22 Years a Survivor

The slanting of five o’clock sun through the branches of trees with turning gold and red leaves pings the bowl of my soul with hollow sadness. I love autumn with its crunchy ground and vibrant sound, the textured weaves of color wound in scarves around craning necks and sweaters pulled down from shoulder to waist so as not to waste any warmth on shorter days and indigo nights.

That same kind of light poured down the afternoon I spent stuffing envelopes with invitations to the Lupus Foundation’s annual fundraiser. On such a mundane Sunday the riot of light lightened my step, filled my heart with cautious joy. Here I was, just four months post grad school graduation, volunteering for the good of good people with a very bad disease. Come on sun, rain down your light! Let the crisp air in cloudless sky blow my heart that much wider. That’s what I thought, fairly skipping into the building.

After my volunteer stint, I had a date. A fifth date. A fifth date with a fellow who made me nervous. A date to dine with a man who ate off my plate last date and laughed when I looked shocked. A date who hovered, no, stood over me as we stood in line, waiting. A date my friend I insisted I keep when I said I wanted to cancel. Somehow he seemed in some way strange, I said. No, not strange, rather strangely dangerous, but I couldn’t explain it further. I probably was wrong, she said to me. I just was being picky. I should give the guy a chance–he sounded simply awkward–and I might be surprised, she said.

Envelopes stuffed, metered, and sorted for mail, my volunteer stint concluded. Change of plans, he said on the phone. Stop here first, where I live for now. I’m running late for our date.

Only now I know never change the plans when the plan is changed counter to your sensible rules. Never go with the change when the one who makes the change somehow startles that seed of self deep within: that seed called instinct, intuition, that shred of self-preservation. Never second-guess your first response when what you feel is unease. And when your seed of self screams, No! Do not answer with a counter Yes.

I was set up.

I was set up to be held captive and violated for five excruciating hours. I felt as if my very humanity was ripped from me by his violence and, worse, his perverse delight in my suffering. Struggle invited laughter, tears wrought cruel approval.  It matters not what he did and how, not now. What’s important still is that for hours I wondered how I would survive, how I could escape when locks and razors and sheer size defined my narrowing prison.

I did escape, when it became clear that the night would not end for me because I would end before it. A sliver of opportunity bought by my compliance lulled him into a lapse of security. I ran. Beat him to my car and I fled, crying while driving, running every red light in the desperate hope of being pulled over by a cop, but, alas, no cop, and, thank God, no pursuer, either. My erratic driving through midnight’s glove threw me home before one.

It should have ended then, the victimization, but it did not. The ob/gyn I saw the next day mistook my crying and assertions that “he hurt me” as symptoms of psychosis, not traumatic stress from surviving sexual assault. Instead of being examined and treated as a rape victim, I was locked into a hospital’s psych ward for eighteen days, was drugged and told I was mentally ill.

Twenty-two years ago, spiritually broken, physically scarred, and emotionally brittle, I became a survivor. I was raped and held prisoner by a cruel monster who despite our late best efforts, could not be prosecuted. Once sprung from the hospital, new doctors saw enough evidence of physical trauma but it wasn’t enough for an indictment. The misdiagnosis of psychosis erased my credibility, the way the showers and the lack of medical care erased vital physical evidence.

I am a survivor. It’s taken years to reconstruct myself, to rebuild my life from the inside out. I’ve made mistakes, used the wrong kinds of treatment, including alcohol as self-medication. Every misstep at least was a step, was an attempt to stay in the world when depression and self-loathing suggested another option. I didn’t survive that night. I’ve told myself, so I could die another death by my own hand, however accidental. I’ve fought back by surrendering myself to spiritual healing and purposeful living. The results have been nothing short of miraculous.

I’ve also committed outrageous acts of courage and these helped create positive policy change and change in support for other survivors. This is what’s important. I found my voice, spoke twice at the Georgia Capitol in favor of laws and funding to support survivors.  I performed in the Vagina Monologues to raise money for the Georgia Network To End Sexual Assault, an organization that trains law enforcement officers as well as health care providers how to treat survivors like me with compassion and kindness, to gather evidence without judgment, to be skilled healers, not thoughtless victimizers.

I share this to remind myself of how far I’ve come and how far I’ve had to go. I want other survivors to know you aren’t alone, your pain has been my pain, too. Two years ago I underwent EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy at the Care and Counseling Center of Georgia, which greatly helped me. (Note: Care and Counseling Center’s highly skilled therapists also helped me change my thinking and process the world in more positive ways). Thanks to EMDR, the nightmares, depression, and hypervigilance finally stopped and I acquired a new set of coping tools. You can find licensed therapists who use EMDR thanks to online listings like this. If this kind of therapy isn’t for you, find some other kind of therapy. We didn’t survive just to survive. We survived so we could live and love and laugh again. We survived so we could live.

I am a survivor. I now know this. Survivors don’t have to live half a life, or a life of lies–saying “I’m fine” while slowly dying inside. Survivors don’t have to turn to alcohol or drugs, food or starving to ease the pain. I now know this. If addiction has become part of your story, too, twelve step programs are life-changing and life-saving and they only cost the desire to want something better for and of yourself.

For years I kept myself a victim by choosing unhealthy relationships with unhealthy men. I no longer do this. Being in a relationship is not a sign of healing, especially when our actions or inactions in those relationships are unhealthy ones, are one that harm us and others. Being a healthy person in a healthy relationship with a healthy person is a good sign of healing but healing doesn’t have to result in a relationship. Accepting and loving myself, wanting better for myself and then doing the hard emotional work of confronting the past, looking at my past and present behavior, and then changing my behavior so I don’t continue to hurt and be hurt, that’s healing.

Today I have that kind of healing and I am humbly grateful to God for making it possible. I have the kind of healing that lets me be in a wonderfully loving and nurturing relationship with an incredible man who will become my husband in January. He’s already my partner and best friend. He loves me for being me and I love him for being him. God is the center of our lives and our love for one another flows from Him. Every day I pray, “God, fill my heart with the love you want me to give,” and He does.

I’m twenty-two years a survivor, and I thank God I am.