surviving a sociopath

The following post is not something that was written lightly or without thought. The following post is a result of the mental wrestling I’ve been doing since November 8th, 2014, and likely just part of the start of my thoughts and feelings around this topic. It will likely be triggering for some, and I apologize for that, but I will steer clear of details. This post is about surviving a sociopath.

I should clarify before I start that I am not a medical doctor. I am not a psychiatrist. I cannot diagnose anyone with anything. I am simply using the term to not only summarize what I have been told by people who encountered my attacker in the justice system, as well as the experiences of myself and his other victims. If Daniel Drill-Mellum is not a sociopath, I don’t know who is.

I’ve been struggling with this for over 3 years now; the way that the world completely changes when you encounter someone who not only outwardly enjoyed harming you, but someone that you instantly knew would have no moral problem with killing you if you didn’t comply. I remember stammering at the hospital, after I had explained how I tried to negotiate with the man who attacked me. The detective had asked a follow up question: “why couldn’t you just say no?” This might seem like an obvious question to anyone who wasn’t in my shoes.

I can’t explain the feeling that instantly hits you when you realize that you’re in the presence of someone who doesn’t give two fucks about whether or not you’re scared or in pain. Your mind narrows very quickly into whatever choices appear for you; one of my first instincts was to try to physically get away. It didn’t work. My second instinct was to negotiate. I remembered something I heard once: if you cooperate with a kidnapper, they’re more likely to let you live. I realize now how likely untrue that is, but it was the first thing that popped into my head at the time.

I haven’t yet found a way to forget the reality of another human being gleefully laughing because you’re crying. I haven’t yet found a way to forget the reality of seeing a person’s face and demeanor completely change into something unrecognizable, even inhuman, within moments. I haven’t yet found a way to forget the reality of feeling that there was no escape, and that these were my last moments alive. I haven’t found a way to express that I don’t talk about this for pity; but because it’s just the reality. There’s something that became comforting about reading up on the history of other violent sociopaths; understanding their escalation, and feeling more grounded in my new reality. This new reality often comes with pessimism.

I’ve often heard in the context of bullying and interpersonal relationships that it takes five positive interactions to make up for one negative interaction. I try to apply that to my life now; I hope that with every positive and wonderful person that I meet, I will become one step closer to trusting humanity. I’ve realized over time, though, that this may not happen. I can’t count this as one negative interaction, but rather as seeing the black hole of sociopathy and evil that one human being can be. I’m sure that these words would feel very hurtful to someone who knew Dan personally, and that’s half of the problem. How do you know if someone in your life is a monster who tortures and rapes women behind closed doors? He purposefully chose women who were unlikely to report; women that were not known to him, women that were of a lower socioeconomic standing, women who were drugged and couldn’t identify him. He usually didn’t hurt the people in his life who found him to be a fun and positive presence. He purposefully sought out separate outlets for what was truly inside of him. He manipulated everyone around him into seeing him as the real victim. And it will eternally trouble me that I could have been one of those people. I could have trusted this man, I could have been his friend, I could have implicitly encouraged what he did by vouching for him to others.

The real question is how you just choose to go on living somewhat normally after this. I have a perspective now that I can’t shake; one that is conflicting for me when others confirm it. “You caught a future serial killer”, people will tell me. I feel validated and terrified at the same time. I’ve been told by multiple other victims of his that “he’ll definitely kill us or someone else when he gets out”. The fact that other women who encountered him have this same feeling is both reassuring to me that I’m not wrong, and also a reality that’s incompatible with any sort of genuine or continuing peace. I have an internal countdown to his release date ticking in my head, and I have to consider what my path will be when it happens.

There are no easy answers here. I often tell myself that I’m just being jaded; that lightning wouldn’t strike twice. That I’ve had enough misery and trauma for one lifetime; I can focus on happiness now and move on. The truth is, though, that I can’t completely do that. While I’m completely committed to finding happiness in my life, it will never be pure or without a healthy dose of skepticism again. I experience now what so many survivors do; I get nervous watching people I love go out in public, go running alone, go on blind dates, or brush off the idea of carrying some form of self defense. And, while not necessarily in the same context as this post (although it definitely has plenty of overlap), I know how dangerous the people we intimately trust can be as well. I could see this as simply a terrifying way to live, or I could continue channeling it into helping other people learn how to be active bystanders in a world that, for some in it, will be horrifically unsafe at some point. It’s really all I can do. I’m going to continue thinking of the people out there in the world who haven’t encountered their sociopath yet. I’m going to try to figure out ways to prevent them from experiencing what I do now. “A life lived in fear is a life half lived” is probably true, but I’m going to use that other half to fight like hell for something powerful.

me too

The hashtag #MeToo has been trending for the last couple days. “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. Please copy/paste if you are one”. I ignored it at first. I’m really public about being raped, and it’s hard sometimes. This has been one of those weeks. I made incredible progress with something I’ve been working on, but it didn’t quite balance out everything else that I was feeling. Ever since the details about Harvey Weinstein had hit the news, I couldn’t shake the memory of the 7th grade science teacher who had sexually harassed me and other girls in my grade. It’s also October, which reminds me every year of the mental countdown to the day I was raped. Even just the fall weather reminds my body and brings my mind back to 2014. It’s brought back a lot of emotions about what happened.

It’s also brought back my guilt about feeling like I’m being dishonest. I feel like I owe my full story to everyone. I still won’t be sharing it. But I want to acknowledge today how difficult it is to carry around a lifetime of sexual violence. It wasn’t just one time for me. It was just one time that I felt like I could share what happened, because I genuinely knew that I hadn’t done anything to deserve it. And you know what? The judgment I initially received for that was still absolutely out of control. I regretted reporting almost immediately, even though it was by far the worst thing that had ever happened to me. I knew it was a crime, and yet I felt like I was the kind of girl who deserved to be the victim of that crime. I was told by my rapist, his lawyer, and his friends that I was the kind of girl who deserved to be a victim of rape. My forensic nurse told me that when I was sitting in the emergency room bed having my rape kit done, I said “this is going to fuck my life up, and it’s not going to do anything at all to him”. I’m glad I was only right about half of that; I’m one of the lucky few who has seen an attacker go to prison. But I’m not glad that I already knew exactly what I had ahead of me as a victim.

