I have dedicated much of my adult life to using my experiences with childhood sexual assault to empower young women. I have led Bible studies, self-defense seminars, trainings, and public discussions on recovery, empowerment, and prevention. In those moments, when I have used my journey to help others, it has always felt like God’s hand was on my back.
As an adult, I have struggled with PTSD and anxiety, but I have always found a place of peace in my work and in my role as someone who participated in the fight against sexual assault and violence against women. But, in all of this time focusing on others, the one thing I frankly never considered was that it would happen to me again.
Several weeks ago, I was sexually assaulted by a stranger in a foreign airport. I did not react in any of the ways that I’ve trained young women to react. I did report.
Since the incident, people have tried to check in, most of them with the same theme, “You know this stuff, so you know what to do.” But I don’t. I know what to tell others to do. I know what to do with trauma, generally speaking. But, I have no idea how to deal with the wave of emotions that comes from realizing I am no longer on the other side of this thing we call trauma. I am sitting in pain instead of analyzing it from afar, and, no, I do not know what to do with it.
For all of the people who’ve asked me how I’m doing and for all of the women who relate because they feel like they’ve had the label “survivor” yanked out from under them, this is how I feel:
I feel like someone rammed their muscly, hairy arm down my throat and pulled out my soul. Now I am dragging it behind me, each step heavier as I am pulled down by the weight of my own fears surrounding me. Everything that woke me from slumber follows me throughout the day. Every strategy that I had developed to cope, rendered meaningless – just a clunky reminder of who I thought I was.
It has been so empowering, as an adult, to talk about the traumas of my childhood. It was simultaneously accessible and removed, like telling a story about a previous life. It was about me, but a different me. As an adult, I was smarter, stronger; no longer the paralyzed young girl who felt small beneath the pain of the loss of agency.
Today, I feel small again. Strangely, small and heavy. Too tiny to be who I want to be and too weighted down to be who I was. My spirit is exhausted. I feel like I am once again searching for the fire that comes with knowing "it gets better," but now it feels like I am forcing myself to accept a lie. It doesn't just get better. It gets better, then it gets bad all over again. It gets better, and then everything you know about yourself gets stolen again. And, then you cannot help but question everything and everyone you know and care about. Why am I here? Does anyone actually care? Where was my mom when I was a little girl? How did she not know? Where was my boyfriend at the airport? Did he not see the dread on my face? I know these are different questions that address situations that exist in almost different lifetimes. I know they are unfair questions. But, my mind goes there because I bounce back and forth between blaming myself and trying to find somewhere…anywhere…else to put the blame.
This is always so vivid and, yet, so vague and intangible. I get mad at the people I love because I need to convince myself that this is specific people and not the whole world. Because I need to believe that, in raising two girls, I am not just sending two lambs out to slaughter. And, I believe nothing right now. I hear words, I recognize the life going on around me, but I am just too tired, too heavy to do anything other than play human for the sake of others.
I left something in that airport. I am not sure what it was. Maybe it was my faith. Maybe it was my trust. Perhaps it was even my ability to hope. I am not sure. I don't even know that I want it back. Maybe slogging through is better than pretending that to be a woman in this world is to be anything more than a receptacle for trauma revisited again and again. Maybe hopeless is better. Perhaps a sad, hope-void, sloth of a human is better than being a victim, over and over again.
So, to those wondering, that is what I am doing with it. Having the knowledge and the training did not stop the attack. And, to be honest, it is not doing much for me in terms of processing what happened. How I am doing is hopeless, lost, and pretending.
Don’t worry, I will continue to pretend when you ask how I am. I will continue to smile when you suggest that I have the answers. I will wear the mask of bravery that makes you more comfortable than knowing that I no longer feel connected to anything that matters, including you. I will not stop acting like the things that I teach matter. I will do that until I start to feel whole/something/anything again. Then, perhaps, I will begin again; savoring each moment of peace with a newfound appreciation for how quickly and harshly it is likely to be ripped away.
That’s how it feels when it happens again.