083: Survival Isn't Pretty


Content warning: The following story contains references to drug use, drug overdose, and recovery, which may be triggering for some survivors.

“Survival isn’t Pretty,” Andrea

My friends started dying my freshman year of high school, and it hasn’t stopped since. My grandmother used to call the obituaries the “Irish funnies,” and it was amusing until she had to hide the Herald when I visited because I’d immediately turn to the death notices to see if I recognized any names. 19 years later, I don’t even need to do that. My Facebook feed has become a roll call of the dead and barely-alive. I deactivated social media and, still, my phone lights up with texts asking, “Did you hear…?” 

I always know what it means: Another person I know has succumbed to the disease. Another coma that may or may not offer a second (or 92nd) chance. Another 911 call that doesn’t require sirens because it’s already too late. Another needle, another line, another cocktail of chemicals that an exhausted and broken body couldn’t sustain. Another one bites the dust.

Sometimes, though, we survive.

Survival isn’t pretty. It’s painful and non-linear and dirty. Survival isn’t just waking up from an overdose and breathing again; some of us never overdose. Some of us hit our bottoms in glass after glass of wine, or waking up and needing to smoke some weed before facing life. Some of us graduated from top-tier universities and got impressive jobs and then blew all that potential on prescription pills we didn’t get at the pharmacy. Some of us had families who cared, with resources to spare, and we ended up in therapy with counselors who said things like, “You’re growing up in a war zone.” Some of us lived in that war zone at home with parents who were also addicts. Many of us eventually lost every home and person and dream we’d ever had. Many of us ended up incarcerated, or in detoxes and mental hospitals, or dead in a train station bathroom.

But some of us survive. 

The people I survive with gather in dirty church basements, in police station conference rooms, and on the beach on Friday nights during the summer. We share our experiences: the places drugs took us, the feelings we suppressed in active addiction and have to face in recovery, and the ways our disease manifests when we stop using. But we also share our strength and our hope. We learn that whatever happens, we don’t have to go through it alone. We learn how to process trauma and loss, trust ourselves and others, and become responsible members of society. We form and develop our values, and begin to understand and apply the principles we want to guide our lives. 

We fuck up – frequently, and in catastrophic ways at times. But we welcome one another back with unconditional love.

We understand recovery is a process, and that we don’t get to graduate. We put an empty chair in the middle of the room to represent the addict who died before finding recovery. We laugh at really dark jokes and sit in silence while men cry for the first time and go out for ice cream to celebrate milestones. We find joy in life again and hold each other up during the really hard moments. We cheer each other on as those dreams we squandered turn back into possibilities, and we practice rigorous honesty and intimacy with people whose last names we may never know. We answer the phone during crises and when we put some time together, we help others. Service has become crucial to my survival; when I help others I also help myself.

Survival isn’t an upward trajectory, at least for me. It’s more like a heart monitor – there are going to be ups and downs, but as long as it keeps moving I’m going to be OK. Without drugs clouding my thoughts, I now have a lifetime of pain to address. I’ve been sexually assaulted. For years I blamed myself for the death of my boyfriend. I still struggle with self-harmful behaviors like cutting. I’ve caused others harm and don’t know how to forgive myself. I’m learning how to negotiate my sexual identity and define what being queer means to me. I’m responsible for the life and safety of a child as I do all of this. There are times when I think I’m starting to figure it all out, and the next day I’m so overcome with fear I can’t move from my bed. 

But I keep going—I don’t have any other choice. In recovery I’ve learned to begin letting go of some of the guilt and shame that kept me using for so long. I’ve started turning those lost dreams into reality. I found a career I love, I’m in graduate school, and I plan to pursue a PhD. I am the best parent, friend and partner I can be. I’m not perfect and much of the time I’m unsure I’m even worth the effort, but I’ve surrounded myself with people who remind me I am.

Survival isn’t pretty, but I was never big on traditional beauty standards anyway. There’s something to be said for landing in the gutter and crawling back out, for wiping the dirt off and remembering how bad life can be if I turn around. There isn’t a finish line. It’s either survive, or don’t. Today I choose to survive.


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About the art:

This survivor’s story emanated resiliency, and so I wanted to create a simple piece that would remind them of this. Throughout their story, I heard the repetition of “I survive” and thought of a heartbeat, as they describe in their writing.

With every heartbeat, I hope this individual is reminded of their joys, their struggles, their progress, their community, their resiliency, and most importantly their survival.

~Becca

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.

-Craig.

063: Say It!


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

"Say It!" featuring Shawna Potter (of War on Women)

 

Hi folks! Craig from The Art of Survival here.

Today we are doing things a little differently in celebration of a collaboration we can made with the feminist punk/hardcore band, War on Women.

I reached out to the band because I am not only a huge fan of its music, but our values and ethics very much align with those of the members of the band! Katy and I have identified in punk culture for much of our lives and have supported DIY ethics in our work as concert organizers/promoters and even in our work as student affairs professionals.

So we were STOKED when Shawna Potter, lead singer of War on Women, responded and said the band was willing to share our stickers/info during it's upcoming tour with FLAG, which starts today!

With Potter at the lyrical helm, War on Woman shares songs that cover a myriad of social justice topics, ranging from reproductive rights, anti-rape culture, the wage gap, and terrible YouTube comments.

One of the band's most important tracks, "Say It," takes on rape culture and sexual violence. We are sharing, "Say It," as a call-back to our Sexual Assault Awareness Month posts in April.

Take a quick listen, and heed the content warning at the top of the page, because this song references rape very bluntly. All of the people featured in this video are survivors of sexual violence, which makes for a very powerful visual. 

Note: the lyrics are below the video. Then we will continue the piece!

Lyrics:
Daddy, Daddy if I was raped would you wanna know where I walked?
Would you wanna know what I wore? 
Would you wanna know who he was? 
What if I was 30 or 12? What if I had one drink?
If the victim is your daughter, does that complicate the blaming? 
We will no longer be silent! Speak up, let your voice be heard
Dissenters drown in a sea of truth and our healing will cover the Earth

Say it! Say it! I was raped

Now that you've watched the video, I'd like to share some comments from Shawna, specifically about her approach to writing "Say It," and why sharing our stories is so important for healing.