Life got worse before it got better. I drank heavily, used drugs just to cope and be able to feel like I could stomach my way through the night, and was extremely suicidal. While thinking back on the past 22 years of life this week, I reconnected with a girl I spoke to for only the second time in February of 2015. I had tweeted something; I don’t remember what, but I remember that it reeked of desperation. I was absolutely planning on ending my life, and I couldn’t see a way out. I couldn’t see how life could get any better. The older I got, the worse life became. This girl who I barely knew reached out to me and talked to me. She listened to me and let me word-vomit all of my depression and anxiety, and it convinced me to get help. I’m absolutely sure that I am alive today because of that girl.

I’m also sure that I’m alive today because of another girl, and that girl is me. I reached out, got the help I needed, and I started to pick up some skills. Maybe they were skills that other people already had, but I was learning so much for the first time. I started reading about healthy relationships, validation, and PTSD. I fully opened up to a therapist for the first time ever, and really started to work through all of my crap. I learned about boundaries, and the fact that it’s okay to have them (even encouraged!). I started learning that some people were not true friends, and that it wasn’t my job to change them. I also made a conscious decision that I was going to change something. I didn’t know what, but I knew that it was what I wanted to do. I realized that I could do something, and I could be something.

I still have moments where I doubt myself. Sometimes I have entire days where I doubt myself. Those memories still live in my mind and body, and there are a lot of different things that can trigger them into resurfacing. But I feel an obligation to show someone, anyone out there tonight that you don’t deserve any of this. You deserve a life that feels worth living. You deserve a partner that doesn’t treat you like a possession. You deserve people around you who love you and want to help you. Most importantly, whether it happened one time or many times, you did nothing to ask for it.

Hopefully, all the survivors reading this know how much I love and support you, and all that you’ve come from. I hope you all know that I want to validate how important it is to forgive yourself throughout your healing process, and that it’s okay to not be okay. Hopefully everyone else reading this is learning from #MeToo that they live in a world full of people who have been hurt very badly, and that it’s important for them to use some of their energy to try to make this world a better place for us. It’s a few days of seeing Facebook statuses for you, and it’s a lifetime of recovery for us. We need you. You can start by listening to and believing us, you can move up to helping to support pro-survivor legislation and advocacy groups, and maybe someday you can actually start to call out the abusers in your own circle. Help me be an optimist. Help us all have some faith that our world can change.

If you need crisis help, please remember the numbers below:

  • National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
  • National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1−800−799−7233

breaking the silence 

One year ago, I kind of snapped. I had been holding in all of my pain for too long. I constantly felt like I was crawling out of my skin waiting for news about the trial. I was drinking in a very unhealthy way. I was absolutely stuck in therapy, making no progress whatsoever on handling my PTSD. I was trying to manage this relatively new relationship with the man I’m now married to, but back then I was stuck in an unhealthy pattern of isolating from him and then lashing out when he tried to figure out what was wrong. I didn’t know how to talk about any of it. I knew that none of my friends could handle what I was going through, and I felt like a burden. So I just stayed silent.

I was at one of my increasingly-normal breaking points when I found out that Daniel Drill-Mellum was pleading guilty. I was so relieved that there wouldn’t be a trial at first. But then I got…angry. At first I couldn’t explain why, but I realized that it was because the trial would have been my chance to force everyone to listen to what had happened to me. Everyone who had doubted me, bullied me, and questioned my version of events would have had to read about it in the news. They would have to see what he did. They would have to read about the injuries, the PTSD I developed, and how his friends interfered in the investigation. I felt like, at the very least, this would really kill off all the campus gossip and abuse I had been taking on. And then that opportunity was taken away from me.

Once I realized that I had to explode, I decided that my victim impact statement was going to be long. The original version I had written was almost 10 pages long, single-spaced. Once I finally started getting the words out, I couldn’t stop. I think that even if it had never been shared publicly, I still would have felt an enormous amount of relief. This was the first time that I could just talk. They even told me that I was allowed to write about things that he wasn’t specifically pleading guilty to. It was so freeing. Even in ways that I have been limited and burdened by coming forward since, I will never, ever regret lifting this burden off of myself.

The publicity factor felt mostly awful. I’ll admit that. I never considered that appearing on national TV three times in one year to talk about the worst event of my life would be retraumatizing (even though that seems obvious now). It redefined how I saw myself for a while, and really pushed me into a mental health crisis. There is nothing fun about telling complete strangers about the worst thing that’s ever happened to you, especially when there are details that you struggle admitting to yourself. However, the rewards have been greater than I ever imagined. I’ve found an incredible amount of survivors to connect with in the last year. I finally didn’t have to explain why I had changed so much. I was forced to really confront the details of my own trauma, and have made more progress with my PTSD in the past year than I had in the two years prior. I finally felt at peace with my husband, because I was actually able to open up to him before the sentencing about everything that had happened. I’m able to just talk openly about sexual assault issues and be an advocate when I’m able to. And most importantly of all, I have gotten thousands of messages from other victim-survivors across the world who have reassured me that I am not alone, and many of whom were previously feeling very alone themselves.

I’m a strong advocate of finding a way to speak about your experience. Not on the scale that I did (protecting yourself is super important, never forget it!) but even at the most basic level. Writing about it, telling a trusted friend, or even just getting advocacy services. You deserve to feel that weight lifted. And you deserve to choose how it happens. Break the Silence Day in Minnesota is August 16th, but in reality, your time and place can be whatever you choose. After someone has taken so much from you, you deserve to take back control of what happened. Even if it’s just to tell yourself that you deserved better. And you still do. No matter how you’re choosing to cope, please know that there is support out here. There are more survivors than you could ever imagine who are standing in solidarity with you, even if they’re silent too. 

why does his life matter more than mine?

