Badass Thriving, Vaginas

Why I’m Not Ashamed to Say I Was Raped

Learning to Fly: A Self-Portrait
By Jennifer Harkness
oil on canvas 2009
“Trauma is hell on earth.
Trauma resolved is a gift of the gods.”
Peter Levine, Waking the Tiger

Trigger warning for rape and assault, there is no graphic content.

Many people who read my blog comment on how brave I am to talk about my personal life so openly. When vulnerability is often still seen as a weakness in this culture, I understand the underpinnings of that statement. I understand that when it comes to being honest about our triumphs and struggles, there is a lot of projection that comes along with it. Sometimes people look at you with admiration, understanding, comradery or inspiration. Sometimes people look at you with judgment, disdain, or pity. There is often a misunderstanding of vulnerability being a cry for attention, or that something is wrong with you. I see true vulnerability as a strength, both when we celebrate our wins and express our pain and grief. It is a strength because it is real, and authenticity connects us in our humanity with opportunities for compassion.

Ultimately, what we think of others has more to do with our own experience and bias than who we are directing it toward. No matter if it is a positive, neutral, or negative association, I hope that people can reflect on why they feel the way they do when they read my posts. Especially with the many hot topics I write about, it’s an opportunity for self-awareness, which is a cornerstone of growth. I think long and hard before I share anything online. I think on what my intentions are and why I write. I ask permission from those I write about and give as much agency as I can to them. My wish is that my experiences and thoughts might be of benefit to others in some way. Many humans struggle alone, thinking they are the only one experiencing what they do. This is in part, because we don’t share openly in our communities. People tend to try to fit into some kind of cultural “normal” that really doesn’t exist at all. That ideal of “normal” does damage. This post is explicitly for people who have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime, or for those who love someone who has.

As a mental health counselor of over 15 years, I have literally heard thousands of intimate stories. I am an expert in being human if nothing else. I have unique experience, education, skill sets and compassion around feelings, relationships, and life. I have also done over 25 years of therapy myself as a client. I know my specialties of anxiety and trauma inside and out from both sides of the therapueitc table. Personally, I have a complex developmental history of abuse and assault. I sadly have an ACE of 9. My history includes many people hurting me physically, sexually, and emotionally over the years. Mine was not a onetime encounter or a one-person perpetration. I used to think that was unique, that I was somehow branded, targeted and abnormal. Tragically, my story of trauma is not unique. Many people suffer at the hands of multiple assailants after being coerced at young ages to give up any sense of boundaries or consent. We are taught and told in many ways personally and culturally that it is our fault. We then become perfect prey with the unspoken secrets we never wanted. The burden of shame silences us.

I’ve done a lot of work around finding my voice and working through intense shame. Self-compassion and acceptance are truly the key to that work. Any words I write here are a fruition of that. I remember saying I was raped out loud for the first time in a group and doubling over in absolute panic and terror. I was speechless, shaking, and distraught. I was also held in a loving and sacred container for it. I remember the first time a therapist said, “Can you feel your vagina? Can you take one breath into it?” I vomited. She normalized that experience and over many years helped me to tolerate the sensations in my own body. The ability to inhabit my own skin and space was something that was taken away from me through physical and emotional pain very early in life. Heartbreakingly, I cannot count how many children and adults I have helped through their own trauma journey. It has been the deepest honor of my life to walk that diligent, slow and powerful path toward embodied health with them.

In all of this, I have also butted up against the legal system time and again. I have watched it fail me; I have watched it fail many others. This failure has been through not being trauma informed or safe for victims to come forth. Most of us keep silent so we are not dragged through the torturous process of legal doubt. I often hear, “It’s bad enough this happened, I don’t want to relive it again and again in front of strangers. I want to move on.” Those that have reported and suffered through the process often are faced with weak and disappointing outcomes. Drug use gets more time in jail than sexual assailants and rapists for the most part. We have no real restitution or resolution. Predators walk free and often repeat their crimes. We all watched the Kavanaugh trial and saw what happened. He still got his seat at the highest court and she got death threats. Not an inviting process at all for people who have been victimized. It was a clear message from the government that our experiences don’t matter, there is no justice.

