*TRIGGER WARNING: The post you are about to read deals with sexual assault and abuse. There is no graphic language used, but the subject matter is sensitive in nature.
It was in a coffee shop on an April evening when I realized for the first time I’d been sexually assaulted. It had been three months since the assault, and three months and two days since I’d broken up with my boyfriend.
I had gone to a Starbucks, armed with my laptop, planning to write the pain out of me. I thought if I could just write an angsty poem or a reflective letter, it would all go away. I felt like someone had carved out my insides.
I hadn’t written in months. Instead, I’d gone to journalism school feeling empty and scooped out. I binge-watched two seasons of Pretty Little Liars in three days. I dreamed of snakes and scorpions and my teeth falling out. Sometimes my fear would seep out in a visceral way, and it would take hours to stop my hands from shaking.
I opened my laptop and pulled up a blank page. I stared at the blinking cursor. Before I realized what I was doing, I found myself on Google, slowly typing five words:
Legal definition of sexual assault
The words sat in the search bar, boring into me — black and bold and heavy.
The legal definition wouldn’t lie. It wouldn’t adhere to emotion or feeling. It would be factual, detached. If I could understand the legality, perhaps I could grasp the shards I was holding in my sliced hands.
Over seventeen million results flooded my screen. I clicked the first one.
I read each bullet point, bewildered by the words I was reading — reading exactly what had happened to me. I felt as if a bucket of cold water had been dumped on me, and suddenly, I was freezing.
I tried to slow my breathing, tried not to look like I had just uncovered the magnitude behind my hollowed-out soul.
I found another website, SACHA, a sexual assault center in the core of my city. There was a phone number, a 24-hour hotline. I slammed my laptop down, grabbed my purse, and ran back to my car.
The sun was setting, streaking the sky with pink and orange and magenta. I placed my hand on my heart and tried to take a full breath but my lungs wouldn’t cooperate.
I typed the number in my phone and called. An operator picked up.
“Um,” I stuttered. “I’m looking for SACHA?” I mispronounced the center’s name.
The operator’s voice instantly softened, “You’re looking to talk to someone?”
“Yes, please.” My voice sounded far away and timid, even to my own ears.
“I think someone should be available now. Let me try and put you through.”
Music came across my phone and played for a few minutes. I kept looking out at the parking lot, the dusk light settling on my windshield. The sky was pink and peach — hopeful. What was I doing, calling this hotline? What would I even say?
“Hi, this is Hannah,” a voice came on the other end of the line before I had the chance to disconnect. “I’m a volunteer at SACHA. This call is anonymous and confidential. No information will leave here unless I feel as though you are in immediate danger. Do you understand?”
Neither of us said anything. Suddenly I heard myself sobbing, “Mine happened about three months ago.” My nose was clogged, and tears poured down my face.
“Oh,” Hannah said gently.
“I — I don’t know what to do,” I whimpered. “I’m trying to move on, or get help, or heal. I want to get over this so badly. But — recently I’ve just felt so sad. I don’t understand how I feel so sad.”
“That’s a very normal reaction to have. I’m so glad you called. It’s a very good thing that you’re working on moving forward. All of this is progress.”
“Okay,” I wiped my streaming nose against the cuff of my sweatshirt. “I guess what I’m having the hardest time with is the legitimacy. I keep wondering if I’m being dramatic. Other girls have it way worse than me. He didn’t rape me. He was my boyfriend. I should be fine. I didn’t even know if I should call this number because I feel like I should be over this by now.”
“You’re minimizing this,” Hannah said. “Again, a lot of people tend to react this way. And if you’ve been repressing it for three months then you may feel even more like you shouldn’t be so affected by it by now. But you shouldn’t minimize your pain. Your pain is valid.”
I listened to her as she spoke, her voice soft but firm, a complete stranger to me. And yet I had just told this girl I didn’t know the most vulnerable and terrifying experience that had happened to me.
“Thank you for talking to me,” I told her at the end of our fourteen-minute conversation.
“That’s what we’re here for. Day or night, you can call. We have free counseling available too if that’s something you’re interested in. Some people are fairly averse to the idea of counseling. Others find it really helps.” She gave me the center’s number, in case I wanted to call the next morning and put my name down on the waitlist.
I ended the call.
For a long time after the call, I think I’m okay. I see a Christian counselor for eight months. I try to tell her how I’m feeling, but I mostly skirt around the main topic. I can’t ever say it outright. The words feel too dirty, and I think deep inside it must have been my fault anyway.
I date someone else and am astonished by his kindness to me. His kindness makes me angry because I don’t know if I deserve it. I treat him horribly and blame him for all the hurt I experienced in my previous relationship. I leave a heap of damage in my wake. I hurt people because of how much I’m hurting inside.
Counseling is expensive, and I’m not sure what else to say to my therapist. I tell a few of my friends, but I wonder if they will get tired of me wanting to talk about what happened. The nightmares slow down. There are some weeks where I don’t wake up crying.
Over the next year and a half, I put all of my focus into school. I get an overseas internship and go to England. I think I’m ready to tell the world my story, so I write an essay from my miniature flat in London. The essay is angry and forthright and comes from a place of wanting to get over the pain. I send it to some people I love and they tell me not to publish it, which just makes me feel angrier and more ashamed. I wonder if I’ll always feel marred by this.
The night I get home from my summer internship in England, I find out my friend has died. She was killed in a car accident early that morning.
My dad tells me when I get home, his phone dangling from his fingertips. “I think Tat’s been killed,” he says.