(Disclaimer: the gendered language I use in this post is based off my own experience as well as larger trends of violence against women. Both victims and perpetrators can be, and are, any gender. In addition, the experience I am writing about is campus sexual assault, but far more sexual assault occurs in spaces outside of a college campus. This is for all survivors)

I read a lot of things about false accusations. About “overblown campus statistics”, etc. Lots of logic about how “real victims” would report their rape in a timely fashion and keep their story completely straight. I feel like people think that reporting a rape is easy when it was actually the absolute worst thing I could imagine. It was almost worse than the rape itself, although nothing could ever really get worse than that experience. But it compounded all of my trauma into the mess that I’m dealing with today.

I think that if you separate yourself from trauma and sexual assault, if you’ve never experienced it, it’s really easy to simplify it into digestible pieces. I get it. You think that it makes perfect logical sense for a rape victim to report. After all, if someone commits a crime, it’s reasonable to report them! Right?

I could start by talking about shock, but first I need to talk about how a majority of rapes are committed by a friend, partner, or acquaintance. I was lucky enough to be free of a prior relationship with my rapist, but so many rape victims are dealing with more than trying to grasp the fact that they’ve been raped. They’re also trying to wrap their heads around who did it to them. That’s an overwhelming process, one that can sometimes take years to figure out for a survivor. We grow up believing that rapists and abusers are monsters that we should be able to spot a mile away. When we think about self defense, we think about protecting ourselves from strangers; not people that we trust.

Even if a victim is able to get past their guilt and confusion about being assaulted by someone that they knew, initial shock after a rape takes a while to wear off. There was no logic that I could apply to my actions immediately after I was raped. I did default to calling someone right away, but it was a friend instead of 911. Something in my brain was telling me that I needed a doctor, but I was somehow also unaware of the fact that I was injured when asked why I needed to see one. My first instinct was that I wanted to go home because it felt safe, but that’s only one example of how someone in shock responds. I had this sudden fear that my rapist would come out running after me because he had been so overwhelmingly aggressive in private. It didn’t make sense to me (and still sometimes doesn’t) that he could switch that on and off depending who was around.

For those victims who are able to overcome both of these initial barriers, they now have to deal with either police, university officials, or other people who are in charge of taking their report. These people are generally more concerned about getting all the facts than respecting that you’ve been traumatized. That sounds fine, right? They need to do their job. Their job isn’t to hold a victim’s hand. They need the facts so they can do the investigation. The problem with that is that a victim’s traumatized brain isn’t exactly in the best shape. This is one reason why I advocate so strongly for FETI (you can read more here about that), which helps to frame interviews with traumatized persons in a way that actually allows them to fully use their brains and give all the information that they remember. However, most stories I hear from victims don’t involve much trauma-informed practice. I hear plenty of stories about frustrated police wondering why the victim isn’t cooperating well enough, or why they aren’t able to just tell the story in order. I’ve even known some victims whose cases were closed to due “lack of cooperation” or “fabrication” because they were reporting to officers that didn’t understand how people respond to trauma. I’ve even known victims who are threatened by police with an arrest if they don’t show up to court dates.

For victims who do report, evidence is important (as it should be) in the criminal system. However, plenty of victims don’t get the evidence that they need. As I would hope that anyone reading knows by now, the traumatized brain isn’t exactly thinking rationally. It’s focused on survival. If “survival” and “rape kit” don’t go together, a survivor is unlikely to get one. If clothing had DNA or other evidence on it and the survivor (rightfully) doesn’t want to look at it anymore, it’s unlikely to be thoughtfully preserved for police. The high burden of evidence is absolutely understandable in a criminal case, but due to the unique nature of sex crimes, it’s unlikely to be saved and kept properly by the victim.

Here’s where the title of my post comes in. During various investigative processes, I got asked repeatedly if I was sure that I wanted to “ruin his life”. I tried to stay as objective and kind as I possibly could, and never really dig into that question as much as it hurt. Even before anyone knew that the man who raped me was a likely sociopath with multiple victims and a consistent pattern, they should have cared that he did that to me. Once should have been enough. I remember how I knew that at any point, my behavior was far more on trial than his. He could stay silent if he wanted to, but if I wanted any justice to happen, I needed to speak with absolute consistency and center my entire life around what had happened. I still remember all of the “evidence” that was attempted to be used against me, and the disgust I felt when I found out that both my rapist and his legal team/family had been scouring my social media for evidence that I deserved what happened. I can’t even count how many survivors I talk to who were picked apart in a similar way. Those who talk about false accusations bemoan the “kangaroo court” of campus tribunals as well as the civil courts with their lower standards of evidence, but rarely do they realize that these lower burdens affect the protection of the victim as well. There are all kinds of pieces of evidence that are admissible outside of the criminal system, which puts the victim at an even bigger disadvantage. I had to sit during preparation for my campus hearings and explain screenshot by screenshot of old tweets, jokes I had made, and photos of me in clothing that the defense thought was inappropriate. It was humiliating, and the lower standard for both sides meant that I wasn’t protected from it.

After all of this, a survivor’s case might be able to go to trial. At this point, they have an incredibly long road ahead of them. Most survivors I know who are waiting for trial are in a seemingly never-ending holding pattern. They don’t feel that they can talk to anyone about what happened. Even if they have some support, they’ve likely experienced a lot of loneliness and possibly even harassment because they reported. As I’m sure a lot of you know, my personal experience was that I was slandered, harassed, and painted as a false accuser. And nearly everyone believed him. Even people close to me who believed what happened didn’t understand why I couldn’t just “let it go”.

Imagine weeks, months, years (common in civil cases) of waiting to find out whether this person will be held responsible for what they did you. In the meantime, you might be suffering from PTSD, or trying your hardest just to balance a normal life with the stress of waiting for a resolution. If the person who assaulted you was a friend or partner, you could be dealing with everyone knowing exactly who you are, having lost your legal right to anonymity. The financial cost of being raped is also high, with the average lifetime cost estimated at $110,000. I got my restitution back from my court case and aside from feeling disgusting about getting money for what happened, I was angry at how small of a reimbursement it was for simply the medical bills and a small amount of missed work. Despite this high cost to victims, they are still shamed if they decide to pursue a civil case against their perpetrator. The lifetime loss just compounds over time, and I’m not even going into the issue of childhood sexual abuse, which is even costlier. But we can’t go too into the financial cost, because the emotional cost is even higher.

