In society there are stigmas. These stigmas typically vary from country to country and are made up of outliers which differ from what society deems the norm. An unusual physical attribute, a mental or physical disability, is often enough to generate harsh judgments and alienation from other people. In Morocco, many rape victims are forced to marry their rapists to avoid the stigma of being labeled “raped.” By marrying their rapists, these victims are able to escape this scarlet letter, in favor of a usually short and abusive marriage to the person who assaulted them. Typically these marriages don’t last long and end in divorce. In Moroccan society being labeled “divorced” is much more acceptable than being labeled “raped.”
Rape is my scarlet letter too. Although people cannot tell I’ve been raped through common interactions with me, I used to think that they could. Back then I hadn’t spoken much about it, but during interactions with family, friends, and coworkers, it was always clouding my mind. I always hid sadness behind my smile. I think that even though my friends and family couldn’t have guessed what my issue was, as I silently suffered through the aftermath of sexual assault, they could tell that something was wrong.
There were some obvious signs. I was always nervous and more fearful than most people. I was jumpy. Even though I never said anything, people could tell that something just wasn’t right.
When I finally did tell everyone what happened, it really lifted a weight off my shoulders and explained the error of my ways and much of my odd, even questionable behavior for the last decade. Things slowly got better, and I did a lot of work to make things that way, but soon, I saw that even as far as I had come on my journey, being a victim of sexual assault isn’t always accepted or received with empathy or any type of human emotion from other people.
Not long ago, I dated a guy. He wasn’t the type of guy I should have been dating, but I’ve come a long way. After only a few times seeing each another, he tried to grope me. I told him not to and he did it again, more than once. I was very upset about the whole thing, and should’ve ended it there. Against my better sense, I gave him another chance, but not before making it clear to him that if he wanted to date me he needed to respect my boundaries and not do that again. He said that he understood. Things went better. His hands did not breach my comfort zone again. I was proud that I had spoken up. It felt good to have my voice be heard. We continued dating, and I felt that it was time to tell him about an important and unavoidable aspect of my past: that I had been raped.
So one day while we were driving to a get-together, I did it. I told him. “There’s something I need to tell you about me,” I began, “It’s about something that happened a long time ago.” He waited for me to continue, his ears perked. “I was raped.”
His response was silence. Then he finally said, “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”
“Why?” I asked. “I’m not uncomfortable talking about it. I just don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”
He insisted he was fine and started to ask me questions about it. What happened? When did it happen? I briefly answered his inquiries but didn’t go into details. I felt that sharing this personal information with him was a big and inevitable step that could only serve to improve our relationship and his understanding of me.
Soon, the car became completely silent. Then, the rest of the date sputtered as he became less talkative and more distant. The next day he emailed me and told me that we seemed to be going on two different paths and that he didn’t feel right about the whole thing.
Although we were only together a little over a month, I was devastated. This was the first time I really opened up to a man I was dating about this. In the past I tried to talk to old boyfriends about it, but they didn’t want to hear it, or didn’t want to believe it. They denied my story when I needed their support. I couldn’t believe my ears when my exes did what society so often does in cases of sexual assault—they blamed me, the victim.
So now that I was brave enough to look at it for what it was, rape and absolutely nothing consensual, and share it with my family, my friends, and now the world, you can imagine how awful and defeated I felt when I got dumped by a man because I revealed to him this painful truth. As you can imagine or may know from experience, after being raped by a man, trusting men can become nearly impossible. This was the first time in a long time I had tried, and he dropped me almost instantaneously.
The worst part about how he dumped me after I told him I’d been raped was that I understood exactly where he was coming from. For many years after I was raped, I didn’t want to be around me either. When the scene of a crime is your body, it’s something you can’t exactly get away from. In fact sexual assault victims are four times more likely to contemplate suicide, and yes there were some very dark times in my life after being assaulted.
I tried to get away from my body too. I suffered for years stuck in cycles of eating disorders, drinking, and other addictions, trying anything to numb the pain and get away from the memories that haunted me every day of my waking and sometimes sleeping life. Rape victims are 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol and 26 times more likely to abuse drugs.
These addictions were slowly killing me, but I held onto them, because it was the only way I could get away from myself short of committing suicide. The numbness I experienced as a result of this addictive and compulsive behavior was relieving while it lasted, but served to be equally painful and brought with it even more feelings of guilt and self-loathing. Back then I could barely look at myself in the mirror because at the time I mainly blamed myself for the assaults. I blamed myself for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I blamed myself for not protecting myself better. I blamed myself for not having a voice. Being sexually assaulted was never my fault, however, I somehow concocted scenarios inside my head that put the blame solely on myself, that bypassed the actual culprits who did something I never would’ve asked for let alone imagined would or could happen to me.
