The Survival Issue
In October, a new survey reported that 35% of undergraduate women attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (a school of which I am an alum) “had experienced nonconsensual sexual touching or penetration” since entering college. For women in their fourth year or higher, the number was 45%. I shared this with a few family members and male friends; they were all shocked, and rightfully upset.
Then I shared it with my female friends. Their reactions all centered on some variation of, “well, obviously.” For our four years at UNC, it was a given that sexual assault was part of the college experience for many if not most women; none of us were surprised to learn things hadn’t changed.
This unsettling discrepancy is the reason we need “The Issue.” We need to start talking, and we need to start talking now. People of diverse genders and sexualities and races and identities need to start talking - and more important, those of privilege need to start listening. There should be no bombshell sexual assault surveys released, because there should be no misunderstanding about just how prevalent this sort of trauma is. Ideally, there would be no reason to even conduct such surveys at all.
But right now, there are still many reasons. Two of them are highlighted below, in a pair of beautiful and terrible stories that have brought me to tears many times over the past couple of weeks. At first I cried in horror, and then, upon my second and third and tenth reads, I cried for the beauty and the power I found in our two authors’ words, and in their reclamation of a bold and admirable sense of self-love. While they do not approach the discussion of their trauma in the same manner, both women come to an almost identical conclusion - one that emphasizes this newfound force and challenges the life-defining grip of rape with their survivor’s strength.
On a final note, I’d like to recognize that these two essays may be very difficult to read. Though they focus on surviving a trauma rather than the experience of that trauma itself, the topic of rape neverthless carries with it many violent and upsetting images. That said, I hope that you will take the time to read both stories, even if that means putting the newsletter down and returning to it a few hours or a few days later. I feel immensely honored to have worked with these two women on telling their stories. In return, let us do them the honor of listening.
LOST AND FOUND - Jayne Dingle
CW: mental health, rape, trauma
I’m sprinting through the woods at full speed as darkness envelops me. The low hanging branches of the bare trees scratch against my raised skin, and suddenly I realize that I am naked. The panic in my stomach bubbles over into my mouth as I realize I can’t find it. Not only can I not find it, but I can’t remember what it is that I’m even trying to find. My intuition tells me I’m close, but I can’t quite get there. The tears flood my face as I begin to lose hope of ever finding the answer. I collapse in defeat in an empty clearing surrounded by the ominous trees that seem to be laughing at my failure. There is an imminent feeling of doom - soon something or someone will find me here, naked and alone.
Next thing I know, I’m shooting up from a dead sleep with my heart racing and my body drenched in sweat. I can taste the tears in my mouth, and I can smell the odor from my sweat-soaked body. I woke from this very same dream every night for six months in a full blown panic attack. I had no idea what was causing the dream. What was it that I was constantly searching for? Why couldn’t I ever remember?
If you knew me, one look was enough to tell you something was going on. I had lost over 30 lbs, and I was a 107 lb girl standing at 5 foot 9. You could see all of my bones, and I couldn’t remember losing the weight. One day the weight was there, and the next it was gone. My focus in school was non-existent, which was weird for me as I was previously a straight A student with a constant desire to achieve. My family and friends noticed a change, but every time I was asked, I’d reply: “I have no clue. Must just be stress.” But I knew. I knew deep down there was something more. I just couldn’t quite find it.
Finally, my sister and I were talking one day and she began telling me about her friend’s experience with sexual assault. Suddenly, I felt the bile pushing at my throat trying to escape and I finally knew. I knew what I was trying so desperately to find, to remember in my dreams. I was raped almost a year prior. My brain had entirely blocked out the memory in order to protect itself, to protect me. Then, my body began to respond to what my brain refused to remember.
