You too may be like me, a rape survivor, essentially a member of a club that no one ever really plans on joining. As you probably know, this club is not all that elite, as one in every six women has been sexually assaulted. If you’ve successfully survived this ordeal, perhaps you identify with the dictionary’s definition of survivor, one who continues “to function or prosper in spite of opposition, hardship, or setbacks.” For me, this wasn’t always the case.
I didn’t realize the significance of the term until almost a decade after my assaults occurred. It’s not uncommon for a victim of sexual assault to suffer silently for years. In fact, 95 percent of rape victims never report their rape to officials. I waited a decade to speak about mine, and I finally did because as my life continued onwards, it became less and less functional.
During my decade of silence, I’d heard the term “rape survivor” in passing and identified with it. Of course, I considered myself a rape survivor. I was here, still breathing, still talking, still living. Or was I? I’d survived. I went on with my life — well, sort of. The truth is that I was barely making it through each day. I hid behind a contrived persona, complete with canned reactions and gestures that prepared me for any confrontation, harmless or offensive.
For years my automatic responses and cheerful but guarded demeanor allowed me to remain emotionally detached from others. I ruminated in my own space, full of confusion and guilt. You could hardly call what I was doing “living.” I numbed the painful memories through a debilitating eating disorder, substance abuse, abusive relationships and unhealthy friendships. It is common for rape victims to have addiction issues. Sexual assault victims are 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol and 26 times more likely to abuse drugs than people who have not been sexually assaulted.
Somehow in this mess, I managed, barely, to graduate from high school and college, still running away from any real connections, and still stuck in the hateful cycle of an eating disorder — until one day, when I was forced to stop.
It began as a series of unfortunate events, seemingly out of my control. I woke up to find the windows smashed out of my car, clearly a result of my latest relationship. My body began to give out on me from all the years of abuse and malnourishment; I almost died from pneumonia. I realized that many of my friends were just trying to control me. Even my workplace was a negative environment.
For a few months I tried to detoxify myself and make the best of my situation. I left my job and eliminated my toxic acquaintances, which turned into a full blown revolution leaving few people standing. Then I tried hard to kick the last of my addictions, the one that I hadn’t been able to leave behind me: my eating disorder. I just couldn’t do it. It seemed impossible. Even when my lungs and major organs became threatened by this disease, I still couldn’t stop.
Then one night, I read that you must get to the root of an addiction to cure it. I paused for a moment. Root? Well, I’d just made tons of positive changes! What else was there left to address? Oh. I paused. There was that. It was the first time I consciously identified what I’d been running from all these years.
A few days later, I found myself at a local Rape Crisis Center. As I waited to speak to a counselor, I noticed a little poem on the bulletin board in front of me titled “Survivor Psalm.”
I have been victimized.
I was in a fight that was
not a fair fight.
I did not ask for the fight.
There is no shame in losing
I have reached the stage of
survivor and am no longer a
slave of victim status.
I look back with sadness
rather than hate.
I look forward with hope
rather than despair.
I may never forget, but I need
not constantly remember.
I was a victim.
I am a survivor.
As I read that poem, I realized that up to this point, considering myself a rape survivor was almost laughable. I hadn’t been thinking like a survivor but like a victim, running from addiction to addiction, from one abuser to the next, while going through the motions of life in a zombie-like fashion. When I got home that day, I looked up the definition of “survivor” in the dictionary. After examining the dictionary’s three definitions of “survivor,” I noticed that each term chronologically built upon the next and depicted an evolution from survival to becoming a survivor.
1. A person or thing that survives.
If you are still living and breathing after your assault, you have been lucky enough to survive. Although you may not feel lucky, some people don’t make it this far. Rebounding from a sexual assault is difficult, but it is important to appreciate that you are still on this Earth for a reason.
2. Law. The one of two or more designated persons, as joint tenants or others having a joint interest, who outlives the other or others.
Despite the trauma, acknowledge that you survived. Many people who survive their assault often die at their own hands because of addiction or otherwise. Rape victims are four times more likely to contemplate suicide.
3. A person who continues to function or prosper in spite of opposition, hardship, or setbacks.
Once you consider yourself a survivor by this definition, you are golden. When you get to this point, your life becomes functional again. You must get past the pain in order to live out the dreams and goals you were meant to accomplish.