Yesterday was my birthday. Before you send your wishes my way, I want to tell you a story about the history of my birthday.
For most of my formative life, I was sexually abused. As a means to control something through the trauma, I developed an eating disorder that reared its hideous head during my teen years. Then, to top of a truly horrific 16 years of my life, on my seventeenth birthday, I was raped.
The words 'broken' and 'damaged' are thrown around frequently to describe people like me. Shattered, and unable to form the ashes into something, anything at all, would be how I would describe the state of mind I lived with for a very long time.
Nineteen years later, I have given talks about my experience hundreds of times, but this is the first time I have put these words on paper, where I will have the ability to read my own words, about my trauma for the first time in black and white. And this, this is where you left me.
You left me robbed of simple things that bring other people joy: baths, playing in a pool, eating watermelon, mundane things that I don't enjoy because they are triggers for me.
You left me with no one to trust and I thought for a very long time that I would never be good enough for someone to love me.
You left me with a nagging, vexatious sadness that plays like a broken movie reel in the back of my mind at all times.
You left me with a destructive cynicism towards humanity.
People ask me all of time -- usually in an accusingly loud whisper -- What will you tell your boys? How will you explain this to them?
I will explain it by teaching them not to rape. I will also explain to them that I am no longer ashamed and embarrassed, because this is my story to tell, and if no one wanted me to talk about it, then they never should have laid their hands on me.
I will explain it to them by teaching them about finding joy and peace within your life amongst a consuming pain. The picture you see captures the first time I realized that I felt joy celebrating my birthday, and celebrating the milestone of finding joy on an otherwise internally stormy day for me. The joy was so overwhelming in that moment, it felt as though I could suffocate under its sheer ecstatic weight of emotion. The hard truth is that life can and will change in an instant, and you must let go of expectations in order to move forward, because while the change might be hard, it also might be amazing, and you must be prepared for both.
I usually shun a celebration, because the pressure inside of me builds slow and steady in the months leading up to my birthday, but not for the reasons that you might think. I use this milestone to gage whether or not I have done enough in the last year to give back to others to make the weight of this baggage worth bearing, because sometimes not knowing or understanding the reason this happened to me becomes infuriatingly too much to bear. But, I have finally learned, that I, alone, am enough. And while I might never have the answer to the questions of "why," I get to choose this newfound joy.
When I sit in a waiting room of a doctor's office to deal with the physical ailments related to the trauma, I choose joy, because I have access to medical care and individuals who want to help me.
When I have flashbacks due to triggers, I choose joy, because you are no longer here to hurt me.
When I worry about who my children are exposed to, I choose joy, because I have two children who love me unconditionally.
When I feel inadequate and unlovable, I choose joy, because my spouse shows me otherwise.
I choose joy, because it is the only choice I was given to make in the collective experience. Where you left me is no longer a pile of ashes, but molded into a beautiful life. But you also left me with something that I now know: I have a strength you cannot match nor dare stand up against because my strength is greater than the pain you caused me.