10 things I learned in the 365 days after surviving rape

One year ago, I felt myself being thrown into the fire gates of hell. I woke up from my first — and only — drunken sexual encounter. In Vegas. At the age of almost 30. With someone I trusted. My boss — my supposed “friend”.

It pegged me into limbo because I didn’t understand sexual assault, I never pictured myself to be a statistic in the #MeToo movement, and I didn’t know how to label what had happened on that night.

Alcohol + Vegas + two adults. I know what you’re thinking.

For months, I wondered what the hell was I going through? The lethargy. The inability to concentrate. Constantly spacing out. Social withdrawal. Violent headaches that felt like my cranium was about to explode. Volatile mood swings. Lingering sadness. Uncontrollable tears. Extreme anger. And many nights of sleeplessness. Some days I was fine though.

It was incredibly confusing.

It took a year to slowly process my feelings layer by layer.

I had an extremely strong conviction for truth and accountability. But it took seven months before I stopped resisting the truth and the tears spewing out of my eyes. When I finally accepted that he had sexually assaulted me, I felt my stomach plunge into an unfathomable chasm as sadness struck my core like thunderous lightning for days, weeks, and months.

Opening this Pandora’s box put me on an incredibly painful healing journey. But feeling the pain was the only way to clean up all of my psychological wounds so that nothing festers into my future.

In these 365 days, I learned that:

1) The labels may vary, but the pain is the same. Sexual assault can occur on a spectrum, but the psychological pain feels just as horrible no matter which end of the spectrum you fall on as a victim/survivor. Consent violation. Sexual assault. Sexual harassment. Rape. The psychological impact on the survivor and the emotional trauma that arises out of any form of sexual violation is so painful that it feels like you’re being thrown into the fire pit of hell with giant shackles and chains tying you down while zombies are gouging your eyes out and piranhas are chewing off your flesh left right front and center. In my depression, I felt a sense of hollowness inside my stomach, as if someone had taken a giant spoon and scooped out my guts. This lasted for about 8–9 months.

2) A boundary violation involving sexual activity is still a form of sexual assault. As long as the victim is not in the right state of mind to fully consent to an act, or to have the capacity to fully understand the risks and implications of that act, it is sexual assault. The person that initiates and pushes for sexual activity carries the responsibility to question, to confirm, and to re-confirm consent. Even if he didn’t know I was blacking out. Even if he did it unintentionally. Even if he did not recognize my vulnerability under the influence of alcohol. It felt so disempowering that a friend would choose to engage me sexually while I was disinhibited, while I was flickering in and out of consciousness, and while I was clearly not my usual self. There were obvious signs of my drunkenness that should have made him doubt my reasoning capacities. How could it be possible that he never questioned my capacity to consent? He had violated my trust, my personal autonomy, and my personal values and boundaries, completely breaking apart our trust built over five amazing years of work together.

3) Sexual assault can occur without force, even if the victim reacted biologically to the pleasure of sexual touching. I answered his questions drunk and without awareness of the relational context between us. I responded without an understanding of how far he wanted to take that night. There was no way I could properly engage in the conversations that he and I shared. Whether he knew it or not, this 40-year-old Peter Pan should have known better. I never even established in my mind that he would penetrate me. Then it happened. I woke up from my momentary black-out to the sensation of his finger stroking my vaginal wall. Before I could even form an understanding in my mind, he had raped me. It was rape because I couldn’t make a choice before he inserted into my body. It was rape because he acted while I was too drunk to reason. It was rape because a drunk person who collapsed into his arms and fell onto her bed should have been tucked into bed, not to be unclothed and rubbed sexually. It was rape because he told me that he would remember this night even if I didn’t — this memory traumatized me and proved him a rapist in my mind. When I came back into momentary consciousness, I felt a wave of happy hormones wash over my body from head to toe. It wasn’t an orgasm. Just a powerful biological sensation that led to an involuntary upward movement of my cheeks. It was a smile that haunted me in the months after. I couldn’t control that smile. It was an involuntary muscular reaction to his touch, fueled by my dopamine centers that wanted more pleasure and made possible by the alcohol-suppressed frontal lobe functioning that normally provides control. What was out of my control became the very thing that encouraged him to continue. The alcohol had reduced me to biology. In that state, I could have said anything to him and be easily swayed by his words or by the ogre from Shrek. And we would have never started if I weren’t drunk because he would have never even been inside my room. What frightened me is that he knew I was drunk and he still went ahead. I came out of that night with a sexual experience that felt completely wrong. One of my first and few sexual experiences, which he knew. I didn’t even know how to label it. I just knew I didn’t want it. It took a lot of pain, a lot of time, and a lot of work with my counselor and my psychiatrist to uncover what aspect of that night gave rise to my demonstrated symptoms of a rape survivor.

