I was raped when I was 16.
That fact in itself is a devastating thing.
It doesn’t matter if it was done to you by someone you loved, by a complete stranger; whether or not you were an adult or a child or if it was how you lost your virginity (as it was with me.) It rattles your world, as it should. It’s a violation. It’s awful. It leaves scars that take lifetimes to heal. It is something no one should ever have to be put through.
It’s something many people are put through. This is devastating. It should be.
We live in a world rife with tragedy, or rather, we are a world of people who have intense perceptions of what’s “tragic.” Loved ones die, though we know that’s part of the journey. People lose their jobs, their homes, their relationships crumble — though we know the nature of life is change and growth and evolution toward the things and people who are more and more right for us. Entire freedoms are challenged, societies are divided by war and illness and poverty — though we realize compromised freedom looks like power to some people, war a necessity, illness an inevitability, poverty a reality.
We are not meant to be sedentarily content. It hurts when we’re opened in such fast and radical ways, but we are indeed opened, and then given a choice. These things can define points in our lives, but they don’t have to define us. Not unless we let them.
I didn’t tell anyone about my rape for 7 years, in part because I did not want people to look at me with pity. I did not want to become the girl who was raped. I did not want men to look at me and consider me damaged. I did not want people to whisper about me and any sort of soiled reputation I might have earned by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because that is what rape is. There is little more to it than a tragic culmination of events — to suggest otherwise is to suggest that I wanted to be raped.
When I did finally tell people about it, I did so and then I let it go. I didn’t want people’s inner monologues of me to be: “This is Ella, she was the girl who was raped.” I did not want it to be my platform. I did not want to be known only for that. It is good and admirable when people take personal trauma and turn it into their life’s work — I don’t know if I am strong enough to do that, personally. I felt like if people thought that whenever I opened my mouth, I’d talk about the Uncomfortable Thing That Happened To Me, they’d tire of me quickly. So by instead throwing myself into [Anything But This], I felt like I had dodged a bullet.
But you see, in an attempt to align myself as the Girl Who Had Been Raped (But Rape Wasn’t, Like, Her Thing), I didn’t realize that I was doing little good in trying to not make my rape a part of me. That’s impossible to change. It was and will always be a part of who I am. You can’t erase a piece of your life that traumatizing, as much as you might want to. Nor should you. Rape happened to me, but I am not my rape. The parts of me that are funny and warm and kind and ambitious and a good friend are not wrapped up in what happened to that 16 year-old girl. And the parts of you that are good and caring and hardworking and special — the things that make you who you are, and endear you to the people who love you — might become influenced by whatever tragedy life throws your way, but they are also so much more than that.
Life will send tragedy hurtling into your orbit. It always does. And how you react to that tragedy, how you learn and shift and grow and the resilience you exhibit — all of these things are indicators of who you are. Your tragedy does not have to be your calling card. You can define yourself as a survivor, of course, because to survive something harrowing is to do exactly what life asked you to do. That is a badge of honor in and of itself, and you should be proud of that. But to be a survivor is different from the act itself, whatever that act may be. A miscarriage, cheating, job loss, a house fire, illness, an accident — whatever it is that impacts your life is, by definition, going to be hard to deal with. And though it might change your life, it does not have to be your entire life.
So you work through your tragedy. It won’t be easy, but you grieve and cope and vent and rage and adapt. You learn about life on the other side. And people will be sympathetic, and they will try to help, and there will be a fair share of pity. There always is; it’s inevitable. But you also model how other people ought to treat you, and so if you feed off of this pity, you’re bound to get more of it. If you shut people out, they will stop helping, and you will have to mend your wounds on your own. But if you show them that somewhere in you exists the same kernel of the person they loved before and can continue to love afterwards, maybe they can help you make it through the afterwards.
There might be limitations, and there might be new demons, but those can be weathered and navigated and managed. You can continue to live if you want to. After a certain point, your tragedy becomes a fixture that exists solidly in your past. You’ll catch glimpses of it every now and again, like some perverse rear-view window – I, for example, still am a little skittish about intimacy and sex — but slowly, you learn how to not look back anymore. Slowly, you tear your eyes away from the wreck in the background. You learn how to refocus on the road ahead of you, no matter how many times your attention is pulled back. But you can only look back as you’re moving ahead. Tragedy may be inevitable, but moving on is too — it just depends what you choose to take with you.