We all think that we will be fighters. No matter the battle —whichever hypothetical situation we put ourselves in— we all imagine what we are capable of. However, I have learned that life isn’t always so clear-cut. We never know our capabilities until that moment, when we are in the thick of it, asking ourselves if we are truly fighters after all.
I thought my moment came on September fifth of my junior year in college. I was walking home from a party, my friend asking to walk me to my door only moments before. “It’s right down the street. I’ll be absolutely fine.” It was a walk I had made many times before. I was secure. I was safe.
It only took thirty-seven steps until I was pulled off the street. There were two of them, their faces shadowed and sinister from the glow of the streetlights. I told myself to scream, but all I was capable of was breathing in and breathing out. My scream stayed lodged at the base of my throat, stuck and cemented. I was supposed to be a fighter, and yet, all I could do was stand there and let them take me away.
It was quicksand.
“Scream,” I told myself. “Please, just scream.” I could hear people only thirty yards away, walking up and down the street, heading to their next gathering. But all I could do was breathe. It took focusing on that one simple thing for me to find my way out of that quicksand.
I cannot sit here and tell you that I came out unscathed. I’d been violated in more ways than one, leaving behind memories on my body that may never go away. However, some grace of God pulled me from that parking garage that night. I’m not sure if I would call myself a fighter just because I got away. There was something larger than me that was there, allowing me to find the strength to break free.
What I realized was that being a fighter wasn’t always about what you did in that moment. It was what happened after. I had recognized one of the men who assaulted me. He had been hanging on the mailbox outside my sorority two days before as I headed to class. There was something off about him —something unnerving about his smile— but I just passed it off as nothing. He had disrupted the safe bubble that college created, and if anything good was to come from what I went through, it was that it wouldn’t happen to someone else.
As a woman, I had an instinctual reaction to keep it in. When you are overpowered and physically invaded like that, your first reaction is to close up. I didn’t want people to know what had happened to me, partly because saying it out loud would make it true. Instead of following my instincts, the next day, I sat in front of forty-six sophomores and told them that they needed to watch out for each other. I told them that they should stick together and not let another walk alone at night, even if home was right up the road. I told them that if they noticed any strange men hanging outside the house, they needed to speak up, as I didn’t.
What came from my conversation was nowhere near what I had anticipated. No one walked home alone. Girls would drive to pick up others from libraries late at night. There was an immediate shift in the house. But the one thing that surprised me most was the amount of girls who came to me and shared an experience that they had gone through. A handsy senior who took things too far. That drink that had something much more debilitating mixed in than just the typical jungle juice concoction. The lines that another crossed, no matter how small it may have seemed to him.
It showed me that many of us carried some kind of pain. I realized that we weren’t alone in it all. There shouldn’t be shame or embarrassment or humiliation in what we had gone through. Even though our experiences were different, they still left behind that same mark. Nobody’s tragedy is worse or better than the next person’s, and I have learned that the true fighter is the person left at the end.
She should speak up. She should rid herself of the marks left behind. She should remind herself that those people —the violators, the takers, and the captors— will never have a lasting part of her. She should know that she is a fighter not because she got through it, but because she can make something good come from it. We are all capable of that. It’s just up to us to believe it.