This gets to the main point of this post. I totally get the many reasons why people who have survived assault don’t talk about it and why it is brave to do so. The control over when, where, and how we disclose is an important choice in the process of healing. That’s why it is important to me to speak out now. What is unique about my story is the thriving part. I have a lot of internal capabilities I have been able to pull from like intelligence, humor, creativity, and willfulness. Even more importantly, I have had a lot of support from many people throughout my life. They have seen those internal capabilities in me when I could not. They encouraged me to work through my personal hell, change my life, and grow. This is gratefully reflected in my childhood resilience score of 11. In other words, I have had a lot of privilege and resources to heal.

Healing is sadly a privilege, and not a right in this culture because the cost of health care is astronomically high. Sexual trauma is a psychological and physical wound. Many of us have medical ailments and issues that persist long after assault. It takes time, space, money, active energy, community support and consistent effort to heal. Not everyone has enough internal and external resources. Trauma is hard and exhausting, there is no way around it, only through. Despite what some treatment models say, for most people developmental trauma and PTSD are not a fast or easy path to resolve and recover from.

With that said, it is extremely important to know it is also possible to recover. You can not only survive, but truly thrive. What happened never goes away, part of trauma is the grief of not being able to change it. But I want to tell you, it gets easier to live with when we have the right framework, information and community for our individual needs. That constellation of support looks different for everyone, but it always involves safety, genuine care and acceptance. With that in place, our relationship to what happened can change. How we cope with it can change. How we create meaning and grow from our journey evolves. We have the potential for great joy and happiness because we understand the depth and breadth of the human emotional landscape. We have capacity for great empathy and compassion, which are hallmarks to holistic health. There is hope.

My sincere intention here is to help add a voice to the process of healing and address the shame assualt creates. We tend to blame ourselves to gain a sense of control over events that were out of our control. This message is one I tell myself, my clients, and is for all of us who have been assaulted:

I AM NO LONGER CARRYING SHAME FROM BEING ASSAULTED AND RAPED.

THE SHAME IS NOT MINE; IT IS NOT FOR ANY PERSON WHO HAS BEEN VICTIMIZED AND ASSAULTED.

I AM ACTIVELY GIVING SHAME BACK TO WHERE IT BELONGS.

THE SHAME BELONGS TO ASSAILANTS AND PERPETRATORS.

THE SHAME BELONGS TO RAPISTS.

THE SHAME BELONGS TO A BROKEN LEGAL SYSTEM AND INSTITUTIONS THAT ENABLE THIS TO HAPPEN OFTEN.

THE SHAME BELONGS TO CULTURES THAT PROMOTE SEXUAL VIOLENCE.

THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH ME OR OTHERS WHO HAVE BEEN ASSAULTED.

THE PEOPLE, COMMUNITIES AND SYSTEMS THAT HURT US WERE WRONG AND FAILED US. SHAME ON THEM.

I stand in total solidarity with people who have been oppressed, hurt, and silenced. It was not your fault, nothing you did could ever create circumstances for someone else to violate you. Long ago, I learned to take all the shame, blame and rage I had for myself and put it in its rightful places above. When I get triggered, which I still do at times, I use my skills and breathe through that fire until it burns clean with compassion. It is the fuel that writes these words. It is the furnace that keeps me steady in my work with victims of assault. This is a righteous fight that I am ready to go to bat for again and again. I write this for myself and the BILLIONS of people out there who have been violated and hurt. I write this for all the people who have honored me by sharing their stories with me over the years. The system is broken, our cultures are broken, the people who hurt us are broken.

While you may feel broken from your trauma, I believe you are whole and resilient at your core. No matter what happened, you are lovable and worthy. I hope you find a path that works for you and a community to support you. I hope you are able reclaim and own your goodness and health and have a loving and meaningful life. I hope you grow and thrive and find happiness.

May we all sail in peace

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