Content Warning: This post contains information about a survivor's experience with mental health, explicitly depression, self-harm, PTSD, as a result of repeated sexual abuse, 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.
Growing up in the religious south of the US, I was raised to believe that a woman’s intrinsic value was tied to her sexual purity.
It’s no wonder that I found myself unable to reach out for help, or even forgive myself, when one month before my set wedding date my fiancé had forcefully taken my vaginal virginity*, smothering my face and cries for it to all stop with a pillow. Afterwards he told me how I wanted it. He explained how it’d be a shame for anybody to find out what a slut I was, and so he promised to keep ‘our secret.’ It took me years before I realized that this was rape, that I had been gas-lighted.
* NOTE: Like many others brought up in Christian households, I was involved in the practice of ‘saddlebacking’—unprotected anal sex intended to preserve virginity. I recall one time in the back seat of my car in a dark parking lot; I had blood dripping down my backside, I begged for him to stop with tears, but he only forced himself harder inside of me as if he couldn’t hear me.
After just three months of a marriage progressively filled with more mental, verbal, and sexual abuses paired with the torture of sleep deprivation, I started to fantasize about lying on the train tracks behind the apartment, suffocating myself in the graveyard across the street, bleeding out in the bathtub... I was taught that divorce was never an option, and so at 19 years of age I began to think that suicide was a reasonable way out.
Sex hurt — it felt like multiple razor blades faced in opposite directions dragging my insides for what seemed like hours at a time. I’d bang my head against the headboard over and over to make the pain be anywhere but down there. Every time we had sex, I’d immediately run to the toilet to see if my insides were slipping out.
The times that I resisted his advances or complained that it was excruciatingly painful, he would punch the pillow next to my face, yelling, “It’s all in your fucking head!” Naturally, I questioned if it really did hurt or if like he insisted, it was all really just in my head. After 9 months of this anguish, he finally allowed me to go to the clinic. The nurse had whispered cautiously so that nobody could overhear, “You have chlamydia.”
I must have taken her by surprise by reacting with laughter mixed with tears of joy. It wasn’t all in my head! And there was a cure! Although my husband would never apologize, refusing to admit that he had been the one to pass the STD on to me, I felt relieved that I could trust my body and mind after all.
During the two-year marriage, I had literally lost my ability to think thoughts, something I would never have believed was possible. I started recording any thought that came to my head in a journal, including simple observations such as “the sky looks pretty.” It took months to fill a measly 10 pages. I, once a confident and thoughtful girl, had grown anxious and nothing terrified me more than a verbal beating for saying something stupid. It became safer not to think at all.
After taking on a new girlfriend and all of my savings, he kicked me out of the house with no back-up plan. While homeless, a co-worker had offered to put me up until I got back on my feet.
I quickly learned that there was a price tag attached to the new housing arrangement. The cost was sex. Three times a day. For several months. He was the first man to ever physical abuse me.
After finally filing an order of protection against him, I rushed into an apartment that I couldn’t quite afford yet. Without enough money for food and the first month’s rent, I lost 27 pounds surviving on stale crackers and the few canned goods I had.
Years later, while pursuing a Master’s degree, I learned that one-third of the girls at my university were involved on a website to exchange sex for money to help pay for college expenses. I of course played the academic role of questioning the indignities, inequalities, and complexities for young people engaging in these arrangements. But later I became a statistic; I was one in three girls that sold sex. I had been homeless and hungry before, and I had decided that this time I would be the one to call the shots. Looking back, perhaps more painful than the depths of humility I would go through for a modest amount of cash was the long-term impact of my damaged sense of self-worth.
Mental health problems run in my family, but I’m honestly not sure if it’s simply genetic or my life’s trauma- or both- that led to my mental illness. I’ve been given a few diagnoses, but the one I feel is most accurate reads as follows: “Severe major depressive disorder (MDD) with psychotic features; and a mild-to-moderate suicide risk.”
