I have been called everything from a slut to a liar – a victim to a survivor. But it’s the word, “victim,” that has caused me the most pain.
There’s a moment, somewhere between shock and recovery, where you begin referring to yourself as a rape survivor. It becomes a label you cling to when all else is lost. Some sick battle wound you use to explain your twisted behavior in the aftermath. You’re told that shedding the marker of “victim” somehow pushes you into your first feeble steps of acceptance. Some days I still don’t know the difference.
What does it mean to be a rape victim?
Nightmares that bleed your willpower in your sleep; flashbacks so vivid that you can’t tell the difference between the past and reality. Walking to the metro with a kitchen knife in your purse in the off chance someone looks at you the wrong way. Turning your head back, again, and again, and convincing yourself you’re being followed. He’s coming for you. Walk a little faster. Pretend to talk on the phone. He’s coming. He’s coming.
Replaying the rape in your mind until you’ve memorized every punch, every scrape, every cry, every thrust. Tracing the scars on your body; picking at your skin where his lips were, his hands, his dick. Chasing your fears with hard liquor, Marlborough grapes, burning tobacco. Slicing open your skin, praying that the rape will pour out with every drop of blood that falls.
Eating. Not eating. Forgetting how to shower. Finally washing your hair after your mother begs you to step inside the bathroom. It’s been days, you need to clean yourself. But as the water falls, you can’t help but wonder if he’s waiting behind the door. So you exhale, promise yourself just one more minute, until it’s been thirty and your brother is banging on the wall asking you to hurry the fuck up.
Sleeping with every boy in your dorm. Avoiding sex for months. Asking him to choke you during sex just so you can feel something – the way he made you feel when he took everything. Calling your friends at three in the morning because you’re lost and you didn’t mean to take that lost shot you swear you didn’t mean to take that lost shot but now you can’t remember anything, you can’t remember your own name, all you remember is the way he grunted, the way he laughed when he said, “your vagina is too tight.”
What does it mean to be a rape survivor?
It means learning to breathe again. It means finding the calm when the panic sets in. One, two, three – his image is gone. Not flinching every time someone brushes against you. Accepting hugs. Actively wanting to give hugs. Having your best friend brush your hair because she wants you to understand that the way he touched you is different from the way others will touch you.
Going on your first date since the rape. Realizing that, even if he looks nothing like his pictures and stands an inch shorter than you, you’re proud of yourself for not cancelling. Receiving an A on that really hard test that you spent days studying for and laughing when you realize how trivial it all seems. Watching the sunrise at the Lincoln Memorial; calling your parents every night at seven just to hear updates on their lives (or, really, your dog).
Building a snowperson in what feels like a blizzard as your friends give you the death glare for dragging them outside. Crunching leaves under your shoes and finding joy in your favorite song. Feeling bored. No, really, being so bored out of your mind that you can’t help but smile, because if that’s the worst thing you have to face today, then you should feel so lucky.
Taking time off school. Going back to school. Becoming friends with your coworkers in the midst of the bureaucratic hell that is chain restaurant dining. Understanding that you don’t have to share what happened with them – that it isn’t a fault you feel compelled to explain. Realizing that telling them still benefits those who have yet to find their voice. Accepting that you, rising out of a great sea of darkness, found your voice.
Writing about things that have nothing to do with rape. Sharing a cat video on Facebook instead of article links on sexual assault activism. Seriously contemplating the future – a career, a family, a life. Possibilities.
Smoking your morning cigarette and forgetting his name.
Finally embracing your mantra that what happened does not define you. That you were a strong, quirky, sarcastic girl long before he entered your past, and will continue to be.
I am not a victim; I am a survivor – and no one can take that away from me.