As I write this I cannot help but see both you and that scared teenage girl whom I was on that day. I can see you as clearly in my mind as if it were yesterday, not 20 years in the past. After all, some things are burned so deeply into our memories that we cannot forget them even if we tried. That girl, however, one day away from her 17th birthday-- she is farther away in my memory, blurry somehow. That day fissured my life into two sections--my life literally breaking into two halves, the before and the after. These days, the before section seems muddy, unclear, as if the rape caused a cloud so thick that I will never be able to see through it again.
The events of that night set my life on a trajectory that I never could have planned. First deep into the darkest of depression and a series of suicide attempts, one of which was nearly successful. Then, from the deepest place of darkness where I used the pain as a springboard to catapult myself into a better life--better than I ever could have imagined, in fact. I know, looking back, that I would not have my life today without having been a victim of rape at such a tender and painful age.
I have long ago forgiven you, not for your own good but for my own sanity. What I did not realize is that I would, in some fucked up way, be thankful for the horror of rape, which took me into hell and then back into life again--fevered in the desire to somehow make others feel less pain.
I can go back to that night so easily. In fact, the music of The Doors--a band that I had once loved whose music happened to be playing in the background that night--can bring me right back into those moments of terror so easily that I have run from stores, hands over my ears, when the music comes on overhead. I struggled with panic attacks and vivid flashbacks of that night for years, what I now know was PTSD but what I believed at the time was pure insanity.
What I am trying to do now is to think less and less about that night and more about how I allowed, sometimes consciously and sometimes not, the rape and the aftermath of it to make me into a better person. I know that the person that I might have become and the person that I am today could have been very far apart. My priorities and my life's purpose could have been so much shallower.
But, it did happen and here I am 20 years later. The ways in which the person I am today is different from the innocent, teenage girl that I was are so many that we couldn't count them all.
Mostly, I suppose that I want you to know that you didn't break me. I know now that someone like you, hateful and selfish, could never break someone like me. I used the pain and the fear and the shame to make myself into a better person than I ever hoped that I could be, in so many ways. You did not give me this strength, but I am grateful to you for showing me that it existed.
When I fall into sadness for that time in my life, I allow myself to think of all of the ways that I am better for having had that horrific experience. To think of the parts of me that I am thankful for, the parts of me that did not exist before that night.
I am stronger than I ever knew. I didn't know this truth at first. I fell face-forward into a clinical depression that no meds would touch. In the weeks and months after the rape, I found myself blurring the pain with large amounts of alcohol and any drugs that were offered to me. The respite from the pain was always so very brief. I began cutting myself over the insides of my arms and legs to achieve the short relief from the internal pain that the external pain would cause. Again, the break from the pain was so slight and seemed just a blink in time against the raging pain. I attempted suicide seven times, feeling even more of a failure with each failed attempt. There are no words to tell you how low this point in my life was. I was standing at death's door begging her to let me in. However, I kept moving one foot in front of the other, day after day until I realized that it didn't hurt so badly anymore. I crawled my way out of that hole by my bloodied fingernails and have made a life for myself that my teenage self could never have imagined. You could not possibly know how strong I had to be to do so.
I found my purpose. In the days following my rape, all of the professionals around me seemed more concerned with my own actions that may have made me a victim instead of the actions of my rapist. There was no compassion for me. None. The nurse that was more concerned with my clothing choices that night and the therapist that chastised me for under-age drinking led me deeper inside my own shame and convinced me to not press charges. As an adult, I made a conscious choice to become a nurse that would be kind, welcoming, non-judgmental and would advocate for my patients no matter what. Being a nurse has been one of the greatest joys of my life and I do not for a moment believe that I would've made that career choice if I had not had this experience.
I have become a more compassionate person. In the lack of compassion that I found around me in the wake of my own hell storm, I found inside myself a well of compassion for others. I believe that we all deserve second chances, kindness and non-judgment. I know now that compassion can literally save a life and I intend to live out the rest of my days showering compassion on others.