4) There is a difference between regret vs. trauma. Losing control of your own body during a drunken sexual encounter feels like you are a robot where someone else is in control of your CPU. There is a separation between the body and the mind. I did not drink to have sex. I did not open up to him to pursue a one-night fling. I entrusted my safety into his hands on that night and he failed me in every single way. I remembered that he had the ability to catch me and to support my entire body weight as I collapsed into his arms and face-planted into his biceps before we had reached my room. He was conscious enough to assist me and to walk inside my room, and yet he didn’t question my state of mind? At best he turned himself into a rapist because of thoughtlessness and stupidity. At worst he was a sleazy sociopath and an opportunistic rapist. Parts of my fragmented memory conflicted and generated cognitive dissonance on his intentions. How was I to know when he just got up and left the next day? Wasn’t it his legal responsibility to not commit sexual harassment? To act as a leader on the job even if we were off duty? To remain faithful to his own partner despite a failing relationship? To be a thoughtful friend to me because everyone knows that alcohol makes a woman vulnerable and suggestible? To check in with me the next morning since he knew I had never had sex before? I am definitely not the type of girl that you pick up for one night in Vegas, and he knew that too; yet, he chose to treat me like one. Yes, I was inexperienced and naive. But being naive is not a reason to be violated. Sure, there was some regret that I drank too much, that I had opened up to him and was clueless to the potential effects of alcohol on my feelings and sexual drive. But regret doesn’t translate into clinically diagnosed depression and PTSD. This was trauma. Multiple layers of trauma.

5) Sexual violation committed by a friend adds an extra layer of grief. It’s called betrayal trauma. Rape sucks. Acquaintance rape sucks even more. It adds an extra layer of pain. Coming out of that night, I felt so betrayed that I wished death upon him a thousand times for the next three lifetimes. All these dark thoughts suddenly emerged inside my mind and I wanted him to suffer. I was a raging storm. The pent-up anger turned into headaches and body aches. The shame and silence turned into depression and social withdrawal. Only in hindsight did I realize that he was misbehaving long before we started to drink, but I had naively ignored all the signs. And he didn’t even have the awareness or the courage to own up to it when I confronted him on the phone. He had the balls to act and no balls to admit. I felt so betrayed. Did he also plan this? He was definitely not as drunk as I was. He is six feet tall and owns an IG account dedicated to spirits and alcohol. I am 5'4 and completely new to drinking. And this was the only time in five years that he had made extra time for me on a business trip. He took it too far. Opening up to him earlier in the day was not his ticket to come into my bed. The thought that a trusted friend made a conscious decision to take advantage of me felt the most violating and terrifying. I felt like he had raped my mind for information that he would have never gotten otherwise, and then he used it as an opportunity to take what didn’t belong to him. Though I wondered why he never went all the way on that night, even contemplated if he had done it for me, I couldn’t shake my feelings of violation because of all the misbehaviors he had presented. And I did not want to have sex with him even if he didn’t get to have sex with me on that night. I was inexperienced with alcohol, which he knew; I was inexperienced with sex, which he knew; and I was inexperienced with dating and relationships, which he knew. How could he think that I wanted this? How could he believe that consent was possible under this context? And what am I to him? How could he not address his mistakes as a manager the next morning? What a complete betrayal. The worst part is that I still cared for him. I wanted to help him salvage our relationship even though he remained oblivious to my pain despite my many attempts to tell him. He dug that knife even deeper into my soul. It was excruciatingly painful to be polarized with my emotions towards him, violated in my feelings, and without closure in my mind. My feelings oscillated between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde like a high-speed pendulum. Love him. Hate him. Love him. Hate him. Love him. Hate him. Hate him. Hate him. Hate him. Hate him.

6) To achieve accountability, do not let the shame of sexual assault delay the process of medically documenting your pain. Like all survivors, I, too, feared not being believed. That feeling was mentally crushing. I didn’t report to HR. But I reported to the police right away at the advice of a friend. Though I feared getting my story on record. I feared the stigma of sexual assault and the shame of having been assaulted while I was drunk. But I did it anyways. Telling my story to the police while I was crushed by fear and confusion was anything but easy. Disclosing his name, DOB, and address for the record? Both terrifying and satisfying. The process of reporting sucked the life out of me. I also did not want to have sexual assault on my medical records. But my headaches and my sleeplessness got worse. I was going through a lot of emotional pain that manifested into physical pain. I needed help. I wanted help. And I knew my truth, my pain, and my rights. I did everything I could to protect myself and to build a case for myself. I also wanted some form of justice. So I did what I needed to do to slowly reclaim my power.

