UPDATE (April 25, 2020): A few days after I published this piece, the man who assaulted me actually saw it and realized that the piece was about him. Although my intent in writing this was to connect with people around the world, he was the last person I expected to connect with. We hadn’t spoken again after the incident, and I had no plans to speak with him ever again.
After seeing the post, he reached out to me. When I got over the initial shock, I eventually asked him if he wanted to take our conversation on the air, releasing it as an episode on Overthinker. To my surprise, he agreed. After six long years, we finally broke the silence, bridging the vast ocean of bitterness, confusion, and pain that existed between us.
The conversation gave me hope that as survivors, we don’t always have to live our lives in hatred and fear. It gave me hope that people can change, and forgiveness is possible, even in the deeply divided and alienated world we find ourselves in today. It made me realize that we don’t always have to point fingers to win and that hate isn’t the only way we can feel strong.
To hear both sides of the story, stay tuned for the release here.
Warning: This piece includes graphic imagery of a sexual assault. Proceed with caution.
That night, I was sexually assaulted for the first time as a freshman in college.
I had invited a boy over, anticipating the possibilities with sparkles of nervousness flitting around in my stomach. I grew up in a conservative, religious environment as a pastor’s kid, so my sexual experience was pretty much nonexistent. I was maybe hoping for some cuddling, maybe a kiss or two. I remember feeling particularly smug that he was giving me attention, especially since I had heard the whispers of the girls who admired him from afar.
He brought with him a slightly crushed, plastic water bottle with the label torn off. It was filled with a clear liquid, swishing easily in its container.
Beyond having basically no sexual experience, I also didn’t have much experience with drinking. I’d been drunk one time in high school when I had snuck soju out of my mom’s cooking supply, consuming the whole bottle in less than an hour.
Unsurprisingly, I quickly became nauseous. I ran to the bathroom downstairs to throw up, trying to avoid waking my parents who slept on the other side of paper-thin walls.
I stumbled back to my room, crashing into bed. I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to tamp down the leftover nausea.
I eventually drifted off to sleep, the world spinning around me, mouth bitter with bile.
That night with the cute boy, I was eager to experiment with alcohol again. When he suggested we play a drinking game, I agreed wholeheartedly. Eventually, we achieved the goal of all drinking games, and we found ourselves rapidly intoxicated, our limbs moving in slow motion. I slumped back into my chair, feeling numb and limp.
That’s when he pulled himself on to my lap and stared at my face. He told me how cute I was, then leaned in and kissed me, his mouth wet and sloppy. It was my first kiss, and I remember thinking that if that’s what kissing was, I didn’t like it very much.
He stood up and started unbuttoning his pants. I stared at him uncomprehendingly, still slumped in my chair. My body was heavy from the alcohol, the air viscous and thick around me. He asked me if I had ever kissed a penis before, and I shook my head slowly.
He told me I should try it, but I laughed uncomfortably, averting my gaze. Although I told him no, limply shielding my face with my arm, he insisted and leaned his body forward, and I gave in.
When he finally came, he told me I was a natural.
Although the rest of the night was spotty, I remember fragments of us cuddling in bed while my college roommate slept across the room. He had stuck his hands down my pants, but his fingers were rough and I was dry. Eventually, I drifted off to sleep, holding his dick limply in my hand.
The world was spinning around me, mouth bitter with cum.
When I startled awake the next morning, he was gone. My chest ached with sorrow, and I felt empty.
It seems so obvious looking back now that he had targeted me, a young and naive freshman. I had innocently thought the night would be light and fun, filled with good conversation and maybe a kiss or two. But he came with that plastic bottle, filled with liquid that was used like a weapon.
I remember I had been hoping for something, but I knew it hadn’t been that.
For a while after the incident, I was confused. I wasn’t sure what had happened and thought maybe what happened was actually what I wanted.
Yet, when I saw him in class the next week, I couldn’t bring myself to look him in the eye. He tried to talk to me, but I was filled with disgust when I saw him.
Thinking back, I don’t think I was disgusted by him as much as I was disgusted by myself.
A Cycle of Addiction
As the months went on, I learned about sexual assault on campus. I went to the University of Colorado at Boulder, which had a thriving Greek life and frats with numerous allegations of sexual assault.
