22 years of coping with the not-that-bad kind of rape
18 years old: No one can ever know That happened last night. I am such an idiot for putting myself in that position. No one would believe me anyway, I’m such a dumb, naive, drunk girl. It was my fault. I am disgusting and unclean and ashamed. Don’t allow this to ruin your college experience. Just act normal. Be nice. Smile. Have fun! Be nice. Smile. Fake it till you make it. I’m never thinking about this incident again. It never happened.
19 years old: I want to kill myself. I am constantly scared and my body does not feel like mine. I throw up most mornings out of anxiety and fear. No one knows That happened. Pretending it didn’t happen isn’t working. I walk around in a fog and self-medicate almost constantly. Cracks are showing. I’m not sure I’m going to make it. Tell someone. Tell someone. Be brave… The counselor pressured me to give his name within minutes of me breaking down about what happened. But I can’t report. Think of all the other girls, she said. I’m so sorry to the other girls, but mine is not the kind of case that gets justice. No one would believe me, I am not that strong. I hate myself. Why did I tell? What if other people find out and think I’m lying?
20 years old: There is a term for That, I’ve learned: date rape. The therapy is helping somewhat. She believes me and tells me it was not my fault and reminds me that my whole life is ahead of me. Try to move on and not let it hold me back, she says. My falsely constructed world is falling apart and I have so little control. I have panic attacks regularly and am terrified to be alone. I refuse to consider Prozac, I am not weak or crazy. I need to get over this. Thankful for booze and drugs. Go through the motions and try to act normal. I still want to die, I still throw up all the time.
21 years old: I am not ok. I am so trapped. desperate to escape. I cannot stand being touched. I am not getting better. I want to die. Something is so wrong with me. I hate men. I am never going to be OK. I quit counseling, it isn’t helping any more. I walk around in a fog and self-medicate almost constantly. Thankful for my girlfriends who have my back. Dive into academics and public service and volunteering – keeping busy helps. I am not normal. This is never going to go away. I hate myself. I am so broken. If only I hadn’t gotten so drunk that night, if only I’d never met him…
22 years old: I finally fled. Across the country to the opposite coast. I feel safe living anonymously in a big city far, far away from those memories. I still cannot stand being touched. But I feel alive and confident in my new world. I am young and free and have a job I love in this amazing city. I need to get over That, but I don’t know how because I feel so irrevocably damaged. No one will ever love me. Attempting casual sex was the biggest fail ever. I will never be normal. Self-medicating and partying a lot helps me feel normal and good and wild and like everyone else.
23 years old: I’m in love. With a kind, understanding guy who has trauma of his own to work through. He is tender and soft and kind and brooding, and we can self-medicate together and tend to each others’ wounds. I can love and receive love. I can be touched and enjoy it. I was even grabbed in the pussy at a bar one night, and I didn’t freak out or spiral downward. Maybe I am rounding the corner. I see the light. Must try harder not to think about That any more, and then I might be OK after all. Maybe.
24 years old: Travel, explore, let go, laugh, move forward, grow. I feel downright normal. I can finally not think about That and it’s liberating. Though I almost lost my mind when we broke up, I am in love again, and this time it is The One, I am sure of it. He knows I was raped and he still finds me lovable. I think I am OK. Did I beat this? I want to be happy. I am happy. That night doesn’t have the hold over me it once had.
25 years old: Love love love love love. I hardly think about That any more. I am reborn. Time heals all wounds. I have found my person. I am so grateful to feel good and sexy and like a woman. I never want to talk about it again, I have processed enough.
26 years old: More love love love love love. Love deeply. Live together. Everything is not perfect, but we are great. I don’t like the pressure of sex being expected when we live together. It makes me wonder, but I will not go there. Focus on the love and remember you are happy. Keep the past in the box, locked up.
27 years old: We take off on the adventure together. We play house. Is he really The One? He is. My past is in the past, and That no longer matters. We plan the future together. I am safe. I made it.
28 years old: I’m grown. I feel almost silly that it took me so long to get over That from so long ago. It’s been 10 years! I am OK, and it could have been so much worse. Finished grad school, built a sweet career, landed a good man. I love life. Everything is back on track.
29 years old: Engaged! Madly in love. See, 18 year old self? You didn’t think you’d make it this far, but you did. Is this what they mean by healed? He wants me forever, warts and all. I was not permanently damaged after all. That night no longer defines me even a little bit. It’s almost like it never happened. Almost.
30 years old: Wedding! Honeymoon! Then WHAM hit by other trauma that rocks my steady relationship and unsettles my nerves. Get through it. You made it through That, so you can do this, too. Focus. Everything is going to be ok even though it doesn’t seem like it now. This too shall pass. We have each other, focus on us. Have faith. It’s been a decade since I saw the mediocre but well-meaning counselor in college, but back to therapy I go to work on other things.
31 years old: Dark period. I’m clinically depressed. “Situational depression” I was told but it is not going away. I find myself thinking more often than not that I don’t want to live this life. I do the therapy, desperate for help. I realize I haven’t spoken a word about That in 5 or 6 years. I should tell the new therapist what happened so long ago, she should know. My tongue is tied, I want the box to remain closed. “I was raped, but don’t worry it wasn’t like a guy jumped out of the bushes with a knife. It was a date rape. I’m fine now. I’ve got other things to work on. I’m fine. Really. I’m super fine.” She listens and responds but I don’t hear what she says until, “we don’t really use the term ‘date rape’ in my profession any more, just so you know.” And I say, “oh really? I had no idea. well, what do you call it then?” She pauses for a moment before looking me in the eye, “we call it rape.” I keep going to therapy, but depression settles in and makes itself comfortable in my soul.