I couldn’t refuse to remember any longer. Finally, I broke. All I wanted at that moment was to drive straight off a bridge; instead, I called my sister to take me to get help. I spent six days at the Carolina Center for Behavioral Health. While I was there, I was concerned about what my friends, family, and professors would think. Yet, after the first day, I realized I was in a room with people who simply were struggling in life. They’d been dealt a bad hand; they were rape victims like me, drug addicts, people coping with death, or children with cancer. I thank God every single day for my experience in the mental health care system because it made me realize that in order to heal, we have to cope.
What I didn’t realize was just how hard it would be to cope with major depression, panic disorder, and PTSD after being released from the facility. That is the part no one talks about. How could I resume normal life after having my self-perception completely shattered? When the essence of my being was stolen from me, I had to grapple with what is left. What is at my core?
It takes a long time to feel normal again, and most days you don’t feel normal even long after you’ve come to terms with your new reality. You make choices and decisions that don’t feel like the old you. The truth is, the old you is gone. Yet - one day at a time - a new version of yourself begins to emerge. A version that is more jaded, but also stronger. A version that realizes the world isn’t what you thought it was, but that you still can be a light at the end of a dark tunnel. That, in fact, I was never lost in the woods. I was just struggling to find the light again.
It isn’t easy. It’s making the decision to get out of bed every single day when you would rather hide from the world. It’s making choices that are out of your character, and then grappling with the reality of those decisions. It’s navigating relationships, going to work, and providing the bare minimum for yourself at times.
Turns out, I wasn’t just looking for what was wrong with me in those panic-attack inducing nightmares. Instead, I was looking for a part of myself that didn’t exist anymore - and that is okay. I have come to terms with my new self. I am stronger. I am smarter. I am even more me than I ever dared to be prior. My rape was not a good thing. It never will be. Yet, it is still a part of who I am and who I am becoming. Almost five years ago, I found myself searching through the woods every single night for some sort of answer to a question that I wasn’t even sure of. The feeling of hopelessness - the fear of never finding the answer - is gone, replaced with the pure joy of having found myself in the process.
Artwork by Casey Brown. @caseyisokay
BEGGING FOR FREEDOM - Anonymous
CW: alcohol, mental health, rape, sex, strong language, trauma, violence
Note: The names used in the story below are fictional. The people they belong to are not.
Rape. I think there’s something in its phonetics that makes it one of the most jarring words in the English language. Long “a.” One syllable. That combination packs a punch. It’s one of the reasons I use that word to describe what I experienced. I want people to be jarred by it. I want people to hear the violence, wounds, and scars left behind. And most importantly, I use it to help myself acknowledge what I went through.
I didn’t use that word out loud, in text, or on paper for a long time after it happened. It spent months in captivity in my head, silently floating around. Until it refused to stay quiet. Until its pleas to break free were too loud to ignore. My path to naming my experience was paved by accepting details and feelings I had worked hard to push away.
I blacked out that Saturday night, surrounded by good friends and people I normally partied with. I last remember lying on the couch talking to a friend. I remember Will coming over and lifting my upper body and laying me down on his lap. I remember feeling like I couldn’t move if my life depended on it.
Then, I woke up in the same place with only two things: a massive headache and unfamiliar clothes. Oh, and from my trip to the bathroom, two more things: my period arriving unexpectedly early and mysterious bruises on my hips and thighs. I was surprised when three of my friends were waiting for me outside.
They asked if I remembered anything from the night before. As someone who was a heavy drinker, I had blacked out a few times before. It wasn’t exactly an alarming question in the context of my drinking habits.
But this time it was different.
Because typically, even when blacking out, I can pull out a rough outline of what happened. Or some scattered details. But that morning, I had no memory after laying on the couch with Will. I thought I had gone to sleep.
My friends reunited me with my shirt, pants, and bra. To my horror, all three articles were blood-stained.
They told me they’d talk to me later about “what happened with Will.”
With no memory to work with, I began processing the pieces of the night that I did have. The blood on my bra resembled the shape of two hands. My “period” had stopped. I felt a dull pain down below and the bruises I had found earlier made themselves more known.