"I think a very important part of the healing process is knowing that you are not alone," Shawna said, "that others have been where you are and come out the other side."

On the specific struggles of being a rape survivor, Shawna says, "one thing this kind of violence is able to do is isolate us, which is so dangerous and helps to perpetuate it." Shawna is exactly right, because as we've shared in many of the stories we have shared for this project echo the same sentiment, that being raped and/or assaulted made the survivor feel isolated and alone. But through storytelling, these survivors have found support.

Shawna from War on Women feels this same connection.

"I think hearing people's stories," Shawna said, "you know, they come up to us after we play or send us messages online - they honor us by telling us their story. And I hope we do that for them."

This is beautiful. It reminded me exactly WHY we started this project. It's taking ownership and agency over our trauma, over our perceived victimhood, and instead, turning it into power and survival. 

"You know, they thank us for putting words to a feeling they had," Shawna said, "or just for saying this difficult thing out loud in the first place; it helps folks to hear someone else say 'I was raped,' as it makes it just a little easier for them to talk about their own experience."

Shawna is exactly right again. There is power in our stories.
Especially in sharing stories of sexual violence.
Especially in wake of verdicts like the Brock Turner case.
Especially at a time when many survivors may feel disenfranchised to speak out about their experience. We CANNOT give into that fear. We all must speak up and not be silent about these issues.

There is power in sharing our experiences. We give other people agency to feel comfortable sharing their experiences, so that we can have a community of survival, a community of healing instead of having individuals living in isolation, fear, and anxiety.

We are all in this together.
We will no longer be silent.

You can check out more of the band's incredible tunes here!
And the band hits the road TODAY with FLAG (members of Black Flag) 


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About the art:

I wanted to make a badass piece for Shawna and the other folks in War on Women based on "Say It." So I wrote the words, "I was raped," multiple times in the background of the piece, as it is referenced in the song. Then I covered the painting in red paint and bleached the canvas like I usually do.

I splattered some white paint on the canvas to give the piece some dynamism. I used black ink to paint one of my favorite lines from the song. I chose the colors to match the band's album art of its debut self-titled album, which was released by Bridge 9 records, a Massachusetts-based label.

Glad to have made this piece for the band and excited to see them all this Sunday in Cambridge, Mass!

- Craig Bidiman

043: Difference is a Strength


Content warning:  This post contains information about mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder, which may be triggering to some survivors

"Difference is a Strength," 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 don't really know where my story begins. I guess I would have to say I started to see changes in myself in high school. I would get these incredible shifts in mood and behavior, that were usually followed by long periods of depression. I never knew what that meant. I continuously felt so abnormal and felt that I had to be isolated, because the only words that people around me could use to describe me was "bipolar bitch.” 

I was finally diagnosed with bipolar-depression and that’s when I thought my life was never meant to be a happy one. I had all these people around me who continuously called me a "bitch" or a "cunt,” because "I couldn't handle my PMSing" even thought having bipolar-depression was nothing like that. The comments about my disorder made everything worse. I felt like I had no support and no one who understood me.

My own family told me to "just be happy." With the continuous comments I got to a point where the depression took over and I stopped being able to feel. I began to resent myself for not being able to be "normal.” I convinced myself that for everyday I wasn't "normal" I deserved to be punished, so I began self harming and was struggling with suicide ideation. 

I spent two years in a program being told to "find my safety skills", but no one ever offered to help. There came a point where they felt like it was just easier to put me inpatient. This is probably the most terrifying moment in my life. I was stuck in a place where we couldn't go outside because "we couldn't be trusted,” and medication changes were regular. I honestly couldn't even keep track of how many different combinations I tried.

By the first month, my family didn't even know what medications I was on. I was finally able to leave because I was "safe" but in reality I was so numb from medications I couldn't feel. 

It's hard for me to really remember what happened next. I know that my breaking point hit six months later when my mom began crying because "I wasn't her daughter anymore.”

I didn't smile. I didn't laugh.

I barely ate, and when I did go out, I wasn't interactive with what was around me. I sought alternative methods and focused on art therapy for my release. I ended up being connected with wonderful instructors and counselor who worked with me to find my outlets and coping skills. 

Today, I still struggle; but it's one that I've learned to accept and balance. I think a huge part of my growing with this difference in my life is not allowing it to define me. I've learned that I may have to approach of process differently than others when it comes to emotions but that difference is not a weakness, this difference is a strength.

I have learned to become stronger and to accept and love all parts of myself.


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About the art:

The one suggestion I was given from the author of this piece was to include a semicolon, based on the Semicolon Project that influenced their experience with embracing their mental health struggles. 

After trying about 10 different ideas, I decided to focus the color on the background, and use line work to create a more dynamic semicolon with a message of, "I can survive," within. Through my research, I stumbled upon some really cool watercolor space designs that influenced the piece.

I was really nervous having minimal to go on with the piece, but I was delighted to hear that the author loved it. "I love this. It's very me," they said. I'm glad I got to play with a bunch of styles, and I'm really happy the author will be able to see themselves and their survival within it.

- Katy

031: Fighting Your Own Fires


Content warning: This post contains information about depression and/or anxiety, which may be triggering to some survivors.

"Fighting Your Own Fires," Yoo-Ra Herlihy


If I could take back my past - all the tears, screams, and self-harm, I don’t know if I would. It is part of who I am.

It all started when my Uncle Charlie died. I learned that he was an alcoholic the year prior, when he had been hospitalized for an overdose after hearing about his father’s passing. From that moment, I felt like it was my mission to be there for him. I became his pen pal. I wanted to show him he mattered to someone. 

I remember coming home that day, and seeing my father’s car in the driveway when he was supposed to be gone on business. It was the first time I had ever seen my father cry. I didn’t know how to handle myself. I felt like I failed my Uncle Charlie. That I didn’t show him he mattered enough. 

