On Sexual Assault Awareness, Testimonials, And A Different Kind of Story

One in five women in the United States have a sexual assault story, and this month, I’m sure you’ll hear several of them.  Testimonials have traditionally been an important part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and they’re certainly valuable, but I don’t want to tell you my story.  In fact, I reserve the right not to, because it’s not the story I think matters most.

I don’t really talk about that night when I was a teenager, because it’s no one’s business.  I don’t really tell people about what’s happened since. I don’t really want to talk about what it feels like to say yes just because you’re scared to say no-~-again, because it’s not really anyone’s business.  I’ll tell you that it feels gross.  I’ll tell you that I wish I’d felt safe enough to walk away.  I’ll tell you that it’s complicated.

And I’ll tell you, right now, that if you don’t believe me without all the ugly details, that’s your business, because this is my story, and my truth, and if I have to scream it silently in my own head because that’s the only place I feel OK telling it, so be it.

I don’t need to tell you those stories, though, because those stories are everywhere.  Every story I’ve read in recent years about sexual assault-~-from Steubenville to UVA-~-is about the night it all went wrong.  It’s about how we handled the perpetrators.  It’s about how society treated the survivor.  Those stories still matter, they are still worth telling, but I’m not here to tell you those stories, because you’ve heard them before.  I want to tell you the story of what happened after, because my story didn’t start or end with trauma.  I want to tell you a story not just about surviving, but about living.

I’m not the only survivor who rhetorically draws the distinction.  Surviving is about coping, about getting through it, about putting one foot in front of the other, about getting out of bed every day.  Surviving is sometimes about knowing when to fight back and when to just let your body and your brain deal with the situation however they can.  Surviving is sometimes about knowing when to take the hit so you live through the night.  Surviving is ugly business sometimes, hunkering down during a thunderstorm, shivering through the power outage, forcing yourself to remember that eventually the sun will rise again.

Living is something a little different, something I’m still getting better at.  It’s not just getting out of bed-~-it’s wanting to.  It’s not just taking the next steps to move forward, it’s moving towards something.  I’m getting there by setting goals: getting through a day or a week at a time, taking on smaller projects, remember what I was capable of.  I’m getting there by picking and choosing confidants, learning when I needed to cry and when I needed to square my shoulders and push through.  I’m getting there by imagining the girl I want to be, and taking small but concrete steps so that when I look in the mirror, I see her looking back.  I dress a little differently, do my makeup a little differently, listen to sassier music, work as a domestic violence advocate. I fill my room with affirmations and reminders that I can get through this.  I remind myself that eventually, it will be okay.

When I was a rape crisis-counselor, I often told clients that healing is a process, a journey.  Trauma recovery-~-getting from surviving to living-~-can take a long time, and it’s not a linear path.  You slide backwards, you get lost, you fall down and have to get back up, and all of that can make you feel discouraged.  But I want to tell you, if you’re going through it, that it’s okay.  It’s okay to have really bad days.  It’s okay to want to want to cancel your Friday night plans because you’re just not up to being around people for five hours.  It’s okay to need to set boundaries, cut certain triggers out of your life, keep a stash of chocolate around because you need an emergency pick-me-up.

It’s okay.

In the last year, I’ve learned that one of the most powerful things-~-for me, at least-~-has been hearing other survivors tell me, in their own voices and their own words, that it will get better, that we are not alone.  In them, I have found sources of inspiration and strength.  They are living reminders that even when you feel like you are staring up at a mountain that is too steep to climb, there are others willing to give you a hand and pull you upward.  In them, I have found confidants, friends, and sources of support, people who can tell me in no uncertain terms that I’m not crazy, that I don’t need to feel ashamed, that it isn’t my fault.  People who have walked this road, who are still walking this road, and who know where some of the twists and turns and stumbling spots are.  People who know that there is something we are all working our way towards.

It’s April now-~-the United States’ Sexual Assault Awareness Month.  I’m sure I’ll be posting content about prevalence and resources and different signs to look for, but that will come later.  Today, I want you to remember, if you are carrying a survival story inside of you, that it is okay.  It is okay if you do not want to talk about it, or if you don’t want to do so yet.  It is okay if you need to scream, or cry, or tell your story in monotone to someone just to hear it out loud.  It is okay if today is a “hide under the covers and watch Netflix for six hours” day, or a “sit in your bathtub in the fetal position while the shower runs” day.  Tomorrow will be better, and it it’s not, maybe next week will be better.

Our stories are not written by the people who hurt us; they are written by us, when we remember that we can still decide what happens next, that we are more than just our bad days and our triggers and our scars.  And our stories are not about the people who hurt us-~-these are our stories, and they are about us, picking up the pieces, chasing our dreams, living our lives.

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~ by Randi Saunders on April 6, 2015.

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