It was fall of 2008, homecoming of my junior year. I couldn’t have been anymore excited. I didn’t have a date, but I was happily going stag with a girlfriend of mine. I was on homecoming court for the third year in a row and after the dance I was invited to the big senior class after party. It was a big night for a 16 year old.
The after party, that’s where I met him. That’s the night that I met the boy who would change my life.
At this point you’re probably thinking this is going to be a story about how I met the love of my life and lived happily ever after. Wrong. This is going to be a story about how I have slowly and continually recovered over the last seven years from rape, abuse, and exploitation. Today, I’m breaking my silence publicly for the first time.
I should probably go ahead and say that this is in no way a guide to recovery, or even a complete account of my own. My struggle is ongoing and part of the reason why I entitled this “From Bouncing Back to Moving Through.”
That night at the party we flirted and I had those butterflies you get when someone makes you feel special. He was older, popular, tall, and the quarterback of the football team. Every cliché in the world. Now this is not a story of ‘girl gets drunk at a party and guy rapes her.’ In fact, the party was probably one of the happier memories. But that is also why it took me so long to understand and accept what had happened to me. This is a story of two young people in a relationship built on control, manipulation, coercion, threats, and eventually violence.
After we met, it wasn’t long before we were dating exclusively. Movies and dinner dates, hanging out at each other’s houses and walking each other to class. However, the honeymoon stage didn’t last long. The first red flag was the first time we had sex. I cried the whole time. I told him I wasn’t ready. I even distinctly remember driving him home afterwards and repeating over and over again how I wished we had not done that. He wasn’t forceful then, just insistent. But that’s where it began.
Soon after that he cheated for the first time. I was furious but somehow he talked me down and even made me feel guilty for being so angry. I forgave him and unconsciously gave him even more control of me with each passing day. For those of you who know me well, I have always been strong-willed, independent, and even just plain stubborn. Never in a million years did I think that I, of all people, would end up there. But once I let go of my personal sovereignty and gave in to his berating the control and manipulation only grew.
The relationship lasted about a year and while there are probably stories I could write about from almost every one of those days, I will share only enough to convey my point. Partly because I don’t remember all the details. I think part of how I coped was by tucking those memories away in a file somewhere deeper than I care to dig.
Our relationship consisted of a constant negotiation. He wanted something, normally sexually, and I didn’t. I would refuse, he would threaten me- with cheating, with leaving, with physical intimidation, with blackmail, by throwing my keys in 4 feet of snow so couldn’t leave, by leaving me stranded three hours from home, by asking one of his friends or family members to have sex with me, by threatening that he would commit suicide if I didn’t obey- so of course I then would relent and do my best to buy time. Eventually the time would come and I would cry and beg to stall even more. Then, again, eventually I would agree. Next I would find excuses or create a diversion or distraction. All to get out of whatever he was requesting, normally things just to test how much control he had.
It started with just sex, then anal, then nude photos and videos, then threesomes, then wanting his football teammates have sex with me while he watched, then wanting me to seduce his friends and record it for him, then to wanting his brother and father to have their time with me. If these things sound ridiculous, that’s because they are. He didn’t want these things because he had some strange fetish; he wanted these things because they meant he had control of me. Now, thank God most them I never did. My negotiations and stall tactics worked to a degree. But it also meant that I had to make compromises on some of the less extreme things to appease him.
This, of course, still never guaranteed that I wouldn’t see the repercussions he had previously threatened. He cheated constantly, claiming that I never satisfied him and that I had irrational trust issues. His favorite phrase was that I was a psycho. To this day, that still strikes a nerve. If I were angry he would publicly shame me to make it appear as though I was a crazy girlfriend. It happened so frequently I began to believe it myself. I began to question my own reason and logic. Things that I knew were unfair, I couldn’t draw the line between black and white anymore. Things that instinctively felt so wrong but he defended with such conviction that I just relented. I don’t know if it was exhaustion from fighting it or out of doubt in myself, or perhaps a bit of both. I began to really truly believe that I deserved it. That I had created this monster and that there was nothing I could do to stop it.
Of course there were the good days too. As anyone who has ever been in an abusive relationship can tell you, there is still a reason you love him or her. It may be the memory of who they used to be or at least what you thought they were or it may be those days where they are loving, kind, and amazing. Every time he felt me pulling away and garnering my strength to leave he would apologize and dote on me, buy me gifts, and show me affection. It’s not as if I couldn’t see through this to some degree, but when love someone (or think you love someone) you tend to give them the benefit of the doubt. You think perhaps they’ll change for you because they love you, but ultimately they never do.