I started to see a therapist for a while. I felt hopeless. Was it because of my uncle’s death? Was this something I had been keeping inside me for a long time? I couldn’t explain it to myself let alone anyone else. I just felt heavy, sad, and unworthy all the time. I was soon diagnosed with clinical depression.

Somehow, having the title of depression made things feel even worse. I felt like I was being punished for being sad.

Through counseling, I discovered a few other things I was struggling with. I hated being adopted. I hated knowing the first person who was supposed to show me love was the first person to deem me not worthy, and gave me away. It’s something I will never get over. I love my adoptive family, but it is never easy.I always see my friends with their families, how they all look alike. I didn’t understand why my birth-mother didn’t want me. I blamed myself, and assumed I just wasn’t worth being kept. I am grateful she gave me up for adoption so I could have a better life, I just wish I didn’t see it as being denied the first opportunity of love.

I don’t remember the first time I cut myself. I just remember it hurt - a lot. I do remember the worst time, when a girl at the small Catholic school I attended claimed she was my friend and then told everyone how annoying I was for being sad all the time. I felt betrayed, and sadly this wasn’t the first time this happened.
I remember coming home screaming that I wanted to kill myself, and grabbing a knife from the kitchen. My mother stopped me, and I dropped the knife. That wasn’t the last time I harmed myself. I would cut anytime I got angry at myself - whenever I felt unworthy or not good enough. 

I had a teacher who told me I was going to Hell all the time. Who made me feel guilty for existing if I didn’t follow Jesus. God was a tormentor in my head. I always felt like I was being watched, and that I was a bad person for not wanting to pray or for fighting with my brother. I will never understand that school or the experiences I had there, and I will never forgive them for what they did to my mind.

I think the most frustrating thing is that I always feel selfish for being depressed. I have a wonderful adoptive family, incredible friends, a loving and supportive partner, and have been given many great opportunities in life. Sometimes I get so mad at myself for being sad, and crying about what may seem like nothing. No matter how hard I try, no matter how many therapists I see, or medications I am prescribed, my depression just keeps fighting back.

There are days I do not want to get out of bed. There are days I feel like nothing, and that the world would be better without me. There were days where I would just lie in bed because I didn’t have the energy to do anything else. I felt like sleeping was all I was good for. I always fight it though. I get up not because I have to, but because I know I can beat this. I didn’t always know that. It is something I have had to learn over the years.

It hasn’t gone away. It’s an endless battle in my head. I will tell you though, you can live through it. When things get hard, and I am crying my eyes out for what seems like something so small, I tell myself I can get through it. I think of the times I have gotten through tears and wanting it all to be over - and how I made it through. I remember that making more scars won’t fix me, but breathing and remembering I matter does. 

To those who read this, remember everyone who smiles has a story. Never assume because someone looks happy that it means they have their life together. We all are going through stuff. The important thing is to be kind to each other. I know it’s not always easy, but please try. I am still here today because I have found so many good people in this world. They might not always be there 24/7, but knowing they care means the world. Even if you can’t be there all the time, just give a person a smile when you pass them, say hello. You never know how much you can change their day, their life.

Depression is like being on fire, only it is invisible. It starts as a little flicker, then its grows. You try to control it by hiding it from others or ignoring it, but that only makes it bigger. Eventually, you try yelling for help. People come running to your rescue, but they can’t see the pain you’re feeling. They might help make the flames die down, but they can only keep them down for so long. Some of them might get tired of trying to help you, and leave. Some will stay no matter what, but even they can get tired. 

In the long run, you are your own firefighter. You are strong, and you can fight your flames. It can and probably will wear you out, and sometimes you night feel like giving up. Please don’t give up. You can fight your fire.


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About the art:

I'm lucky enough to get to work with Yoo-Ra on a daily basis at Lesley, so I was pretty familiar with her story before she submitted her piece. While reading it, I felt all the feels because she has basically become a little sister to me over the last year, and I hate knowing the struggles she goes through in her own head. 

I absolutely loved the ending of her piece, and fighting the invisible fires in your brain. She and I experience depression and anxiety very similarly - so when she spoke to others not being able to see your fires, or only being able to help the flames die down, I couldn't help but relate that to my own experience.

Dealing with your mental health is so tough when no one else understands what is going on inside your head. Developing that resiliency is something that takes practice, but I truly believe that with that practice - you can fight your own fires.

- Katy

027: inhale love, exhale hate


Content Warning: This post contains information about depression, suicidal ideation, and self-harm, which may be triggering to some survivors.

"inhale love, exhale hate," 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.

Growing up I was a happy child. I played sports, did well in school and had all the friends I could ever need. Fast forward to the summer going into middle school: 
"What're those on your arms?" I asked my good friend at the time, 
"Oh, I use scissors when I'm angry at my parents" 
"But why?"
"It makes me feel good."

I was never bullied in middle school, in fact most people liked me. I played on the soccer team and was an active member of my school system. But as school rolled through and certain subjects started to challenge me, I found myself feeling in ways I never thought I could. I'd come home and be angry, how did I get a C on that test? I studied for days. 

one cut for the C
one cut for the goal I missed my last game
one cut for my parents' disappointment as my grades slipped
one cut for each friend who turned on me as they noticed my arms
one cut because I needed it
one cut because I needed it
two cuts because I needed it
ten cuts because I couldn't sleep at night
switch arms because the other was full

I was thirteen years old when I started self harming; thirteen years old was the age I lost my first friend to suicide. 

Fourteen was when I started wanting to die, calling every contact in my phone at night hoping someone would pick up because I would be in the bathroom with a kitchen knife in my hand.

Fifteen was when I first attempted suicide, three times in one week. 
Fifteen was when I was admitted to a psychiatric ward for people like me. 
Fifteen was when I witnessed other people dealing with the same problems as me.
Fifteen was when a boy was admitted and told me through the window he watched the girl on suicide watch, sleep.
Fifteen was when the girl heard him say it and locked herself in the bathroom, tore up the tiles and ripped her arms open to wide they could barely stop the blood.
Fifteen was when they finally allowed me to leave, deeming me "no longer a threat to myself."

