Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault and trauma.
“I’m not ready to do this,” were the first words I said aloud to myself when the images of that night returned. I wasn’t ready to face the reality, to admit to myself what had happened. I wanted to believe for just a little longer that he was a good person and that a good person who loves you could never hurt you.
How could it be rape if we were in love? That was the lie I believed in the moment. It was the lie I told myself for five years. But, ever since that night, deep down I wondered, “Why was it that I could know the truth (that we weren’t actually in love) and still tell myself that it was not rape?”
The memory of that night haunted me for years because, instead of addressing it, I buried the memories, assuming that if I pretended it never happened, I would eventually forget that it did. So deep, into the back of my mind, that I believed those memories would disappear, hoping that if I moved on with my life, everything would be okay.
When we hear about women who have been sexually assaulted, there’s always a typical narrative plastered in the media: They met at a party. He said, she said. She was drunk. He thinks he heard her say yes. She doesn’t remember but she was wearing a skirt. He didn’t mean to hurt her. Or it’s the story of a woman being attacked while she’s walking home alone. The attacker is a stranger in the dark, a stranger who comes into her room when she’s sleeping. As a young adult who grew up in a conservative, Catholic town in Ohio, the stories I heard were backwards ones that pointed to women putting themselves in dangerous situations because of how they were dressed or because they were flirting — despite the reality that it’s always less about the situation and more about whether or not the man you are with is a rapist.
I didn’t think my boyfriend was a rapist so I never saw being alone in my apartment and sharing my bed with him as a dangerous situation. But my rape was not like how movies and TV shows portray sexual assault. My rapist didn’t look or act the way I thought he would’ve because I was conditioned to believe that I wouldn’t have put myself in the situation of being raped. I never thought about the fact that I could have loved someone who would hurt me, until he did.
Reliving my trauma happened by accident. When you hide from traumatic memories for years, it slowly boils in the back of your mind, waiting for the trigger that allows them to be released. My trigger showed up in the form of a letter.
It was a letter my best friend had sent me five years ago, which I discovered in an old shoebox last summer, in which she was writing in response to me telling her that I was so uninterested in having sex with my boyfriend that I would have to drink a few glasses of wine before we’d have sex because that was the only way I could get into it. I then wrote to her that I was thinking of breaking up with him because I was so unhappy and couldn’t stand having sex with him.
Immediately, I felt my stomach drop. The weight of my world shifted and suddenly I was lying in a fetal position on my floor, crying, and telling myself not to think about it.
“I’m not ready,” I told myself. “I don’t want to think about it.” And I hit myself over my head. I kept hitting myself, the way you hit the TV when there’s static, as if I was trying to forget and remember at the same time.
“Then, without saying anything, he got on top of me and started taking my pajama bottoms off.”
I didn’t want to think about it but I had to. I couldn’t get the image out of my head: After lying in bed for a while, I finally told him I wanted to break up.
He started to cry and I kept talking. I explained how I felt and that I had brought up these feelings before. Then, without saying anything, he got on top of me and started taking my pajama bottoms off. I felt confused. I told him to stop, that we were in the middle of a conversation and I wanted to keep having it. He didn’t say anything as he took my underwear off and I started crying and telling him I didn’t want to have sex.
“Can we just talk?” I kept saying, still to no response as he spread my legs apart and started having sex with me. It hurt because I was resisting. I remember feeling sad and angry. I remember feeling frozen, as though I didn’t really know what to do. Do I just push him off me? I felt so small in that moment. It felt as if my body didn’t really belong to me, as if I didn’t have the control to do anything. I just had to take it.
I couldn’t understand why he didn’t stop when I said no, or why he didn’t stop when I laid there, taking it, and feeling nothing. Couldn’t he feel me resisting? Did he consider that it might be painful for me? He took the time to put a condom on. Why didn’t I just get out of bed or run in that moment? Why didn’t I yell or scream at him to stop? Why couldn’t I make my “no” louder?
I now realize that I didn’t fight back because of a mixture of feeling frozen, confused, and not in control. Even worse was the feeling of guilt. I felt bad for him so I told myself I deserved it and he deserved to have me one last time. I was the one who was breaking his heart. I was already ending things with him; the least I could do was let him cum one more time.
“I felt bad for him so I told myself I deserved it and he deserved to have me one last time.”
For five years, I would bury the memory of that night by rationalizing what happened. I would tell myself that rape is a horrible attack that happens to women and for me to compare my experience with sexual assault would be demeaning to other women’s experiences. I was convinced that I had not been raped because I knew my rapist and had been in a relationship with him. I was convinced that, because I had been laying in bed next to him, half naked, that that means it wasn’t rape, but rather a misunderstanding on my part. I could have stopped him. I could have pushed him off and gotten out of bed. I could have done more to make him stop and I didn’t. So I can’t call that rape. I believed someone you’re in a relationship couldn’t rape you because it didn’t fit the stories of rape I had heard.
And so for five years, I told myself over and over again that what happened to me was “not that bad” and that I needed to let it go. I told myself that calling it rape was a cry for attention. Did I want attention? Was I being dramatic? Was my understanding of sexual assault skewed? I wrote that night off as an awkward, bad sexual experience during a break-up because I assured myself that break up sex is probably always weird and sad.
I never told anyone about that night for one main reason: I was afraid they would tell me exactly what I was telling myself; That I was being dramatic, that it didn’t really sound like sexual assault, that it just sounded like he was more into it than I was. I felt my friends and family would not take me seriously. Because why would they, when I myself doubted my own recollection and feelings?
The victim blaming I conducted against myself tore me apart inside. It created a deep, dark whole centered in the belief that I was the demon. Even though I moved away from him and never talked to him again, he still won in the end because I never stopped thinking about him.
After I read the letter from my friend, my world came crashing down. It was painful at first, especially because I wasn’t in therapy at the time and I didn’t know who to talk to or how to help myself. I eventually started going to therapy and, though I never directly talked to my therapist about that night, I started to piece it together when we talked about other trauma I’ve experienced.
I started noticing the patterns I follow when I deal with trauma. I started recognizing how much of myself I’ve lost in allowing people to take advantage of me.
I was diagnosed with PTSD, depression, and anxiety.
Learning about and talking about PTSD really helped me to better understand myself. It helped me dig deeper into what happened that night — and doing so helped me identify my triggers, since having sex after that experience was difficult. I wanted to have sex with more people but sometimes it would be triggering and I would find myself zoning out and feeling motionless. I would go through long phases of not having sex simply because I was afraid.
It took a while to enjoy sex and, in all honesty, it really wasn’t until last year, after I addressed the trauma, that I actually started enjoying sex again.
Recovery wasn’t easy for me and it’s still a work in progress. I wish I could tell you it’s easy. That all I had to do was face the memories, sit with them, feel them, and let them pass through me. I wish I could say I went to therapy and started feeling better immediately but I can’t. It took five years to take the first step of recovery by admitting to myself what had happened and I’m only about to reach one year of moving forward. But I am glad I’m here. I’m happy I’ve made it to this point.
So much of my recovery was about learning to understand how to take care of and how to love myself. It’s almost been a year since that day I let my demons to the surface and, even though I’m still struggling, I have the control again.
After five years of feeling trapped and overwhelmed by the memories of my rape, I finally lived a year without that fear. And I feel vindicated.
If you’ve experienced sexual violence and are in need of support, call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).