Alone in the hallway of an emergency room, with vomit in my hair and makeup running down my face, I learned I had been sexually assaulted.
Unlike many other women who have stood in the same place, my assault did not happen the previous night. It did not happen the week before, or even the same year. My assault took place 14 years ago, when I was 5.
But I didn’t remember it until February 2017.
I was at a friend’s apartment party when I blacked out halfway through the night. I was gurneyed away by an EMT and woke up in an empty hallway covered with a hospital gown, with an IV in my arm and my pants undone – why were my pants undone?
I did not know why I was there, but my open zipper made me assume the worst. After sitting there for what felt like hours, but was actually only five minutes, an emergency room doctor approached me. Her words – “Do you remember what you said last night?” – are still carved into my mind.
During my blackout the night before, I had shouted, “I was raped.” An EMT, whose face and name I cannot recall, stopped wheeling me and asked if it happened at this party. No, it hadn’t. The memory began spilling out of me like liquid spills out of a jar that’s shattered on the floor. A man I was close with had sexually assaulted me when I was 5 years old.
The trauma of the experience had forced my mind to push the memory to the deepest corner of my subconscious in an attempt to protect me from the damage of the event. That night of excessive drinking had unlocked the repressed memory, allowing me to finally make my long-awaited outcry and begin my healing.
Remembering my assault years later did not make dealing with it any less traumatic. In order to start healing, I had to force myself to remember.
Part of me feels like I should have known what I had experienced or remembered sooner. At about age 7, my body started to try to make me remember. I remember standing in the middle of the cereal aisle of a Pavilions grocery store when I dropped to the floor because of a knifelike stabbing sensation in my vagina.
I endured this pain hundreds of times for the next 12 years. I went to countless gynecologists who could not pinpoint the cause, giving me diagnosis after diagnosis: overactive cervix, endometriosis, ovarian cysts and pelvic floor spasms. No diagnosis ever stopped the pain.
I tried to come to terms with the pain and the constant visits to the doctor by making art about my experience, trying to understand what my body was going through. But my body continued to battle me until I made my outcry.
Once I remembered my assault, the stabbing sensations stopped. I realized I was experiencing phantom pain of my assault, similar to how amputees feel pain where their limbs used to be. My body wanted me to remember, but I just couldn’t.
As my body came to terms with the assault, I tried to do the same emotionally. At the advice of a friend, I tried group and personal therapy sessions. However, this meant I needed to relive the assault over and over to recognize it had happened.
I found it difficult to participate in group therapy. Even though I was surrounded by women recounting assaults of their own, I felt isolated and alone. The women in my group had more recent experiences and remembered every painful detail. No one had an experience like mine, and I felt so alone.
I would like to say that my situation is special and different, but it is not. My one-on-one therapist helped me recognize that I am not the only one who was assaulted as a child. My discovery was just unique, she said.
I knew my attacker; I spent countless hours in his company and I trusted him. He exploited this trust and took advantage of a 5-year-old girl who did what she was told. I could reveal his name and how I knew him, but this is my narrative, and he does not hold that power over me anymore.
Telling my family was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do. I did not want them to see me as weak and someone to be pitied. I also knew they would each blame themselves, but there isn’t – and wasn’t – anyone to blame but my abuser.
Each of them took it differently. My mother cried when I told her over the phone, but she pulled herself together to be what she thought I needed: a rock. A month later, she finally broke. She called me crying and said she hoped I did not blame her for what happened. She said if she had known, she would have protected me. I hope she knows I would never make her take on the burden of fault, or even think of blaming her for my assault.
My sister’s reaction was completely different. I only found out very recently that, at the time, she never really grasped what I was saying. When she did, she broke in a different way. A kind of anger I had never seen before overtook her. She was mad at herself for not protecting me from the world. She said it seemed that nothing ever went in my direction. I am always sick, I was bullied in high school, and now, this. She told me that every time I came close to what she saw as strong and thriving, the world seemed to push me down.
But I am thriving. I am strong. Vocalizing and living through the abuse will never change that. I am not ashamed to admit what happened to me, and I am not afraid to talk about it anymore.
For others, finding out about my assault has shifted the way they see me. The people I tell always give me the same response – the sad eyes, the “I’m so sorry that happened to you” and the arm touch or hug.
After disclosing my experience to the people closest in my life, I have learned they classify me in one of two ways: survivor or victim.
Those who have seen my battles with mental health over the years tend to classify me as a victim. They like to believe that my assault is the root of my problems and that I suffer at the hands of the residual effects of the trauma. They use the label “victim” as an explanation for my mental health. My trauma did not make me depressed or promiscuous or anxious. Depression and addiction are so deeply rooted in my family history that even if I had not been assaulted, I would be in the exact same position.
I get called a survivor by people, mostly women, who want to make me feel powerful. They want to make me triumphant, to make me the victor, to make it seem like I have come out on top of my abuse. But what happened to me was not a contest or a battle in which a winner could emerge. I will admit that when I first discovered my assault, I called myself a survivor; but in order to move forward, I needed to shed this label. By staying a survivor, I would be stuck in the past, unable to move forward and heal.
I do not want to give the man that harmed me so many years ago that kind of power over my life. I want to live my life the same way I have done for the past 19 years. I want to keep being seen for the art I produce and the person I am, rather than as a victim or a survivor. Words like these lock us in our pasts and force us to relive the abuse we sustained. Why do I need to be defined by something that happened so many years ago? We should not be giving power to our abusers by selecting labels that correspond in some way to our assault.
I am not going to say that learning about and emotionally moving through my childhood sexual assault has not changed me. I am more aware of my surroundings and still go to therapy once a week, but I am still me. I still practice my art and drink copious amounts of coffee. My mom and I argue about the cleanliness of my room, and my sister tells me I watch too much TV. I do not identify as a survivor or victim, because I act the same as always. If I do not see myself in either light, then why should the rest of the world?
I just want to be me.