Eventually, the administration responded with a school-wide campaign. Posters with slogans like, “ Just because she isn’t saying no, doesn’t mean she is saying yes” dotted our campus, written in bold, confrontational lettering.
It was during this time that I learned the definition of sexual assault for the first time:
Sexual assault is an act in which a person intentionally sexually touches another person without that person’s consent, or coerces or physically forces a person to engage in a sexual act against their will.
Hearing that, I felt my stomach drop. My mind flashed back to that night with the cute boy. Despite my discomfort with what happened that night, I also didn’t want to admit that what happened was something as serious as “sexual assault”, a seemingly irrefutable label.
As I reckoned and grappled with that for the following months and eventual years, I found myself in similar situations repeatedly. Without awareness, that night kicked off a cycle of sex and love addiction, as well as a blur of drunken sexual assaults:
A sloppy Tinder date that blatantly flirted with my roommate only to drunkenly force himself onto me a few minutes later
The one who gave me his word that nothing sexual would happen that night, only to coerce me into sleeping with him as soon as I entered the room
The emotionally abusive ex that begged me to “give up my virginity”. When I continued to say no, he settled for blowjobs, pushing my head down first thing in the mornings while I was groggy and defenseless.
Why am I telling you all of this?
It’s not to paint myself as a victim or to gain your sympathy. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
In recent years, I made the choice to begin believing that “everyone is doing the best they can”.
That includes the confused, hurting, broken men that assaulted me.
Some of you might be incredulous. Maybe while reading my story, your heart broke for me.
My heart has broken many times over for myself. The reality is, the breaking isn’t really particularly useful. It just hurts a whole hell of a lot.
It’s Not Your Fault, But It Is Your Responsibility
For a long time, I bought into the whole “it’s not your fault” thing that lots of advocacy and empowerment programs will push about sexual assault.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe it’s an incredibly important message to share. It helps survivors move away from the shame that often comes from being sexually assaulted.
However, the black-and-whiteness of it can make it all too easy to keep people labeled in neat little categories: assaulter and assaulted, blamed and blamer, the one responsible and the one who did no wrong.
Although it can be incredibly powerful, that message didn’t lead to my eventual healing.
Instead, it enabled me to deny responsibility for my life, eventually leading me into a cycle of addictive behavior. It was a classic example of “insanity” as Albert Einstein defined it:
“Doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results”.
Because I believed that I was “not at fault”, I removed all responsibility in my mind for the things that happened to me.
Simply, responsibility is based on the belief that the choices you make in the present will have consequences in the future. In other words, you reap what you sow. For years, I didn’t realize that sowing “bad seeds” into my life would result in actual consequences.
I sought to heal my sense of brokenness by absorbing love and attention from others. However, instead of healing me, they were only bandaids that led me further down the path of cynicism and numbness.
My perspective was impacted far more than I could’ve known or anticipated by my habit of using others and being used. Throughout my sexual escapades, I began to perceive people as tools I could use and eventually discard. This began to gradually chip away at the respect I had for the worth of human life, including my own.
Lift the World Up On Your Shoulders
Telling myself “I didn’t do anything wrong” allowed me to cast total blame on others while ignoring the role I played in my own demise.
It enabled my shame, and once shame is in the picture, growth and opportunity for healing can go out the window.
In Jordan Peterson’s book, 12 Rules of Life, he says this:
It is for this reason that every good example is a fateful challenge, and every hero, a judge. Michelangelo’s great perfect marble David cries out to its observer: “You could be more than you are.” When you dare aspire upward, you reveal the inadequacy of the present and the promise of the future. Then you disturb others, in the depths of their souls, where they understand that their cynicism and immobility are unjustifiable. You play Abel to their Cain. You remind them that they ceased caring not because of life’s horrors, which are undeniable, but because they do not want to lift the world up on to their shoulders, where it belongs.
To drive the point home, he continues:
“Maybe your misery is the weapon you brandish in your hatred for those who rose upward while you waited and sank. Maybe your misery is your attempt to prove the world’s injustice, instead of the evidence of your own sin, your own missing of the mark, your conscious refusal to strive and to live. Maybe your willingness to suffer in failure is inexhaustible, given what you use that suffering to prove.”
