Part 1: I Have a Secret
Our minds can play elaborate tricks on us, and for the longest time mine wouldn’t let me fully acknowledge what happened that night. When the memories did come back it was easier to blame myself than to acknowledge what happened and blame him. My mind was too fragile to handle that reality. You may have noticed in the last step that I mentioned that I was taken advantage of sexually. What you don’t know is that today was the first time I was able to say three new words out loud with confidence: He raped me.
This step is about “forgiving someone who hurt us in the past,” so of course this step would be about him. But I am scared shitless about confronting these memories. Even thinking about thinking about it makes me anxious and nauseous. So I tried for weeks to figure out how I can make this step about anyone else. I made a list of all the other people who hurt me in my life, and I’m glad to say there are only a few:
However, elementary school drama and bad ex-boyfriends don't remotely compare to what happened that night. This has given me the confidence to make Step 5 about him. But I am lost as to how to “forgive and forget” what happened that night. Part of me feels like I’m already over it. I rarely think about what happened and I feel no anger towards him. I asked my husband Zak about it, and he said he thinks I am in denial. He admitted that he always thought I might have some form of PTSD
. But when I asked his advice on how to confront the situation, he seemed just as clueless as me. Generally when I don’t know what to do, I turn to the internet:
As part of denying what happened that night, I’ve avoided researching or reading anything about rape my entire life. I’d even walk out of films if there was a rape scene. So the past few hours of reading have been enlightening. The most comforting thing I’ve learned is how normal my reactions and symptoms have been. The most maddening thing I’ve learned is how common rape actually is.
There are many beliefs and debates about how to overcome and heal from sexual assault. Some say you should go to cognitive therapy, join support groups, try meditation, hypnosis, read about others’ experiences, or confront your rapist. Others disagree about these approaches, and think they can make the situation worse.
But the one approach that seems unanimous among psychologists is that the best way to start is to just write down your story. It allows you to safely process the emotions you are experiencing and seems to relieve difficult symptoms. When the memories are no longer trapped in your head, you can begin to see it as something of the past.
Part 2: The Longest 10 minutes of My Life
I was twelve when I left home and went to an all-girls boarding school. While many people I became friends with there had already dabbled with alcohol and boys, I never drank and had never been kissed. My unpopularity probably had something to do with my constant insecurity about being the youngest in my grade, combined with social anxiety that made me very shy, and an understanding that I was not pretty. A boy told me this in middle school when I had braces and a short bob haircut, and I believed it was true.
Plus, I felt most comfortable alone in my room on my computer, crafting HTML code and chatting in online forums, while most girls my age liked getting their nails painted at the mall and lusting over Justin Timberlake. But all that doesn’t mean I didn’t wish I was more popular. So when my friend took me along to a party with a bunch of college guys, I was excited and nervous. I had rarely been to parties, especially with the opposite gender. I didn’t know if older guys would find me interesting, or what I would have to say to them. I remember trying on too many outfits that night, putting on too much makeup, and plucking my eyebrows raw. Thin eyebrows were a thing back then, and I just wanted to blend in.
One guy at the party was particularly nice to me. He insisted he mix me a vodka tonic. I remember that first taste of alcohol, and how it made me cringe. I remember how I tried to hide that. I remember how the conversations flowed easier with each sip. I remember how he talked too much about how great college was: the parties, the booze, the drugs. I couldn’t relate but I smiled and acted interested and nervously made small talk back. I remember when my glass got low he insisted he pour me another. I remember how the conversation became harder to follow after that drink, and how things began to feel like a blur.
I remember feeling dizzy and telling him I needed to lay down, and him showing me to his friends bedroom. I don’t remember how he got my pants off, but I do remember him shoving his penis inside me without asking. I remember feeling shocked, and telling him to stop. I remember he didn’t. I remember how he pushed and turned me over and pushed my head down into the bed. I remember how he pulled my hair as he fucked me forcefully from behind. I remember feeling frozen, not sure how to react. I remember the tears that welled up in my eyes. I remember worrying irrationally about the marks my mascara would leave on the very white pillow. I never knew another ten minutes that felt so long, or another ten minutes that would have such a large impact over the next ten years of my life.
When I woke up that morning everything was numb. Time slowed. Nothing seemed beautiful or interesting like it once did.
I remember when he finished, how he rolled over onto his back. I remember his sigh of satisfaction. I remember my tears turning to sobs as I searched frantically to find my pants; I wanted to get away from him. I remember he asked me where I thought I was going, and how I told him I had to leave, that I wanted to go home. I only slept a few hours that night. When I woke up that morning everything was numb. Time slowed. Nothing seemed beautiful or interesting like it once did. I was devoid of my usual desires. Food lost its appeal and I wondered if I had lost the ability to smile or laugh. I curled up in a fetal position under my covers in bed for days, telling everyone I was sick. I remember taking sleeping pills every 4-6 hours, just wanting to fall back asleep, as if I might eventually wake up and realize it was all just a bad dream.
