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It does happen to people, and you are not alone

Trigger Warning: This article contains frank discussion of sexual assault and its aftermath.

I sat in my car in the parking lot, shaking and crying. I know I only sat there for a few minutes, but it felt like an eternity. It was a cool, cloudless April night. It wasn’t raining, and that made me mad. I was crying, and the world should have been crying with me.

My body was frozen and I felt nauseated, but I was afraid that he would come out after me. I didn’t want to cost my parents money—things were already tight in my family—so I went home and showered rather than going to the hospital. He was a massage therapist, so his hands had touched every inch of my body.

I should have called 911 or gone immediately to the hospital to have DNA samples taken and had a rape kit done. Danielle Howden, the sexual assault services coordinator at the Center for Hope and Safety said, “The Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners…they are the same nurses who do the rape kits, the sexual assault evidence collecting kits that someone has the ability to go for after they’ve been assaulted for a certain amount of days. And all of those are paid for by the state legislature.”

Something I did do, however, was write down my personal account of everything that happened—including all of the gruesome details. Your brain can change memories or forget things if they’re too traumatic. A week after the event happened, I was already trying to convince myself it was my fault. It wasn’t.

A week later, I told my parents what happened. My dad didn’t say a word. He dropped his head and left the room. My mom sat on my bed with me and asked for more information.

Telling my parents was one of the hardest things I chose to do. My dad, over a year later, still hasn’t talked about what happened to me. My mom helped me find a therapist and occasionally asks me how I’m doing. You never know how someone will respond; people have different reactions. It’s a hard thing to talk about. However, telling someone is one of the best things you can do. I didn’t say a word until a full week after it had happened; that’s a time I truly felt alone in the world. Support is a necessity after you’ve been assaulted in any way on any level.

Later, I decided to tell my boyfriend at the time. I called him and told him what happened and we stayed on the phone for hours just crying. He wasn’t saying anything, so I asked him what was going through his head. All he said was, “I really want to hold you now and not let anything bad happen, I feel shitty that I couldn’t protect you even though…I couldn’t have.”

My former boyfriend later admitted to me that he was traumatized by what I told him and had been dealing with nightmares. We both had nights when we would call each other because of a nightmare and stay up talking until we fell asleep again. I comforted him a lot throughout the first few months after it happened and that was hard for me, but he was there for me, too.

While it was helpful for me to have a significant other who was supportive, it’s good to surround yourself with lots of different people. Even if they don’t know all the specifics of your situation, having a support system is vital. Putting yourself in a metaphorical cage is one of the worst things you can do to yourself. Being alone increases the chances of anxiety, depression and possibly Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). You may deal with at least one of these, but having people around you will help immensely.

On May 1, 2018, I met with my uncle who is a lawyer and he encouraged me to report what happened to the police. They told me they would get a detective on my case as soon as possible.

You do not have to report anything. It is your choice to report or not. Don’t allow other people to pressure you into reporting, as it is not your responsibility to society or your circle of influence to do it. It’s your body, your life and therefore your choice. Reporting can be scary. Howden said, “They can face retaliation, which some people feel like is not worth the risk of reporting to face that. And 82 percent of the time, the victim/survivor knows the perpetrator, and so the person knows them well enough to know how to threaten them…and how to get ahold of them. So retaliation is a real threat for a lot of people.”

…Also, the process of reporting can feel really invalidating. The cases are really hard to prosecute…very hard to prosecute, and they take a long time, typically. And so when someone comes forward, they’re committing to a long, extensive, potentially invalidating process…[T]he process itself can be very victim-blaming. You feel pretty invalidated like I said. And so that really needs to be someone’s choice. If they feel pressured into doing it, and then they experience re-traumatization, they experience the invalidation, it’s going to be so incredibly difficult.”

After conversations with a few close friends, I decided one of the best things I could do was take control of my body again. I started going to the gym and I got back into gymnastics after being out of it for a few years. My abs started coming back. When I saw my body changing, I knew it was my body again. It was not the same body he had touched. Within that moment, I was no longer a victim. I was regaining my power.

Nearly a month after reporting, I hadn’t heard anything back from the police. I called again and they scheduled a meeting with a detective for June 1. They told me the next step would be to bring my attacker to the police station and interview him. Things changed when my attacker messaged me on June 7. I was scared and didn’t know what to do. I was given a couple of options by my detective: ignore him or carefully try to talk to him. I did the latter and eventually received a full confession.

Do not reach out to your attacker, and if they message you, you have no obligation to respond to them. If you do, however, be careful. Do not make anything seem to be your fault, and don’t let them think their actions were acceptable.

My attacker was interviewed by a detective the following day, and again, he gave a full confession. I was told I would be updated. Things were finally working out in my favor.

Often, attackers will lie and say that they didn’t do it at all, or have some excuse for why their actions were justified.

A month after my attacker confessed, I still hadn’t heard anything from my detective. I called, inquiring, and was asked for medical tests to see if I had contracted any Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) or Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). Frustrated that I hadn’t been asked for this earlier, I got tested. I sent in my results and heard nothing back.

Getting tested is something that would be included in a rape kit; however, it’s something you should get done either way.

On July 28, I called my detective asking for an update. He didn’t answer and never called me back. On August 6, one of my best friends was visiting home from college. We spent the whole day together. All was well and good until I got a call from a number I didn’t recognize.

A secretary at the District Attorney’s office was on the other end of the line and said, “We hate to inform you, but the DA has officially decided to drop your case. I’m so sorry.”

My heart dropped. I sat with my friend and cried. I don’t know how long we sat there, but it felt like forever within no time at all. I had lost. Another thing Howden shared was, “We don’t ever want to discourage someone from reporting who wants to report, but if that person knows ahead of time what to expect, that it’s gonna take a while, that at times it might feel invalidating, but it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”

Recovery can take anywhere from a few weeks to several years or possibly even the rest of your life. Anxiety, depression, PTSD, trust issues, flashbacks, pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases or infections, injuries, eating disorders and dissociation are just a few of the possible after-effects of sexual violence. Dealing with any of these effects can be daunting, difficult and a tough battle. Therapy is one way to treat these symptoms, but there are many options. Having a support group, official or just close friends, is also an extremely important aspect to recovery.

Although it may be difficult, avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drugs, alcohol, going back to unsafe or unhealthy situations for familiarity and doing unsafe things with an “I don’t care anymore” mindset.

Exercise is a way many people deal with emotions. It releases endorphins in the brain which help level your emotions and boost your mood. Talking or writing out thoughts and feelings is also effective, or even writing a letter to your attacker that you never intend to send can be productive ways to cope. Putting yourself first is the most important thing you can do.

As a gymnast, something I’ve always been told by my coaches is, “always look where you’re going, don’t ever look back. It will slow you down and you’ll probably trip and fall.” For me, this applies to both gymnastics and life. I am still affected by what happened to me each and every day. The case was dropped, and I never got the closure I had expected. Even though it still hurts me, there’s nothing I can do but keep it in the past and do my best to keep looking at where I’m going.

The Center for Hope and Safety provides complete confidentiality for anyone who comes to them, excluding a few situations, such as minors. They are located at 605 Center St NE, Salem, Ore. 97301. They have support groups available and a 24-hour hotline at (503) 399-7722.

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