Trigger Warning: This post contains information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to some survivors.
Note: All survivors who reach out to The Art of Survival are given the option to remain anonymous in sharing their story. Any specific details about the survivor are shared at their discretion, and not the creators of the page.
When I was 15 years old, I was violently and repeatedly date raped.
After writing that sentence, I spent several hours just staring at it and trying to move past it without success. I’ve rarely said those words out loud, let alone written them on paper. And despite not talking about it, there has not been one day in the 12 years, 4 months, and 5+ days since it happened that I haven’t thought about it.
15. I was the only female member of a nationally recognized robotics team. I was involved in theater and loved being in school plays and musicals. I played tennis, but not very well. I was going to be a mechanical engineer and wanted nothing more than to go to Carnegie Mellon University despite being told by my peers and coaches that I’d never have a shot because of my gender. I did well in school and had big dreams. I had lots of friends and despite struggling with being incessantly bullied as a child for my weight, I finally felt good about my social standing. For once, I felt like things were going to be okay.
15. I was dating one of the guys on the robotics team – my first boyfriend and the first person that ever seemed to take interest in me romantically. Growing up, I struggled with feelings of attraction toward both boys and girls. Too scared to talk about it with anyone, I kept it to myself until I found the courage to share with him. After all, he seemed so caring and open and willing to accept me. He would understand this, right?
15. I was raped by my then-16-year-old boyfriend. His house was owned by the church I was raised in and very connected to, and it was just on the other side of the church parking lot. My boyfriend wanted to make sure that I really was attracted to both boys and girls and not just a confused virgin - I remember being offended at the statement that he wanted to “fuck the faggot out” of me. I was raped by a boy who went to school and told everyone that we had sex, destroying my friendships and labeling me as a whore. But it didn’t stop there.
He threatened my life if I left him. He stalked me before and after school. He made sure I knew he had access to weapons and knew how to use them. He wrote horrible letters and passed them through the few friends I had left. He kept manipulating and assaulting me and I couldn’t get away from him. I told our robotics coach what had happened – though not in full detail – and he acted as though it was my fault. So I believed it was my fault because I didn’t have the courage to get away from him. He knew where to find me in our small town. And how could I tell my parents what had happened? They would think I was a whore too. He eventually got suspended – I think for trying to steal a laptop from our tech lab. I remember being so thankful that I at least didn’t see him in school anymore, and soon I stopped seeing him at all. I think he quit school. I only ever saw him in person once after it all ended, and it was several years later.
16. My grades plummeted. I stopped paying attention in class, stopped doing homework, and stopped caring. My mother took me to a child psychologist that diagnosed me with Attention Deficit Disorder, prescribed me some Adderall, and set me up with appointments to talk to a counselor. I refused to take the pills and spoke to the counselor for about six months before my parents, with whom I already had a strained relationship, decided that the counselor was “turning me against them” and stopped paying for me to go. I sometimes called my counselor crying and begging her to talk to me. I felt like I had no one. I felt ruined. I wanted to be dead.
17. I got suspended from my senior year of high school about two weeks before graduation. After more than a year of drinking, smoking, and doing bad things with even worse people (the few people that didn’t seem to care about my past and whatever reputation I had), I had a massive breakdown. I got caught very obviously stealing from a teacher I was interning with, and all I felt was relief. Like it gave me an excuse to tell the truth. Like my fuckup would force my parents to let me go back into counseling so I had someone to talk to. Like I could get help and didn’t have to explain why I needed it.
18. I had parents that were barely talking to me and a semester of high school to do all over again. My plan had backfired. When my uncle, who was the town judge at the time, gave me a second chance after the teacher I stole from refused to press charges, my parents also refused to put me in counseling. Instead, I stayed locked away in my room for weeks until, in an outburst, I finally told my parents why I so badly needed someone to talk to. I remember that the first thing my mother said was that I must be lying for sympathy from her because I dated him for almost a year and that it didn’t make sense. I remember being angry because my mother’s first husband beat her repeatedly until she finally got away from him, and I didn’t understand why she couldn’t see what was happening to me. I didn’t understand how she could just be okay with what had happened to her and couldn’t understand why I was so unable to heal. It was at that point that I decided that I would never tell anyone again. Of course, that didn’t last. But I did go about three years before feeling like I could trust someone enough to share.
