*Disclaimer: this content and discussion is focused on sexual assault and may be triggering please be advised*
Name: Erin May Hanley
Age: 23 years old Occupation: Receptionist (In Between Figuring It Out) Location: Toronto, ON A few summers ago, I was raped.
For a long time, I felt much more comfortable saying that I was sexually assaulted or that I have experienced sexual trauma. I was genuinely afraid of the word rape. It felt so vulgar and invasive to me, but that’s because it is. At the end of the day, sexual assault and rape mean the same thing but there was this underlying fear that was stopping me from acknowledging it for what it was. It was by someone I knew of, although we had never talked before that night. Immediately my reaction was that I was overreacting and, unfortunately, I think a lot of women struggle with that. It’s something that historically has been ingrained in us, but on top of that, I’ve spent the majority of my life being told that I'm dramatic. That I freak out over little things. That my feelings aren’t real or valid. Because of my past mental health challenges, I started to over-analyze my reaction while the voices of others rang through my head. In the end, I ended up downplaying it. I started to create excuses to justify the whole thing, telling myself that we knew the same people so he could never do something like that and even if he did no one would ever believe me. I exaggerated my part and downplayed his. I started to take responsibility for what happened as if it were my fault. I always thought of myself as someone so aware of these types of issues. Like, if it had happened to a friend I would have immediately been able to identify it as rape and would have encouraged them to go to the police. Now though, since it has happened to me I understand why so many women struggle with coming forward on a level that I never really understood before. It’s because all of a sudden I started to focus on all of the flaws, the loopholes, the grey areas, and of all of the ways it could appear like it was my fault. So instead of taking it more seriously, I went with that and allowed myself to believe that what had happened to me didn't matter. Truthfully, I just wanted to forget that it had ever happened. So, instead of dealing with it I buried it instead. At the time, I felt like I had made it all go away, but in hindsight, I can see how much it has affected all of my relationships and the way that I viewed myself. I wanted someone to prove to me that I didn’t deserve to be treated like that, which led to me having a shit ton of sex. Starving for attention. Dating all the wrong guys. I became someone I wasn’t, which I disguised as empowerment. I told myself that I was taking back my right to my sexuality and my body, but in reality, I wasn’t. It took me a long time to realize the connection between what had happened and this new identity I had taken on. It's so true when people say that trauma lives in the body, because during that time I started to experience aches and pains that I had never felt before. It felt like an overwhelming amount of stress and tension all over my body, but I failed to recognize it and let time continue to bury it. It wasn’t until recently that I felt ready to confront it. I became tired of having unexplained meltdowns in the middle of sex with my partner who I loved and I felt safe with and not understanding why. I told him a few months into the relationship because it got to the point where he started to internalize it. It was confusing for both of us because at times I would be present, enjoying being intimate and then other times I would be completely removed, withdrawn, and emotionally broken. It took me a long time to identify what I was struggling with as a result of being a victim of rape. When I finally decided to come out and talk about what had happened in-depth, he handled it so well. He was there for me in every aspect. He was extremely supportive especially when I was triggered and didn’t understand how or why. He stood by me and I felt super lucky because it can be such a daunting thing to open up about, especially to your partner. Time and time again, women have backs turned on them the second they dare to talk openly about their sexual trauma, and that’s devastating. Luckily though, it ended up bringing us closer and it was a true testament to his character. Regardless of how compassionate, supportive, and loving he was I can only imagine how hard it must have been for him to attempt to understand what I was going through inside. It gave me so much hope though, and reassured me that opening up is ultimately the healthiest thing for me and all my relationships, not just romantic ones. I had tried to confide in my dad and step-mom years ago when it had happened. At the time I don’t think that I was capable of expressing the severity of it because I could barely comprehend it myself. In reality, I don’t know if I even wanted them to know. In the end, nothing came from it. It was only about two months ago that I brought it up again, I mean actually brought it up. We were sitting in the living room, just the three of us, and I felt so overwhelmed. As if I needed to just open my mouth and let the words pour out of me or they never would and so, I told them. The whole time I kept expressing that I wasn’t angry or upset with them, but that I needed them to know because it was something that I couldn’t let myself live in darkness with anymore. It was a really hard conversation for all of us, don’t get me wrong, because for a long time I was also protecting their feelings. No parent wants to hear that their little girl has been hurt, but in reality, their little girl had been. We are at a place in our relationship where I want them to know when I’m hurting. It ended up being a beautiful moment. We were all crying and embracing each other. It felt like I finally got the one thing I was craving without even knowing it. It filled a huge void inside of me that felt so empty for so long. It was exactly what I needed to move forward. Since it happened, it’s hard for me not to think of my mom, who passed away when I was only thirteen years old. I was so young, and I only ever knew her as just that: my mom. I never knew her as her own woman aside from that. So, after everything that I’ve gone through it’s the one thing that hurts the most. It hurts knowing that I’ll never get to know her as a friend or even just as a human being. I hear stories from my dad and my aunt, but it just isn’t the same. I find myself wondering a lot whether anything like this ever happened to her. I want to be able to share my experiences with her and for her to be able to share hers with me too. The idea that she might have lived with trauma and never had the opportunity to express it or heal from it breaks my heart. It’s terrifying to think of living an entire life confused by the fear of trauma and all I know now is that I never want that to happen to me. Now, I kind of use that as my excuse to be honest with myself no matter how hard it might be, because this person who did this to me already took so much. He took my peace, he took my safety, he took my womanhood, but I won’t let him take any more. I won’t allow him to take what I have in front of me now, he’s taken enough. I refuse to let my mental health define who I am, it’s taken enough. Losing my mom has taken enough. I’m ready to take back control of my life again. I know this may not be the last tragedy or trauma that I face, but I don’t want to be the victim anymore. This is my life, I owe it to myself and the people I love to take control of it and confront it head-on.