TRIGGER WARNING: No-holds-barred descriptions of sexual violence and strong language to follow (also, discussion of depression, PTSD, alcohol abuse, and anorexia). Please, practice self-care in reading this, as I made sure to do so in writing it. Also, please be mindful of your comments, because this is very delicate subject matter and … pretty much as personal as it gets.
. •°*•*°• . CHAPTER 6 . •°*•*°• .
We made it! If you were able to read this far, you deserve a freaking medal.
This chapter is about healing. It has a theme song, and it goes like this.
So basically, there were 5 significant components to my healing process (only thus far, because the remainder of my entire life will be about healing, most probably), and so I will delineate them for you now.
As you’ll remember from the chapter on Relationship Violence, I started counseling in September of 2011. Now, before I was raped, I had always sort of looked down on therapy. I had it in my head that people should be able to deal with any and all of life’s crises by themselves (but that was before I had ever experienced anything that I just couldn’t handle on my own), and I hated the idea of paying someone to listen to me talk about my feelings.
I still have reservations about the latter, actually, and if my University hadn’t provided free counseling services, I may never have used that resource.
However, one good thing to note is that many areas (Washington D.C. and Chicago included) offer FREE, individual counseling for survivors of sexual assault. Beyond that, some services are obviously not going to be accessible to everyone — but luckily, RAINN (the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) provides a 24/7, anonymous, online rape crisis hotline for survivors whose options are monetarily limited.
——> A note on affordable counseling from Rosie in the comments: “Most every major metro area has a local rape crisis center and many of these places offer counseling on a sliding scale or ‘donate whatever you can afford’ basis. You can use RAINN’s website to locate your local rape crisis center.” <——
I must say, though, that after being in counseling for 9 months, all of my pessimism about the value of therapy has vanished. My counselor gave me an invaluable kind of support and validation for my experiences, and just being able to articulate the words after being silenced and shamed for so long was so unbelievably beneficial to my mental health.
Sometimes all survivors of trauma really need is to be allotted the freedom to say the words.
Moreover, because I was hyperaware that every week, it was my duty to report back to my counselor about what had been happening with me lately — my feelings, my progress, my life events and whatnot — I found myself acting more responsibly in life. All of a sudden, there was someone else there who wanted to make sure that I was taking care of myself and actualizing the strength that I knew had to be buried deep down inside of me somewhere.
And with her help and unending support, I managed to find it.
It was a little strange sometimes to catch myself thinking things like, “If I do this … How will I explain it to my counselor?” But I found that that train of thought actually helped me make smarter decisions. If I couldn’t justify certain choices to my counselor — who truly did have my best interests at heart — then was it something I should really be doing?
This mindset helped me to start asking myself the right questions and to think much harder before I acted on my impulses or resignations.
I started to live so much less recklessly because of her. She brought to light which considerations I was making were important ones and which ones were nonsensical, and now that I have that filter, I feel secure that I can actually look out for myself. She gave me practical tools that I can now use to make sure that I’m living in a way that is safe and self-respecting.
She also shared other helpful resources with me, which brings me to #2.
2) Support Group Counseling
In February-March of 2012, I attended a free support group in Chicago for student survivors of sexual assault. I had always been interested in the dynamic of group therapy, because I thought that it would behoove me to actually be around others who had experienced similar trauma and who were on the same path to recovery as I was.
What I discovered there was sensational. We actually were discouraged to go into the details of our stories, because the point of the program was to focus entirely on healing, moving forward, and leaving the past in our past.
The counselors took us through various exercises that were meant to get us in touch with the way sexual assault had impacted our identity, our day-to-day lives, our intimate relationships, our self-image, and much much more.
It was so therapeutic to find out that, not only was I not alone in having experienced this trauma, but I also wasn’t alone in the way that I was coping with it after the fact.
By the end of the 8-week program, I was feeling so rejuvenated — I felt like I was alive again.
On the last day, we were all instructed to write a letter to ourselves, stream-of-consciousness style, and the counselors collected them and said they would be mailing the letters to us at some undisclosed point in the future. I received mine not too long ago, and I’d like to share it with you now, for emphasis:
First and foremost, I hope you are doing well. I hope that you feel as good — if not better — now as you did when you wrote this. You should look back on this day as a culmination of days when your strongest hopes were actualized (or starting to actualize) and your darkest fears were thwarted. I believe in you. I believe in the good in you and the strength in you. You have tremendous untapped power that you’re only starting to discover, and I am proud of the progress you have made. Just look at us! Did you ever think we would feel hope again? Happiness? Will to live? And now we do. That is meaningful. You may not believe in God, but Lord knows [؟] you believe in moving forward. Change. Progress. Personal integrity and growth. Now go forth and prove it. Do it with COURAGE. CONSENT. CONVICTION. Those are the 3 C’s. Don’t forget them. Remember everything you did and learned in group; remember how good it made you feel to find communion and support and THE TRUTH. What happened to you will stay with you, but it won’t define you forever. Stay strong. Remember your convictions. DON’T LET ANYONE MAKE YOU FEEL WORTHLESS. Because you are worth so much. You’re all we have! Take care of yourself, survivor. ♥
— your Self.”
