In early June I wrote “She speaks for me”, which has become the most-read blog since I started writing Open Road. It was a humbling experience to so publicly share my experience of being sexual assaulted. In 2013, I published a memoir, Open Road: a life worth waiting for and knew that the chapter “Undone” might be the most difficult to read as it was the most harrowing to write. Since that time, I’ve been honored to listen to women of all ages share their own stories with me.
In the past few weeks, the hashtag #whywomendontreport has had a powerful impact on how we view rape culture. As I was violently assaulted when I was young, I suppressed the memories until I was able to finally come to terms with the truth shortly before my thirtieth birthday. It took over a year before I was able to admit I had been raped. Five more years until I felt human again. Even now, I find the healing is an ongoing process.
When Michelle Obama delivered her speech in Manchester, New Hampshire, I was brought to tears, not only because of the subject matter, but also because she was speaking for me. Like the Stanford rape survivor, Mrs. Obama reveals the often uncomfortable reality of being a woman in our culture. What I experienced every day on the long journey to wholeness. So now I'll speak for myself…and perhaps for those who cannot find the words that adequately explain what it’s like to live with the aftermath of sexual assault.
May we all continue to heal by courageously telling our truth.
An excerpt from Open Road: a life worth waiting for
I sit alone in my closet, the door only partially cracked open. I sit in the dark, curled into the corner, oily tears sliding down my cheeks. I sit in disbelief of all of the dreams and memories roiling through my brain. I can’t believe what Sue said during my session today...that these omens of my past, images from my subconscious, are calling out for me to finally allow them to rise like ghosts from an empty grave.
My life this year has been a mess of falling in love with a narcissist and enduring the fallout of all that came after. The only reason I got into therapy in the first place was to work on myself so I that could have a relationship with Marshall...or with anyone. I’m so tired of being alone. All I want are answers to the questions everyone's been asking me for years...questions I finally stopped dodging in order to face them head on: Why aren't you married? Why haven't you ever had a boyfriend? Why don't you go out and meet people? Why is it that you still live alone?
Now I don't know if I really want to know the truth anymore.
Not if it means suffering through more of this train wreck. Not if it means everywhere I go, something will remind me of my childhood and the sticky, gruesome memories that have begun to escape from the Pandora's box I opened last summer.
So here I sit in the dark, just like I did as a child, rocking myself into a dull sense of protection from the nightmares that have bombarded my sleep for the past two years.
Every night I wake up at 3:11. Every single night I lay sweating from exhaustion, from this horror that never seems to end. But I have to get up in three hours and go back to school. I have to put a smile on my face and pretend that my spirit hasn't been destroyed. Pretend that I'm not walking through life barefoot through splintered shards of glass.
I feel dirty and ashamed.
Who will want me now...knowing what I know to be true?
I'm not sure if I can do what Sue says...to act as if the memories are truly real...then choose later on if I believe them or not. I’m afraid I’ll kill myself if they ultimately reveal themselves to be true. But I’m dead already…or at least a part of me is.
And so here I hide in my closet, safe from my bed and the never-ending cycle of torment that threatens to drown me in its muddy waters.
Because I had lived most of my life inside my head, the initial spiritual journey came through talk therapy and an awakening that left me mentally and emotionally drained, questioning everything I had once believed. And then Spirit came calling for me once again. Only this time I was led straight into the guts and mire of my own delusions. Through hideous memories of long forgotten events in my childhood. Events repressed and subjugated until I was mentally strong enough to endure the long, arduous journey through a hell I could never have imaged.
I thank God for providing a faithful, patient ally to light my way to the other side.
My first session with art therapist Sue Jackson was not successful, at least not by my standards of “let’s get this moving as quickly and efficiently as I want it to go.” Sue was too quiet, too calm, too still. I walked out of Sue’s office thinking, How is she going to help me? She just sat there and didn’t say more than five words.
I wanted fast results so I could hurry up and get on with my life, which meant that she was supposed to fix me so I that could have a perfect relationship, be the perfect mother, and live the perfect life. In my mind, all these things were supposed to follow a logical timeline. I was heading toward thirty faster than I cared to admit, utterly lonely and miserable...single and hating myself for it.
