At the end of the article there will be resources for survivors of sexual violence and their loved ones, feel free to go straight to the end of the page if reading this might trigger you in any way.
Content warning: this article focuses on the subject of sexual violence. Please, proceed with caution.
I’m sorry April being Sexual Assault Awareness month isn’t just words to you. I’m sorry this has happened to you. I’m sorry you know this crookedly intimate kind of pain. I’m sorry your body and mind were used as a weapon against you. I’m sorry if you don’t feel safe. I don’t know you (or maybe I do), and I admire you regardless. You’re making it through, day by day, with a burden heavier than stones on your shoulders. Thank you, for just being.
No story matches another exactly — the circumstances, the hurt, the psychological and physical impact vary from survivor to survivor. Yet, somehow, there’s one constant we all share.
It was not our fault. It was not your fault.
Earlier this year, a lot of brave people trusted me with their stories of surviving sexual violence after Professor Avital Ronell, who was found guilty of harassing her graduate advisee, returned to campus. The project, titled “This Should Have Never Happened To You,” was published in January and was solely possible through the vulnerability offered to us by the survivors we interviewed. It intended to show, as one of the interviewees, Angelica, said, “We’re the evidence walking around on this campus.” I believe it did. But, with this, I discovered something else.
When I started processing my trauma last year I didn’t know who or where to turn to. While listening to other survivors and sharing my own pain with friends in distressing times, I noticed the healing happening within me. Through their stories of struggle and recovery I was assured I could take back control. Through confiding in loved ones I learned to feel safe again.
That’s why I wrote this. I won’t be sharing any details of my assault to avoid potentially triggering material. Instead, I chose to focus on the process of coming to terms with the need to heal and on healing itself. If you’re looking for what I was seeking or keep on reading for any other reason, thank you for letting me share my story with you. I hope my vulnerability will support you the way the vulnerability of others supported me.
While I write about sharing my experience with people and recovering through connection, don’t think this means that you should too, especially if you don’t think it’s the right or the safe thing for you. I’m certain you’ll find what works for you, and I’m in awe at your strength no matter what you choose to do!
It wasn’t until I heard Dr. Blasey Ford describe now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh attacking her, pressing his hand against her mouth, that I began to remember: there once was a boy’s hand against my mouth. For me, it was in high school — we were 15 years old. With previously blocked memories flooding my mind, I found myself helpless and numb, squirming out of friendly hugs and trudging through sleepless nights, filled with nightmares.
I was living with sexual trauma and only starting to realize the wickedly intimate impact it’s had on my entire life. Embarrassment and feeling as though it wasn’t too big of a deal prevailed for months. I didn’t tell a soul. I didn’t know how or what to tell, either. That is, until I went to Moscow, where I grew up and where the assault happened, in December of 2018.
Before the New Year’s Eve family celebration, I stood in the bathroom, drying myself after a shower. When I faced myself in the mirror, an invisible wall inside of me shattered, and I squeezed my eyes shut. I couldn’t look at my body without thinking of him. As I scrambled to get dressed as quickly as I could I knew — it was time to start doing something.
In early January of 2019 I returned to New York, to a friend who spent all of his holidays confined to his empty dorm room. For weeks it was him and I, in the deserted halls of Third North Residence Hall and Ben’s Pizza at three in the morning. He didn’t ask me why I was back early. He knew I was going to tell him eventually, and he was right.
One of those evenings we spent in my dorm, watching movies neither of us really enjoyed on my bed, I turned to him and said, “Can I tell you about something that’s happened to me, like, years ago?” He agreed and I started talking. I talked and I talked. Words were pouring out of me, and I thought I lost the ability to shut up altogether. It was as though I opened the door into a room filled with water floor to ceiling and had no strength to force it closed again.
“F-ck,” he said once I finished. “Can I hold your hand?” I nodded and realized how nobody has asked me if they could hold my hand before.
For a while I thought this was done with. I shared, he listened. I was supposed to be okay according to all the movies and shows I watched, in what I later learned was the burning need to feel understood. But I wasn’t okay.
Summer came and went. I didn’t date, wrote carefully and vaguely about my experience for my creative writing professor, read books on sexual trauma while distancing myself from their characters. I was fine until I wasn’t.
In early September of 2019 I went to a party. While not a fan of crowds I knew a lot of my friends were going to be there and I wanted to spend time with them before the semester really hit. For most of the night, the three of us sat in a corner, chatted and laughed, until a guy none of us met before crashed our giggly circle.
Absolutely hammered, and maybe more, he put his hand on my head and blurted out, “You look interesting.” “Thanks,” I responded and shook his hand off of my shaved skull. “No, like, really. What’re you?” He insisted, grabbing my arm and pulling it in whatever direction his body swung to. I froze, my skin growing tingly and hot underneath his hold.
