TW: sexual assault
Shame cannot survive the truth being exposed. Shame will gnaw and fester and bubble up just when you think you’ve pushed it far enough away from the surface to hurt you anymore. But it does, and it will until the shame is cut open from the bars that allow enough light in but refuse to let you truly be free. Today, I want to be free.
Twelve years ago, I was sexually assaulted in my own home by a guy I knew from law school, and I never reported it. I never called police. I never reported it to the school. I sat three rows behind him for the rest of my law school career. I’ve spent years ashamed that I didn’t stand up for myself and report it. I’ve spent years being ashamed for not being the person I thought I was.
I am not responsible for what occurred, but I am responsible for my own healing. And I thought that telling a couple of friends eventually and even going to a therapist for a session or two would help me heal. But I didn’t. I thought about what happened to me every day for years. Every day. Sometimes, I thought about it constantly. I kept the clothes I was wearing for far too long. Black tank top. Blue scrub pants. Ripped black underwear. Every time I looked in that drawer, I could remember every detail. And I felt ashamed. How could I have done nothing?
I was the girl who had things together. I was strong and opinionated. I was smart and never one to back down from a challenge or a bully. I was class president in college. I deferred law school to join Teach for America. I worked with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in law school. I was sure of myself and my values.
I knew what to do.
But I didn’t do anything. I was drinking that night. The next day, all I could think about was who would believe me. I thought maybe what happened to me wasn’t really sexual assault. Maybe he heard me tell my friends that night at the bar that I thought he was the cutest guy in our class. Maybe I wanted this to happen. Except I didn’t.
What happened to me is far more common than anyone realizes. I should know. I was a prosecutor for years. I sat across the desk from victims who reported their assault. I judged their reactions, their testimony, their credibility. I told women who were far braver than I that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict their assailant. Every time I had one of those conversations, my shame for not doing a damn thing about what happened to me surfaced. It was almost as if I was punishing myself for not being the person I thought I should have been in 2006.
When you carry shame for years, you learn to live with it. But it’s always there. I pushed my shame away with more food and judgment and people who didn’t care about me. I didn’t trust myself or my judgment. I let my world be swayed by near constantly changing emotions that I didn’t understand. I was so open with people that I held back who I really was. I pushed people away so I didn’t have to ever let them know that I wasn’t the strong, capable woman I pretended to be.
I found myself cleaning out my closets and drawers the other day, and I realized that I needed to spend some time cleaning out the things that have weighed me down for far too long. I’m done with punishing myself. I’m done with the should have and could have and whys. I’m done with thinking I deserve less than I do because of what happened. I’m tired of letting my shame dictate my relationships and my emotions.
Maybe something similar has happened to you. Maybe you live with shame too. If you’ve never told another living soul what you’ve been through, know that you are worthy. It takes courage to live with hurt and shame. You don’t have to do anything or say anything to be brave. But know that you don’t have to live with it. Shame cannot stand being exposed. It’s your choice. You’re brave no matter what you choose or what you do. That is grace. And I pray that grace washes over you, as I know it continues to wash over me. I am worthy because I am. And so are you.
For me, being open and honest helps me deal with my issues. I’ve been trying to write this for years. I strive to live authentically and openly. But I can’t do that if I carry a burden that serves no purpose other than to weigh me down and attempts to steal my worthiness. Now, I’m not ashamed of what happened. I’m not ashamed of how I reacted. I’m not ashamed of not confronting the truth for so long. And it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of what I did or didn’t do or report twelve years ago. I have opened up the door and let the light in. I am worthy. Then and now.
And today, I’m free.
If you have been the victim of sexual assault and are in need of resources, please contact the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.