Sexual assault happens, and that’s what matters, not when, where or how. The sobriety of the victim doesn’t matter, nor does his or her race, gender or socioeconomic class.

All that matters is that it happens.  

Two years ago, it happened to me.

I was pushed up against a wall, choked and raped for the first time when I was 16 years old. For over a year, I didn’t tell a soul, because there was always the chance my perpetrator would fulfill his threats and harm my family. The fear that stemmed from those threats, coupled with the fervent denial I experienced after the fact, influenced me to numbly trudge forward in life, desperately seeking any distraction that could allow me to forget it ever happened.

For a long time, that was all I wanted: to forget, and to pretend like it never happened at all.

For months afterward, I thought that strength and resilience were manifested in the ability to nonchalantly “brush off” tragedy, like flicking away a piece of lint. I became consumed with the notion that to be strong meant to “suck it up,” and to get on with life. I desperately wanted to move forward and to “get over it” as soon as possible, because I wanted to stop suffering from the fear, guilt, anger, confusion and pain. I wanted so badly for my life could go back to the way it used to be. 

Unsurprisingly, my life did not go back to the way it was before I was raped. And, like almost all things in life, brushing off the pain and sucking it up are all insurmountably easier said than done.

I tried, though. I would wake up in the morning with my face wet with tears, clean myself up and fake a smile. I would then proceed through school hiding behind a veil of superficial euphoria and fake even more smiles to friends and teachers. I had to do so, because I didn’t want them to suspect that anything was wrong — because I wanted to be “normal.”

Only when I went home, utterly exhausted, would I shut myself in my room, allow a day’s worth of suppressed pain to rip my chest open and cry. Not until I quietly wept myself senseless could I finally begin my homework.

When night came, I would turn off the light and go to bed, only to wake up from vivid nightmares of being touched where I don’t want to be. My bedroom would be dark, and I would feel his presence in my room, hiding in the darkness, waiting to pounce. To fall back asleep, I would have to turn on my bedside lamp and allow my entire room to be basked in light. I would then frantically look around to make sure I was, indeed, safe, and there was nobody else in my room, only to wake up the next morning with my face wet with tears yet again.

Ever since, I haven’t been able to sleep alone in a room without the light on.

It took me a long time to finally stop convincing myself that I could live as though it never happened. Not until after I suffered numerous crippling panic attacks did I finally stop running away from my memories. As months of pent-up pain and anger gradually overcame me, seeping through every cell in my body until I was completely consumed by them, I sometimes became uncontrollably angry. I would be angry at him, but I was mostly furious at myself for still being so affected by the aftermath and for still feeling so helpless and broken.

Slowly, my anger morphed into envy. I would see all of these strong, beautiful survivors who were so open about their assaults, and who were not only supportive of fellow survivors but also of themselves. I would see Instagram photos of survivors looking strong, happy and whole at “saPAC the Diag” while holding “I love consent” and “yes means yes” signs. All I could selfishly think about was how I wish I could be whole like them. Those incredible people had all dug themselves out of their dark holes, but I was still stuck deep inside of mine, when all I wanted was to be free.

I deeply regret allowing my envy to drive me to become verbally violent. I’m ashamed to have often been blinded by the jealousy and anger coursing through my veins, to have verbally attacked the people who were just trying to support me and help me through the pain. You know who you are, and I need you to know how unbelievably sorry I am.

I realize now that the aforementioned incredible people hadn’t dug themselves out of their dark holes after all, but rather they had found caring and supportive people to help pull them out. The endless love and support that my friends and family provide are the reasons why I am no longer stuck in that dark place. I’ve learned that hurdling over painful events without a second glance isn’t possible, because the pain will inevitably sneak back up once more to haunt you. I’ve also learned that strength and courage don’t stem from the ability to forget and brush off pain. Strength comes, instead, from those willing to share the pain so it’s no longer completely on your shoulders. It comes from those who love and support you.

While opening up has been a brutal, scary and exhausting process, I’m relieved to finally be whole enough to do so, thanks to the loved ones who have patiently helped me piece myself back together. I’m a survivor, but because of the support system that I’ve been so fortunate to find, I am no longer simply surviving.

I’m living.

And that’s what matters.

This is the second 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

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