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April 13, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Light in Dark Places

TRIGGER WARNING: This content deals with an account of sexual assault and may be triggering to some people. This is a true story, but names have been changed to protect the writer’s identity.

When I was 15 years old, my father got very, very drunk and propositioned me for sex.  It was just him and me alone at home that night. The rest of the family were at a party, but I’d insisted on following Dad home because I knew he had a tendency to fall over when intoxicated and I didn’t want him to hurt himself. I never thought that I would be in any sort of danger, but I was sadly mistaken. What followed was the worst night of my life.

I try not to remember the specifics. But there are some things that just stuck with me. Several terrible lines that no 15-year-old girl should ever have to hear – from anyone.

“I’ve never had sex with a virgin.”

 “You’ll make an old man very happy.”

 “If you give it to someone else [my virginity], I’ll understand, but I’ll be disappointed.”

I spent that night trying to sort out the horrible situation we were both in. He obviously needed help, someone to talk to, so I tried to be counsellor and friend, trying to get to the root of his “problems”, as he put it. I was in fight-or-flight mode, adrenaline keeping me calm and functioning even while wanting to run as far away as possible. It was a long night. He was persistent. And while he never touched me, I later found myself wishing I’d been raped by a stranger. At least then, I would have still had my dad on my side. My dad would have killed anyone who even tried to harass his innocent daughter. But he never thought to protect me from himself.

In one night, my entire world shattered. I worked very hard to reconcile the image of my daddy with the unsafe stranger he had become under the influence of alcohol. But I couldn’t. One persona had to be a lie – and as my stomach turned at the thought of the latter, it had to be the former.

He woke me up the next morning, to apologise. He said that I could disown him as a father, if I liked. I forgave him then and there. I told him that we could move past this. What I didn’t realise was that ‘this’ was an extraordinarily big thing to move past.

I spent the next four years running from life, responsibility, family and friends. I saw eight counsellors, two homeopaths, several doctors – none of which stopped the anxiety, the depression, the guilt or the hating-myself. Because obviously, there had to be something wrong with me. Otherwise, why would the man who I loved most in the world cross a line that should never be crossed? It had to be me, I must have deserved it somehow – no one else’s fathers did that to them. I must not be worth loving. I must be utterly worthless.

Just like that, I became less than nothing. There was no point to anything anymore. I would struggle through each day, getting through high school as best I could, but my future stretched ahead, bleak and grey, and I wanted it all to end. My friends told me they loved me, but I couldn’t believe them. I got straight As, but knew I didn’t deserve them. I earned cultural and academic awards, several leadership positions, performed on behalf of my school over and over again, and still believed I shouldn’t be there, that I wasn’t good enough. I would break down in tears again and again and again, feeling weak, weak, weak at my own reactions to stressful situations. My family demanded better of me – as my parents slowly drifted apart due to what had happened, I was blamed by both extended family and my own brothers. It was a long, slow road separating myself from what had happened to me, and some days, it felt like a road I’ll never leave.

Moving On
But the turning point for me was when I read a book late last year, How Long Does It Hurt? by Cynthia L. Mather, dealing specifically with sexual abuse and incest for teenagers. I’d always felt like I was making an extraordinarily big deal out of nothing, because my father had never laid a finger on me – but this book told me otherwise. My reaction to my situation was textbook; even though I hadn’t been raped, I felt all the guilt, depression and heartache as if I had been. Not having been touched didn’t matter; I was broken. And this was the moment that I realised that I had a shot at being fixed.

Today, I’m enjoying life for the first time since that night. I’m on antidepressants for my depression, I suffer from anxiety, and I’ve missed most of my lectures this term because some days it’s too hard to go out due to panic attacks – but I’m happy. I have dreams again, for the future. I want to be a high-school teacher. I want to travel. I want to write books. I want to volunteer. And I want to be there for anyone who (God forbid) has ever felt as bad as I have.