A few days later I got the energy to get out of bed and go to school. It wasn’t long after I arrived at school that my friend came to tell me about the rumors. He had been bragging to all his friends about how great it was to “fuck the shit out of a virgin.” I have never been so filled with guilt, shame, or disgust as in that moment. I shouldn’t have drank that night. I didn’t fight back. I let him have sex with me. It was my fault.
To make things worse, I found out through his cousin that he didn’t use a condom. I hadn't gotten my period yet, but I still remember worrying about whether I could get pregnant. I will always remember that very lonely and scary trip to Planned Parenthood to get tested. That was not how I was supposed to lose my virginity.
From a young age, I was both a romantic and an over-planner. I admired stories of family friends who married their college sweetheart. I had promised myself at the age of nine that I’d wait to have sex until I found true love. I fantasized about how it would happen during my freshman year in college, how I’d wait until he said “I love you,” how amazing it would be to make love for the first time. A week after the incident I got the courage to tell my friend what had happened. I didn’t use the word rape but told her how the night unfolded, and she got the picture. The problem was, she was this guy’s cousin. She told me that if I ever told anyone what happened she would deny it and take his side. She told me that I couldn’t and wouldn’t ruin his life.
I just wanted someone to talk to, so her betrayal hurt almost as much as the assault. I wasn’t even planning to tell anyone. Why would I? I remember seeing a story on the news once about a woman who was raped. She was questioned in court and everyone doubted her honesty. She was attacked from every angle. In our society most often the victim ends up getting blamed for a variety of different reasons, and 97% of the time rapists do not serve any jail time. I had already lost my virginity and self-worth that night; I didn’t want to lose years in court battles that I had next to no chance of winning. I didn’t want that one night to define my life. I hated the idea that anyone might see me as a victim or treat me any differently. I just wanted to things to be as they were. I didn’t want my family to find out. I was sure that my father would track the guy down and murder him or my mother would lose her sanity.
Plus, it wasn’t really rape, right? Rape was what happened in back alleyways with strangers, when women fought back but wound up bruised and broken. I shouldn’t have had those drinks. I let it happen. It was my fault. That’s what I've gone on telling myself, all these years. I suppose it’s impossible to hold this level of shame and guilt inside without some sort of release. Over the next several years I tried all kinds of self-medication to suppress the pain. Anorexia worked for a while, but it wasn’t always enough. I tried binging and purging, smoking pot, drinking. Some nights the pain would boil up so intensely I couldn’t bear to be in my own skin.
One night, I was cutting out a picture to put in my diary. I redirected the scissor towards my thigh, pinched a strip of skin together, and cut my skin open. In the next weeks I would cut repeatedly. Whether it was razor blades or Exacto knives, on my arms or on my thighs, nothing compared to the high of the initial cut, or my fascination with the beauty of the blood that followed. It made me feel alive at a time when I felt dead inside. I liked the pain, and I truly believed that I deserved it.
One day, cutting wasn't enough either. I exhausted myself in a scavenger hunt of new ways to feel, or new ways to stop feeling. No matter how many cuts you make, how thin you get, or how many pills you take, the pain will still be there waiting. So I wrote a suicide letter, swallowed a bunch of pills with a bottle of wine, and went to bed. I don’t remember the exact details of the events over the next 24 hours, but I do know I wound up in a mental hospital. How I got there is fuzzy but the intake process is still remarkably vivid. A nurse was doing a psychological evaluation test as standard procedure for admittance. She asked me to remember four words: "bus, yellow, chair, cow.” I repeated them over and over in my head while she asked me other questions:
What is your name? What year is it? Who is the president? How long had I been depressed? How much was I eating? When did you learn to restrict? Did I take laxatives? How often did I binge and purge? Did I do drugs? Where was I cutting? How often? Why did I want to kill myself?
Around ten minutes later, she asked me to repeat those four words again. I rattled the first few off with ease “bus, yellow, chair…” The last word was somehow gone. Gone as quickly as I had lost my virginity, buried somewhere in my subconscious, destined to come back later. She looked concerned. She ticked off some boxes, and next thing I knew I was officially admitted.
I still wonder if it was because of the cow.
I was transferred to an outpatient eating disorder clinic shortly after, which allowed me the time and space to heal. But throughout the years, cuts, tears, and thousands of dollars of therapy, I never once spoke to anyone about what happened that night, not even a therapist. I was too afraid. It was almost a decade later when it slipped out. I was distraught over a breakup and I had been drinking too much wine and my mom called, and I told her about that night years prior. I made her promise to never tell my dad, and to never speak to me about it again. She hasn’t brought it up since, but life has felt a little lighter since that day. At times I think part of my insatiable creative drive comes from a desire to fill my life with beauty and color to balance the ugliness and darkness I still feel inside. To prove to myself that I am in control, in part to compensate for when I wasn't. I want to keep moving so far forward that hopefully one day it won’t hurt to look back.
