Content warning: This article contains descriptions of child sexual abuse and of mental health difficulties following such experiences.
Sometimes, when my mother was gone, her boyfriend would come into my room. He would always knock on my bedroom door the same way, a sound that still creeps into my thoughts from time to time to this day. I could always tell from the smell of his breath and the look in his eyes what he was there for. He would always tell me that if I told anybody about it, he would hurt me. And that worked. I was so young that I didn’t believe there was anything I could do to defend myself from him. I was trapped. I think deep down I always knew what happened was horrible and wrong, but I was too young to understand or stop it from happening. In what felt like divine intervention, my mother eventually broke up with that boyfriend, and I was able to finally escape from his grasp and the things he did to me as a small child. But from that point on, he was never completely gone from my mind.
As I grew older, I began to realize the full gravity of what had happened to me and felt immeasurably ashamed. I felt like an object that had been cast away after its use had been fulfilled. I felt like I deserved what had happened to me for being too stupid to realize his manipulation. Feelings of worthlessness seeped deep into my sense of being, and I became incredibly negative and hard on myself. I came to such a bad headspace that instead of finding a way to deal with the turbulent feelings these experiences caused me to harbor, I buried them deep inside myself and ignored them. I refused to tell my family or friends for the first eighteen years of my life about what had happened to me and chose to try and focus instead on making myself feel better by excelling in as many capacities of life as I could. Doing well in academics, sports and my social life served as a means of battling the entrenched feelings of worthlessness my experiences had indoctrinated in me. However, the burden of this secret continued to feel heavier and heavier until staying silent was no longer an option.
At the end of my senior year, after my acceptance into Bowdoin, I felt completely lost. The goals I had worked so hard to achieve did not fill me with the joy I had so desperately pursued. Instead, I felt a numbness and a sadness that threatened to overwhelm me. This was the realization that trying to cope with the pain of my secret through external success would never be enough. It was from this point on that I realized I needed to be honest with myself and the people around me. I remember the tears streaming down my face when I let the decades of pent-up emotional baggage flow out of me and told my grandmother that I needed help. It was from this point on that I felt a weight start to lift off of my shoulders. Although I often still struggle to navigate the feelings those experiences elicit in me and have not totally healed, breaking the silence opened a path for me to have hope of a new and better future.
As we approach the end of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I have been trying to find a way to contribute constructively to the conversations that are being had on our campus and across the country. After receiving my “Take Back The Night” goodie bag from members of the Bowdoin Office of Gender Violence Prevention and Education, I started thinking long and hard about the ways in which I have recently thought about myself in relation to sexual violence and sexual assault. I wanted to share some of the things I have done to cope and start to heal. The biggest obstacle I faced to begin overcoming what had happened was breaking the silence and accepting that this happened to me. Although talking about it was incredibly painful and uncomfortable at first, letting myself release some of that pain to others was a really productive way to accept and cope with my feelings in a healthier way. Becoming more gentle with myself was another crucial step. For a long time I tortured myself with the thought that what had happened to me was in some way my fault, and it took me a while to believe otherwise. This may seem strange to someone who has not experienced this kind of trauma, but I have learned that experiencing these feelings is natural and not something to be ashamed of. Lastly, it is embarrassing to admit, but I struggle deeply with using terms such as “victim” or “survivor” of sexual abuse to identify myself on our campus in the same way I struggled with sharing it with my family and friends for such a long time. I think my discomfort with using these terms is rooted in a continued subconscious attempt to ignore what happened to me and to imagine that it did not happen because of how painful it is. However, with time, I have realized that acceptance was an important step for me to start finding comfort with the fact that I am a survivor and that this is something I can overcome.
This topic may not generally be discussed publicly, but for those who may now be feeling the way I did almost four years ago—living in a social space that is conducive to our silence is conducive to our continued suffering physically, emotionally and spiritually—I wanted to offer my own experience. With this, I hope that anyone out there who may feel like they are suffering in silence will know that they are not alone, that their voice and experience matter and that reaching out for help is so much better than accepting suffering in silence. I, along with so many others, am here for you.