20. The church I grew up in, and that I had stopped attending long before, tore down the house to turn it into a parking lot. I remember purposefully going to watch the demolition and feeling some sort of relief or satisfaction that the things that happened there would go away just like the house – like maybe I would finally find some peace. I finally had gotten enough control over depression and anxiety to go to community college. And it was through my involvement in community college that I discovered being a student affairs professional was not only a thing that could be done, but was also a thing I wanted to do. I wanted to help young adults like me realize that a mistake – or even a series of mistakes, whether made by ourselves or someone else, does not define us. So I decided I wanted to work in student conduct and continued my educational journey, jumping many mental and physical health hurdles along the way.
27. Do I identify as a victim? Sometimes, like when my brother-in-law announces at the dinner table that Kesha deserved to be raped because of the "way she acts and dresses". Or when my colleagues make crude jokes about "Title IXing" each other and I feel pressured to accept it rather than shut it down just to maintain the hard-won relationships I've built because my boss tells me in my performance evaluation that I'm not trusting enough and not connecting with them like he thinks I should. I worry every day that my past experiences will be found out by those I work with and destroy my career.
I am incredibly thankful that social media was limited when I was a teenager. I live in fear that my own history with relationship violence and the way I handled myself will be uncovered and used by others to decide whether or not I am competent to handle sexual assault and other conduct cases.When I was job searching, I had actual panic attacks about whether my answers to questions about crisis response and my handling of difficult cases screamed "I AM TOO INVESTED IN BEING A VICTIM TO BE ABLE TO BE AN ADVOCATE OR RESOURCE FOR A RESPONDENT". I know it's not true that I am but if there wasn't a reason to be afraid of the impact of opinions of other student affairs professionals, I wouldn't write this anonymously.
27. Today, with the sharing of my story, I'm choosing to become a survivor. I'm choosing to get to know the piece of myself that I was previously so willing, and even desperate, to let go of. I'm committing to changing the status quo in my field and others where everyone is so superficially accepting and willing to provide support as long as you're still willing to work 50 or 60 hour weeks with no extra compensation. I want to be heard in a space where the concept of work-life balance is an uninspired pipe dream that doesn't take into consideration how differently work-life balance looks for survivors of any sort of abuse or those with mental health concerns. I want to be an agent of change that helps build a culture where people like me don't need to be apprehensive about telling their stories out of fear that it could ruin their career.
15. I was raped by a boy who grew up to be a man that fights fires, saves lives, and is married with three little girls. I was raped by a man that is living a successful life while I spend my days fighting anxiety and depression, struggling without enough money to pay my bills or buy groceries and without the courage to ask for help. I spend time wondering if I will ever be half as content and successful as his social media profiles, which I seem to see everywhere, allude to him being. I wonder if I will ever stop defining myself with references to the one person that stole the power to direct my own life over 12 years ago. But today I choose to take a step toward stealing that power back for myself and others that feel voiceless. I choose to stop wondering. I choose to heal.
You’re not alone. You’re not ruined. Steal your power back.
About the art:
I loved that this anonymous survivor asked me to create their piece based on a quote from Mark Z. Danielewski's book, "House of Leaves." The entire quote is
"Who has never killed an hour? Not casually or without thought, but carefully: a premeditated murder of minutes. The violence comes from a combination of giving up, not caring, and a resignation that getting past it is all you can hope to accomplish. So you kill the hour. You do not work, you do not read, you do not daydream. If you sleep it is not because you need to sleep. And when at last it is over, there is no evidence: no weapon, no blood, and no body. The only clue might be the shadows beneath your eyes or a terribly thin line near the corner of your mouth indicating something has been suffered, that in the privacy of your life you have lost something and the loss is too empty to share."
So, narrowing the piece down to one piece of the quote was a bit of a challenge. But the piece I chose encapsulates the essence of the quote. For this survivor, it is a reminder to not waste the day, and to get out of bed when they didn't really want to do so.
Danielewski is one of my favorite writers. Inventive, weird, challenging. It's all incredible. And I feel that using one of his quotes worked perfectly for this survivor since they are also a very inventive person, a weird and quirky person, as well as someone who challenges those around them. I am thankful that this survivor chose such an inventive way to present their story. It is one of my favorite story structures so far in the project, and I think it's incredibly inspirational at the same time.
I used dynamically warm colors for this piece to make it stand out as a decoration and so that the reminder would be very vivid for this survivor.
Thank you for sharing your story, survivor. I hope it inspires others to do the same.