Sixteen, I changed schools.
Sixteen, I made friends.
Sixteen, I still hurt myself every night to sleep.

Seventeen, I met a boy who bullied me relentlessly.
Seventeen, I hated my body.
Seventeen, I still wanted to die but felt guilt for those around me.
Seventeen, I met the love of my life.
Seventeen, I survived Junior year of high school.

Eighteen, I started cutting my shoulders.
Eighteen, I started cutting my waist.
Eighteen, I threw up in the bathroom from not eating during school.
Eighteen, I got an A on a Thesis paper.
Eighteen, I graduated high school, a feat I never thought I'd live to do.

Nineteen, I was accepted to Lesley University.
Nineteen, I started to accept my body.
Nineteen, I stopped my medication.
Nineteen, I had a nervous breakdown for the first time in years.
Nineteen, I relapsed and harmed myself again.
Nineteen, I gained 40 pounds in two semesters.
Nineteen, I survived freshman year of college.

20, I still have difficulties getting out of bed each morning.
20, I still forget to take my medicine from time to time.
20, I still want to harm myself but understand that I am getting better.
20, I am breathing in love and exhaling hate.

20, I am alive and hope to be so for as long as I can.


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About the art:

I identify a great deal with this survivor's story. The self-harm, the ideations, the feelings of inadequacy, the body image struggles. So when I finished reading this piece, I wiped away a few tears and knew I needed to create a piece for this survivor.

The survivor chose the colors for this piece, and I added the black lines going up to correspond one line with each cut referenced in the first poetic stanza. 18 in all.

The quote I chose comes directly from their penultimate line, "20, I am breathing in love and exhaling hate." When I heard it, I knew it had to be on the painting. That's also how we chose the title for this story. It's just a perfectly dynamic title that almost anyone who has lived a life of self-harm may understand.

The feeling that each time you harm, there is a relief. But it's fleeting, so you need more and more. But once you distance yourself from harming, you begin to be able to love yourself more than you hate yourself. So inhaling the love instead of hate is a much space to be in even if, as the survivor notes, there are still moments of fear and anxiety that still creep into your experience.

It's all a part of survival. And I'm so glad this survivor was willing to share their story.

-Craig

025: A Soldier, a Fighter


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

"A Soldier, a Fighter," 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.

Throughout my childhood, I was witness to domestic abuse and child abuse. My dad would beat my step mom and my brother, all the while not touching me.

As I grew up my brother grew angry. When I turned 9 it changed to my dad would beat him and in turn he would beat me. In 2014 I began treatment for all of the abuse which happened from 9 years to 22.

During my treatment, I was diagnosed with PTSD and began EMDR treatment. This treatment was designed to separate the emotion from the memory through sensory mechanisms. I had to relive the memory and describe how it would make me feel.

It is gruesome work.
While going through this, a repressed memory surfaced.

At age 12, I had been drugged by my brother and raped by his best friend. Throughout my adolescence and teenage years I was depressed and suicidal. My now ex-husband could not handle the information and began to move away from me.

In August 2015, we got a divorce.

Today, I am still going through my treatment and trying to rebuild my life. The catch is my brother, after years of drug abuse, does not remember any of it.

He remembers the abuse by our dad but nothing of what he did to me. I have not told him and have in fact forgiven him. Part of my journey is rebuilding a relationship with him. It is hard and every week is a struggle but I am stronger and happier than I have ever been.

PTSD is often a term one associates with soldiers. Many people do not realize that there is a war going on here in this country. Domestic abuse and child abuse is a war zone for everyone that lives it. Every day is a struggle to survive and every day we try to find a way to fight back, to fight for our lives.

Being diagnosed with PTSD in a country that does not recognize this war is akin to reliving the trauma all over again. But now, we are fighting for our right to be heard and to be recognized for the war we have fought and a war we have barely survived. Many of the scars I have are just memories I get to relive in my mind and in my nightmares. Every bump in the night is a possible attack. The reaction to either fight or flee has been so ingrained in me that I have been running all my life.  I will forever be searching for a safe place.

Being a victim is not something I associate myself with.

I am a soldier, a fighter, and a survivor.

I have PTSD because I have fought a war that is never ending. PTSD is not just for the military soldiers. It is for anyone who has fought to live their lives without someone threatening them. It should be recognized as a mental and emotional trained reaction for everyone. 

The biggest fear I have with my PTSD is the fact that people do not take it seriously. I have heard "Oh, were you in the military?" And the shame comes back a million fold when I softly confess, "No, I was abused." And the look on the other person’s face is one of pity.

The look that says, "I am now uncomfortable and will be ignoring what was just said."

Abuse is the pink elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. That no one wants to get involved in. What they do not realize is that it is the longest war this country has ever fought, and no one knows.


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About the art:

When this survivor reached out to me, I knew we were gonna end the month with their story. Taking on the topic of PTSD is an interesting one, and we, as a project, will delve further into the topic more next month. So this seemed like a perfect transition piece to end April and enter into May.

The idea that PTSD is only reserved for those with military experience is misconceived and misunderstood. It's called, post TRAUMATIC stress disorder, which means it applies to all forms of trauma. This story does an incredible job showing that even if a person hasn't served in the military, they can be just as strong as a soldier in the way they conduct their daily lives.

Living with PTSD can feel like a burden. A burden that others might not understand. So it's important that our society takes heed of the message of this story and listen to its words. The person who wrote this piece is truly a solider in life, a fighter of stigma and trauma, and survivor of the hell it puts them through and I tried to capture that with the bright background and black splatter — a scheme I don't often use.

Thank you for your story, survivor.

We will be back on Monday with the first story of Mental Health Awareness Month!

- Craig

023: Pretend to be Normal


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


"Pretend to be Normal," 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.

 

February 2, 2002, I was 16 years old.

It was late at night, my dad was asleep. This guy was 24, I met him online, he said he was going to come pick me up that night. I had met him before and we watched Harry Potter and ate Bertie Botts Beans at his place. This night though, I met him at my door, I went to walk out but he pushed his body at me, sorta, his face came close to mine. I thought he was trying to kiss me, so I kissed him. Why did I do that?! He shoved his body past me. I think that's what he was doing in the first place, trying to get past me to walk in my house. He wasn't planning on going anywhere, I see that now.

