Editor’s note: The author’s name was omitted to protect their identity.
I was sitting in Biology 172 on a Friday morning in November 2014 after my first semi-formal when I got an email from a woman involved with Title IX at the University of Michigan asking to speak to me about an event that had been reported. Then came the text from my resident adviser, who had apparently been on duty when I’d been locked out of my dorm and crying the previous night, explaining he was a mandatory reporter and that I’d said some concerning things.
I had flashes of what had happened in my mind, but I couldn’t remember what I’d said to my RA. I panicked. Everything felt fuzzy, and I couldn’t face the memories threatening to surface — the drink from a boy I never should have accepted, how I felt like I was looking and speaking through a fog afterward. So I decided nothing had happened, emailed the woman back and asked her to never contact me again and told my concerned friends and RA that I’d just been drunk.
That wasn’t the only time something happened my freshman year. Two nights, two different guys. The shame often threatens to swallow me whole.
On New Year’s Eve, I was in Ann Arbor and went to a frat with a friend. She met up with her boyfriend, and I was with a boy who seemed nice enough. Until he wasn’t. To this day, I can feel the visceral terror that came when I realized what was about to happen, and that I couldn’t stop it. When I tried to scream, he put his hands on my throat and told me to shut up because he knew I wanted this. I froze, and my memories from that point feel like I was watching it happen. The sound of metal clicking sends me into a panic, even now, because of the sound of his belt buckle. I remember crying in a bathroom, and when I called a friend from home, they laughed and told me I sounded so drunk they couldn’t understand. In reality, I was crying so hard and was too panicked to be coherent — I’d been sober for hours at that point. So, again, I decided I had to be fine. I pushed it away, told myself it had just been rough sex and that I needed to get over it.
I pretended I was OK and that nothing had happened for years. I’d developed an eating disorder in high school, which had gone untreated, and after these events, I spiraled. I had panic attacks almost daily, missed class because I started to cry and my heart raced when leaving my dorm. I rarely ate, and when I did, I threw up, desperate to be so small that I would disappear. I eventually had to withdraw that winter semester, blaming the escalation of my eating disorder on poor body image, perfectionism and academic stress. For the next two years, I went in and out of treatment, plagued by impossible anxiety, poor sleep, jumping at small noises and a constant need to be in “survival mode.” I would exercise for hours, desperate to feel some sense of control over my body. After six months in treatment in 2016, after being nourished for long enough that my brain was working properly, I began having nightmares every night. I kept trying to say everything was fine, but my re-emerging restriction and exercise addiction said otherwise. I finally said, “Yes,” when my doctor asked me about abuse, and things spiraled from there.
My therapist found out and told me I needed to talk about it. I couldn’t. I froze, unable to speak every time I thought about it. I lived on steamed vegetables, convinced that everything else was “dirty,” and that if I ate “clean,” then I would finally feel clean again. I didn’t care that I was dying. I thought I would never get past this, and that the constant fear wasn’t worth living through. I barely slept between nightmares and hunger. My mom and doctor threatened me with a psychiatric hold and a court-ordered hospital stay if I didn’t voluntarily receive treatment. I stayed in a hospital for a week before a residential treatment center declared me medically stable enough to receive their care, and then had to go through the process of evaluation after evaluation, again. But I couldn’t pretend nothing had happened anymore. I still couldn’t talk or think about it much, but I tried getting a word out here or there about how it made me feel.
I returned to Michigan after that last treatment stay and still hadn’t dealt with the post-traumatic stress disorder. I still avoid the streets where things transpired. I won’t go to Pizza House because I went there one of those nights. I’ve done a decent job of avoiding the memories whenever possible, even though I still have nightmares every night. When the #MeToo movement started, I once again missed classes, but kept eating. When the Kavanaugh case hit the news, I felt so much anxiety that I couldn’t breathe unless I curled up in a ball and used a weighted blanket. I missed three classes in one week because I just couldn’t feel safe outside of my house. I go to therapy twice a week, and still freeze and have flashbacks when we approach the subject of those nights. The Kavanaugh case sent me spiraling. I’m finally beginning to actually try a form of trauma-therapy called EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. I’m terrified. But the past four years of my life have been defined by these nights. I’m so tired of being tired from lack of sleep — tired of feeling like my body isn’t mine.
It’s hard being a survivor, right now. It’s hard calling myself a survivor. It’s hard being a survivor, period.
I’ve built up grounding skills — essential oils in silly putty, carefully crafted playlists, breathing exercises — to keep me present instead of spiraling into memories. There’s no neat end to this story, because this will probably still affect me for the rest of my life. But I’m hoping that I can get to a point where it’s part of my story, not the defining factor.
The author is an LSA senior.
This is the first 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.