I am a better mother. I am a far more kind and patient mother than I would have been had I not walked that dark path all of those years ago. My soul feels many years older than my body. I hope that I will always be an open and welcoming place for my children to come, even on the worst days of their lives. I have become a mother not only to my own three children, but a surrogate mother in the world to whoever needs one.
I am a more forgiving person. If I can forgive you, I believe that I can forgive anyone. There are not many worse things than what you chose to do that night. I choose to forgive you, each and every day that the memories come washing back up. I forgive you as I live in fear that the same thing could happen to one of my children. I forgive you even as the PTSD comes creeping back into my life every so often. I forgive you even as I am still full of fiery anger at the man who stole the last days of my childhood.
I refuse to turn my head to injustice. I refuse to turn my eyes away from injustice of any kind. Too many eyes turned themselves from me when I needed them the most. Your brutality stripped me bare and brought out the Mama Tiger that lies within me. I can no longer be held down from railing against maltreatment of any human beings. I have a heart for the downtrodden.
Shame and I are on a first name basis. This one doesn't seem to positive, does it? However, we can't talk about rape without talking about shame. There are so many people that shame victims of sexual assault. The greatest shame, for me, came from within myself. I am still, 20 years later, dealing with the shame. From the dozens of showers that I compulsively took in the first days after the rape to the spiral of thoughts I feel when someone new learns that I am a rape survivor--shame has permeated my journey. In fact, it has taken me years of thinking of writing this letter to actually do so because shame has always talked me out of it. It is exhausting. I am bringing my shame, the shame that I have no reason as a victim to feel, into the light. For the thing about shame is that it can only exist in the darkness. So, I am bringing it all out into the world, as painful as it is. I have hidden my rape for so many years due to shame. I am ready to be free of this dark secret, ready to make peace with the dark beast. So far, befriending shame and being brutally honest in my writing about it has helped me reach others who are struggling. This journey is just beginning. I will use my years of shame to help others into the light. This may not yet be a strength of mine but it WILL be. I'm thanking you for the work that I haven't even yet done.
I'm writing this to you and wondering if you will ever read it. I'm not sure if I want your eyes to see it and for you to feel my pain or if I hope upon all hope that you will never see these words. I hope that I never see your face again. I hope that you have never hurt anyone else the way that you hurt me. I am thankful for what I have become but cannot lie and tell you that I am thankful for your actions.
May this letter be another fissure in my life. A great fissure severing the person that I have been for twenty years, a woman who tried to do good in the world but lived in the dark shadows of shame at night, and the woman I will be tomorrow, free of the heavy blanket of shame that has weighted me down in immeasurable ways.
With this letter, I claim myself again and I step into the light, with the full knowledge that I never deserved to carry this burden. You tried to burn me but I was stronger in fire than I ever had been before. Thank you for showing me my strength. You are no longer needed here.
In writing this letter, I realized that deep down in my soul this wasn't a thank you letter to you at all. It was probably naive of me to think that it ever could have been. This letter to you that I've pondered for years is really a love letter to that little, scared girl that climbed her way out of the darkest place imaginable and has carried this burden alone for 20 years. She and I are of course the same person, but in my mind I see her as a separate being--after all, the woman I am today could not be more different from that young girl. I thank her. And tonight I sit here, tears streaming down my face, hoping to send a message back into time to that young, wounded girl. She was wronged in the most horrible of ways and she rose again from her own ashes to find her way again as phoenix. Without that girl, the woman that I am today would be nothing. I am so thankful for her strength.
If you are struggling in the aftermath of a sexual assault, I want you to know that there is so much beauty and light on the other side of this. Keep fighting. Seek help if you need it. You are stronger than you yet know. I'm so sorry that this has happened to you.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-DONTCUT for the S.A.F.E. Alternatives hotline.
This letter first appeared on The Zen RN.