We ended up in my room watching TV. I don't really remember exactly how anything happened. I wasn't drunk or high or anything, I was nervous and uncomfortable but I didn't think he would hurt me. I am not very assertive, so the thought of just asking someone to leave my house is odd to me. Again, I'm not sure how things happened but I just remember him on top of me, my pants down, his were just undone. I was too scared to move much but I know I told him "stop" "it hurts" he was using his disgusting spit as lube and it was sticky and it hurt and he smelled bad, he was also wearing a leather biker jacket and I could smell that too.

He finished and was lying halfway on me watching a fishing show making comments about it.

Like nothing happened.

Like he didn't just violate me with his disgusting self. I wanted to ask if he wore a condom but I was pretty sure he didn't and I felt stupid. I wanted him to leave, and I wanted to kill myself. After he did leave I sat on my bed and stroked my stuffed sheep and cried the rest of the night. Maybe if I had screamed for my dad across the hall. Maybe if I walked to the hospital nearby. Maybe if I didn't kiss him. Maybe if I never invited him over. Maybe if I didn't...

Something...

I knew there was something wrong within a couple days. I at least got a period soon after so I knew I wasn't pregnant, but something else was wrong... I went to the doctor and I was too scared to tell her exactly what happened. She gave me pills for yeast infections. I didn't know what to do, I felt like I could somehow make this go away. 

Maybe if I pretend this is normal!

Yes, that sounds like a good idea! So I saw him again, this time at the park with my friend, J. We all got ice cream cones. He threw his on the ground because he didn't like it. J got so mad at him for it she still talks about it. She hates him for the ice cream—not for what he did to me.

I kept going back to the doctor over and over because I knew something was wrong that wasn't a yeast infection but she kept giving me the same pills for months until September-October when I told my friend M what happened and she took me to the free clinic. I had trichomoniasis and BV (possibly caused by the repeated treatments for yeast infections from my doctor) they gave me some pills and it cleared up.

Around this time his girlfriend messaged me online. I met her and talked to her a lot. She worked with my dad. I learned the rapist was actually in his 30's. They recently had a baby together and she showed me his computer that was full of messages about fucking young girls. His AIM friends list was full of names of my teenaged friends from school. I actually met another girl at school he met but she got away from him before he could do anything. He had pictures of girls tied up and him doing things to them. Neither of us contacted the police. She married him. I was too scared to have to tell anyone what happened. This is the first time I've ever told anyone the full story. I've never even wanted to admit it to myself.

I've been sexually abused since I was a small child and wanted to pick a single incident to write about, the one that still haunts me the most, I guess. I have just recently fully realized that my body is my own and I have the right to say no and that no means no. I am learning how to be assertive and trying to put together all the broken pieces I've been carrying around for years so I can become whole again.


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About the art:

This survivor's story really hit me when they mentioned trying to make everything seem normal, and how the thrown ice cream seemed to be a metaphor for how they felt at the time. They asked for the ice cream cone on the ground in their painting - specifically cookies and cream.

I did a little research to find some examples I could go off of, grabbed some stale Oreos from our kitchen, and some Mod Podge, and got to work. Once the cone was finished, the piece still seemed not to be. Craig thought the last line of the story would be fitting, and was a beautiful statement on this survivor's healing process.

- Katy

020: The Intern


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

"The Intern," J.

Note: All survivors who reach out to The Art of Survival are given the option to remain as anonymous as they would prefer in sharing their story. Any specific details about the survivor are shared at their discretion, and not the creators of the page.

I have decided to share this anonymously because this part of my life is too daunting to share openly, at least for now…
 
When I was 19 years old, I was fortunate enough to have TWO internship offers for the summer. One position was at home in Connecticut, and the other was in Massachusetts. I wanted to live with my boyfriend at the time, so I went against all of my instincts and accepted the Massachusetts offer. The internship was in direct sales. It was pitched to me as a completely different experience, but the bottom line was that it was business-to-business sales. At the time, I didn’t realize the impact that one decision between two offers could and would actually have on my life. 

I was paired up with a 26 year-old male employee, I’ll refer to him as S. I thought that he was awesome. We would spend all day “in the field” together. During lunch, we would watch funny videos and just laugh hysterically. S. was funny, smart, and sarcastic. We shared things about our lives with one another. He had played D1 college football, until his girlfriend got pregnant. They ended up getting married after their son was a few years old. His wife had given birth to their second son less than two weeks before I met him. I developed a friendship with this man. We would talk about our families, issues at home, and my relationship. There were moments that I would imagine marrying someone just like him. 

One of our mutual interests was country music. I remember “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not?” coming on the radio one afternoon. S. started singing it to me. I didn’t think much of it at the time. We always goofed around and he was constantly singing… 

About six weeks after I began the horrible internship, I decided I needed to quit. I wanted to return home and be with my family. My boyfriend was upset because he knew that quitting the internship meant moving out of his house and also being two hours away. Overall, he understood and I agreed to spend a few days with him before moving home. 

I was nervous, so I chose to quit on a Friday when all of the supervisors and managers would be away at a conference. Another decision I wish I never made. S. was in charge of the office that day.

In the morning, I asked S. if we could talk. We went into an office and I told him I needed to go back home. He was aware of the situation with my family. He begged me not to leave, but seemed to understand after I gave even more details and background. I cried. He asked if I would work the rest of the day, to close out some of my accounts, and then asked if we could talk more after the day was done. He was being so supportive. I agreed. 

I came back late and there were only a few people left in the office. I said goodbye to a few of them, but S. was really the only person who I cared about there. After everyone left, he locked the main office door. I didn’t think anything of it; the day was done. 

We went into a big room that was used for energizers in the morning and for celebrating sale goals met at the end of the day. We talked for a little while. I cried again. I was vulnerable

He kissed me. I think I kissed him back for a few seconds before pulling away. “I have a boyfriend…You have a wife! And kids!” 