After all this, there are some brave victims who stick with reporting and succeed in getting some sort of justice. But can you blame the ones who don’t? Can you understand why they live in a world where the criminal justice system protects the perpetrator and places an impossibly high burden on them to hold it together in the aftermath of trauma? I don’t want this to scare anyone away from reporting a rape. I did it, and despite how difficult it was, I don’t have regrets. I just want and need people to understand that rape instantly puts the victim at a disadvantage that is rarely ever righted. This is why I always support survivors who speak out. This is why legal protections like Title IX and rape shield laws are incredibly important for survivors. I support and choose to believe victims about the people who hurt them. And I will never join the overwhelmingly loud chorus of people who choose to blame the victim when they come forward, or refuse to understand why they didn’t do things differently. I hope you join me, and I hope that you start to think twice before believing an accused perpetrator before getting a chance to hear the victim’s side. Survivors are everywhere, with more stories than any of us could count, and they all deserve our support.

where do I go from here?

I was really struck in a meeting I had recently with a fellow sexual assault survivor. I congratulated her about breaking her silence, and that I knew how hard it was and how proud I was of her. The response? “Of course, but I know that our situations are different. I spoke out voluntarily, and you never had that choice.” I realized how true that was, and how forced into that decision I had been. I didn’t make the choice to post my name on social media outlets along with fabricated details of my sex life, or spread the news about what had happened to me all over campus. Even that deleted blog post I almost got sued for was technically posted anonymously. I tried to hide and blend into the crowd after what happened and it never worked. Being the girl who got approached at parties about whether or not I was lying, or sent messages on Tinder about how I was a false accuser and a liar wasn’t fun. I made a point of not discussing issues around sexual assault because I was told that it would make me look like a social justice warrior who was lying for the cause.

All of this was tolerable because I naively thought it would end at a certain point. I had one more semester left, and during summer 2016 I decided it was time to start interviewing for jobs. I didn’t anticipate coming forward in any way about what had happened to me, and I wanted to get the next chapter in my life started. Looking forward to a trial wasn’t fun, so instead I was looking forward to my future career. This company had really shown some interest in me, and I felt confident about the interview. I studied for it, I spent almost everything in my checking account on a really nice pantsuit, and I was confident. Nervous, but confident.

The interview lasted less than 5 minutes. Keep in mind that a recruiter from this company had been talking to me for almost a year; I had spent a considerable amount of time investing myself into this process. I researched the company, made contacts within it, and was convinced that even if I didn’t get the job, I would rock the interview. The woman I was interviewing with walked in, didn’t so much as smile at me, and glared at me the whole time. I felt myself shrinking bit by bit; I didn’t know why I was getting this treatment, but it already felt like most of my interactions with my classmates since 2014. I wracked my brain trying to think of what verbal missteps I could’ve possibly made, or whether my lipstick was smudged. She didn’t even respond to or acknowledge the thank you note I wrote. I was devastated. I couldn’t figure out what had gone wrong until I discovered that the woman I had interviewed with was friends with one of my rapist’s sisters.

I totally felt my world fall out from under me at this point. I thought to myself that there was no way I could continue to walk around in the world this way. People I had never even met had heard things about me that were wildly untrue. I dealt with plenty of mean girls growing up. I could handle that when it was about my looks, or even just my personality. What I couldn’t handle was that this inhumane sociopathic serial rapist had assaulted me, degraded me beyond belief, cheated his way out of justice, and I was somehow paying the ultimate price for it. I was close to tears about how jealous I was of his other victims I had spoken to that hadn’t reported or come forward. I had started to wish that I hadn’t said anything at all. That wasn’t sitting well, and that is why I decided to come forward; full name and all. If my name was already getting spread around, posted online, and I was suffering for it, I might as well get the story straight.

It felt good for a while to know that I could talk openly about it. It also felt violating and retraumatizing to know that I didn’t really want any of this in the first place. Despite what you’ve heard, I’m not really a desperate attention whore. And definitely not for something like this; I used to joke that it would be so much more fun to be on Dr. Phil for having the world’s largest corgi collection instead. I fantasize about having the luxury of quiet and private healing. I miss the days when no one saw me as someone who could help them, or inspire them, or heal them. I miss being able to make mistakes. I am taking this role on because I know how necessary it is for me to be that person, but I also am doing it because I feel backed into a corner. How would I just move on at this point anyways? How do I handle the fear of reaching out and applying for jobs, not knowing whether or not they already know who I am? How do I continue to live on a minuscule income while in therapy multiple times a week, or find a career path that is compatible with healing from PTSD?

So many of you are reading this because you’ve read my story. And I’m grateful for that. I also am stuck in a real reckoning phase where I don’t know how much of this new identity was my choice. Not only was the original assault something I did not choose, but over the next two years, I watched my own life story get eaten up in front of my eyes. My social life was open for dissection to the school, people I met would already know some of what had happened to me, and I became terrified of answering my phone because of the calls I would receive from reporters. I remember having a radio interview that been giving me anxiety for days. The interviewer asked me who I really was aside from all of this, and despite his good intentions, I froze. I didn’t want any of my “real” personality to become a part of what the public could see. I thought that it would be possible to exist as a packaged, generic rape survivor who didn’t draw criticism from anyone for my personal beliefs or lifestyle. After all, who I am is not the point. Unfortunately, too many times I’ve felt my boundaries being pushed and stretched over how much I will share, and I’m sure that there is more information out there than I ever originally planned on disclosing.

I don’t have the answer to any of this. It’s hard to wonder, after seeing so many messages and comments about myself, how people will see me. I probably don’t have the ability to walk into a job interview and simply be seen for what I am. Even if I am, I don’t know how to explain the sudden departure from my field of study and the large gaps of time taken off of work. Doing an interview once for TV, I remember talking about the harassment. Afterwards, the woman I was speaking with took me aside and told me that the best thing I could do was to never listen to anyone else’s opinion again; positive or negative. It’s sound advice, and I wish that I had that confidence outside of my personal life. I know that I would never want to, for example, work somewhere that doesn’t respect my experiences as a survivor. I also know that I am not emotionally strong enough to handle the shame and other feelings associated with being rejected or more harshly questioned because I am a rape victim. I’ve dealt with it in various jobs, classes, and I just don’t want to do it anymore.