32 years old: Depression is my enemy. It will never leave me, the little storm cloud over my head that follows me everywhere. I cannot escape its grip. I want to die. I want to kill myself. I hate myself, I am a bad person inside. I haven’t felt like this since… That. I need that box to remain closed. Forever. I begin plotting suicide as a self-soothing technique, even though I know I won’t go through with it I love having the ultimate escape fantasy. Think of the other girls… I know he went on to hurt so many more… But that is in the past where it belongs. Time to bury That deeper. It was so long ago.
33 years old: Try the meds. Just try them. Maybe they will take the edge off of the suffocating depression. You trust your therapist, just try them. If you want this life to work out, you have to make yourself better. The depression is too much, I know I need more help. I’ve lost two years of my life to this emptiness. Just try the meds.
34 years old: The anti-depressants have helped tremendously. I wish I had taken them sooner. The depression is not all gone, but it is manageable. And best of all: Baby is on the way! I quickly wean off the meds with surprising ease. All baby thoughts, all the time – the baby will fill the void inside me, I just know it. Vivid rape nightmares start happening while pregnant. My body is not mine, it is changing with or without my consent at this point. A stranger shares my body, a much wanted stranger. But it isn’t mine now. Fear of childbirth makes me start thinking about the rape all the time. I try to tell my therapist who assures me I won’t think about the rape when I give birth. How does she know? I don’t feel heard. I want a c-section because I’m scared of the vaginal pain when giving birth, but I’m too embarrassed to tell anyone this. Luckily my therapist is right – I didn’t have flashbacks during labor in spite of how long and excruciating it was, and my little one arrived safe and sound. I experience a love like nothing I’ve ever felt.
35 years old: Motherhood is not the all-fulfilling thing I wanted it to be. So much love, yet so much self-loathing. I am not a natural. It is much harder than I ever imagined. I am so tired and there is no escape. I feel so alone yet I am never alone. My body still is not mine and will not be solely mine for some time. I tell myself that have been through worse – remember? Depression is creeping back in and I’m trying to ignore it. Nobody told me it hurts to have sex for a while once you’ve given birth – it is so painful that I can’t take it. Focus on the baby, focus on the little family. Don’t let the darkness win.
36 years old: It is a lot to be a working mom. Marriage is rocky, babies are such stressors on relationships. I officially “have it all”, so why are those thoughts creeping in again? Get the meds, get the meds, get the meds. You know what to do. Keep the box locked and get the meds. Being a mom has changed me, I am more vulnerable, less cynical. The love is almost unbearable. Motherhood has unearthed deep feelings and compassion for my young self that I thought were settled long ago. I need them to be settled. I cannot think about That again. The meds help, and I feel much better. Sweet relief.
37 years old: Stabilizing. We are adjusted to parenthood, finally. We are a unit. Things are getting better, I am getting better. My marriage is really strong, I realize. For better and for worse. And I am a good mom to the world’s greatest child. Sometimes I catch myself worrying, “what if he grows up to hurt a girl like I was hurt?” But that will not happen, I tell myself. He is not him. He is not him.
38 years old: We’re in the groove, rocking this kid thing, our careers are doing well, we are lucky. The box is sealed up so tight and buried so deep that I don’t even have to try to keep the past in the past. Then WHAM, Brock Fucking Turner. Something is wrong. I feel terrified all the time. This is not depression, it is something else. Are these panic attacks? I don’t understand what is going on, but I can’t breathe and I can’t focus. Rape is on my mind. It’s been 20 years. Twenty. Years. Why am I thinking about That? It was so long ago. Keep it together, pretend that everything is fine and maybe it’ll go away.
39 years old: Something is very, very wrong. It’s anxiety, not depression. It’s anxiety and I am going to die from it. I am being swallowed up alive and no one knows. I am smiling on the outside and close to death inside. Something is so wrong and it is getting worse. Voting with your vagina. Just because she’s a woman. Grab em in the pussy. I can’t catch my breath. I can’t stand being touched by my husband now. Nightmares, flashbacks of That are near-constant and so very vivid. Daily. Hyper-vigilance rules my life, I can’t even focus at work. I am incredibly embarrassed, what is happening? My body is not in my control again, I cannot control the anxiety. Diagnosed with “a classic PTSD episode”. Go back to therapy, get new meds. My husband struggles to relate and I feel so weak and pathetic. “Where did this come from?” he asks, “Why now? How do we fix you? How do we make things the way they were?” I am so ashamed. Everything is falling apart. I am a fraud, hallow inside. I want to claw out of my own body. I hate myself. There is so much anger inside. I want to die. More than 20 years later and I can’t get his face out my mind. I can’t stop the flashbacks. My husband doesn’t get it. I realize that the box was never sealed, never buried. It was sitting right there the whole time. And suddenly I feel a very strong urge to speak out. Others must feel this way, too, after the election, right? Take the meds, do the therapy, accept the help, tell people your truth, smash the patriarchy. Heal Thyself. You are a mother now, you are a strong, successful woman. Think of the other girls… Do it. Speak out.
A few weeks before my 40th birthday: You didn’t do anything to deserve being raped. You were a teenager, a child, an almost-woman. The shame is all his. Yet I am not free. How does That night still hold so much power? How have we made no progress in stopping sexual assault on college campuses in the 22 years since it happened to me? Speaking out is healing. People believe me, people thank me for coming forward, so many others share stories similar to my own. I feel empowered. Too many others have this story, and it is so easy for me to see that it was not their fault either. It was never my fault. Now, on the cusp of 40 years old, it is time to help the other girls and women. It took a very long time, but I am ready.