No response. 

He pushed me up against the wall and forcefully kissed me again. 

I pushed him off and grabbed my bag off the ground and began to walk out. He said, “wait, I’m sorry.” I turned around and he said, “let me walk you out.” I was beyond flustered. Did I just cheat on my boyfriend? 

So many things were going through my head when all of a sudden I was pushed into my supervisor’s office. He pushed me facedown into the desk and pulled my pants down. 

He said, “I’ve wanted to do this since I met you. I’m so glad we’re doing this.” I muffled words through tears. I don’t know if I said no. But I definitely used the word stop while I told him that he was hurting me.  

And then I froze. I hoped it would be over quickly. It felt like a lifetime, but I think it was only a few minutes. After he was finished, he gave me some tissues and told me to wipe it up. I did and threw the sticky pile in my supervisor’s trashcan. 

I quickly pulled my pants up and grabbed my bag, fumbling for my keys. I went towards the elevator and there was a woman waiting there. Thank God. Say something. Say anything. 

I was still frozen. 

He was already out of the office. The woman looked at me, knowing something was wrong. He said, “she just got some tough news about her family.” She looked sympathetic. He wrapped his arms around me and squeezed, tightly. He towered over me, more than six feet tall, and was so strong. 

He followed me to my car, watching the other woman walk to her car and drive away. I just wanted to get in my car and lock the doors. He said, “I hope that wasn’t the only time we get to do that.” I mumbled something again and said, “gotta go.” 

I got in the car, locked the doors, and started driving to my boyfriend’s house. The man who just raped me called me on the way home. 

“That was fun.”

I hung up. He texted me a few times that night and throughout the weekend. I gave one-word responses, if anything at all. 

I went home to find my boyfriend babysitting his cousins. I picked a fight with him and told him that I just wanted to go to sleep. The only thing that I really wanted was to shower.

A few days later, I moved home and our relationship slowly deteriorated. 

For months, I tried convincing myself that I just cheated. It wasn’t until October that I fully realized what had happened on that Friday in June. I was listening to a speaker present on sexual assault. I was there to write an article for my college newspaper. I heard it over and over, “no means no.” And that’s when it clicked. 

It happened to me. 

After the event, I went to work on a group project with one of my friends, T. He was a year older than me. We had connected earlier that year because we had the same major and advisor. I trusted T. That night, he said, “what is going on? You’re not yourself tonight.” He then asked if I wanted to go for a walk and get some fresh air. We went outside and T. said, “you know you can tell me anything and I’ll be here for you.” I then shared what had just clicked for me and my life changed once again. 

The next day, T. told our advisor what happened to me. Our advisor’s wife (another professor at a different institution) happened to be on campus that day. My advisor asked if the three of us could talk because they didn’t want me to be uncomfortable if it were just he and I. 

I shared everything. My advisor asked if I wanted him to step out, so he did and I spoke with his wife for a while. 

Then everything happened very quickly. I began meeting with a counselor. A few weeks later, I decided that I needed to tell my boyfriend. T. drove me to my boyfriend’s apartment and said to let him know when I wanted to be picked up. I assumed it’d be the next day. After dinner and a movie, I decided it was time to tell him. I sat down and bravely began sharing my story. My boyfriend immediately reacted poorly. 

“I can’t believe you would cheat on me! How could you do this to me? And how could you stay with me for this long? I knew something was wrong but you never would tell me.” 

I burst into tears. I texted my friend and he rushed to pick me up. 

“I can’t believe you’re leaving with [T.]… are you going to sleep with him too?” 

About a month after I shared this story, I was hired as a mid-year RA and it was one of the best things that ever could have happened to me. I was blessed with a support system that I never could have imagined. Residence Life staff, my advisor, the Dean of Campus Life, faculty members, friends, and my fellow RAs were all incredible during this time. 

I was clear from the beginning. I didn’t want to get the police involved. I didn’t have any proof. I threw the tissues away. I answered his phone call, responded to some texts, the woman in the elevator had no idea what had occurred…

They supported every choice that I made and didn’t question any of them. The way I was supported through this situation is one of the main reasons I am working in higher education right now. I am forever indebted to the wonderful individuals who were there for me. 

I stayed in a relationship with my boyfriend until the following summer. I tried to make it work. He had apologized the next day… apparently his ex-girlfriend actually had cheated on him, and made up a story about being sexually assaulted. She later admitted to making it all up, and he couldn’t differentiate between her false story and my truth. Our relationship was never the same and I knew I would never be able to have a healthy relationship with him. He blamed himself. He felt like he shouldn’t have encouraged me to move to MA, to stay at the internship for as long as I did, etc. The two of us played the “if only we…” game quite a bit. 

I was raped five years ago this June. Since then I have earned my BA and M.Ed. in Higher Education Administration. When the anniversary of that day comes around, I will be wrapping up my first year as a student affairs professional! I will always carry this experience with me, but I have become stronger. I am tough. I am proud of the way that I have played the hand I’ve been dealt. I may be anonymous on this blog, but there are people who know this story, my story, and I am proud that I had the courage to share it with them. The most important thing is that I am not alone, and neither are you. 

If you would like to connect with me, please email the wonderful people of Art of Survival. They know how to get in touch with me and I am more than willing to speak with anyone who needs or wants to. 

Thank you for being a part of my journey by reading this chapter of my story. 

-J


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About the art:

When I first connected with this survivor about their story, they sent along several powerful Maya Angelou quotes for inclusion in the art.  It was so difficult to decide which to choose, but the message that really stuck with the survivor was the following:

"I chose the quote because so much that happens in life is completely out of our control. Naturally, we change based on these circumstances, but we should continue to persevere, even while dealing with and processing these experiences."

After re-reading their story, the one message that really stuck out to me was resilience.  And with that message, an idea of the mangrove tree came to mind.  This survivor had already shared that marine images and calming colors were important, and being a native Floridian, I've lived around these resilient trees most of my life.  Not only have they evolved to adapt to saline climates, they also create an interlocked island of roots that support the trees, as well as the wildlife that call mangroves home.