So, for now, I am in limbo. Not feeling that I could completely devote myself to being an advocate, and also not feeling like I can leave this part of my life behind. I just got married last week, and the urge to just change my name and leave Abby Honold behind is overwhelmingly tempting. However, I’m also committed to not leaving any survivors behind. I’m sure that we can find a way to balance a public and private existence, but there’s a lot of money for anyone who can figure out a recipe for balancing your trauma while still moving forward and creating a new life for yourself.

to: the university where I was raped

I graduate soon. It was a long, icky road to get to this moment. I didn’t get here in a clean way; I didn’t enroll consistently semester-by-semester, live on campus, or get involved with student groups. I wasn’t exactly a model freshman to start off with; I definitely drank too much and skipped most of my classes. I never went to the library or went to any of the free events they would advertise in my dorm. I went home most weekends my sophomore year to help with my family and work. College didn’t feel mine in the first place. It felt even less like a home when I was raped there.

I really tried hard to reconnect with campus. After some physical time away, I tried to remind myself that University officials could not have possibly prevented what happened to me. No one else had reported him, and they took action when I went to the student conduct office. Their sexual assault advocacy center truly did everything they could for me; more than I ever thought was possible. Aside from a select few, my professors understood my frequent absences, my stops-and-starts, and the times I would exit the classroom crying. I know so many other campus survivors who have been so horribly mistreated across the country, and I tried to convince myself that I needed to start loving my school again.

Regardless, I don’t feel at home here. I forced myself to go out and party after it happened more than once – a lot more times than just once. I would walk past the building where I was raped; I would feel my chest tightening when I walked past the block where I was carried away into an ambulance. I convinced myself that I had no reason to feel upset, and that all I needed was some drunken exposure therapy. I would hear people at parties talking about me – or I would be in full conversation with someone and they’d say “did you hear about what happened to that girl at Floco?” Even worse was going to class; being completely sober and fully aware of my surroundings, and panicking every time I thought I saw my rapist walking around. I always got into my car crying all my mascara off and desperate to get back to the suburbs by the end of it, but I did it. I stuck it out, and tried to shove the uncomfortable feelings down. I thought that was what mattered.

I finally gave myself permission to quit trying at the beginning of my last semester here. I just knew that there was nothing for me here. I’ve tried so many times to feel nostalgic about this place. Even when I felt simply disconnected during my first couple years on campus, I always thought that I would look back with pride. Instead, I’ve found that there’s a pit in my stomach that grows every time I drive down University. No matter how good of a time I have here these days, I feel absolutely sick when I leave. I wish I could say that I had a good experience in college. I tried, and I know that everyone here tried to accommodate me the best that they knew how. But I don’t know how to forget what happened to me here. People tell me that I should feel triumphant, courageous, or accomplished, but all I feel is finished.

This is my resolution: I won’t force myself to just swallow the bitterness I have about the time that was stolen from me. Instead, I’m just actively looking forward to all of the sweetness that I’ll find in moments that will feel unspoiled by the past few years. As of May 11th, 2017, I am moving on in life. I might not get up the nerve to walk across that stage, or even into the arena, but I will finally feel like I have the freedom to move on and grow from what happened to me here. I wish I had a cleaner resolution: a direct takeaway about how I can help others, or what I learned about resilience. But I’m just glad to be done. I’ll be happy to leave. I feel heavy with the pain of myself and other folks who had their college experience marred in the same way. I’m so saddened for anyone who has had any time in their life ruined by something so horrible. I’m just here to say: I get it. You deserved to have memories that were free of trauma and suffering. Even if you feel like you’re obligated to be around painful reminders of your rape or sexual assault, I’m here to say: you don’t have to. I wish I would have given myself the permission earlier to just leave those reminders behind and surround myself with things that feel safe.

Thank you to the University of Minnesota and those within it who made my college experience more tolerable. Thank you, and goodbye. No hard feelings, but I’m going to try my hardest to find healing elsewhere.

humanizing my own pain

This is going to be a quick post, and one that’s mostly about myself, but an important one for me. The more I talk about what happened, I’ve started to notice something about myself. I’m almost disconnecting from my own experience. They’re just words now. I find myself answering the same questions over and over. I can calmly discuss the legal process, Title IX investigations, and I’ve gotten desensitized about the questions I get asked about the rape itself. Do you ever think back and want to warn that 19-year-old girl? What happened when you entered the apartment? What were your injuries like? How did you escape? What was going through your head as it was happening? These questions used to be so painful to answer. I would go home and sob for hours after having to deal with those memories. It was hard to not push them away. Now, those memories have become a part of a standardized story that I give regular talks about. It doesn’t hit me in the same way.

It’s hard to humanize my own pain when I felt like such a spectator. I remember sitting in shock as I watched my phone blow up when his arrest hit the news. Seeing those phrases over and over again was horrifying. I had never read about my own experience before. I never wrote it down, and I never talked about the details. Suddenly, everyone knew. They knew those horrifying little details that I had shoved down for so long. My brain just shut off. All that I could think of was phrases from articles I saw and things I heard on the evening news on a loop. Forced her onto a bed and raped her while she cried. Causing her to choke and gag. He whispered in the victim’s ear. Torn flesh in her mouth. Injuries consistent with rape.

Even just writing this again, I feel like I’m living back in that moment. Feeling my insides curl up, knowing that my grandparents read about what he did to me. Horrible. Everyone knew. I couldn’t imagine anything worse. I was like one of those true crime victims that you see on the news; I was one of those true crime victims you see on the news. I didn’t know how to handle that. I didn’t know anyone else who had been through it, and I didn’t know what to say about it.

I’ve talked about how speaking about this has freed me. In some ways, I think it has. I took control and ownership over that horrible event, and I stopped allowing other people to speak for me. I never even bother digging into the things that people on campus used to say about me, but they were vicious. I actually put a stop to that. I put him in prison, I took the story back, and I made sure that everyone knew what he did. It’s powerful. Sometimes, though, I feel like it has disconnected me from my pain.

