Being right where you’re needed is exhausting. Don’t get me wrong, it’s also the most rewarding thing in the world, the thing that convinces you that all the trials you’ve endured aren’t just character building, but of redeemable use to other human beings. But I feel like I could happily sleep for a month.
Monday evening, a dear friend was raped. I got the text just as a panel on school pushouts was starting. Instead of mourning and raging at a distance, as I’ve done over the years when faraway friends went through their own trauma, I could do what I’d always wanted–even needed–to do: I quietly stood up, made my apologies, and raced to be with her within 15 minutes.
There’s something profoundly startling to hear your own words coming out of someone else’s mouth. Parents experience it all the time when their own favorite gems emerge from the miniature humans. But those dark thoughts of doubt, self-blame, and instinctive mistrust of your own reactions don’t sound right when you hear them out loud in another voice. She was full of “I shouldn’t have” and “I must have” and “If only.” It was hard to look at those ugly ideas in the light of day, and it gave me pleasure to shoot each one down with precision.
Eventually, she reached the conclusion that she wanted to report the assault. Several of the pieces of her story gave me that bone-deep certainty that this was his modus operandi, and that she wasn’t his first victim. She wasn’t content to be a statistic, and she felt safe enough and angry enough to do what she could to make sure she was his last victim. I worry I influenced her to do this because I wasn’t able to.
I went with her to the hospital, and apparently projected so much authority and right-of-place that it took a few hours for the staff to realize I wasn’t an official advocate from the local sexual assault survivors’ service. I held her hand, I made inappropriate jokes, I explained what would happen next. I told her to ride the waves of emotion without resistance or embarrassment, because fighting them would take energy she’d need for other things.
The one thing I didn’t have to do was advocate for her against skeptical or disrespectful people. Every single person we encountered treated her with credulity, sensitivity, and most of all, kindness. The nurse told us that police department, hospital staff, and survivor services had worked together to create an integrated, victim-centered care system. I want more women in our city to know this is the case. There are so many reasons women don’t report, and fear of bad treatment doesn’t have to be one, at least not here.
All throughout this, and since then, I’ve been able to say the things I wish someone could’ve told me. I don’t think my friend knows how meaningful and precious that chance is. And because if they’re worth saying once, they’re worth repeating, I’ll say them again here:
Nothing you did made him hurt you. You’re not wrong for wanting to find someone. There’s no way you could’ve known that when he agreed to the boundaries you carefully articulated, he wasn’t planning to respect them. You weren’t stupid to find him attractive and trustworthy–he was grooming you and putting on his best show.
You’re not wrong when you think things will never be the same. And the only way through this is forward; there’s no reverse gear in this car. Things and places that used to feel safe won’t feel that way for a while, and whatever you need to do to find comfort and refuge is okay. The sooner you get into therapy, the better. There’s never a need to go through this alone.
There’s no timer on recovery. There are no milestones that you need to achieve in a certain order or by certain calendar marks. You may not want to think about dating again for a good long time. You may want to take back control of your body and your pleasure sooner than you think you should want to, but that’s not wrong or “slutty” or even illogical. All you have to do is live through this at your own speed.
You’re not responsible for anyone else’s feelings, and telling people the truth doesn’t require you to shepherd them through their own emotional responses. People say things in shock that they don’t mean, so don’t invest too much in their first reactions. Some people just can’t make themselves emotionally available for this, and they may offer stuff instead. You’re not obligated to invent things for people who want to help that way.
Finally, you’re part of a not-so-secret society now. Our stories are remarkably similar, no matter how different they are. We’ve shared common thoughts, common physical responses. It’s true–this destroys some people. But it empowers many others, and how you choose to put your experience into action is up to you. And if you’re very lucky, someday you’ll be able to take what you’ve learned and make it work for someone you love, and it’ll all seem strangely worth it. Be sure to thank that person for letting you help.