076: Survivor

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

"Survivor," Rachel.

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.

“Survivor” was something I struggled with for a long time. Not because I felt more like a victim, or because I hadn’t healed enough, but because I felt like my experiences didn't really deserve a label at all. I hadn’t earned it.

I was sexually assaulted 9 months into my career as a sexual violence peer educator. I had spent an entire summer teaching incoming first-year students at my University about consent and sexual violence and respect and bystander intervention, but when I was sexually assaulted it didn't look like any of the scenarios that I had spent all summer describing. He was my best friend. I had just left my boyfriend of 3 years for him. And when it happened, it didn't feel scary. It was a blur. I froze. I didn’t know what to do. He just kept saying, “you're too sexy, you turn me on too much, I can't stop.”

It took me almost a year and a half to tell anyone that I had said no or that that night had been anything other than consensual. After it happened my friends congratulated me on hooking up with him for the first time. They hassled me because it had happened in my roommate’s bed. And so I didn't make a big deal of it. I stayed with him, for a while, at least, but as time went on, what had happened started bothering me more and more. I knew that putting distance between me and him would mean losing my entire friend group, the three roommates I have been living with for 2 years. And that was scary. 

I still didn't call myself a victim or survivor. I just said there was something bad that happened to me or that there were times in my life when people didn't respect my consent. It didn’t feel like what had happened to me was “bad” enough to label assault.  It wasn't until my senior year in a women's studies class when we started reading poetry about sexual violence, and I started having flashbacks in the middle of class, of myself saying no, of myself saying please just go to sleep I'm tired I want to go to bed, please, not right now. I started realizing that “survivor” was something I could call myself, that being a survivor was the reason that I was so afraid all the time, the reason I still didn't trust anyone, the reason why it was easier to avoid the friends I'd had all of college than to tell them what had happened.

I've been calling myself a survivor for a little over 2 years now and in that time, I graduated college, I earned my master's degree, and I started an amazing professional career teaching college students about sexual violence and consent and building workshops that empower people around these issues. Being able to do that is amazing and incredible and I'm so grateful for every single day, but there are still times when I'm reading research on my computer or listening to my students tell their stories and I can feel my hands start to shake.

Or I'm sitting in a presentation and the examples that are used are a little too close to home and I can feel myself start to freeze up again, start leaving my body again. There are days when I have to leave work as soon as I'm done and drive myself home and sit alone in my apartment and text my friends to ask them to remind me that what happened to me was real and I have a right to feel this way. There are days when I feel like I'm a fake, that I'm just doing it for attention, but then I have the unfortunate gift of my shaking hands and my flashbacks and I am forced to remember all over again. 

A lot of the people in my life, my family, my little sister, don't know what happened to me, and I prefer it that way. There are times when I try to separate my career from my personal experience because there are some days when I fear that people will think I can't be an expert if I'm a survivor too, or that I can't help people if I'm still healing myself. Even if I know it's not true, those fears still creep in.

So, to every survivor out there, to every not-yet-survivor out there, to anyone who's still struggling with the words, with what to call what happened to them, you are valid. You have a right to feel upset, to feel violated, to feel sad, to feel angry, to feel anything that you want to feel. Your story doesn't have to fit anybody's model of what a survivor story should look like. It doesn’t have to be “bad enough” for you to deserve being believed and supported. You deserve love and trust and belief and so much more. So please, have hope. 

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About the art:

Rachel reached out to share her story back when we first launched this project. We were pretty inundated with stories, and I was bummed to see that Rachel's had to be delayed as long as it has. But here it is for folks to read!

Rachel breaks down the idea of being a "survivor," which is a central aspect of our work with the Art of SURVIVAL. So I genuinely appreciate this approach being included on our site.

Since this piece was made earlier in the project, I hadn't begun truly experimenting much the styles I created. But I still think this piece looks super cool. I love these colors and the quote is absolutely incredible and uplifting. Rachel has had this piece for a while, and I'm glad to know it's a source of inspiration for them everyday.