“Hey, leave them alone!” one of my friends called out, getting up from his chair. The guy loosened his grip and lifted his hands up in retaliation. “You okay?” my friend asked and I nodded, watching the stranger stumble back into the buzzing crowd.
For the rest of the night, hearing my name made me flinch. I left soon after to avoid hugging too many people on the way out. The couple of hugs I got felt suffocating and each hand on my shoulder felt like it could pierce my skin right to the bone. When I got home I couldn’t restrain the sobs reaping from inside my chest and rolling onto the glossy tile. This stranger’s grip on my forearm woke up something inside of me, and I didn’t have the power to put it back to sleep. From then on the night turned into a blur and fragmented memories in the morning would remain of the story.
My crying was louder than I thought and my roommate came knocking on the bathroom door. The next day she told me she heard me hitting the wall and repeating the word, “No.” I remember opening the door. She tried to take me to the bedroom and managed to make it as far as our kitchen before I slid down the wall with my legs feeling like cotton. I found myself on the floor with my back pressed against our front door and wrapped in my weighted blanket. Both of my roommates were sitting by my side as I kept saying “stop” and “no” — the words I never got to say. Somehow I made it to bed and woke up 14 hours later. My roommate told me about what unfolded the night before and gently asked me to keep looking for help.
“Talk to someone you feel safest around,” she pleaded and I immediately pulled out my phone. “Hi,” I began drafting a text.
Right after coming to college I met someone a little older than me and she became my mentor for my first year. While our relationship evolved into a friendship, the feeling of protection I felt around her persisted, and I knew she was the person I needed to open up to if I were to regain the sense of safety taken from me. But I didn’t have it in me to press send.
When we got dinner soon after, I gathered the courage to ask if I could show her the message I almost sent while chasing a piece of mock duck around my plate. She read it and immediately said, “Of course, just not here.”
We decided to meet up on the following weekend for me to spill my guts.
The weekend came and I found myself sitting on a bench in a park by her house. No matter how much water I drank I felt absolutely parched. She sat next to me and every time I lifted my eyes from the ground I saw her looking at me attentively. Words were pouring out of me just like on the cold January night I spoke to my friend. Whatever was inside of me, tired from hiding, was running the show. I said things I barely knew or hadn’t realized before.
I was mad and never got a chance to be angry. I felt cheated out of the innocence I was entitled to as a teen. He took a year of my life from me. I thought my story was too long and complicated to share — it was easier to simply not. I wanted to confront my abuser and just ask him if he knew what he did. I was burdened with guilt of not exposing him earlier, or at all, and possibly subjecting others to the treatment I received.
I talked for what felt like days until I ran out of thoughts and felt tears covering my eyes. I stared down at my shoes and clenched my fists in silence. The sunlight was streaming through the leaves and falling on my denim-clad knees in sharp stripes of warmth.
“Would you like a hug?” my friend asked and met my eyes with the warm sadness in hers. I nodded and shifted closer to lean my head on her shoulder. “Thank you for talking to me.”
The tied knots inside me came undone and I knew I was going to be okay for real this time. I was never going to be the 15-year-old oblivious to the abuse — instead, I intended on making sure nothing could hold me back from healing. I expected many set-backs and was right. Starting specialized therapy was especially painful and I have to still force myself to attend every session instead of lying to my therapist about having too much work. I still struggle — a lot — with the sole difference of knowing the progress I made was worth it all along. If I could choose to protect my 15-year-old self from what happened I would. But, for better or for worse, I can’t. I can only move forward with it and I choose to.
Resources for Survivors of Sexual Violence
- RAINN: the national sexual abuse hotline takes calls at +1 (800) 656-4673 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. On their web-site you can learn how to support a loved one with an experience of sexual violence or find ways to manage a dangerous situation you or someone you know might be in. They have an online 24/7 chat for the victims if they find themselves unable to speak on the phone as well.
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: domestic abuse might’ve escalated during the self-isolation period of the pandemic we’re in right now and if you or someone you know finds themselves in an abusive or dangerous situation, you can contact this hotline for help at +1 (800) 799-7233 or talk to a counsellor on their online 24/7 chat if you can’t speak on the phone. They offer resources for different victims, including various gender identities, sexualities and religious affiliations.
- Safe Horizon: this organization serves as a network of shelters for families and individuals in New York fleeing abusive domestic situations. You can reach them at +1 (800) 621-4673 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and ask if there’s a shelter near and available to you. All shelter locations are confidential to ensure safety of their residents. The Safe Horizon web-site offers a confidential online chat as well.
A version of this article appeared in the April 27, 2020, e-print issue. Email Anna-Dmitry Muratova [email protected]