Looking back, I can pinpoint when the major depression began. I had laid in bed for two full weeks, developing bed sores on my hips. I went periods of three consecutive days without eating because I couldn’t force myself downstairs to the kitchen. I had even drank some pasta sauce straight from the jar because it was the only food within reach of the bed, not eating again for another several days after. I was in bed for 23 hours or more per day, holding my pee until I knew that I would mess myself if I waited even another second.
This past summer a family-friend raped me. I was black-out drunk and don’t recall giving consent, and so he was quick to assure me that it was something he knew I had wanted. It took me days before I was able to admit to myself that being drunk was not ‘asking for it,’ that sex from him was not something I had wanted, nor asked for, making it not okay. And yet I was unable to work up the nerve to immediately tell my boyfriend or family, and never contacted the police.
Over the following months while in Paris, France, two different men sexually assaulted me. I jumped out of a moving vehicle to protect myself the first time. Weeks later, another man held a knife to my neck after stripping me down. The experience with the police turned out to be just as traumatizing as the assaults. I was met with pointed questions about the color of panties I had been wearing, insinuating that I was somehow asking for it. My own mother even asked if I was putting myself in these situations ‘on purpose,’ as if to further punish myself.
As far as the psychotic symptoms, I had been court-ordered to a hospitalization for my own safety after a panic attack with vivid visual hallucinations found me walking into traffic with suicidal intentions. I had called my boyfriend just hours before, weeping openly outside the T-stop, swaying and stumbling to avoid all of the massive boiling bubbles popping out of the melting sidewalk. I wept because I knew I had betrayed him; I had kept the secret for too long. I couldn’t quite piece together how long I had known, but I had to make my final confession, “I am an alien. My eyes were not meant to see this world. I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you sooner.” It makes no sense to me now, but that was my truth in that moment.
I’ve had many out-of-body experiences where I’ve sat next to or above myself, simply observing me. My therapist tells me this disassociation is a coping skill I’ve developed to get through the abuses in my past. Not going to lie, sometimes it’s been convenient. I once watched myself successfully lead a seminar class I was nervous about! But it is terrifying to ‘reality-travel,’ waking up to find myself in the middle of sexual activity I don’t remember starting. I am in Florida having an uneventful sit on the warm beach, squinting my eyes wondering where my sunglasses are, playing with one hand in the sand; and then without notice, the very next moment I discover that I’m actually back in Boston having sex with my boyfriend.
At times I don’t even recognize myself anymore; my energy, my memory capacity, and my mood are all unstable, affecting my ability to function normally. I’m a mental health advocate and have dedicated my lifelong studies and career to improving voice and dignity in mental health care. It has been interesting transitioning into a self-advocate role as well in light of my own struggles with mental health.
I know that I’m very fortunate for both my work and school to be so understanding of my health concerns. I’ve been open about my diagnosis and the accommodations I need- mostly just flexible scheduling and extra time, but even still I’ve burned bridges. I painfully had to opt out of an international opportunity the day before the flight because I was having extreme flashbacks, nightmares, and was physically ill over traveling so soon after my trauma in Paris.
There are times when I think I’m all better and that it’s all in my past, but about quarterly I find myself in the midst of another disabling depression. I wish I had the answers, but for me personally, I’ve found strength in being able to talk to those around me about my struggles. But when confiding in others without the proper mental health training, know their reactions are likely to disappoint. They won’t know how to act, at times they’ll say the wrong things, they’ll struggle with patience… but I’ve been surprised at the acceptance I’ve received and their willingness to help carry the burden.
About the art:
This survivor's story became very close to me as I was working on her piece. Her bravery and resilience inspired hope, and an inflamed need to persevere in the face of my own trauma.
I thought the part she had mentioned about keeping a private journal to keep her thoughts was incredibly beautiful. Bookmaking and visual journaling is something I took up during my own recovery and is very close to my heart. The brain in the image is both a visual representation of her relationship with her mental health, as well as the thoughts she would write down in her diary. Surrounding the brain are her favorite flowers, tulips and ornamental kale.
I also included a small journal I had made myself. Journaling is a very important part of the recovery process, and I hope it will be something that she can use along the way.