3) Good Sex
Another game-changer for me was meeting a man who showed me that sex didn’t have to be terrifying, humiliating, or painful. He was so conscious of the language of Consent, and he made me feel as though the way I was experiencing the sex was actually important to him.
He was so patient, kind, and forgiving. He let me sit in the driver’s seat. For the first time ever since I’d first become sexually active, I wasn’t thrown in the back — or tied up and locked inside the trunk — while I was taken along for the ride.
This man wanted me to actually be there.
And what’s more, he didn’t reduce my worth down to whether or not I gave him head. He still wanted to have sex with me, regardless. And for me … well, let’s just say, that was a big deal. It gave me the space and freedom that I so desperately needed to explore my sexuality for myself — and because of him, I have almost entirely conquered my fear of oral sex.
I honestly cannot emphasize enough how important intimate partners of sexual assault victims can be to the healing process. It would be impractical for a sexual assault survivor to simply stop having sex indefinitely while they wait for their trauma to magically vanish. It doesn’t work that way. But in order to heal from sexual abuse, a victim’s partner/s must be cooperative, patient, and sensitive. (Remind me to elaborate more on this topic in a future blog post.)
No matter how much good, consensual sex I will go on to have in my life, this man that I met just as I was beginning my journey to recovery will always be the man who restored my hope, and who showed me that what had destroyed me wasn’t Man, and it wasn’t Sex — it was Abuse. But there are good men, and there is good sex, and because this exceptionally good man never once gave up on me, I know now where to direct my anger and what to look for in a healthy, consensual relationship.
During Northwestern’s Sex Week in April 2012, there was a talk called “Sex After Rape,” which briefly discussed a book that sounded pretty interesting and relevant to me entitled “Urban Tantra” by Barbara Carrellas. The book took an approach to tantric sex as a form of healing.
The quote that first piqued my interest was this one:
“Healing sexual abuse through sexuality begins by peeling away the layers of armor we have built up to protect ourselves from further abuse.”
That rang so true with me, that I went right out and bought the book. I read it cover to cover. It was a very emotional and cleansing experience for me.
I found that what it really did most was help me to repair my broken relationship with myself. By recalibrating my regard for my sexuality from one of shame and embarrassment to one of marvel and love, I managed to heal the wounds that I had brought upon myself for so many years.
All of the self-loathing, self-blame, self-inflicted punishment … Reading this book helped me finally forgive myself for all of that and begin again.
Not to mention the fact that it provided me with a bevy of useful affirmations that I recite to myself sometimes before embarking on sexual ventures, to help keep me grounded in my body, in my sexuality, in my self.
Now, that is not to say that I no longer have triggers, or breakdowns, or doubts. I still do. But the difference is that, now, I also have hope. And knowledge. And most importantly, the power to change and to heal.
In April of 2012, I was on the planning committee for Northwestern’s annual Take Back the Night events. For the first time, I was able to feel the incredible catharsis and fulfillment of speaking out publicly against sexual assault.
I shared my experiences at the Speak Out. I listened to others’ stories. We cried together. We embraced each other.
I began to realize that this was about so much more than just me. It was about all of us.
And that’s when I decided that I could do so much more. I’m now working 24/7 to combat sexual violence, and sharing my story with you, my dear Internet, is just one more step in the right direction.
The last time I saw my counselor this past June, she told me, “Cassy … you’re walking out of here today a Warrior.” And because of her … because of every counselor, every friend, every lover, and even every stranger who has supported me along the way … I do feel strong enough finally to not only survive, but to reclaim the power that has been stripped of me — and to fight back.
. •°*•*°• . EPILOGUE . •°*•*°• .
What can we take away from all this?
1) COERCION IS NOT CONSENT. If you haven’t noticed, this is a pretty big issue to me. I know that it’s hard to conceptualize non-violent instances of sexual assault, since the image of rape that we’ve been spoon-fed our entire lives is one depicting physical manipulation, not psychological. Hopefully, though, after having read my account, you can see how coerced sex can be just as traumatic as forced sex — because really, there’s no distinction in the mind of the victim; they’re just two different ways of dispossessing a person of their right to say “no.” And when “no” is not an option, “yes” is meaningless.
