September 19th marks eight years since I was sexually assaulted.
I was 15 years old.
I’ve lived and breathed for approximately 70,080 hours since then. Not every day has been great, and probably a solid majority of those hours I’ve spent wishing I wasn’t there, but here I am; still living, still breathing, still trying to rebuild and heal from the trauma I endured. I still suffer from depression. I still suffer from PTSD. I still have stress dreams of being hurt like that again. I still feel uncomfortable when I go back to McAlester.
My pain has remained, evolving with me over the years; still real, still exhausting, still very much a part of my life.
But every year it gets a little easier. Every year I get a little stronger.
The best way I’ve been able to describe the feeling of being in the midst of a depressive episode is the feeling of being underwater– my ears feel muted, my eyes don’t really focus on anything so my vision often blurs, everything feels slow, I don’t react to much at all. The only thing I can do is sit there, existing as a shell of a person. Depression is much more than being sad; it is an overwhelming sensation of emptiness. When I am depressed I feel like the biggest waste of space, like there’s nothing I could do to feel okay. I lack the motivation to take care of myself– I’ll go days without showering, without getting out of bed except to go to the bathroom. When I am struggling with a depressive episode I always catch myself wishing I could just dissolve, wishing I could evaporate into a mist and blow out the window.
I have a particularly vivid memory from a few months after the assault occurred. The pain I felt was still uncomfortably raw and new; I hadn’t had a good day in months.
My counselor’s office was located in an old house near downtown McAlester. The room where our sessions were held housed a comfy chair that was adjacent to a large window and across from a couch where my counselor would sit. One afternoon in early winter, I was dealing with a particularly severe case of disassociation. I was physically in the room but mentally and emotionally I was elsewhere. I was vacant. My counselor was talking to me, but I was only half listening. At this time, I was about three months deep into a seemingly endless depressive episode. I had forgotten what it felt like to wake up and not want to slip out of my own skin, what it felt like to not hate myself to the point of discomfort. I had forgotten what it felt like to feel; I had grown numb.
I was silent for the majority of that session. I remember staring out the window with my eyes fixed on two squirrels running around a large oak tree in the side yard. I was too tired to fight the tears that felt like they’d never stop. All I could do was cry. I didn’t know why I was crying, but that didn’t stop my tears from quietly streaming down my face and finding a final resting place on the front of my sweatshirt. My counselor was only sitting a few feet across from me, but she felt and sounded like she was a million miles away.
I remember hearing her say, “I know this is hard, but Carmen, imagine where you’ll be and how you’ll feel five years from now– or even ten. You’ll be amazed at how different your life is.”
“You’re wrong. My life won’t get better after this. I can’t imagine ever being able to feel any different from what I feel now,” I thought to myself as I continued to stare at the squirrels scampering across the lifeless winter grass.
And I really, truly believed that. I did not think it was possible for me to ever feel okay again. It had been months of the same emptiness, the same hatred, the same bottomless sadness, the same sense of discomfort in my own body. As far as I knew, at that point, this emptiness was my new normal.
For someone who revels in being right about things, I’m sure glad my counselor was right and I was the one who was wrong.
I’ve struggled for a long time with this now– I’ve been in denial about the severity of my sickness, I’ve convinced myself that a new medication or relocating to a new place would be the magic cure. I’ve self-medicated in order to fool myself into thinking things weren’t as bad as they actually were. As much as I wanted to wake up one day and all of this would be gone, I’ve had to face the reality that there is no magic cure; this is something I am going to have to cope with for the rest of my life.
It’s been eight years since I was sexually assaulted; seven and a half years since I went in-patient where I was formally diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder; a year and a half since I found my voice and shared my story for the first time on a public platform.
Each year on the 19th I take note of the positive changes in my life, of the ways in which I’ve healed. I compare how I felt around this time the year before to how I feel presently. Each year it gets incrementally easier. I have to remind myself that slow and steady wins the race; I can’t fix this with the snap of my fingers. There hasn’t been a year so far where this day has been pain-free. There hasn’t been an anniversary where I haven’t cried or felt angry. However, I have learned to cope with the memories and negative emotions that manifest themselves on this day in particular. I make sure I keep myself busy and surround myself with loved ones in order to distract from my impending pain. If I wallow, I’ll lose myself. It takes an immense amount of determination and self-control to make sure I take care of myself and treat myself with love on such a dark anniversary.
My annual reflection has made me more appreciative of the small accomplishments. It has allowed me to remember exactly where I was and how I felt on past anniversaries. It enables me to effectively track my healing process. Some years I feel like I’ve regressed, some years I feel like I’m in a much better place than I anticipated; some years I’m proud of myself, some years I’m not.
This year, though, I feel like I’ve done well. This year I’m thankful for the days I can get out of bed, I’m thankful for that moment of clarity when I feel a depressive episode winding down and I finally have the energy and sense of self-worth to take care of myself again. I’m thankful my depressive episodes are becoming less frequent. I’m thankful for my stubbornness, determination, and relentless pursuit of my desire to overcome obstacles. I’m thankful for my friends, I’m thankful for my family. I am thankful for the people who have both knowingly and unknowingly been a guiding light for me. I’m thankful for where I am and what I do, I’m thankful for who I’m becoming. I’m thankful I kept pushing for growth and healing even on the days that I couldn’t imagine my life ever getting better, I’m thankful I’m still here, I’m thankful I’ve yet to give up.
I realize that I may never feel okay on this day. I’m at peace with that– it’s a reality I’ve had to force myself to understand. I’ve finally accepted that this is something that will always be a part of who I am. That heinous violation of my body changed my life, contributing to both my character depletion and development. It has affected me and altered me. It has changed the way I operate. It forced reality upon a once naive and too-quick-to-trust young girl. Who I am now was strongly influenced by the aftermath of sexual assault, but no matter the various changes I’ve consciously and subconsciously made, not once have I allowed myself to be defined or controlled by trauma. I am an autonomous entity from that incident. I am still me and that can never be taken away.