Take Responsibility, But Don’t Take the Shame
Reading those words felt like a slap in the face. I realized that I had been using my hurt for many years to justify the jaded, cynical person I had become. I had rationalized stepping into the costume of a “worldly” person, one who was not phased by a multitude of sexual partners and bragged about how drunk they were the night before. Without awareness, I was gradually endangering my very entire existence and casually stumbling into profuse anger and pain.
The truth hurt to read, but I realized it didn’t have to.
If I could face the choices I made in the past without attaching my worth to those choices, I could actually grow and move forward.
Like a wise man once told me: “If you’re still feeling emotional when thinking about your past, you’re still living in it.”
It’s all just information. It’s all just data.
Rip out the shame, and see the situation for what it is. Ask yourself, how did I play a part? How did I contribute to my own demise?
Take Back Your Power
Why should you attempt to answer these questions? I know it can often feel too painful to face the fear that we aren’t as blameless as we’d like to believe.
But the reality is this: If you were a victim then, you’re also a victim now. You can go ahead and blame all your pain on someone else, but you can’t have it both ways: You can’t blame someone else for all your pain and shame while taking credit for all the good in your life.
When you take responsibility for the choices you make, you’re empowering yourself. You begin seeing that the world is a platform, and you are an agent.
Agents act, but objects are acted upon.
If you believe that you had power then, even in a situation where you felt like all power was taken away from you, the result is that even now, you have power:
Power to live a meaningful life.
Power to achieve your dreams.
Power to be someone who isn’t defined by their past.
Your Past is Not Your Future
Don’t use your past to justify the person you’ve become. Maybe admit that you are the reason that you hate yourself, but don’t let shame propel you into creating the exact same future.
We naturally gravitate towards what we’re familiar with, so if we are used to abuse, letting others violate our boundaries, or being a victim — we will unknowingly continue to seek it out, even as we slowly break into a million tiny pieces. At the end of it all, we’re left to put things back together again. Maybe we’re bitter with confusion and wondering “Why does this always happen to me?”.
Our hearts cry out for something better, something good.
It doesn’t matter who you were in the past, or even who you are today. What matters is who you have decided you will be.
Decide that you won’t lash out and hurt people because of your own programming and insecurities, then blame them for “making you feel” a certain way.
Decide not to trust the worst in others, then create a self-fulfilling prophecy when people inevitably disappoint you.
Decide to stop making the same mistakes, expecting a different outcome.
Decide that you’ll stop telling the same story over and over again while swapping out the characters and hoping no one will notice.
Watch yourself with eyes wide open.
Then learn from your regrets and mistakes.
Take responsibility for transforming your life.
You have the power.
Epilogue: The Person I am Today
Today, I serve as an active member of my local ‘rape crisis center’. I’m a hotline and hospital advocate, which means usually once a week, I’m on call to help individuals in crisis after a nonconsensual sexual encounter. In December, I received a handwritten card from the staff, thanking me for being the volunteer with the most hours clocked. You may think I’m tooting my own horn, but the reality is, I feel incredibly proud of how far I’ve come.
Today, I have better boundaries. I’m learning what is and is not acceptable, who I want in my life, and loving others as they are and not who I want them to be. I’m aware when I get defensive because of an inaccurate perception of myself. When I do get triggered, I work it out instead of taking it out on others. I’m better at receiving feedback, and I don’t try to hide my tears anymore. I know where I’m headed, and I work towards that every single day.
Today, I am emotionally stable. I see my therapist every week to make sure I have the support that I need. After months of experimentation, I’ve established a consistent medication routine that works for me. I have authentic, honest friendships with individuals who listen and accept me wholeheartedly even when I mess up. I journal daily, forcing a regimen of reflection and self-awareness.
Today, I take care of myself and the people around me. I routinely go to my dental and doctor’s appointments. I have insurance, and so does my dog. I splurge on massages and mani-pedis. I cook for my loved ones and always lend a listening ear to those who are “going through it”.
I’m certainly not perfect, and I have a lot of room to grow.
But I’m not afraid anymore.
Excited for what’s to come, confident that I can get there, and loving myself more every day. I’m consistently grateful, my relationships are thriving, and I can genuinely say that…
I dedicate this piece to all that have supported me on this journey of growth. I could not have done this alone.
Thank you especially to the individual that patiently walked with me in 2019 and empowered me to take responsibility for my life. You were the impetus for my growth, and I’m indebted to you for that.
You know who you are.
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