I deflected many of the questions Sue asked week to week, not wanting to talk about the past, only wanting to figure out how I could let go of my anger in order to move forward with my present life. After one of our early sessions in which I skirted most of her questions, Sue asked if I had been sexually abused.
“Absolutely not,” I said.
“Have you dated many men?”
“No,” I admitted. “It’s hard to meet people when you’re stuck all day in a classroom full of six-year-olds.”
“Do you go out much with friends?”
I quickly diverted the question, giving her one-word responses in the hopes that we could focus on something else.
Sue asked how long I was willing to commit to counseling and I told her that I thought a month or two might do it. I didn't want to wait for years to pass before I could find out what was wrong with me. I wanted what I wanted when I wanted it, which always meant right now.
I had no idea how dirty my hands were about to become.
And so began a year of tremendous unfolding. My creativity thrived in an environment of artistic freedom. During this time I found myself alone in a sea of uncertainty. I survived in any way that I could. Teaching became an anchor during the day, but my nights were filled with writing, meditating, and living in a spiritual reality where I could be insulated from the outside world. Eventually my nervous system became so depleted that I had little energy to do anything more than work, write in my journals, and try get through the night without being awakened by night terrors.
There were times when I wanted to quit therapy because the weekly poking and prodding of my subconscious revealed shocking images. Over a period of several months, I dreamed of being hunted, tied up, and sexually humiliated. Nightmares and flashbacks haunted me, but I continued to deny what Sue had suggested...that these were events from my own life. They were just dreams, I thought. Nothing more. It was too hard to think of myself as someone other than the person I thought I was. I was not going to see myself as anyone’s victim.
If it were not for a few close friends and the touchstone therapy had become, I don’t know if I could have survived that horrific time in my life. My body was exhausted from lack of sleep and emotional fatigue. A year into therapy, I had a nervous breakdown and contemplated suicide a few times. Still, I was able to function well enough at school, shoving the other parts of my personality into the back of my mind until I could come home and fall apart...day after day. Week after week. Month after month.
After nearly six months of denying that what I was remembering was true, Sue gently asked, “Why don’t we pretend that it did? Then later on you can decide if it really happened or not.”
A few days later, I was in a store and passed by a table of Maya Angelo’s books. I Know Why theCaged Bird Sings was prominently displayed, and while I had heard of the novel, I didn't know much about it. So I picked up the book and flipped through the pages until I felt an urge to suddenly stop. As my eyes scanned the paragraphs, I came to Ms. Angelo's description of having been raped as a child. The emotional authenticity with which she told her story was eerily similar to what I had been remembering, and the shock was almost more than I could bear. The book fell from my hands. For the first time I stopped lying to myself to protect those parts of me that didn't want to be wounded.
The following week when I saw Sue, I tearfully told her, “It happened. I know it did. Now I want to do the work to heal myself.”
Within the security of Sue’s office and in the stillness of my home I began to unwind the horrific memories of my past. By finally accepting the reality of the sexual abuse I had endured, I began another journey into darkness, shame, and indescribable fear.
But…finally…I also began to heal.
Some people say I may be scarred by this experience for the rest of my life. I'm not certain that is entirely true, but I realize that being abused as a child has clouded much of my adult perspective. Still, I know that since the moment I accepted the truth about my past, I got better. I let myself feel. And I let myself open up to new ways of being.
For more than twenty years, I have been steadfast in continuing my healing journey. Throughout the process, I often fell back into old patterns of isolation and emotional suppression. I was attracted to men who initially showed interest, but when I made myself available to them, they either ignored me or were cruel, sometimes even denying their behavior and blaming me as the source of the problem.
Over and over, again and again, I had to walk away from relationships that mirrored the abuse from my past. I learned to recognize those characteristics in a man or a colleague or a friend who would surreptitiously take advantage of some vulnerable part of myself that I was willing to share. Then when they were satiated or realized I would no longer allow them to hurt me, they disappeared...many of them literally vanishing from my life altogether. Like the abusers from my past, they came clandestinely in the shadows, usurped my power, and then stole away in the night.
Yet what they took from me was not real. What they took was an effigy of my spirit, a hollow form of who I was in the moment, an outline of a dead body at a crime scene. But the real flesh and blood had been removed.
And I have lived to reclaim myself and resurrect a new life.