In early 2017, when I was 21, I was raped. It wasn’t in a back alley, I wasn’t drunk, I wasn’t wearing a short skirt — not that any of this matters; I was in my northern Chicago apartment with a man I knew from high school.
I didn’t scream, I didn’t cry, I sat there and dealt with it as I died a little bit more inside with each passing second. All I could think about was how much I needed my two best friends, whom I lived with, to console me after. I knew that if I could get through this trauma with them by my side, I could essentially get through anything.
But what happens when your closest friends, the co-inhabitants of your living space, don’t believe you and instead question your raw and painful truth?
Unsurprisingly, I didn’t go into work the morning after it happened. After he left, I stayed in bed, debilitated, processing it all. Maggie* was doing laundry by the time I could get my wobbly body out of bed. I walked downstairs, clad in my plush blue blanket, to meet her.
As she was taking her garments out of the washer, I broke down right then and there. He raped me, I said, wrapping the blanket around me tighter and tighter with each sobbing heave of my chest. Without looking up, Maggie threw some socks into the dryer — a pair of ankle-length white sneaker socks — and said, I don’t believe that, Gretchen. You were just telling me that you wanted to fuck him last week, and, I mean you invited him over, so what did you expect? I don’t buy that.
Now, I’ve been slapped in the face before, but this slap stung more than any physical pain I had ever endured. She didn’t even look at me. I walked back up the stairs, taking each of them one at a time to avoid passing out.
Salma* heard me crying from my room and knocked on my door. What’s wrong? she asked as she soothingly rubbed my arm. Thank God I have her, I thought. I told her that I was raped and that Maggie didn’t believe me. I sobbed into Salma as she held me.
Hours passed by on this wintery February Chicago day as I decided to process this alone. Eventually, both of them wanted to meet with me. Perhaps Maggie will apologize to me, I thought.
Quite the opposite happened. With both Maggie and Salma sitting cross-legged on the floor, and me on the couch with my blanket, puffy-eyed, Salma (who I thought had been my trusted confidant in all of this) started it off.
If you were raped … why could I hear you moaning from my room?
Are you sure you’re not just regretting what was consensual sex?
If you did get raped, shouldn’t you report it? Are you going to?
Their words, which mocked and doubted me, made me feel as though my entire world was shutting down. That these two women, who up until this point had loved me for me and had been by my side, were questioning my truth was mind-boggling. I felt like I was on trial.
“That these two women, who up until this point had loved me for me and had been by my side, were questioning my truth was mind-boggling.”
I soon began ruminating and replaying the events that transpired the night before: If I had previously wanted to have sex with him, but not in that instance, was it still rape? Are they right, and I’m just in denial?
Their doubts made me question the legitimacy of my own trauma. Was my own assault justified because it wasn’t done in an overtly violent manner? I didn’t end up reporting my rape because I was so conflicted about believing myself.
As someone who experienced trauma at a young age, I have been in and out of therapy almost my whole life. I was lucky to already have a trusted therapist — who I’m still with today — and be able to open up about this incident. By talking to her and reading other women’s stories, I realize the recurring theme is similar: Survivors tell themselves, “My sexual assault wasn’t that traumatic. I could have had X happen to me, so I’m lucky.”
That kind of rhetoric is what I told myself over and over, day in and day out. In fact, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center states that in 8 in 10 cases of rape, the perpetrator is someone known to the victim. Also, 51.1% of female survivors reported being raped by an intimate partner and 40.8% by an acquaintance. So why didn’t my friends believe me if these were the stone-cold facts?
I had already been living with Salma and Maggie for almost six months when my rape happened. We went to the same college and were even in the same journalism program. But as their words started to bubble like a witch’s brew over and over again in my head, and as winter turned into spring, I looked at them more as roommates than as friends.
A couple weeks after the living room conversation, Maggie invited some of our guy friends over. At the end of the night, I decided to turn in, while Salma and Maggie drank and played video games with our guests. They had come over countless times, but obviously, at this point in my life, I was fragile like ornaments in a cardboard box, handling myself with care.
“Their doubts made me question the legitimacy of my own trauma. Was my own assault justified because it wasn’t done in an overtly violent manner?”
About 15 minutes into my attempt to get a good night’s sleep, one of the guys, Rob*, stumbled into my room, where my rape had taken place, drunk. I started screaming, “Get out of here! What are you doing?” He had burst in so forcefully, he knocked down my mirror hanging on the wall and it shattered.
I ran out of my room and told Salma and Maggie he needed to leave. I started to sob because all of this was so overwhelming — even though Rob was indeed a friend of mine whom I had laughed and shared my space with before, my trauma made me question all men. He ended up leaving shortly thereafter, and Maggie came into my room, scolding me: “It’s just Rob, he would never hurt you! Why are you overreacting? Now he’s never going to come over again because he doesn’t feel wanted here!”
Here it was again. Instead of acting with compassion, she talked down to me. I started to question myself. Does she even remember what I went through a month ago? Am I being overdramatic? Did I just ruin a perfectly good evening?
What I learned in therapy throughout the weeks and months that followed was that I was entitled to my trauma. I had to rid myself of the shame and guilt I felt so deeply in my bones and stop putting all my worth and happiness into these friends of mine just because I thought they had been my soul sisters. I thought they had my best interests in mind. I thought they would be by my side through thick and thin, especially when I came to them both in such a delicate state.
With a shaking voice in these therapy sessions, I was finally able to say out loud that trusting my intuition was the way out through this. Because, as the saying goes, the only way out is through.
Even before my rape, I had lost sight of myself. Because I was so close with Salma and Maggie, sharing this small apartment and essentially doing everything together, I saw us as one. So if two of them are against me, I must be in the wrong, right?
“What I learned in therapy throughout the weeks and months that followed was that I was entitled to my trauma.”
My sexual assault allowed me to open my eyes and see myself as a transparent, truthful individual. I had to rid myself of others’ opinions about me and stay embedded in my truth, like plants’ roots growing in soil.
In the summer, approximately four months after my rape, Maggie moved back home to Michigan and sublet her room to a friend from high school. I realized then that I was disposable. Salma befriended our new roommate and left me to fend for myself. The summer of 2017 was a lonely one, but imperative to my growth as a woman learning to listen to her gut, which is what my therapist encouraged me to do.
My senior year started six months after I was raped, and I exchanged a few words with Salma and Maggie when I saw them around campus, but the more I continued to see them, the more we just acted like strangers. It was tough, too, because there was a part of me that still had sentimental memories about them and wished for more. But the more I was able to say to myself, “I believe me,” because my therapist was able to believe me, the need for their friendships grew weaker.
Now, two and a half years later at age 23, I value my truth and my instinct more than anyone else’s. I keep my circle small, ask for help when needed, and because of my self-awareness, I am so proud of my progress.
Being believed is essential to recovering after a traumatic event. But I have learned not to be deterred if family or friends don’t support you, because there will be at least one person who will, and they’ll say, “I’m so sorry that happened to you, and I believe you.” And sometimes, one is all it takes.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.
*Names have been changed.
Have a compelling first-person story you want to share? Send your story description to firstname.lastname@example.org.