This survivor has survived a threatening, unwelcoming environment, and evolved to tell their story.  By telling their truth, they also built a network and a diverse support system that has helped this survivor heal. I'm so thankful for this survivor for sharing their story, and I hope they remain resilient and strong.

Beth

002: The Assault

Jackie Koerner tells the story of her sexual assault. This piece was originally posted on her personal blog, which can be found here.


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

"The Assault," Jackie Koerner

I’m telling the story of my sexual assault. My rape.

At the conference I just attended, ACPA 2016, I saw how profoundly impacted the crowd was by a young lady telling the story of her sexual assault. You could tell they were shocked – she didn’t “look” like how they they thought a sexual assault victim should “look.” I heard, “She’s so sweet!” and “She looks just like my best friend!”

I hope to share my story to help bring awareness to an awful reality in our society still today. Not only does sexual assault happen, but the victims often find themselves in situations where people call it a “he said, she said” or a “misunderstanding.” Victims don’t find themselves in those situations, rather people choose to put them there. Those people need to have an awakening about sexual assault. Sexual assault doesn’t “happen” to only “certain” people. It could happen to anyone. It could be done by anyone.

Raise awareness. Support the survivors. Taking the report is not enough. Be compassionate. There are more survivors than you think. One in four college students have been sexually assaulted.

Hearing Kristen talk about her story has given me the strength to publish this draft I wrote some time ago.

After 12 years, I forgave myself. After 12 years, I forgave him. I decided he doesn’t deserve any bit of my attention. He doesn’t get any real estate in my psyche.

For those 12 years, though, I struggled. I struggled with nightmares, while asleep and awake. I struggled with touch: hugs, unexpected brushes of arms, and even the loving touch of my wonderful husband. I struggled with blame, often telling myself how dumb I was putting myself in that situation. I struggled with guilt, often railing myself for how naïve I was.

In hope this will impact even just one person’s view of sexual assault awareness, I post this story. The names have been omitted because I never made the report. I never found the strength.

It was a Saturday morning. My friend needed me to watch his son. He had to work all day. His girlfriend had to work at the bank until noon and would be back after that. I met her at their apartment and she left for work. I settled in playing with [the toddler].

His son had a cold. He fell asleep after I fed him a snack and cleaned up his nose. He was about 2 at the time. His bedroom was straight back from the apartment door. Their bedroom was to the left of the toddler’s bedroom.

After cleaning up the dishes I used to make the toddler’s snack, I sat down on the sofa to watch tv. I was watching Where the Heart Is when he came in the door.

I remember being startled because I didn’t expect him to come home. I then got up and started to gather my things. He asked me if I wanted to see his girlfriend’s birthday present. I said, “Sure.” He said, “It’s in the bedroom.” I said, “Okay,” and followed him into the bedroom.

He said to sit down on the bed while he got it out of the closet. Again I said, “Okay,” and sat down on the foot of the bed. He went to the closet and said for me to close my eyes. I laughed, said, “Okay,” one last time and totally expected him to show me skimpy lingerie and didn’t want the Victoria’s Secret bag to spoil the surprise. Then he handcuffed my wrist, and linked my hands behind me. I asked what he was doing and then said, “Oh! Ha! You got her handcuffs.” (they were into that sort of thing). He said that’s not all. I asked him if he could take the handcuffs off and tried to get my hands out.

He went back to the closet and came back with his hands behind his back. He then quickly put the blindfold over my eyes and shoved me back on the bed. He proceeded to pull my pants and underwear off. I started to panic. I asked him what he was doing. He said, “Showing you [her] birthday present.” As he forcibly penetrated me. I felt a sharp pain. It burned. And it hurt. He asked me if it felt good. I told him it hurt. He said it was supposed to feel good and he didn’t stop.

Afterward, he took off the blindfold and the handcuffs. I can’t remember if he pulled my pants up or if I did. I quickly got my things and left. I got to my car but couldn’t remember how to drive. I remember crying then sobbing. The next thing I remember, I was home. Chris was shocked to see me home early. I didn’t tell him. I couldn’t face the shame.

It was another 10 years before I told him what happened. By not telling him, I hurt him worse than telling him when it happened. He reassured me that it wasn’t my fault.

Days after the assault, [he] tried contacting me . I ignored his phone calls. I ignored his texts. In his messages, he acted like it was no big deal.

A couple of weeks later, I tried calling his girlfriend at her work to tell her what happened, since I didn’t want [him] seeing the call and denying it. She said he told her I would try something like this. He said I wanted to break them up because I wanted to be with him. She screamed at me on the phone. We didn’t talk again.

Years later [he] emailed me at my work email while I worked in the financial aid office at SLU Law. He said he was sorry for anything he had ever done and hoped I was well. I replied curtly that I hoped his family was well. He replied once more implying that I wasn’t over it and could understand why I didn’t want to talk.

Shortly after the email I saw him at Costco. Apparently he works there with their cell phone booth. I approached Costco management about letting me know when he works so I could then shop on times when he is not there. He hesitated. I let the manager know it was in relation to a sexual assault from years prior. The manager then said he couldn’t provide me the information as it violated the employee’s privacy and that he wasn’t sure what sort of disagreement I had with [him], but stands by his employees and can’t get involved with a “he said she said.” The manager then suggested I shop somewhere else.

Society shouldn’t ostracize the victim. Please make sure you don’t. Where is the compassion for the survivor? I hope you find it on your campus and encourage others to find it too.


About the art:

I stumbled upon Jackie's story while scrolling through the #SAChat thread on Tweetdeck one day, and I was blown away with how Jackie shared her story. So when I reached out Jackie about sharing her story for this project, I was thankful to learn how eager she was to share her piece with a larger audience in hopes that it could help someone, anyone.

Jackie told me to take her piece of writing and use that as the motivation for the art piece. So I did. She told me that she liked warm colors, so I chose my colors accordingly. Choosing the phrase, "Life Shrinks or Expands in Proportion to One's Courage" for the painting was a no-brainer. I knew this piece would resonate with Jackie and become one of our first extremely poignant pieces.