Part of my insatiable creative drive comes from a desire to fill my life with beauty and color to balance the ugliness and darkness I feel inside.
I have not let that night define me or ruin my life. I am proud that I’ve become a strong, independent, and successful woman. For the most part, that night doesn’t affect me on a day-to-day basis, and I have a wonderful life and I am very happy. I wish I could say I am 100% healed and have completely moved past what happened, but I’m not sure that’s honest. It’s not easy to publicly admit that below the surface—and past my seemingly-confident façade—these memories occasionally haunt me. There are the months of insomnia that come and go. The anxiety and depression that resurface every couple of years when things get tough. The self-medication through too much alcohol and benzodiazepines. The reckless nights when I played with fire by taking too much Xanax with too much wine, musing that maybe I won’t wake up this time.
It's thankfully been a few years since those nights, but I do still have flashbacks. There are times I will be making love with my husband and the memory of my face pressed against the pillow will take over my mind. It’s a visceral and instantaneous reaction; I throw him off me while I curl into a fetal position and cry. It usually takes a few minutes before I let him touch me again.
Then there are the trust issues. I can deal with how I’ve turned my anger inwards but I feel bad about the ways I have projected it on those around me. It’s been difficult for me to become close or stay close with many people. I'm generally wary of everyone and constantly on guard, observing if they will try to use me or hurt me somehow. Even with Tim—the best friend anyone could be—at times I still question his motives.
I even find myself doubting my husband. The man who has filled my life with so much love, patience, and compassion. His love has helped heal me in many ways, and I am sad at times that I still question him. Some nights when he’s traveling and I am home alone, late at night my mind can wander to dark places. I worry irrationally that he will abandon me, cheat on me, or that maybe he is just using me. Then I feel guilty about these thoughts, and wonder how I deserve him or all this happiness I’ve found. I worry that one day I’ll do something stupid and this beautiful life I’ve built around me will come crashing down.
After writing my story last week and reading it back to myself, the one thing that struck me is how I’ve turned all the blame inwards towards myself and projected doubt on to those I love. Yet I’ve never really blamed or felt anger towards him. It makes me wonder, is that normal or healthy? Would it help to confront him after all these years? Would talking to him help me move past what happened that night? Could I learn to forgive myself? Could I forgive him? I felt an urge to get back in touch with him. It wasn’t difficult to find him on Facebook, and I found out he lived in Boston. I coincidently was heading there the following week for a business trip, so I sent him a message:
Please note the mans name was changed in these messages.
I woke up the next morning to find the “read” message, but no response. I kept refreshing my Facebook every ten minutes that day, keeping the browser open behind a bunch of other windows, until 8 pm, when I got this message:
After reading this message I found myself filled with anger towards him for the first time. After what he did, couldn't he at least give me the courtesy of discussing what happened after all these years? I guess I had hoped after all this time that maybe he was sorry and ashamed for what he had done. I thought maybe we could have a rational conversation about it, I thought maybe that could help provide closure. In the morning wrote him back:
As I reread these conversations in the days leading up to the call I began to feel sick. It was as if all the emotions I had been suppressing over the last decade poured back mixed in with feelings of anger. I felt angry that after what he did to me he wants to control how the conversation happens. I also felt angry at myself for letting this back into my life and letting it control my emotions once again. I should be stronger than this.
For the first time since the incident itself, I completely shut down. I laid in bed for hours that Saturday night before the call, staring upwards at my ceiling, until my husband came home and found me lying there unresponsive. He started panicking when I wouldn't speak, shaking me and begging me to tell him what was going on. It’s difficult to describe what happened, internally I was crying and screaming and shouting clouded with anger and confusion, but on the outside I was completely paralyzed. My husband was checking my pulse, sure there was something physically wrong with me. He had never seen me like this, this darkness hasn’t shown itself like this since a decade earlier. I tried to compose myself to explain what was going on, but I couldn’t even form words. I managed to nod when he asked me to give him a sign that I was alright, and he just laid there and held me tight.
The next morning before the call I had to question whether or not it was really a good idea for me to speak to him. I’ve never let that one night interfere with my life in a major way until last night, and I felt like this was all a giant step backwards. I realized what bothered me most about the correspondence I had with him was his statement that “no direct accusations should be made during the call”. I realized that deep down what I was really hoping for from talking to him was an acknowledgement that he knew what he did that night was wrong. I wanted to know if the guilt had eaten at him over the years, like it had for me. I wanted to know if it ever kept him up at night. I wanted an apology. I wanted him to admit what he did.