One night, not long before I spoke about what happened, I came the closest I ever had to death, after coming down with pneumonia. My body was finally starting to give out on me from the years of abuse. I was lying there in bed thinking, you can choose to live or choose to die. I knew that all this time, I might have been successfully fooling other people into thinking that nothing was wrong with me, but deep down inside I knew that the addictions and eating disorders I’d been caught up in were really just a slow form of suicide. I was in my early twenties, and stuck in bed unable to move. It became crystal clear how much these addictions were impairing my quality of life. So that night, I made my choice. I choose to live.
That night, when I was ill in bed, and made the decisive choice to live, I slowly began to break my decade-long cycle of addiction. I was fortunate that most of my substance issues had been dwindling for years. The eating disorder was different, and still raged at full force. I started by trying to eliminate all unhealthy behaviors from my life. I began by not going to bars or even hanging out with friends who wanted to. I avoided the usual eating disorder triggers. It was a very small start, but what could I expect. Here I was trying to undue ten years of bad behavior. I couldn’t reverse it all overnight.
One day my father sent me an old picture of myself, It was a picture of me when I was three years old. I stared at it and thought a lot about the way I’d been taking care of myself -which was shoddy to say the least. Over the years I’d worked closely with both elderly people and children and always took care of them with love and consideration. Finally it dawned on me that I should be caring for myself in the same way I took care of the children and elderly I looked after. Showing kindness towards myself was a hard thing to do at first. I used this old picture of myself to create the following self nurturing exercise that became a useful tool on my journey towards healing.
Exercise for Replacing Addiction and Self Abuse with Self Respect and Self Nurturing
1. Pull out an old baby/ toddler picture of yourself. Examine it and look at it. Ask yourself how you ended up in this state that you are today. Chances are you abuse yourself the way you do because of some type of abuse or neglect that happened along the way.
Regardless of what you have done, you need to know that that child is still living inside of you somewhere wanting to experience love without pain, wanting to run and jump and dance and be free from shame and embarrassment. This child is alive in all of us. Unfortunately for those of us who have experienced any type of abuse, or trauma, our own inner child did not get the nurturing and care that he or she rightfully deserved.
2. Leave the picture on your desk or in a place where you can see it. Carry it with you as a reminder that from this day forward, you will begin to take care of yourself. Think of yourself in terms of the child in this picture. You must nurture yourself and pay attention to yourself in the way you would if you were nurturing an actual child in your care. Every day think of yourself as a child, that child in your picture. Nurture that child and give it the love and care and attention it deserves. Every time you are about to do something that will inflict harm on yourself—pick up a drink, starve yourself, allow someone to use your body—your inner mama bear should come out and protect your “child.” In perilous and questionable situations, you should immediately begin to think about what you are doing in context of how you are hurting this child. By participating in this behavior are you harming your inner child? How would this small child feel about this situation?
3. Make a list of harmful behaviors that are not beneficial to a healthy lifestyle or to the choice I discussed above, the choice to live.
Here is a generalized list of negative behaviors. It includes a broad range of behaviors that I noted to be damaging from my own careful observation of human nature as well as my own personal experience with some of the behaviors listed. I used it as a guide for my own healing and thought it could possibly help other people. This list of dangerous habits to eliminate is a good tool to improve your own lifestyle as well as a good range of traits to look out for in people that you find yourself associating with:
-self-inflicted cutting or wounds
-sleeping too much
– not being hygienic
-swearing or using disrespectful speech in general
– driving dangerously
-risky sexual behavior
If you are truly willing to change, getting in touch with your inner child and consciously thinking about how your inner child feels about your negative actions should create an impact that resounds within you. Ultimately you must learn to nurture yourself.
I found that the key to eliminating the negative abusive cycles of addiction in life was being able to first recognize them and then make a conscious effort not to do them. I also found that writing myself notes on what I was and was not going to do the following day helped keep my objective in mind throughout the day. In addition to the terrible way I’d been treating myself for a decade, I realized that I would never have the quality of life I truly wanted if I did not first improve the relationship I had with myself.
If you are having a difficult time dealing with an assault know that you are not alone and that there are many kind and compassionate people out there who want to help you.
Hayley Rose is a writer, photographer, artist, and jewelry designer. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing and a Studio Art minor from Johnson State College. She just finished her first novel, a work of literary fiction about a young woman’s attempt to find her place in this world. Visit her flickr page here.