*TW: assault, abuse, anxiety and panic*
The semester had just begun and I felt like I really had it together. I was organized, I was going to the gym each morning, I was ahead on my school work. But things were not as perfect as they seemed. I was beginning to doubt my long-term relationship with my then-boyfriend, “Ethan”. I didn’t feel like I could be myself. In retrospect, I now know that I spent years in an emotionally abusive relationship, consistently being told what I wasn’t allowed to wear, who I could hang out with, and that my opinions were wrong. After months of built-up doubt, I finally told Ethan that I needed time to think about what I wanted. He didn’t take it well, which is understandable, but amidst his consistent attempts to control me, his negative reaction pushed me away even further. I wanted out but I had attached myself to him for so long that I wasn’t sure I could make it on my own.
The next day, I went to work at a restaurant, anticipating celebrating at my friend’s birthday party afterward to blow off some emotional steam. I hadn’t eaten much that day. Distraught about the conversation I’d had with Ethan, I didn’t have much of an appetite. Despite this, I showed up at the party after my restaurant shift and had a few drinks. I vented to some friends about what was going on in my relationship, and I got some good advice. After a few hours, though, I lost most memory of much of what happened that night, but I do know how it ended.
As the party winded down, I made what I thought was a responsible decision to stay on my friend’s couch after the party and not drive home. I knew I had no business driving a car, plus it was extremely late, and I planned to leave in the morning once I had sobered up. However, I wasn’t the only one who stayed. A guy I knew from school, “Jacob”, also stayed. Admittedly, I had developing feelings for him. This was part of the reason I had begun to question my existing relationship with Ethan. I thought it was important for me to figure out what I was missing in my current relationship that led me to develop feelings for other people. I now know the answers to that question: kindness, communication, freedom to be myself. But at the time, I just thought I was a bad person for having feelings for someone else, when in fact I was being manipulated and emotionally abused by Ethan.
That night after my friend’s birthday party, I was excited that Jacob had decided to stay. We were alone together, and I hoped we would talk and get to know each other a little more. But that’s not what happened. Because I had not yet sobered up, things happened that night that I did not consent to. My feelings for Jacob did not make these things okay. My lowered inhibitions did not make them okay. What should have happened was this: Jacob, noting I was intoxicated and emotionally vulnerable, put me to bed on the couch and told me to rest up. What did happen was: I stated what I didn’t want, but he insisted that it was okay for him to those things. I don’t know if I said “no” or “stop”, but I do know that Jacob told me what he was going to do to my body instead of asking if it was okay. I know that I told him there were things I didn’t want to do and that he did them anyway. But instead of realizing I had been sexually assaulted, I spent months thinking that I had cheated on Ethan.
I woke up the next day in a constant state of panic. I couldn’t breathe. My heart was beating out of my chest. Partly due to what I perceived as my failure to be perfect and partly due to what I did not realize was a violation of my body, I felt unhinged. This past Sunday, I felt anxious and panicky throughout the whole church service I was attending. I was confused until I remembered the feeling of showing up the morning after my assault, to my internship at that same church, exactly two years ago. I had felt dirty, shameful, unworthy. I thought I had done something terrible that made me a failed pastor and a failed human. I’m not really sure how I moved forward the rest of that semester, but in many ways I’m still recovering. I hate that I still feel the need to use fake names to protect these men or to protect myself from them. Moving toward forgiveness for both of these men is a daily struggle. I still don’t know how to offer forgiveness in a way that doesn’t justify the things that happened to me. Others often say that forgiveness is actually for me and not for them, but I have trouble framing it that way.
I no longer feel like a failure because I know what happened was a result of abuse and assault, not a result of my own moral failings. I needed to get out of my relationship with Ethan in order to fully be myself. I needed to realize what Jacob had done to me in order to be able to heal from it. I still deal with the anxiety and panic that I hold in my body from these experiences. But on this 2-year anniversary of the most terrible thing, I do have the ability to look back and know how strong I am to have survived this. I can look back and see how far I’ve come in managing my anxiety. I can look forward and know that I am now in a relationship with someone who values me as I am, shows me kindness, and doesn’t try to take control of me. I can also look forward and imagine a future where forgiveness is possible, and I think that’s a good place to start.