I realized then that I wanted to confront him for all the wrong reasons. I started to researching more about people who have confronted their rapists, and whether or not it was a good idea. I stumbled across a book by a psychologist who explains through studies how rapists almost never acknowledge their actions. Even a majority of those who are convicted and found guilty and go to jail are found to continue to deny their actions, even when there is DNA evidence against them. Those who are never convicted are even less likely to admit what they did.
The psychologist says that confronting a rapist will offer little but denial and criticism. This can make a survivor regress, wonder if they are crazy, and enforce self doubts that almost all survivors already have. That you will not find answers or closure from a rapist, and best way to recover is from within. So for now, the story ends here. I canceled my phone call with him for now, and I’m not going to contact him any further.
I've never felt sorry for myself, besides that one night I've had a wonderful and beautiful life filled with good fortune. I see what happened that one night as inconsequential compared to the severe pain and suffering many go through daily. However this step made me admit how much I’ve been suppressing and it can't be healthy to hold on to that. So I've decided maybe it is worth it to take the time to acknowledge the pain and address what happened that night in therapy, which I've never done before, and begin to find closure with all of this from within myself.
Part 4: Forgiving Him
It’s been eight month since I wrote down what happened that night, and since I contacted him. Since then, I’ve gone back to therapy to talk about what happened that night for the very first time. Talking about it openly and writing my story was the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. My husband had always told me about exposure therapy for PTSD, which essentially says that the best way to get over a trauma is to just exposure yourself to triggers and talk about what happened over and over. Although it was painful to relive what happened through therapy and writing, the more I've talked about it, the less emotion and sensitivity I feel around it. I’ve stopped having flashbacks, and find myself sleeping better the last few months.
The last time I contacted him I was hoping for an apology I'd probably never get. I wanted to contact him again, this time feeling prepared knowing that its almost impossible he'd admit to anything or apologize out of fear or denial. This time I wasn't looking for anything from him, I had things I wanted to say to say to him:
Even though I had prepared myself for this to happen, it was still disappointing to read it. I recognize how ridiculous it is that I still want him to apologize, I guess without it I still question everything. Was what happened that night rape? Or did he just take advantage of me? Was it my fault for being drunk and not being more forceful that I wanted to stop? I realized that while I've wanted to define and label what happened that night, it actually doesn't matter. I shouldn't need a label to justify the pain I felt. At the end of the day, what happened that night made me feel violated and caused years of pain, flashbacks, and PTSD. All I can now is see these emotions for what they are, understand them, forgive myself, and let go. But before I could do that, I realized I needed to write him one last message about how I felt about that night:
I wrote him one last time because I needed him to know that while I'm not prosecuting him, he didn't get away with it. I need him to know that what he did was wrong on a moral level and his actions hurt me. However I also needed him to know that I am forgiving him.
Why am I forgiving him? What is forgiveness anyways?
Tim thinks I am crazy forgiving him and questioned whether I'm doing it for the sake of the project, but I'm not. I've thought about this a lot and do believe its the right thing to do. It doesn't mean I condone what he did, or will forget it. What it means is that I am releasing any anger or pain I have around the situation, and choosing to leave this all behind without any grudges or plan for revenge. In part this forgiveness is selfish, its in a way shifting back the power to myself and taking control. In part the forgiveness is for him and those around him, I decided it was important to let him know I was moving on and that he wouldn't hear from me again.
His inability to speak to me, apologize or admit guilt he did tells me he is in real fear I will prosecute him, or severe psychological denial. If he lives in fear he might project the negative emotions on others. Fear breeds hate and hate breeds anger and violence and I want to live a life of kindness towards those around him moving forward. I hope that one day if he ever raises a son this will inspire him to make sure he teaches his son to treat woman better than he treated me that night. Maybe this is naive of me, and I understand it might not happen, but I am not sure what better options I have except to attempt to end another cycle of pain.
To be honest, even after I wrote all this, I've had major hesitations as to whether I should publish the story. It’s been a very therapeutic for me to write about the experience, but I feel I have nothing to gain by publishing it. In the few other rape accounts I've read online the survivor is always met with commenters quick to accuse her of lying, thats the reality of living in a victim blaming society. I also know I'll be met with a number of people who shame me for being irresponsible for not reporting him and the incident, despite the statistics that show its almost impossible to prosecute someone for sexual assault unless its reported the same night it happens.
I dread the likelihood of resurrecting any guilt or shame with the negative comments I'm sure I'll encounter. However in the end, I've decided to publish the story in case it reaches even one other person who's gone through something similar and has wondered about how to cope with the pain or whether or not to confront their assaulter. If even one other person identifies with my story and makes them feel less alone, I think it will be worth it.
Please note: I changed the man’s name and a few details of our conversations in order to keep the identity of the man private. Dates were also kept vague for the same reason. I have no desire to prosecute him and let that night cause me any more pain than it already has.