My friends didn’t need to tell me that Will and I had sex. That much I had pieced together on my own. What they did need to tell me was how it actually happened. My head was spinning with confusion, exhaustion, and panic. I had never had sex with anyone before - so this couldn’t count as normal blackout behavior. I just couldn’t believe that I didn’t even have the faintest memory of it.
I listened intently to my friends’ accounts in an attempt to get a clear picture of the night.
I even laughed.
I laughed because there was no way that I was the main character in the horrible story my friends were telling me.
I laughed because something I had waited to do was already over with.
I laughed because that something I had been waiting for was now public information.
I laughed because I didn’t know how else to react.
I had already dove headfirst into denial. Once everyone had finished sharing their version, they tried to get me to talk about my feelings. I said I was fine. I said that it was funny. I said that I was tired from being hungover.
I could read their faces: they knew that I was lying.
I felt disgusting. I had already showered when I got home in the morning, but I showered again that night. The next few days, I vomited anytime I ate more than a small snack.
I kept all of that to myself. To everyone else, I started selling a story of how I lost my virginity, comprised of cherry-picked details from my friends’ accounts, to anyone who asked about the party. Sometimes people didn’t even have to ask. I would bring up the hilarious and messy story of hooking up with Will. I thought I could drill into my head a new story that conveniently left out the most damning details.
And yet, I always let people know I had blacked out. Subconsciously, I think I wanted everyone to know the truth. A truth that I hadn’t even labeled yet. The word was begging to get out.
I did a few things to keep it trapped. I didn’t cry - about anything. I couldn’t even dip my toes in sadness, in fear I’d fall in and drown. I filled my late nights with "Gossip Girl." That way, I didn’t have to sleep as much and confront the nightmares. It didn’t even matter because being asleep with nightmares didn’t feel like rest at all. I ate less. First, it was to avoid the nausea. Then, it was to transform my body into something less disgusting than what I felt it was. I started drinking and smoking more in social settings. That made it feel okay when others would bring up me sleeping with Will as a way to roast me. I avoided places that I knew he would be at just because it was awkward.
I clumsily rationalized all of these behaviors for a while. But they were getting harder to hide and ignore. Heat would rush up my spine at a surprise touch from behind. Male attention became extremely triggering and even small interactions - a look, a touch - caused me to vomit on a few occasions.
I even rationalized killing myself if I was pregnant.
That option seemed a lot simpler than acknowledging any part of that night by walking into a Planned Parenthood. Everyone could just forget about what happened. No one would have to deal with my erratic behavior - behavior to which my friends increasingly brought attention and concern. My family would never have to know how much I fucked up.
When my period finally came after being six days late, I didn’t feel relief. I realized I had been looking for an excuse to die. For the time being, I was obligated to stay alive.
My close friends knew what was wrong. No one labeled it for me, but many of them pushed me towards it. At first, I stood my ground. One of my friends said that he almost called the police when he found me with Will. I told him he was overreacting.
As time passed, guarding the word became harder. On a late night drive, another friend shared that she had been thinking about me and the party. She told me that she didn’t think what happened was right. Her acknowledgment triggered the first tears since that night. Still, I didn’t say the word. I needed to find better ways to keep it trapped.
Sam came along when I was running out of ideas. We hardly knew each other, but I knew he was really sweet - and he was into me. I thought that if I could just hook up with someone else, I could forget about that night with Will. I could get over my increasingly apparent fear of men. So I pounded some shots, took a couple hits and worked up the courage to sleep at his place.
I had done it. And to my surprise, it had been a lot of fun. I had sex figured out.
I claimed this victory for the twelve hours before I went back to Sam’s place. This time, I had much less help from my friends' vodka and weed than the previous night. Once we started hooking up, my heart was racing uncontrollably. I felt smothered with him on top. I wanted it to stop, but I didn’t trust he would if I asked. So I let it go on.
My chest had become so tight that I wasn’t sure how I was still breathing. I finally demanded that we stop.
He didn’t hesitate.