7) It takes a tremendous amount of strength and incredible courage to reclaim power, especially when there is a power imbalance in the relationship. The fear of not knowing his reaction when you decide to confront him; it is the fear of him digging the knife deeper into your wounds while you’re still bleeding. That fear runs deep in your core as a survivor. Because survivors need validation and consistency in order to heal, not denial and unreliability from the men that hurt them. The fear that my career was in his hands was another layer on top. Can I sweep this under the rug? But why should he be excused for such inexcusable behaviors? I couldn’t let my silence be the reason for another woman to get hurt. I had no way to verify or to negate my theories of how that night transpired and what motivated him to do it. Except by confronting him and by making a choice to believe his word against mine. Do I want the truth? Or do I want my career? Would he even tell me the truth if he knew the parts that I couldn’t remember? My internal world crumbled. My self-worth depleted. Resentment masked my fear in our confrontations. Rising above that fear was overwhelmingly exhausting.

8) Healing from sexual violation is a cyclical emotional tsunami. To get through it, you must advocate for yourself while you cope with the pain. The details of that night etched in my psyche as trauma. The damage was done and the pain ran deep. I began documenting the incident and my trauma as soon as I got home. I was terrified and in shock. Mostly of the situation. Partly of him. And largely of the sexual assault. I felt lost. So lost. But I knew I had to do what was necessary. My healing, my mental health, and my future were all at stake. Police report. Doctor. Counselor. Lawyer. Psychiatrist. Rape relief center. It all happened slowly month by month. Each time I met with a new stranger for help, I had to re-live the trauma and fight through the fear, the tears, and the shame. I first reported to the police. And I learned how the criminal justice system fails the survivor when alcohol is involved. I saw a counselor and she pushed me to consult a lawyer. Months later, I found out how expensive it is to retain one. So I found a way to access free legal services before making any decisions. I was given all viable options for validation and justice. Personal injury law. Human rights tribunal. Small claims court. WorkSafe claim. I researched each one thoroughly to make the best decision for myself, weighing the pros and cons after determining what it is that I wanted. Many avenues through which I would have easily won based on balance of probabilities rather than without a reasonable doubt. But if I had a breathalyzer that morning when I woke, he would have been thrown into jail immediately. At one point, I was asked to consider pursuing a full criminal investigation even if it came back inconclusive. It was one tough decision after another. In the end, I found a combination of therapies to support myself through this emotionally grueling process.

9) Showing up for psychotherapy is not enough; you must be an active participant of your own healing in between sessions. From journaling multiple times a day to bi-weekly trauma yoga therapy to nightly meditation through relaxation apps, I researched and tried everything available to push myself through PTSD and depression. To cope with the sleeplessness, the anxiety, the sadness, the low energy, and the anger. My brain was on hyper-drive. There were days that I believed I would be broken forever. Unable to work. Unable to socialize. Unable to get out of bed. Always triggered into discomfort and negative emotions by any form of media that suggested or demonstrated sexual violence. Some days I leveled up in emotional endurance just to crash down the following week and then had to climb back up again. Conversations that involved rape or sexual harassment irked me and I had to excuse myself before erupting into tears in my own private space. Any reminder of alcohol’s impact on my brain reminded me of how I lost control of the situation on that night. Flashbacks of his hand inside my vagina triggered me into tears. Memories of feeling trapped and victimized by him threw me back into anxiety and cold sweat. Finding myself in places where I felt unsafe pushed me back into fear and depression. It was an emotional marathon of cyclical messiness. I had to uncover all the pain first, then let all the pain in, and finally let it all out.

10) Restorative justice is one choice, but it is not the choice for everyone. Turns out he didn’t hurt me intentionally. But I still wanted accountability and healing. I wanted him to pay for his professional crime at the least — to pay for the sexual harassment even if not for the sexual assault. I wanted to get better and to stop wasting time. It was incredibly exhausting crafting my own process and facing him on my own. To hold him fully accountable by demanding that he pay for all of my therapies. To fight him ferociously at times and to open up the floor calmly at other times, not knowing if he was just appeasing me with words or if his apology was sincere. To put an incredible amount of work into educating him while I struggled to heal from this trauma. I can’t say that it was the right or wrong decision. I gambled. On him. On my career. For social justice and for my own justice. Did I win? Depends on how you see it. I got compensation privately to cover my therapies. Did he change? Still to be determined. Ten months after that night happened, he confessed that he had fallen in love with me. Do I believe him? It is no longer relevant. But I did finally get him to listen to my pain. Though it came at a price. A huge price of many months of anxiety, not knowing if he would follow through since there was nothing legally binding him to our agreements. But the greatest victory is that I kept my rights to speak freely. The absence of a non-disclosure clause was the greatest victory for me in this entire process.

A survivor of PTSD from alcohol-related sexual harassment and assault. Reclaiming her voice and power through truth and storytelling.

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