Eight years later and I feel more secure and confident in who I am than I ever have in my life. I’m learning, with the help of an incredible support system, how to love myself. I’m learning to embrace and laugh at my quirks: my overbearing bossiness, my incessant need for accuracy, my impatience, my sharp tongue, and my prickly nature. I’ve grown tremendously, and I have to say, I’m really proud of myself.
I’ve accomplished a lot since 2009. I graduated high school in the top 10-percent of my class, I was granted admission to multiple top-tier colleges, I moved to Rhode Island where I went to Brown for five semesters, I worked on a farm in Hawaii for a summer, I’ve made a point to write for pleasure more, I stopped self-medicating, I took a medical leave from school for emotional rehabilitation purposes, I got a job back home in Tahlequah that absolutely changed my life and introduced me to my love for the hospitality industry, I moved to Colorado to finish my education, I overcame a binge eating disorder, for the first time in a long while I’m able to look at myself in the mirror and feel okay with who I am. I’m learning to embrace myself in my entirety. I can’t say by any means that I feel like I’m perfect, but I can say I’ve really caught my stride; I can say that I recognize how much I’ve grown in eight years and how hard I’ve worked to be where I am today.
Since moving to Durango I have made friends with people who, through always embracing their authenticity, have taught me how to be okay with who I am. I’ve made wonderful, thoughtful, and caring friends in all the places I’ve lived so far– I am thankful for each one of them, for the impacts they’ve had on my life, and the contributions they’ve made to my healing process. I wholeheartedly believe that everything happens for a reason and people come into your life when they do in order to teach a lesson. There is always something to learn.
On this year, in particular, I want to thank Jorge, Amy, and Gabe for the immeasurable impact they’ve had on my life– the three of you are always here for me, thank you for all that you do. Thank you for hugging me when I need it most. Thank you for keeping me humble with your lighthearted teasing, understanding who I am, letting me cry when I get too tired, and appreciating my sass. Thank you for bringing me back down to earth when I’m getting out of line and for choosing to love and accept me even when I’m being difficult. Thank you for providing an endless wealth of support and for ultimately making me a better person. You are three of the most kind-hearted, wonderful people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. I’m eternally grateful for the ways in which you all have changed my life. I will be here for the three of you no matter what; I will do everything in my power to contribute to your health and happiness. Thank you.
In the year and a half since I publicly shared what happened to me, the post “On Sexual Assault and Healing” has received over 2,000 views. I have been contacted by various fellow survivors who have thanked me for finding my voice and telling my story. My primary intention of writing about my experience was to help those who have gone through something similar. Reading memoirs, most notably Jill Christman’s Darkroom, and hearing the stories of fellow sexual assault survivors changed the way I navigate my healing process. Hearing and reading other people’s stories have helped me recognize that I am not as alone as I once felt and that my reactions to trauma are both normal and valid. Other people’s stories helped me feel grounded at a point in my life when I was able to cope just enough to externally mask my struggles. It is my only hope that I have helped my fellow sexual assault survivors in a similar fashion through my writing and my candid discussion of struggling with both the mental health issues I face and the lasting impacts sexual assault has had on my life.
Sexual assault and abuse are gut-wrenchingly prevalent in our world. As much as I wish to take away all the pain from those who have experienced such abhorrent violations, I can’t. The best I can do is ceaselessly remind you all that despite your feelings of isolation, you are not alone. Your presence in this world is important. No matter how doubtful it seems, there will be light at the end of your darkest years, months, weeks, and days. You are prodigiously loved and you deserve every bit of it.
It has taken me many years to understand and accept that I deserve the love that has been given to me. It has taken me many years to rebuild my sense of self-worth and to recognize that what happened to me was never my fault. No amount of self-imposed lectures, telling myself I should’ve seen it coming, or internal chastising for thinking I was safe just because I went to school with those people can reverse what happened to me that night. I can’t erase the harm that was enacted upon me. What I can do, however, is keep pushing forward. I can keep reminding myself that I am worthy of love, success, and happiness. I can use my anger to fuel my path to healing. I can continue converting negative emotions into coping tactics that are both healthy and productive. I can continue to openly share my experiences. I can continue writing. I can continue talking. I can continue actively engaging in my new found refusal to remain silent.
Over the course of eight years, my progress may seem incremental, but for me, they feel like tremendous feats. Battling mental illness on a daily basis is exhausting. It is often difficult to carry out basic functions and take care of what is necessary. Avoidance is my go-to negative coping mechanism but I’m slowly and methodically training myself to tackle these obstacles head-on. Every day presents a new challenge, but every day I learn from those challenges and grow stronger in my ability to overcome. I am stubborn and relentless, I don’t know when to give up and I tend to run myself ragged when I am intent on accomplishing something, but I’m teaching myself to use such seemingly negative attributes as facilitation for healing.
While I have made a lot of progress, I still have a long way to go. Things aren’t anywhere close to perfect– they probably never will be, but that’s okay. I still struggle with the aftermath of sexual assault on a daily basis. Regardless of the circumstances, I will continue to push, grow, and exist. I will continue to progress. I will continue to learn how to love myself.
September 19, 2009, might mark one of the most negatively significant days of my life, but it also signifies the day that I realized the extent of my strength. Eight years has shown me how far I’ve come and how hard I’ve worked, I look forward to seeing where I’ll be in another eight years.
I couldn’t write for myself so I decided to write for others, and it changed my life.