Part of this is good, I’m sure. I never thought I would be able to even say his name without getting a physical reaction so bad that I vomited. I would have never thought of myself as a rape survivor, but only a rape victim. Thinking or talking about any small part of this experience was like poking at a bruise. I wasn’t healed; I wasn’t anywhere near healed. I didn’t know how to take back anything about what happened to me. I thought that if I shoved it down and pretended that it didn’t happen, it would go away. I went out and drank with friends, trying to convince myself that I was normal again, but always started crying when I got home because I knew it wasn’t true. That’s not my experience anymore. I’ve found ways to reconcile what happened to me, while also taking better care of myself.

Despite all of that, I think sometimes that I’ve swung the pendulum over too far towards the robotic side of things. I really don’t want to go back to living a life where the smallest mention of rape or anything that happened to me can throw me into a tailspin, but I also don’t want to feel so numb about what happened. When I push all of these feelings away for too long, they end up growing so large that when they return, they’re impossible to deal with in a contained way. The grief spills over into everything I do for a few days, and I can’t hold myself together. After I get back on my feet, I start trying pushing it all away again. I write this at the end of one of those cycles – I was so overcome last week with memories and feelings that I had pushed away that I was a complete mess for days.

I guess I can only sum this up by saying that self care is a balancing act. It’s not healthy to live in the memories of what happened day in and day out. It’s also not healthy to deny them constantly until you’re completely overcome. I’m learning how to do this, and I’ll probably never be perfect, but hopefully I can get better. I’ll end with a reminder that no matter what trauma you’ve experienced, you’re doing the best you can in dealing with it.  Trauma destroys your most basic trust in the world, and there is no “correct” way to respond. What matters is that you’re listening to yourself, and taking care of you in a way that feels best for you at the time.

the simplest, most watered down guide to grieving your rape

I’m writing this here for anyone who has experienced a rape or sexual assault at any point in time. This post is for you. Feel free to read everything, and decide where you’re at and where you want to go next. My eternal disclaimer is that I don’t know everything, and you are the expert on your own experiences. Grieving is a complicated process, and it goes in many directions – especially with something so traumatic. Sometimes you’ll feel like you’re further along in your journey, and other times you’ll feel like you’re right back at the beginning. It’s okay. How you’re reacting is okay. You can do this, and you can keep building a stronger foundation for the future no matter how impossible it seems right now.

First thing’s first: get medical attention. This is the only thing I will ever tell you specifically to do. See a doctor. See a therapist. Tell them the basics of what happened. If you feel like you have the energy, look first for a provider who is sensitive to sexual assault victims. I’ve had a couple bad experiences with medical professionals, and I want you to make sure that this disclosure goes well and that you get the help you need. If you have injuries, please get them treated and checked out (bonus: they’ll also be documented this way if you ever decide to report down the line). If you are at risk of pregnancy, please make sure that they know that. If you are in immediate danger from your assailant, please tell someone. Reach out for help from someone who has the resources to help you. Please. We all care about you, and we want you to be okay. The rest of these suggestions are for your emotional journey, but it’s important that you take care of your body first. If they don’t offer resources at the doctor you find, specifically ask for them over and over until you are referred to someone who can help. If you are in immediate danger, call 911 or the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

Now that that’s over, we’re on to the next step: denial. Wait, what? If I’ve disclosed to a medical professional or therapist, how could I be in denial? Guess what! Most of you won’t actually complete that first step in that order. I wish we all would, but I know all too well how we react to trauma. A lot of this is due to the natural shock response that humans have. Most likely, you’re going to have a healthy dose of denial at first. “It wasn’t that bad, I’m just complaining, I’m being dramatic, he didn’t mean it”. It’s okay. What’s happening right now is that you’re invalidating yourself. Even though you know that you were raped, you’ll find reasons to minimize it. I remember confiding in another survivor that in my state of shock in the emergency room, I had started making Law and Order jokes. She responded back that she remembered making inappropriate jokes as well. This is completely natural, and part of the way that your brain protects you from what happened. A lot of victims I talk to report feeling dazed afterwards, and wandering home to shower, or change, or even continuing to be in the same room as the person that raped them. Anything to forget about what just happened and push it away. If we’re including all 7 steps of grief, shock/disbelief is likely where you’ll arrive first. It’s a natural response to trauma, and most survivors will experience this. Personally, I wouldn’t have even called 911 if someone hadn’t told me to. I kept begging my friends to let me go home at first. When your brain is thrown into fight/flight/freeze, your mind immediately goes to whatever pops up first and does that thing. For me, it was “go home to my apartment”. For others, it’s “stay right here and don’t move for hours”. For others, it’s “I need to go about my business as usual and everything will start to feel normal if I do”. The list could honestly go on and on. There’s no right way to react to something so horrible.

Anger generally comes after this. Once you truly realize what this other person has done to you, you’re going to be mad. I know I was. You might lash out at your loved ones, or even just at yourself. You’re going to start hating that person for what they did to you. If you’ve never experienced pure hatred before, buckle up. It might take a toll on you physically. It’s hard walking around in the world knowing that someone who abused you, or raped you, or tortured you is walking around in it too. And since we know that most rapists aren’t held accountable, you’re probably angry that they’re free to do whatever they want, having experienced zero consequences. Maybe you’re experiencing backlash from supporters of his, or even your own family and friends. Anger makes sense for all of this. I have a whole separate post about it. Who you are as a person is going to determine how much time you spend here, but just know that it’s important to take a break and try to do some self care every once in a while. You’ll get worn out really quickly if you have to carry this burden for such a long amount of time. It’s okay to put it down every once in a while and take a bath (or a nap, or watch your favorite funny movie, or go swimming, or anything else that cools you down). It’s also okay to be angry at everyone who has hurt you through this process. You deserve to be able to express your anger about how you were treated, and to not have to feel sorry for being upset with the situation.

