Coming Home: How a Sexual Assault Robbed Me of "Me," and How Therapy Saved Me
I am an advocate for therapy. Ask any of my friends or family and they’ll confirm that. When they come to me, seeking advice or simply talking through their challenges, I often bring up how helpful and even life-changing talking to a therapist can be. Even with acquaintances, I find myself casually starting sentences with “my therapist once told me…”
I’m not shy about advocating for therapy, or even sharing the transformative impact it’s had on me. Despite my willingness to share, however, most people are unaware of the events that led me to become such an advocate.
The #MeToo movement, and the feeling of being supported in my personal and professional life, has emboldened me to share my experience with sexual assault.
It was eight years ago. I was an 18-year-old, full of energy and excitement for my next chapter in life. I had graduated early from high school and moved 1,200 miles from my hometown in the Midwest to attend a university in Boston. It was an invigorating time; I was learning so much in my classes and meeting people from all around the country and world.
Just over a month after moving in to this new and exciting place, I was raped by a student on my dormitory floor. The assault left me physically hurt, emotionally devastated, ashamed, and confused. I had only known my friends and classmates for a short period of time and I was physically far away from anyone I trusted or loved. I didn’t tell a soul about the assault.
The rest of the semester went by in a blur. While I did fine in classes, I failed at fostering my new friendships, didn’t get in to the singing or dancing extracurriculars I had auditioned for, and couldn’t get any scholarships that would have made it possible for me to continue attending this school.
Just four months after moving across the country I moved back to my hometown, feeling defeated by my big dreams and still devastated, ashamed, and confused by the assault. I’d had bouts with depression earlier in my teenage years, but now I fell into a depression unlike any I had experienced before. That summer was filled with working three jobs, exercising to escape, and engaging in plenty of self-destructive behaviors.
The assault played again and again in my head every time I tried to sleep.
In the Fall I started up again at a university closer to home, the opposite of the person I had been 6 months prior.
I slept through “Welcome Week” and failed to register for classes that excited me like those I took in Boston. My self-destructive behaviors continued. I got by in my classes, but was not the engaged student I had once been. Looking back, I was barely hanging onto fragments of myself, and often displayed the worst of myself, not knowing how else to be.
That spring, one year after the assault, was the first time that I told someone about it: my sister. She was working for a sexual assault awareness organization, and, as odd as it seems to me now, this was the first time that I acknowledged that what happened to me was indeed assault. Still, due to real and perceived barriers, I didn’t seek out counseling until a full year after this talk.
Instead I stumbled through two years of academic and personal hardship, struggling in ways that I never had before and haven’t since.
I had never felt further from myself.
I remember thinking: “if someone were to ask me what three words I would use to best describe myself, I wouldn’t be able to name even one.”
Finding a therapist was awkward. In my depression the last thing I wanted to do was to go through the effort of finding the right person to crack myself open in front of. I was also a full-time student with a very busy schedule and little practical know-how to navigate the often complicating process of seeking professional help. But somehow, I did it.
Today I am so thankful to my past self for taking that first step.
After verifying that she was the right fit for me, I started seeing my therapist once a week. It took several sessions for me to lay out everything that was going on in my life. In my mind the assault was just a small piece of my many “failures” from the past few years. She helped me realize the significance of what happened to me, classifying the feelings I had most nights when I laid down to go to bed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). With that diagnosis came the framework to work through the assault and move forward in my healing.
Beyond the assault, she helped me work through the challenges I was having with my family and gave me exercises to deal with my frequent anxiety. After over a year of seeing her, she identified some interesting behaviors and referred me to a psychiatrist who aided in my understanding of my challenges and retooling of my life. It was an intense phase of healing and self-discovery and a fulcrum around which I was able to point myself toward my medical school dreams.
For any survivor of sexual assault who is struggling: You are not alone. Know that your complex emotions are valid, yet assault is not something you should be shameful of or deal with in silence. Please reach out for help. Visit RAINN.org or call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
While my experience in therapy was positive and something I am most proud of, I recognize it is only one of the many ways in which people experience healing after traumatic events. For anyone with a loved one who experienced sexual assault, tell them you believe them and recognize the toll that it can take both outside and within.
I saw a therapist for the last two years of my undergraduate career. It was hard work, but she helped me put myself back together into this person that I actually recognized. With my new tools I could finally build healthy relationships with others and return to my dreams of becoming a doctor.
My trauma stripped me of my sense of “me.”
Therapy brought me home to myself.
Therapy saved me.
Osteopathic Medical Student - 1st year (OMS I)
College of Osteopathic Medicine
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences