It was a couple years ago, with my then high school girlfriend. She was going through a tough time — her father had been diagnosed with a terminal illness; her life turned upside down. I was there to support her in any way that I could. “Don’t worry,” I’d say. “I’m right here next to you. You aren’t gonna be alone in this.” She knew she could count on me. Mental illness got the best of her, however. Her initial sadness turned to anger and rage and frustration, grief to deep unrelenting desperation for her mind to be eased. Longing for control and quick hits of dopamine to help her through her struggles, my support became a crutch, and eventually, her addiction. I remember the day well. She had expressed she wanted to have sex. I did not. “But it’ll make me feel good,” she said, as she began to touch me. I didn’t want to. My body did what physically male bodies do when exposed to stimulus, and my courage disappeared. She did what she wanted, as my quiet objections of “No, stop” turned to only hearing her muffled moans and a “See, wasn’t that good?” when she was finished.

And here I am, years later, left to pick up the pieces. It’s been a decent bit of time here, we’ve since broken up, and I’ve met an incredible, beautiful, intelligent woman with whom I’d be lucky to spend a long, long time with, who supports my struggles mentally and is patient with the occasional lapses I have with sexual dysfunction. Dysfunction takes the form of different physiological hiccups. For myself, I find it difficult to climax, as what fills a lot of my mind during sex is anxiety. I have nightmares nearly every night of this particular scene in my mind, my ex-girlfriend on top of me, telling me that it’s what she wants, almost daring me to claim that my desires are as important as hers.

Therapy helps, but a lot of the pain, a lot of the struggle is the everyday anxiety. I’ll just be out at Potbelly Sandwich Shop by myself, eating lunch before my afternoon classes, and suddenly, I’m transported back to that night. Smelling her perfume transports my mind into that fight or flight response. Post traumatic stress disorder is not a simple disease that you can just ignore occasionally. You live with it; it becomes a part of you. Through therapy, you learn to “make the beast beautiful,” but even then, it never goes away. You learn to live with it.

The road is long and arduous, but it’s worth it. I find beauty in my life again. My friends, my family, all support me and my endeavors. I’m never truly alone, and I know that. Whether it’s a quick Costco run with my best friend, or a walk around campus with a couple of others, I always have someone I can talk to, to help carry the burden with me. But, once again, it’s always there. Especially at night, when I’m alone, and all I have are my thoughts. But, it’ll get better. I know it will, and I know that with work, with laughter, with intention and determination, this part of myself that I hate so thoroughly will, one day, become an even more beautiful part of my soul.

Meeting my partner was one of the most spectacular times of my life. I never thought I’d be able to have a healthy sexual relationship with a woman ever again. I still remember the night I told her what had happened to me. I was worried about what she would think or say. Once I was finished, she held me, and told me that she was there for me, and that we could be as patient with our sexual relationship as we wanted. That there was no rush, and she wasn’t with me for the sex, but because of who I am as a human. Being comforted not only physically, but emotionally, was so refreshing and changed how I viewed my own sexuality. I could be patient, and find comfort in that patience.

One in six men will be sexually assaulted at some point in their life. It doesn’t make us weak or less masculine — nor should it. Rather, we, as men, should encourage other men to speak up, to be courageous, share this burden with others and to attend therapy and take medication. There is such a thing as healthy masculinity, and we can find that in our fellow men, in comforting those who are having a rough time. Seeking help in a healthy way, wanting to be better, practicing empathy and compassion and caring for each other are ways of practicing healthy masculinity.

This is the fourth piece in the Survivors Speak series, which seeks to share the varied, first-person experiences of survivors of sexual assault. If you are a survivor and would like to submit to the series, please see our guidelines for submissions here. Though the deadline has passed, we may accept late submissions.

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