2) Trauma triggers are another concept you’ll want to familiarize yourself with. When a sexual assault survivor is triggered, they are mentally transported back to an instance of sexual abuse, and as far as their brain is concerned, the abuse is happening right then in the present, it’s not just a memory from the past. Triggers can take the form of any variety of senses: smell, taste, touch, sight, sound … And “trigger” can also refer to something that causes an episode in people with mental illnesses. I’ve decided to compile a list of all of the triggers I’ve experienced in the past 3 years (which is not to say that I still experience all of them), so that you can get a better idea of how intrusive they really are to a person’s day-to-day life:
Vaginal sex, anal sex, oral sex, doggy-style, being choked, being slapped, being spanked, being grabbed, being held down, being bound, having my ears, eyes, or mouth covered, being videotaped, simply being asked to partake in any of the above activities, overhearing conversations that mention any of the above activities, comments made about how good/bad I am at giving head, being shushed during sex, the phrases “take/suck that dick,” “good girl,” “suck it,” “come on!!”, or any variation of “I wish you’d suck my cock,”, being told I take sex too seriously, being told to “chill out,” being called “worthless” or “useless” (even if only in jest), being pressured, threatened, guilted, intimidated, or blackmailed into partaking in a sexual activity, or otherwise being raped, masturbating (yes, you heard me right), defecating, getting high, watching rape scenes in movies or television, watching sex scenes in movies or television, seeing pornography (still or video), certain rap lyrics and entire songs in general (e.g., Cam’ron’s “Suck it or Not,” Enya’s “Caribbean Blue,” Lovage’s “Sex (I’m A)”), the taste of neat Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum, the taste of Blue Moon Belgium White Wheat Ale, victim-blaming or threats of rape (even when not directed at me), certain penetrating looks from men on the street or in bed with me, the sight of a man stroking his penis while making eye contact with me, certain physical characteristics that remind me of my rapist/s, actually seeing one of them unexpectedly in passing, walking home alone at night, the sound of a bicycle or a skateboard passing, the sound of small objects hitting my bedroom window, the sound of my phone ringing or vibrating, walking by certain locations (e.g., the Starbucks on Sherman Ave, the corner of Wesley Ave and Simpson St., *Doc’s apartment on Orrington Ave) … you get the idea.
3) I’ll admit that I made a lot of poor decisions over the past few years, and I know that my self-esteem was embarrassingly low — so embarrassingly low that it alone is enough to make me cringe at the thought of anyone reading my story. But I think it’s worth noting that so much of my opinion of myself was derived from being traumatized, and the longer I went without support, the more vulnerable I become to attack. There’s a huge distinction between a stranger approaching you on the street and telling you that you’re worthless, and a lover — someone you trust, someone whose been intimate with you in the most invasive way possible — telling you that you’re worthless. Words can hurt — when they’re coupled with violence, especially — and they can haunt you for years. So … YES, we need to empower women at a young age, it’s true. That is a tremendous necessity that is just as important to advocate for as combatting sexual violence. But by no means is rape a suitable punishment for having low self-esteem. I refuse to believe that I deserved it, simply because I was weak of mind at the time.
4) Along those same lines, no survivor of sexual assault or domestic violence can seek help until they are ready to. Realize that just because you don’t know that you know anyone close to you who has been the victim of those sorts of violent acts does not mean you truly don’t know any. Be patient with yourself and with others. The most you can do as a friend if/when a victim confides in you is listen to them, encourage them to express themselves, validate their experiences by reassuring them that you believe them and that it wasn’t their fault. They’re most likely doubting and blaming themselves enough already, and the last thing they need is an external source of doubt or blame, shaming and silencing them. That is counterproductive, if what you want is to help them heal.
5) It’s also important to recognize that the way we think about and talk about sex as a society can silence survivors and perpetuate violence as well. For example, I probably wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing my story at all if I still didn’t feel able to give blowjobs, because no matter how far I’ve come in recovery, I’m still tremendously ashamed by the fact that that was a part of my identity for so long. And I’m ashamed by it because society at large tells us that it is an impermissible way to be. Please try to understand that there is no such thing as a “wrong boundary,” and that the only “wrong” way to explore your sexuality is to do something just because someone else thinks that you “should.”
6) Building off of that, I sometimes wish that telling my partners I’ve been a victim of rape didn’t make them more likely to respect my boundaries than if I hadn’t told them. I hate that having been raped is a “good reason” for creating certain boundaries for oneself — as if there actually exist “bad reasons.” Not wanting to participate in a particular sex act is enough of a reason on its own, without having to justify it. Although, if it helps you to think of every person with a boundary you disagree with as having made that choice as a result of a sexual assault, then so be it. But consider this: If everyone just respected each other’s boundaries equally, maybe sexual assault wouldn’t occur in the first place (or at least not on such a large scale).
7) “Feminism” is not a dirty word.
8) Sometimes it is terribly difficult to say “no” — whether it be due to socialization, circumstance, or interpersonal dynamics. This is why it is so much safer to approach sexual interactions from a position of Consent Only: waiting to hear a “yes,” rather than proceeding until you hear a “no.” Check up on your partner throughout the sex act. When in doubt — ASK. I assure you, coming across as considerate is worth the risk of coming across as awkward.
9) Anorexia is a mental illness. Depression is a mental illness. PTSD is a mental illness. Substance abuse is a common co-occurrence with mental illness. (And countless others.) None of these conditions are choices. None of their victims should be shamed.
10) That’s all I could come up with for right now. If you think of another good point, post it in the comments, and I will add it to the list!
THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR LISTENING! [heaves heavy sigh of relief]