Tears silently flooded my face and broke four months' worth of tightness in my chest.
He asked me if I was okay.
I said that I just get panicky when I’ve been drinking too much.
I could feel his eyes on me but I didn’t meet them. He asked me if there was anything he could do.
Through a basic gesture of kindness and a flood of tears, the word finally had its jailbreak:
“There isn’t. The last person I hooked up with raped me and nothing can change that.”
I didn’t have to answer Sam’s question. I could’ve ditched and walked home at any point. Instead, we stayed up until sunrise. I gave voice to so many thoughts that had been kept captive along with the word rape.
Like how I both wanted and didn’t want it to be my fault.
How I wanted it to by my fault because that meant it was just a bad mistake with consequences. Consequences such as being the source of gossip, regretting unprotected sex, and feeling worthless for having a drunk one night stand.
How I should know it wasn’t my fault, but it was even scarier to accept that reality because it meant that terrible things could happen to me beyond my control.
How an impenetrable wall had shot up to divide my life before and after the night.
How I didn’t recognize myself anymore.
Talking out loud with Sam made me realize that I couldn’t keep living the way I was anymore. A few days later, I started taking steps to take back control of my life. I sought out therapy. I started taking antidepressants.
I won’t lie and say that everything was better from then on. Not everyone believed me when I started using the word rape. It got back to me that people who I thought were friends were claiming that I just regretted sleeping with Will. My first psychiatrist focused on my drinking habits and the crop top I was wearing at the party that night.
I’ve been in and out of therapy. On and off of medication. And it was a long time after I first named Will’s actions before the good days started outnumbering the bad days.
Freeing the word was a necessary part of my recovery. At its core, it helped me to stop blaming myself. By its definition, rape is a horrible thing that happens to someone. If rape was my experience, then I need to stop hating myself over something that wasn’t my fault.
I discovered the depth of love and support available to me from friends and family. I learned how many of my friends had researched how to support someone who’s been assaulted, and accordingly, patiently waited for me to label my own experience.
And when I did, I was greeted with open arms.
I realized I couldn’t waste time or energy on people who weren’t giving me the support I needed. This has helped me maintain a positive circle of people around me and let go of those not meeting my needs.
Most importantly, I have learned that nothing is more important than loving yourself. It is something I have to work at every day, but it helps me value the progress I’ve made in recovery.
At my lowest points, I couldn’t envision life beyond the immediate future. I didn’t think joy, love, or a sense of accomplishment were possible for me.
However, I finished college in a shorter time and with better grades than I thought I would. I lived in a different country. I got my drinking under control. I’ve built loving relationships with so many more people than I ever thought possible.
The night that rape had its jailbreak, I said that I wanted my life back to the way it was. That never happened and never will. I am a different person.
I am a rape survivor.
I am not as fun as I used to be. I am quieter. I deal with anxiety, depression and PTSD. But I am okay with all of that because I am also more empathetic, brave, and generous than before.
Identifying as a survivor is my revolutionary act of self-love. It is my testament to life after rape - life after an act of violence when many would choose death.
Rape is a jarring word and I will keep repeating it because I am free.
MORE TO THE STORY
Check out RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) on our Resources page, or click here to learn more about how to talk with survivors of sexual assault.
The Rape Crisis Center provides a 24 hour hotline and other counseling services to those impacted by sexual violence. Get involved here.
"Men Fear False Allegations. Women Fear Sexual Misconduct, Assault, and Rape." The Minnesota Law Review unpacks the discussion of when to believe women and addresses other avenues for pursuing justice. Read here.
The Me Too Movement provides toolkits to educate allies on better advocacy and understanding. Click here to explore their toolkit on Male Privilege and Consent, or click here to view the full selection of toolkits.
Men and boys can be victims, too. Read more, get help, or give support here.
Black women who report crimes of sexual assault or violence are less likely to be believed than white women. Black women are also less likely to seek out help from law enforcement. Click here to read more about black women and sexual violence.