Next, a lot of you will resort to bargaining. This looks different for everyone depending on when you arrive at it. Reporting your rape will often bring you to this step sooner than later. You’ll get the adrenaline rush from possibly gaining some advantage over your perpetrator if you report. If you don’t report, you’ll eventually want that advantage, no matter how you get it. This is definitely not an unhealthy way to cope, although there’s a big emotional crash if it doesn’t go your way. There are a lot of ways to be bargaining with this situation. You might report to the police or hire a lawyer. You might suddenly throw yourself into advocacy. You might start taking self defense classes, working out, or even just trying to educate people about sexual assault or unhealthy relationships. This is not a bad thing. I just want you to know that you don’t have to do any of this. Some of us get stuck here often, myself included. We get so stuck trying to change the situation or make it better that we just forget to grieve the loss and start actually mourning what happened to us. We’ll think about what we could have changed for ourselves, and start desperately trying to make it happen, even though we’ll never be able to go back and actually change it. It’s okay to be selfish and just take some time off. It’s also okay to throw yourself into advocacy and activism to an extent that makes you feel better. Listen to yourself, and be soft with yourself.

Depression is inevitable. It’s so hard to pull yourself up once it sucks you in. The worst thing in the world happened to you. Somehow, no matter their sympathy, no one you’re talking to ever understands it. You feel yourself becoming more and more isolated as you struggle to grapple with what was done to you, and how much it has changed you. You might have a lot of support, and you might have no support. No matter how people in your life have reacted to your story, you probably won’t be able to save yourself from depression at least every once in a while. And that’s okay. Try to still find ways to feel alive in the meantime. I remember once feeling so broken that I just couldn’t physically force myself out of bed for days. I didn’t want to exist anymore. Why would I? I couldn’t think of a single reason to stay active in the world. A friend of mine showed up at my house, forced her way in, and made me to get in her car and go to her house. I still felt completely numb, frozen, and worthless, but I think it kicked my body awake. The reason I tell you this is not because I want you to go kidnap your depressed friends, but that it is so helpful to force yourself to take care of you. Even if it’s just small things. When your mind is telling you that life is hopeless and that you are finished, your body starts to believe it. Please, force your body to do some things. It might just be smelling something strongly that alerts your senses for a moment, or getting in the shower when you haven’t in days, or finally ordering yourself some food. Even just standing up for a minute and walking around. It all sounds very dumb, but I promise it helps on some level even if you don’t notice immediately. Being depressed is okay. Someone took everything from you in that moment, and everything you are doing to rebuild and ignite that fire within yourself is amazing, but sometimes you will be horribly sad. Allow yourself that sadness and remind yourself that it will not last forever.

The occasional final step of this grieving process for some (and sometimes it starts developing immediately) is PTSD, aka post-traumatic stress disorder. Not everyone will develop PTSD. I have had some survivors ask me if they are less of a survivor for not developing PTSD, and the answer to that is “absolutely not”. All survivors of sexual violence struggle afterwards. This grieving process will exist whether you want it to or not. There will be feelings and ideas you will wrestle with as a result. PTSD is different from this. With PTSD, your brain is unable to unhook itself from what happened. I didn’t know that I had it right away. I was too busy worrying about what the man who raped me was doing that I didn’t notice the changes within my brain and body. I found myself unable to function without something to calm me down, which initially was alcohol every time. I was sleeping maybe 2 hours a night, and had night terrors every time I fell asleep. Occasionally, something would trigger me (sidenote: please stop making “triggered” jokes in 2017), and I would end up having a flashback. Part of my brain would logically know that I was somewhere safe, but my entire body and most of my brain would be back in that room, experiencing what had happened to me all over again. It seemed hopeless. However, even PTSD is not hopeless. This is not a journey I’ve completed myself yet, but please, if you think you have PTSD – seek help from a doctor. Part of PTSD for many sufferers is avoidance, and I promise that avoiding it will not make your condition any better. The further you allow yourself to avoid treatment for your PTSD, the stronger its hold on your brain becomes. Treatment has gotten more advanced, and there is a therapy treatment named EMDR that has shown to be extremely promising in treating PTSD. You might even just be given very specific coping and self care skills for when symptoms arise which will help as well. You’ve got this! There are some very substantial roadblocks in your way, but you deserve support and treatment is available.

Eventually, you might feel like you’ve arrived at acceptance. Your assault feels more like a memory at this point. I’ve said before that I can’t wait to arrive at this point – to where it is something that happened, rather than something that is still happening. You don’t ever have to get here fully, but you may sometimes feel perfectly healthy about what happened or satisfied with how you’ve chose to heal. Just because you have moments, days, or weeks where you feel like you have arrived at acceptance – know that no journey is perfect. You might feel like you are slipping backwards other days. Grief is not linear. Remember to never stop practicing self care, even when you feel that your journey is finished. Feeling that you have accepted or come to some closure about what has happened to you is an incredibly important moment for your healing. I hope you relish it, and I hope you remember that no matter how long it feels that it is taking for you to get there, it is in your future.

but you don’t LOOK sick

I’m fully aware that most people reading this might have no idea that chronic illness is something I’ve struggled with. Sure, my friends might gently tease me for constantly being sick, and you might even remember times when I disappeared from school for weeks at a time growing up. I always tried to laugh it off or downplay how horrible I was feeling, because no one likes hanging out with the sick kid. I even got a crash course in “people will think you’re faking to be able to miss class” when I landed in the hospital during college, which was harder for me to brush off. It’s hard to be forgiving of yourself for your illness when no one else is.

A great quote I found recently by Toni Bernhard: “I blamed myself for not recovering from the initial viral infection–as if not regaining my health was my fault, a failure of will, somehow, or a deficit of character. This is a common reaction for people to have toward their illnesses. It’s not surprising, given that our culture tends to treat chronic illness as some kind of personal failure on the part of the afflicted–the bias is often implicit or unconscious, but it is nonetheless palpable.” We live in a society that absolutely blames the sick person for how they got there. Even doctors who care endlessly about the patient can sometimes allow their bias to seep through in their questions or comments about their condition. I can’t count the number of times when I try to explain my health difficulties to someone who responds with some sort of question about why I don’t just try harder to be better. Usually these people don’t realize how obsessive I already need to be about my schedule, my routines, and my diet on my doctor’s advice. After taking endless amounts of medication and participating in medical testing that never seems to find any answers, I’m tired. Trying to center your life around your health is hard, and makes you feel weak. It seems easier sometimes to just stop going to the doctor and hope that my body will figure out how to fix itself.

