Content Warning: This post contains information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to some survivors.
"I Continue to Heal," Dan McDowell
I was 13 when it happened. I was on a camping trip with my summer camp. I was shy and had few male friends and ended up in a tent with a group of other young boys I didn’t know.
It was "lights out" when it started. It began with general teasing and bullying before evolving into assault. I tried to laugh it off. I pretended it was some weird game I needed to shake off. I pretended it had no impact.
For years afterward I was insecure in my sexuality. Any physical contact that reminded me even vaguely of the assault caused me to flinch. Even then I told myself that discomfort was all in my head, that this was just normal reaction and part of growing up.
It took me years to recognize what happened to me as assault. It took me eight years to say it out loud for the first time. For some time after identifying as a survivor I wasn’t sure what to do, knowing only I didn’t want counseling, and so I stayed silent. I was afraid to come forward as a male and have my experience or sexuality questioned, or be called “less of a man” (whatever that means).
Even today, identifying as both asexual and a survivor, I always fear someone will respond that it is my assault that made me asexual. Eventually, I did share my story. The first person I told about my assault was my now-wife. I was afraid of how she might react.
When I told her, tears fell. I was afraid that it would lead to pity or sympathy rather than empathy or support. Thankfully my fears were unfounded. We talked through it together. She listened and empathized and that moment is when I think I truly began to heal.
Now, nearly 13 years later, I have continued to slowly open up. I’ve discussed my survivor status with family, co-workers, and the RA staff. It’s an experience that I have slowly accepted as a part of my story and who I am, but just a part.
Being a survivor doesn’t define me any more than my gender or sexual orientation. It is only one of many lenses through which I view myself and the world, but it’s a part for which I had found more support. When seeking resources, I wasn’t sure what was or was not open to me since my assault did not occur on campus. I was afraid of police involvement and the distance of time since the assault- a distance that had become so great I no longer knew the perpetrators’ names.
In the meantime, I continue to heal. While that specific incident was negative, I am still thankful for my summer experiences. I met some of my closest friends and when I need to calm myself the crashing waves, cries of gulls, and the sound of a bell buoy still spring immediately to mind. Sometimes life is full of dissonance, and mine is no exception.
About the art:
Dan and I connected a while back through #SAchat while talking about asexuality. As a fellow ace and survivor who struggles with many of the same worries, I was happy to create a piece for him that would help showcase the bright parts of a dark time.
The imagery of waves, a buoy, and gulls was something I could very easily picture in my mind - but it wasn't something I felt 100% prepared to paint. I spent a great deal of my time with this piece watching YouTube tutorials, and trying to recreate what I saw.
It was fun to learn something new, while creating something that may help give someone else a sense of comfort or peace, and I really hope Dan enjoys having this reminder of a serene and happy place in his memory.