I am holding onto my sister’s baby, and I cling to her too tightly, causing her to cry. My friend Tat Blackburn — the astoundingly kind girl I’d been mentoring for the last three years, who helped plant our church, who was supposed to be getting married in October, whom I had just spoken to days earlier — was gone. My heart cannot handle the grief.
Her death cracks me right open, and all of my sadness spills out — grief over the loss of her and the sexual assault from over a year earlier. All of it commingle together, and I wonder if I might drown.
It’s the summer after England, a whole year since Tat died. I haven’t spoken of my assault much, but it’s overwhelming me, coming up over and over in my mind and in my body.
I sit on my sister’s couch. My friend Michelle sits across from me. I’ve just put my nephew to bed. I’m on babysitting duty, and my sister and her husband are out.
I look at Michelle, and immediately I feel safe. She’s had a grueling six months that are almost unfathomable, and I have vowed to her and God and myself to stick by her side for as long as she needs it.
But she doesn’t want to talk about her year anymore. She wants to talk about me.
“I know stuff is going on with you,” she says kindly. “Do you want to talk about it?”
And there it is: an opportunity to come clean, a chance to pry the secret away from its heavy grip on my chest and release it to her.
I had told other people before. For three years, I’d harbored immense pain and shame. Every time I had told someone my secret, I regretted saying something so vulnerable.
But there’s something about Michelle. She makes me feel safe. She’s non-judgmental. She’s suffering too — and there’s something about sharing in your suffering with someone else that makes you feel a fraction less alone.
I open my mouth and start to tell her.
I explain how my ex-boyfriend sexually abused me three years ago while we were dating. That’s the official word for what happened: abuse. Two different counselors confirmed it for me. Psychological, emotional, and sexual abuse. The words feel heavy, and make my stomach twist. I’m still not used to them because I’ve consistently tried to ignore that it happened. Most people didn’t even know we were dating. I’d never posted photos of him on my social media feed — I’d never wanted to. It had felt like the world was made up of just the two of us, and everyone else had seemed so far away.
“Do you want to tell me exactly what happened?”
She’s the only person who has ever asked that before. And instead of finding it intrusive, I find it strangely freeing.
“I’m scared to tell you,” I say.
“I’m afraid you’ll tell me it’s not a big deal or that it’s not real — and if that’s the case, then I have no idea why I’ve been in so much pain the past three years.”
She smiles sadly, but I know it’s an invitation. Michelle isn’t trying to keep me quiet because she’s uncomfortable. Instead, she’s offering me her presence as a safe place to enter into the fullness of my pain — pain I’ve tried to hide from for so long.
“You don’t have to tell me,” she says. But I want to. I push myself further into my sister’s grey couch.
I shake violently as I explain it to her. I can still see the scene replay in my mind from that Sunday night in February. We were in his mother’s living room. There was one lone lamp lit up in the corner; everything else was dark. I remember I cried, and he just looked at me. I remember The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy Keller sat on his bedside table. I remember we got ice cream together the next day.
I can feel the trauma in my body, happening all over again, as I recount the details to her. It is the middle of summer, but I am so cold. I try to start at the beginning, but I can’t think linearly, and I find myself telling story after story in a strange order.
Michelle doesn’t ask me to stop. She keeps listening. Words rush out of my mouth, but I can’t look at her. Instead, I stare at my sister’s fringed carpet, the throw cushions, my fingernails.
My gaze is blurry when I finally turn toward her. I blink through my tears and see she is crying too. For some reason, it is hard to believe she is crying. If she’s crying, perhaps what I’m feeling actually is real.
Michelle looks at me when I’m done, after I’ve taken long, slow, wavering breaths.
She holds my gaze, hardly blinking. “What happened to you is real,” she says. “It is real, and I am so sorry. I am sorry it happened, and I’m sorry no one believed you. I am sorry you felt shame. I am sorry no one validated your experience. I am so, so sorry.”
I feel like I can breathe again.
I think it’s one of the first times someone has listened to my story and hasn’t tried to fix it, spin it in a positive light, or convince me that I’m being melodramatic.
Michelle listens to me and I feel heard.
Michelle listens to me and I start to heal.
I decide to go back to counseling. I find a trauma and sexual abuse counselor online. I call their office and ask to schedule an appointment. I am more confident this time all these years later, but I still feel scared.
Michelle has already decided she will drive me to my intake session. I think she wonders if I might back out, and honestly, there’s a good chance of that. She knows where the center is, so she offers to drive me the day of the appointment. She promises to walk me through the double doors, up the stairs, and into the waiting room. I feel like throwing up just thinking about it, and I’m grateful she will accompany me.
The morning before I go, I sit on my couch in my apartment. As I pray, I see a picture start to form in my head. It’s like a movie reel playing through my mind, but my eyes are open. God knows me better than anyone, and He knows how visual I am. I’ve gotten these pictures a few times over the course of my life, and when they start to play, I’ve learned to stop and listen.
I see a picture of Jesus form. I can see it in my mind’s eye.
I am clothed in darkness. He is bathed in brilliant light. He extends His hand toward me, His smile wide.
“Come into the light with Me, Aliza,” He seems to say. “I won’t leave you alone.”
I look down, and I am in a prison of shame and fear and anger. The prison bars surround me, but the door is wide open, and Jesus is standing outside of it, the light pooling around His feet.
It’s a clear invitation. His hand is open, outstretched towards me.
I take His hand, and I leave the darkness behind me.
I know it’s time to tell the truth now. I know the truth sets me free.
I have decided to step into the light.