073: The Ability to Relate

Content Warning: This post contains information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to some survivors.

“The Ability to Relate,” Anonymous

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.

I have been a trauma therapist and advocate for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence for about 15 years.  I feel honored to be able to bear witness to the strength and resiliency that survivors possess.  Many people ask me why I do this work or what keeps me motivated in the work.  My standard reply is that I love being able to help others to find their inner power and voice and have a part in their healing journey.  I usually say this with a certain inflection in my tone that denotes passion and a sparkle in my eyes and a huge smile because I do really love my work.

On the inside, my answer is much different.
On the inside, I am answering from a very different tone and perspective. 
On the inside, I hear my inner voice saying, “just be brave and tell them why you really do this work.”

But I never listen to that voice.  

I take pride in my ability to “relate” to survivors and engage them in the work they need to do.  All the while I feel somewhat like a fraud because I have not yet embraced my own voice and power.   For many years I have lived with my own fear of telling my story.  Maybe if I tell people what happened I won’t be viewed as a strong therapist?  Maybe if others knew about my story they would look at me differently? Maybe they would blame me for what happened in their minds if not directly?  All these “maybes” became my reasons as to why I have been so hesitant to share my story until now.  

I was raped by my boyfriend when I was 18.  There I said it.

Now, looking back he was emotionally abusive and very controlling and used that sexual assault as a means of exerting his power over me.  It was my first sexual experience and I remember being in such a state of shock that he did it even after I had said no many times that I just froze.

In my frozen state, I feared for my safety. I felt that if I spoke up anymore and didn’t go along with it he might hurt me worse that I was already being hurt.  As he held me down all I could think of was it shouldn’t be like this. Not here on this cold basement floor.  Not with this person who clearly has no respect for me. Not with this man who is literally looking right thru me and simply cannot see me as a woman in that moment.

In my head, I was screaming NO! at the top of my lungs.  But in reality I was just frozen and felt like I couldn’t breathe.  

Upon consulting with several girlfriends I came to the conclusion that sex hurts the first time and it was probably “normal” to react the way I did.  I never told them how he pushed me on the cold concrete floor and held me down and tore my pants off.  I never told them how I bled for hours after the assault. I felt too embarrassed and ashamed and somehow it must have been my fault if he did that. I stayed with him for 2 more months still not defining what he did to me as sexual assault. I endured his coercive sexual assaults and they began to feel “normal” after a while. 

In fact, I don’t remember feeling much of anything for those few months.  The event that finally made me break up with him was when he raised his fist at me to punch me.  Having grown up with domestic violence I thought well that’s it. That was my last straw.

It wasn’t until about three years later sitting in a social work class and talking about date rape (that term was recently coined at that time) that it hit me like a ton of bricks that what he did to me that night and after was rape. My body felt like it was on fire and tingling from head to toe. I felt paralyzed and became transported back to that first time.  Smells, tastes and images came rushing back all at once. 

I started to cry in class and went to the bathroom so embarrassed that I had that strong reaction in the middle of a lecture. My friend came after me and I blurted out my story to her. Then she shared hers as did so many other friends after that first lightning bolt hit me in class that night. 

The very first time I told myself to “be brave” was at my very first Take Back the Night at small college next to mine.  It was 1998 and I had just had this epiphany and didn’t know what to do. None of my friends came with me.  I went alone and as I moved from the audience to the podium to share my experience I whispered, “Be brave Nicole.  You can do this.  It wasn’t your fault.”

Now, for my work—I organize the Take Back the Night on my campus where I work. That very first time I spoke in front of the crowd it changed my life.  I wanted to figure out a way that I could create that same safe and supportive space for survivors as I had.  I want to take back my power and my voice and share with others my personal story of overcoming my sexual assault and I hope that those that read this can find a way to transform their experience to help others.

Thank you for reading and I hope you can find it somewhere in your head to also “Be Brave.” 

About the art:

I really wanted to do something different with this survivor's piece. So I started doodling. I have been doing intricate doodles like this for a few years now, so it was nice to finally make one for this project!

I followed one quote that this survivor wanted me to use, "Be Brave."

I wrote it in a few places on the page and then just drew around them to make them fit in with the overall piece.

Normally, when I add color to one of these pages, I add it with another colored pen than just black. But this time around, I wanted to try something different, AGAIN! I used watercolor paints to just splash around some blues here and there. I feel it gave the piece a very wispy look.

Glad that this survivor was open to me just exploring this drawing. And I am very glad they shared their story with our project. It means the world to me.

- Craig Bidiman.