I think one of the most common questions that people get after being in an abusive relationship is, “why didn’t you just leave?” And all I can say in response to that is that it’s just not that easy. I had looked to my friends during our relationship for help. I never told them explicitly what was happening, but they knew it was not a good situation. Though I know they wanted the best for me, they normally only responded with a sympathetic, “I’m sorry,” or a dismissive, “Just leave him.” But there was fear of what he would do if I did leave; there was hope for a better tomorrow; there was shame that I had let this happen in the first place. And I think most of all I didn’t even know what was happening to me. I never realized I was being raped over and over again, that I was being emotionally and physically abused, and that I didn’t deserve it. I guess I thought that someone you were willingly in a relationship with couldn’t rape you or that agreeing, even under distress or coercion, was still consent. Don’t get me wrong, I knew I was miserable and that it was not a good relationship, but I felt trapped.
I use the analogy of an invisible hand holding you down. But then there are moments, brief, fleeting moments when the stars align and courage and opportunity come together to let you leave.
For me, that moment was a night in my childhood bedroom. I had picked him up from a party even though he had refused to let me attend. But he was too drunk to drive. I snuck him into my bedroom to spend the night. A fight predictably broke out and I ended up pushing him. Now mind you, he is 6’4” and approximately 240 pounds and drunk. He pinned me up against the wall so hard that the heel of my hand left a dent in the wall that is still noticeable to this day. As he did so, he put my head through the glass of a picture frame hanging on the wall. I fell to the floor face down with my head bleeding. This was my moment, the moment when I could almost literally feel that invisible hand letting me up. I remember thinking, as if it were in slow motion, that if I fought back it could end very badly. I slowly pushed myself up off the floor as he was turning around to crawl back into bed. I stood up and swung. Sadly, not as hard as I could because for some reason I thought if I only used half my strength then he would only be half as mad. That didn’t work. I did manage to bust his lip, but then panic set in. I started to run out of the room, but he pushed me. There are still red marks on the paint in my bedroom from where my nails went across the wall. I got up and ran to the other room and locked the door as quickly as I could. He followed and banged on the door. He twisted the doorknob hard until it unlocked. He came in and pushed me up against the shelves of the closet. As I fell to the floor the wood scrapped my entire back. I managed to run out and make it to the bathroom and lock that door. After trying to open that door he eventually gave up and went to bed. After a long while, I came out and immediately ran upstairs. I sat at the top of the stairs for the rest of the night. But the worst part about this story is that I didn’t even leave him then. That wouldn’t happen for about another week. Instead, I drove him home in the morning and carried on with life as usual.
My dad and I are very close and I often confide in him. However, he obviously did not approve. He didn’t know the extent of what was going on, but he knew I wasn’t happy. He often told me that I spent more time crying then than I did when my mother died. I felt as though I was between a rock and a hard place. I wanted to tell my dad what was happening but since I wasn’t ready to leave I also didn’t want my dad to dislike him any more.
After the big fight he was very remorseful, he even went as far as to buy me a ring. However, one day I was sitting in my living room and we were texting. He began falling back into his old ways and began blaming me. I told him that if he didn’t stop I was going to tell my dad about what happened. He said that I would never. I replied, “Watch me.” It was that moment that I knew there was no turning back. I nervously turned to my dad and began tell him what happened. I showed him the scrapes down my back, showed the bruises on my arms, and pulled back my hair to show him the cut on my scalp. I showed him the broken glass on the floor and the damaged walls. As any father would be, he was irate. He immediately called his parents who furiously called me a liar. Eventually the conversation came up about reporting it. I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t worth it. He was now at college on a football scholarship hours away and undoubtedly if I reported it he would lose his scholarship meaning he would have to come back home to where I was. Not to mention, I still had no grasp of what really had happened.
This isn’t uncommon. 68% of sexual assaults are not reported to police. And to add insult to injury, 98% of rapist will never spend a day in jail. (RAINN) And in my case there was also retaliation for my leaving. Eventually he followed through on one his many threats and publicly exposed unwanted footage of me. That’s how I ended up a case for the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children.
