Last year, I was assaulted in Paris. If you saw me on crutches for two months last Summer, that’s why. This isn’t necessarily a #MeToo story, though it could be. This is about what happened after.
Surviving isn’t just in the moment; survival can last a lifetime.
The first thing that happened in the weeks and months that followed was that I realized I wasn’t unique in any way. I wasn’t the first person to suffer and endure at a stranger’s hands. I took comfort and strength from stories of survivors. They were battered, broken, even left for dead, but they pushed through the trauma with the tenacity of a dandelion through broken concrete. Reading their accounts of survival, I weirdly felt like I hadn’t suffered enough to be counted among the ranks of the unbroken. I struggled with guilt in every area of the attack, desperately wanting to claim blame so that I could pretend I was responsible; so I could hold myself responsible — to believe it was my personal irresponsibility that harmed me, and that way, I could prevent it from ever happening again.
I learned that the only escape was through the trauma — that dandelion busting its head above the concrete and even having the audacity to bloom. The strength of survival is in the responsibility you take for yourself afterward.
I deep-dived through exposure therapy for PTSD, reliving the event as a way to de-fang it. My therapist showed me a thousand truths about how survivors blame ourselves out of a need for control. She showed me the truth of how I would counsel and support a friend, even a daughter in this situation, and how that misaligned with what I said to myself.
You deserved it because you are too naive. You brought this on yourself. It’s your fault.
She would corner me by re-framing my traumatized beliefs in a way that made them seem ridiculous. “So, let me get this straight: if a woman doesn’t wear a bra, she deserves to be raped, is that right?” She forced me to confront the thousand cuts I’d gladly given myself as a mental escape from a truth I didn’t want to face — that victimization is a total loss of autonomy. Your survival-minded ego will claw its way through convoluted logic jumps back to a place of of ownership, because the complete loss of control that happens in assault is mentally devastating.
I learned to ask for what I needed, such as “I can’t be touched right now, I’m sorry,” during my 2am panic attacks. Which, let me tell you, is a fucking brave thing to ask for when you’re already terrified of rejection for (nothing you did wrong, but. We all know that “damaged goods” has nothing to do with shipping status. It’s incredible how loudly this meaningless shame-tactic feeds a survivor’s fears. I will never stop giving thanks for a feminist partner.)
I learned to tell my employer that I needed a full day off on the days I submarined to a private hell in exposure therapy, in order to grieve and process. I was terrified they would also see me as less than, as not worth my salary as I healed. I asked for what I needed though, my hands shaking, and I got it.
I learned to post Instagram photos of me laughing without feeling like a liar. Internal monologue: “What’s the appropriate period to either disappear from social media or not share anything resembling happiness, in order to prove to onlookers the legitimacy of what’s happened?
Answer: What a stupid question.
I learned to talk myself through panic attacks that would hit me anytime, even at places as mundane as the grocery store. My heart beating like a rabbit being stalked by a raptor, my breathing approaching fish-out-of-water levels as my body dumps adrenaline into my bloodstream –a physiological exorcism. “Can you walk to the front of the store? Can you put your groceries on the belt? You can leave right now if you need to.”
Do you ever feel like wanting to hurt yourself? my therapist asked. “No,” I replied, and I meant it. “I love me. I want to get better.” I learned to place my hands over my heart and say, “I love you, Wonder. I love you.” Survival depends on the stamina earned by loving yourself and believing in your worth, after others treated you as disposable.
Recovery is hard because survival is hard. Bravery is grown by relentlessly showing up for yourself. Strength is being able to look in the mirror and say, “I’m not giving up on you, you’re going to get through this.”
I told my therapist I had a voice inside me that would occasionally interrupt my fear and shame to holler,“Hey! Fuck that fucking guy! He did this! He’s a criminal who deserves to be fucking shot! He doesn’t get a say in your life!”
“That’s the voice of resilience, she told me. “Listen to it.”
I’m resilient. I’m alive. I’m alive because I’m resilient.
In many ways I still feel in recovery; I suspect I will be in recovery the rest of my life. I’m aware that the course of my life altered with this defining event. But I can make resiliency, not assault, the definition. The ego-voice that wants to keep us safe can be re-routed. We can have the autonomy we crave over our recovery — and over rest of our lives.
I’m responsible for my survival.
I’m to blame for my advocacy of myself.
I’m guilty of loving my life enough to overcome horror and to destroy my pain with celebration.
I’ve agonized over What to Say, When to Say It, Who to Tell, and have been blindsided by people Who Already Knew even though I Didn’t Tell Them. Every new telling triggers a surge of fear, a toxic rabbit hole of What Will They Think, swiftly followed by two middle fingers directed at that destructive train of thought. Contentment with my life must never hinge on the personal biases of people, even friends, who can’t or won’t understand.
It’s been a year, and my resilient voice tells me that it’s time. I never was very good at keeping things bottled up for long. But beyond that, I’m dispelling the power of secrecy. We don’t have to suffer in silence, bearing the secret of someone else’s shame in our bodies. Fuck that. I’m not his secret keeper. I’m a truth teller, and it’s pouring out. I will continue to use this space to #HealOutLoud.
If you’re a fellow survivor, I honor your resilience. I am awed by your renewed capacity for love. Wherever you are with your recovery, I love you. You’re never alone.
Listen for that voice inside you that tells the truth.
I’m still here, it says; I love you and will never leave you.
Are you an assault survivor in Seattle? Get help here.
Posted on June 13, 2018, in between you and me, from the trenches and tagged #metoo, assault survivor, be strong and of good courage, bravery, exposure therapy, Health, love your life, love yourself, me too, mental health, misogyny, overcoming PTSD, overcoming trauma, PTSD, Relationships, resilience, resiliency, sexual assault, shame, survivor, trauma, trauma recovery, trauma therapy, vulnerability. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.