Step by Baby Step: Sex
After a horrifying experience that compromises your bodily autonomy, or the sanctity of your mind, you may experience several things that may not make sense. For example, sex may suddenly become an extraordinarily big deal, or no deal at all. It was the former for me. I was terrified that if I had sex, I would see my father in my head, instead of my lover. This culminated in a series of panic attacks – every time I tried something sexual, from masturbating to making love, I would get physically sick and have to lock myself in the bathroom. Now, I’ve decided that I’m simply not ready for sex – and that’s perfectly fine. I’ll get there someday. There is nothing wrong with me.

Conversely, it is possible to go the other way. Being free with sex, having as much as possible, could be a way to regain control of yourself, and who you let into your life and your body. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that either – so long as it’s entirely your choice, and you are being safe about it. Always use protection, no matter who your sexual partner is. Always make sure it’s consensual, and that you feel safe and confident making your needs known. Don’t push yourself, either to abstain or to go crazy – do what you think needs to be done; just remember to stay aware of your changing needs and feelings and alter your behaviour accordingly.

Your Mind
It’s also very likely that your views of yourself have shifted – possibly for the worse. You may feel worthless, undeserving, disgusting. You may hate your body, your mind, your soul; you may feel like you let yourself down, that you didn’t protect yourself well enough. You need to keep reminding yourself that these thoughts are irrational. Because they are. Remember when you’re feeling particularly down on yourself that such thoughts are unfounded and irrelevant. It’s not going to be easy, but you need to start viewing yourself in a positive light again.

If you feel strong enough, begin to work on yourself. Figure out what makes you happy and do it as much as you can. Be kind to yourself, remind yourself of what you like about yourself, build your confidence and self-esteem. Try things you’ve always meant to try, but never got round to. Make yourself the best version of yourself that you can possibly be. Pamper yourself. Forgive yourself, if you feel angry and let down. You’re worth loving.

Family and Friends
A support group is also always going to help. Sometimes, everything may feel overwhelming, and too much to deal with – good friends lessen the load and pull you through. Just beware who you trust. Rape culture means that sometimes, even the best of friends might not understand what you’re going through. If this is the case, you are under no obligation to spend time with people who make you feel worse than you do.

Harder to deal with are family members who don’t understand. Mine didn’t. They told me I was weak, that I should grow a backbone and get over it. It took me a long time to realise that pretending I was okay, waking up every morning with a smile on my face and dragging myself through the day, was not helpful. Things just don’t magically disappear; often, it takes a lot of work to get through trauma and grief. If your family does not support you, look elsewhere. You deserve love, support and understanding. Do not stop searching until you find it.

Remember, mental health trumps everything. University, friends, family, relationships: everything. Of course, all of the above are incredibly important and if you can, work on maintaining it all. But if you don’t get past anything that’s hindering you now, you won’t have a fair shot at your future.

Asking for Help
Finally, you may need professional help to start your journey, or help you on your way. There is nothing wrong with asking for help – it doesn’t make you weak, or vulnerable. You may be suffering from PTSD, depression, anxiety, or a whole host of things – these aren’t so easy to deal with alone. Talk to your GP. Book in a session with a counsellor. As a University student, the counselling sessions with Mauri Ora are free – but if you feel they cannot give you enough support, seek help elsewhere. As someone who has seen nine different counsellors, I can tell you that some really help, and some really don’t. Keep searching until you find someone who works best for you. Now is not the time to gloss things over or put things aside until later.

All of the above may apply to you. Maybe none of it does. And that’s perfectly okay; you are normal. If I could, I would be there for you every day and every night, whenever you need me. If I could, I would hold you close and tell you over and over again: You are strong. You are smart. You are loved. You are worthy. You are deserving. Because it’s the truth. It’s the honest-to-God truth. As I can’t, I want you to know that you are not alone. You never will be. And even though I don’t know you personally, even though we may never meet, I respect and love you. And I know that you aren’t defined by what has happened to you.

As for How Long Does It Hurt? Cynthia L. Mather has an answer for that too. I’m incredibly sorry, but it never stops hurting, not completely. But you learn to live with it. Never let anything stop you from achieving the future you deserve.

 

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