The quote on Jackie's piece reminded me of La Dispute song, "all our bruised bodies and the whole heart shrinks," which is linked here. The song talks A LOT about how storytelling impacts the resiliency of the human spirit in face of trauma and suffering. The album this song comes from, Wildlife, is made up of 14 songs about humans struggling with some form of trauma. And one line that stands out particularly from this song is, "I’m not sure if I’m ready yet to find out the hard way, how strong I am. What I’m made of."

This is a telling marker of Jackie's story because of the circumstances of her assault. These sorts of incidents, these sorts of trauma often happen when we aren't ready. There is no way to prepare. Which means, even if you aren't yet ready to learn how strong you are, often this learning is expedited in the face of struggle. But that learning can ultimately be tied directly to resiliency through healing in wake of the circumstances.

And storytelling can make that healing much more real.

Jackie's story reminds me of this song, it reminds me of how suffering can come from almost anything, but that our resiliency is tied to our survival. And Jackie's survival is now tied to talking about her suffering and sharing the stories. With the line repeating at the end, "Everyone in the world comes at some point to suffering. I wonder when I will. I wonder," I hear echoes of what this project is all about. Suffering, trauma, and survival come in so many different forms and in so many impactful ways. That the storytelling is what brings us together, just as in this song.

Fun fact about the woman Jackie references in the first paragraph: that's Kristen Perry, of whom we shared our first story from Friday! I'm very thankful for Jackie having the courage to speak up and lend her voice to this conversation on sexual assault prevention awareness.

Thank you, Jackie.
You are a survivor.

- Craig

001: The Path to Recovery


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

"The Path to Recovery," Kristen Perry

As an undergraduate, I was very involved. I joined hall council, and then became an RA for the next three years. I participated in the National Student Exchange program, and I always got involved in campus wide events. I loved everything about my undergraduate career, except for the shadow that followed me. That shadow was my date rape.

I had been on and off with a guy for about a year, and we came to the decision that we should just stay friends and stop trying to be anything more. As soon as we made that decision, my life changed. I went to hang out at his apartment one night with his friend, and we started to drink. The next thing I remembered was waking up practically naked on the bed the next morning. Neither one of them said one word to me when they drove me back to my place.

I texted his friend asking him to tell me what happened, but he said he didn’t know. When I asked the guy, he began making jokes and asking how much I had to drink. When I asked him if we had sex, he took a long time to respond, but he finally answered yes.

Fast-forward a year and a half to my senior year-my third year as an RA. Our training changed a little bit, and they added two extra sexual assault sessions to the agenda. As I was sitting through a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner presentation, my worst fear hit me: the person she described in her survivor presentation was me.My life shattered. My last year of college turned into a huge blur of counseling sessions, completing sand tray therapy, and taking medication for anxiety and nightmares.

I was mad at myself because I didn’t know it happened. I couldn’t remember that night, he said we had sex, and yet, my brain didn’t process that I had been sexually assaulted even after years of RA training. I still struggle with this concept, and I am learning to forgive myself. As professionals, we need to know that not only is the attack never the survivor’s fault, but they are not responsible for the aftermath either.

This is Kristen's PechaKucha talk, titled, "The Little Red Bird," which she presented at the ACPA Convention in March 2016. The talk includes information about sexual assault, campus response and recommendations to humanize the compliance process.

I am still, and probably always will be recovering, but I know that I can use my experience to empower others. At the end of my senior year, I started the Clothesline Project at my school, which addresses all types of violence towards women. It was a small program, but I left it in the hands of returning RAs to make it greater in the future.

What happened to me was terrible; I can’t even say rape out loud without bursting into tears. I want to say that I’m glad it happened to me instead of someone who doesn’t know how to ask for help, but that’s terrible too. Sexual assault happens too often, and society tells survivors that it’s their fault and that they’re wrong to ask for help or report it. I’m one of the lucky few that didn’t receive backlash for asking for help. I didn’t choose to report it, and I don’t regret that decision.

Many colleges are educating students about sexual assault, but what if they don’t know how to ask for help? What if they do ask, but the school sweeps it under the rug, or creates uproar when they try to report it? How can we ensure that survivors feel safe and protected instead of vulnerable and ridiculed?

Kristen Perry presenting her PechaKucha talk at the 2016 ACPA Convention. This was the first time Kristen spoke publicly about her experience with sexual violence.

Kristen Perry presenting her PechaKucha talk at the 2016 ACPA Convention. This was the first time Kristen spoke publicly about her experience with sexual violence.

I am now across the country starting a College Student Personnel graduate program. I have an assistantship as a hall director, and I couldn’t be more excited. I am at this point in my life because of the endless support I had from professional staff, friends, and fellow RAs. Not many people know details, but they know that I went through a traumatic experience, and all of them walked through my recovery with me.

I don’t want survivors to travel down that path alone. The path to recovery is scary, dark, and sometimes seems like it’ll never end. As professionals, we need to walk with them until they can see the light and they don’t need us by their side anymore.

I will probably never know what happened to me that night, but I do know that my life has changed, and I want to walk someone else down the path of recovery.


About the art:

This is Kristen's little red bird that helped her through her survival.

This is Kristen's little red bird that helped her through her survival.

When Katy and I first met Kristen, we knew we needed to collaborate. We watched her practice her PK talk earlier in the evening and it brought both of us to tears. I immediately told Kristen I would paint literally anything she wanted. This interaction is actually what inspired us to create this project.

The red bird from her PK talk, was, of course a necessity, and since Katy is the person I go to for creating replication of pieces, I knew I needed their help!

Katy definitely came through in the clutch, creating a gorgeous rendition of Kristen's red bird. I took the quote as seen in Kristen's PK talk and painted the words above and below the bird to give the piece some necessary balance. All in all, this initial piece for the project looks and feels exactly as it should.

The painting is loving, fierce, and brave--all words i would use to perfectly describe Kristen's resilience as a survivor.

Thank you, Kristen.

-Craig.