear over the whole thing yet. I told my mom, my aunt and the women in the jiu-jitsu class I took.
The more people I told, the easier it became to talk about. I even joked about it a few times, when nothing else helped. Coping mechanisms come and go; some work for a lifetime, some become less effective, some return when you least expect them.
I can’t give one universal piece of advice on how to be a survivor. Everyone’s trauma is different. For me, talking to fellow survivors helped, and, when I could handle it, so did reading their stories. I even shared my story anonymously online within a small subreddit, and the words of support I received from those total strangers still run through my head when I need them most.
The anniversary of the assault was somehow almost worse than the actual assault, maybe because I was forced to finally process the emotions I had stuffed down. I cried every single day of July 2020, and when I wasn’t crying, I was too exhausted from crying to feel anything else.
One day, as I finished yet another sob session, my cat sat next to me and put her tiny paw on my hand. It was a reminder of all the good things in my life, all the beautiful realities that could coexist with a particularly awful one.
It really doesn’t matter why that waste of genetic material chose to hurt me in one of the worst ways one person can hurt another. The more I wonder about it, the more the story shifts away from me, and at the end of the day, it is mine, just like your story is yours.
A sentiment I hear often regarding trauma is “what happens to you doesn’t define you unless you let it,” and I’m still not sure that’s entirely true. I do know my rape is something I carry around, like my phone or my favorite lipgloss. It sounds strange, but it helps to call it mine. Disowning it only temporarily relieves the pain, and it also negates all the growth and progress I made afterward.
As a survivor, you don’t have to feel strong or resilient. You do need to show up for yourself however you can. The hurt will come and go, but you will still be there.
An extensive list of resources can be found on the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) website.