How a Warrior Handles the Trauma of Sexual Assault
When I speak at colleges about my own story of sexual abuse, I never forget how difficult it was for me to even speak the words, “I was sexually abused.” It took me an even longer time to believe it, or to understand it could happen to me. And what took so much longer than I ever could have predicted was to believe that I was sexually abused and it wasn’t my fault.
Many survivors “know” that being sexually assaulted was not their fault. Now, I’m one of them. But the question I’ve worked to answer after a decade of “healing” and “processing” what happened to me is, “Well, then why didn’t I do something?”
I had heard this dozens and dozens of times — in my own head and with students who have opened up to me during my programs. Many victims of abuse, molestation and domestic violence often feel a guilt that they are not deserving of. For months after my voice teacher molested me, I beat myself up, thinking “why did I do that?”, wondering, “what was I thinking?” and assuming “something must be wrong with me.”
It also took me a very long time to accept that a mentor and father figure in my life had violated our trusting relationship. I kept replaying the events that had occurred in my mind, telling myself, I must have done something wrong — why else would he have done this? I must have instigated something. I blamed myself, convinced that no one could take advantage of me if I had not invited it.
I couldn’t shake off this shame I felt no matter how hard I tried to forget what had happened. The more I tried to block my memories, the more anxious and confused I became. I became a space cadet — hardly feeling at all. It was how I protected myself. This way, I couldn’t feel the sense of loss and betrayal. I couldn’t feel the shame of still thinking this was all my fault. My numbness started to alarm my friends and family, to whom I insisted that nothing was wrong at all. I kept this secret hidden inside, burning in my gut, hidden from those I loved.
The more I tried to repress what had happened, the more anxious I became, until I couldn’t handle keeping these secrets locked up so tightly. Shocked, upset and overwhelmed, I was living in three worlds — part of me functioning normally in school, keeping up my grades, and telling people I was “fine;” part of me replaying traumatic memories in my head, beating myself up for not saying no, for not running away, for not fighting back; and part of me in a numb, apathetic space of disconnect — a place I created in my head as a survival instinct. If I created a frozen, “numb” space to exist in, I could alleviate the sense of shame I felt.
When I turned 18, I finally spilled everything to my mother. I was so afraid of what she might say or if she would judge my actions. I was embarrassed to say words like “sex” and “molestor” and “rape” out loud, let alone with my mother. My mother was as shocked I was. But she still provided me with the one solid anchor that I needed. She told me it was not my fault. No matter what I told her I had done, what he had done, what details I could remember, or what I confided in her, she reassured me with the certainty only a mother can have: it was not your fault.
Reaching out to someone I knew loved me unconditionally calmed my anxiety. Telling someone what had happened made my dark secret come to light. I became open to viewing my abuse in a different way — I was willing to take some of the responsibility off of myself. My mother and I started reading about trauma.