The thought of embracing my health problems has always seemed too far away. Sure, I’ll live with it and tolerate it, but I always felt that in order to embrace my problems, I would have to define myself as “sick”. I’m realizing more and more that that isn’t true at all. I’ve found since becoming an adult that there are more of us in the world who are chronically ill than I ever would have expected, and I’m not alone. Being chronically ill is not a deficit of character like I had felt it was when growing up. I’ve realized that the unspoken stigma around being chronically ill had wormed its way into my subconscious, and the way I thought about myself. I blamed myself for my symptoms, and kept pushing myself too hard despite how my body started to feel.

Even though you start to feel like you must be wrong, or you just want to give up on medical care and go home, your symptoms won’t go away. So, here I sit, writing this from a different city where I’m here to see different specialists. I gave up on my health for a couple years, and now I’m back. Maybe I’ll get some concrete answers and help, and maybe I won’t. I would normally try to end a post with some sort of happy optimism or advice, but I can’t really do that today. I don’t have the solutions. I’m also not going to be specific here about what I struggle with, because after having so much of your life be public, it’s necessary to keep some things private. I just write this in the hopes that someone will be able to relate. I hope that someone will read this and realize how important it is to validate people who are struggling. I hope that everyone reading this in good health will feel a little luckier today. And, of course, I write this hoping that it will ease my own stress. I’m a firm believer these days in not carrying more pain by yourself than you have to, and it’s important to unburden yourself every once in a while. If I know anything about chronic illness, it’s that it doesn’t go hand in hand with chronic stress. Remember to take care of yourself, everyone! Advocate for yourself within the healthcare system, and remember to listen to yourself. You deserve it.

anger

Anger is a tough emotion for me. I’m not used to it, honestly. It makes me uncomfortable, and it doesn’t feel good. I’m sure you can relate. I saw a Mark Twain quote this week that said “anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured”. He’s a smart guy, and he was right. I knew that anger wasn’t very productive, and I didn’t have a lot of experience with it growing up.

That all changed in November 2014. Quite frankly, if I allowed myself to be angry as much as I want to be, it would eat me up inside. I even know how angry some of you are when reading about my story, because I get a lot of messages about it. I do try to stay positive. I try to remind myself that the love in my life outnumbers the bad about a million times over. But every once in a while, I see something that makes it boil over and I don’t know what to do with myself. Stupid comments about public sexual assault cases always get me. “Maybe if these stupid women wouldn’t drink and act like whores, they wouldn’t get raped!” That’s a classic. The fact that the “people also viewed” on my LinkedIn profile are always the immediate family of the guy who raped me, when the last thing I have ever wanted in life is to be connected to the people who helped to destroy two years of my life and have never shown an ounce of sympathy. Thinking about how much I used to love teaching young children, and trying to accept how impossible it is for me now. Seeing the former friends who threw me to a known rapist without warning me, and then continued to hang out with him until he went to prison, wanting to scream about how much I hate them for what happened to me. Of course, I can’t scream about it. (I could, and I have, but honestly, if someone is already being disrespectful to you, getting mad at them for it probably isn’t going to make them stop.)

The world isn’t fair. It’s not. 90% of the time, I don’t expect it to be. We’ve all been through some horrible things that we didn’t deserve. I can take a deep breath and remind myself that during most of my days, and be so so grateful for the good things I have. Every time I feel the need to vent, or to be angry about the situation I’ve been living in the last 2 and a half years, I end up telling myself that it’s not okay to be angry. I need to get over it, move on, and be the bigger person. I know that if I allowed the anger to seep out of me in inappropriate situations (interviews, everyday conversations), people would stop listening to me. They would assume I’m being irrationally emotional, and they would probably be right. Instead, I try shoving it down most of the time when it starts to rise to the surface, and eventually collapse a few days later when I’m by myself. It’s messy, but so is life I guess? We all have to deal with silencing certain emotions once we hit adulthood.

I have to say, though: completely trying to push anger away doesn’t work. Eventually, you have to deal with the frustration inside of you. Even if I only feel angry during 2% of my life, I can’t ignore it and pretend that it doesn’t happen. Emotions are here to tell us things, and this particular feeling is here to let you know that something isn’t fucking right. If I ignored my anger, I would probably still be stuck with the reputation I had a couple years ago. I would be unable to move on, trying to bury my intuition about how unjust the situation at hand at been. I’ve had to learn that it’s okay to let my anger out. Maybe not in public, but just allowing myself to get in my car and scream after a frustrating day has felt great. Writing out an angry letter at the world is also a good release. I’ve even considered taking self defense classes just so I can punch some stuff every once in a while. There are so many healthy, productive ways to let out the rage. Anger isn’t the only messy emotion that we’re all afraid to let out; sadness, grief, and jealousy all have their place in this as well. It’s much easier to deny that these feelings exist, but I’m going to advocate that we actually start acknowledging and dealing with them. Whatever is making you uncomfortable is real, and it’s better to tackle it and move on with your day than deny it until you have a meltdown.

I’m here to acknowledge today that I am not perfect. I am not some glowing, gracious rape victim who is always making the best out of a bad situation. Sometimes, I’m just pissed off about what happened to me. What matters is that I’m turning that occasional bout of rage into productivity. Nothing will cleanse your soul like taking total control of your life, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I’ve gone from being completely closed off about what’s happening in my head, to airing all my worst memories on national TV and talking openly about how I feel about it. It’s…a weird way of coping. But honesty is good medicine for pain. I won’t suggest that you become one of those people who posts 15 Facebook statuses a day about their life problems (hey, more power to you if you are that person already), but I will recommend trying to cut some of the bullshit that you’re using to guard yourself. Be vulnerable. Be mad, be upset, be genuine every once in a while. It feels good.

This post was inspired by something that happened 2 years ago this month that was related to my rape. It was eating me up inside. I’m not ready to talk openly about it, but I finally shared the story with trusted people and was overwhelmingly grateful for the response. My challenge to you this week is to share something uncomfortable and painful with someone you trust – you can even just write it out and send it to me. I’ll listen. I want everyone to know that they don’t have to hide their pain forever.