Nonetheless, my life changed immediately. I was almost instantly happier. So much so that people actually observed a significant difference in my demeanor. I hadn’t realized how depressed I had been until I wasn’t anymore. I began trying new things and rebuilding a new life. One of those new things was pageantry. And in just over a year I was Miss West Virginia. Who would’ve guessed? I really thought that I was the arrow that had been pulled back and now I was soaring. I honestly thought I had walked away unscathed. I thought I had bounced back.
If only it were that simple. I am extremely good at compartmentalizing my emotions. (Regardless of if that’s a good thing or not.) I’m logical and practical and my emotions are almost like a spicket that you can shut off at any time. Well, true to form that is what I did. I had a couple reoccurring nightmares and a small bit of anxiety but all in all, I was doing extremely well. But it wasn’t until college that I began to understand what had really happened years before. It wasn’t until I was studying women, children, and sexual and reproductive rights in my political science and women and gender studies classes that I realized how familiar this tale was. It wasn’t until I was going through Title IX training for serving on the Student Conduct Board did I understand my own consent. However, that didn’t change the damage it had done.
After beginning to understand, I began to unpack my emotions. I realized that even though I thought I had tucked it away as just a bad memory that in reality it I had been playing a role in everything. I was constantly insecure about being a bad girlfriend, sex made me feel dirty; I was on edge whenever someone made a misogynistic joke. As time went on the effects changed, but there were still effects. I feared aggressive personalities in men; I aimed to control my relationships; I tried to reclaim my sexual autonomy. Weirdly enough though, I was never angry with him. In fact, I rarely thought about him at all.
And I hope that is one point I make very clear. This is not about him. At all. This is about me. It’s internal. It’s about my perception of myself, not of him. He sucks, we all know that. What people tend to not understand is that abuse and sexual assault doesn’t make me hate him, it makes me hate me. Victims of sexual assault are 3 times more likely to suffer from depression, 6 times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol, 26 times more likely to abuse drugs, and 4 times more likely to contemplate suicide. (RAINN)
Like many men and women who have experienced abuse or sexual assault, I didn’t talk about it. There are few people who know this story about me. These experiences are accompanied by crippling shame. It took me more than five years to admit it was rape, and I still rarely use the term in reference to myself. This will be the first time I speak about it in any public capacity. And it still makes me nervous. I worry about people taking me seriously. I worry about making people uncomfortable. I worry about people’s judgment. I worry about people blaming me or calling me a liar. And these fears aren’t uncommon.
So, I entitled this “From Bouncing Back to Moving Through” because I believe that we don’t ever bounce back from hardship. We will never be the same person we were before, but we can move through. I learned that from a very insightful book written by a former Navy SEAL about suffering with PTSD entitled, “Resilience.”
This will always be a part of me. And a lot of times I really hate that. I hate that this is a conversation that I inevitably have to have with a boyfriend. I hate that I can’t trust my own judgment of people out of fear of making that mistake twice. I hate that I second-guess my own feelings because I think they may be clouded with cynicism and mistrust. I hate that I regularly read books and watch videos and study ways to recover. I hate that sometimes I feel like I’m broken and damaged and that no one would want to deal with that kind of baggage. I’m not the same as I was before and I won’t ever be the same again, but the good news is I can recover.
It’s weird that it’s been seven years and I think I’m just now beginning that recovery. It’s been seven years and I’m just now accepting it. I’m just now pulling it out of that buried file and unpacking those feelings. It hasn’t been easy. In fact, it has been fucking hell. I’ve battled insomnia. I’ve ended relationships. I’ve struggled with depression and had panic attacks. I’ve failed to get out bed for days on end. I’ve avoided responsibilities and disregarded my grades. I’ve taken medication and seen a counselor. But…
There is hope. While I may never be the same person I was before, I have to remind myself that I am worthy. Another fantastic book named “Tuesdays with Morrie” talks about how important it is to acknowledge your emotions. Sometimes things are going to make you sad. Acknowledge that, cry if you must, but then let it go.
I don’t have the answers to recuperating from abuse or sexual assault. I think it’s a long road, a very long road. But if you relate at least you know you’re not alone, far from it. I think sometimes that itself is a comfort. And I think unfortunately those who can relate surround us; we just don’t talk about it. Don’t be ashamed. You have nothing to be ashamed about. You aren’t damaged. It’s okay to have an imperfect life. It’s okay to struggle. Asking for help isn’t a sign of defeat and addressing your emotions isn’t weakness.
As I give you this encouragement, I continue to try to listen to it as well.