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The late September sun is bright, offsetting the jagged mountains against an impossibly blue sky. The day is straight out one of the glossy brochures my well-known university sends to eager incoming freshmen, perfect in the surreal way people can never quite believe the first time they see it. I struggle not to vomit.
A sea of people blur around me as I stagger off the bus. My throat is dry, my heart beating a death drum against the inside of my ribs, and before I can think twice, I turn and walk towards a part of campus I rarely, if ever, venture to.
My first class is an afterthought. The music blasting up through my earbuds is muffled, somehow -- far away. I walk like I am late for class, eyes fixed on the ground, breath coming short.
Ten days ago, I turned 21. It is my senior year of college. I do not know it yet, but my boyfriend will propose in a few short weeks. I have good friends, good grades, and my life is not the crumbling mess I’ve waded through for most of my very short and unimportant life. I should be happy. I should be happy. I will be happy.
I am in the counseling center before I know it, staggering up four flights of stairs instead of taking the elevator, hands trembling. The girl at the front desk has kind eyes, points me in the direction of a cubicle at the end of the lobby when I tell her I’m here for a walk-in appointment.
“Fill out the form on the computer,” she says. “Someone will be with you just as soon as they can.” I nod. I cannot bring myself to speak.
The form on the computer is simple. Standard.
How often do you drink? Have you ever thought about hurting yourself? Are you thinking of suicide? Have you ever been to counseling before?
And then, without warning, the question I cannot answer.
Have you ever been sexually abused?
I swallow. Instead of writing yes or no, I simply type, I don’t know.
The night before I find myself in the counselor’s office, I am trying to have sex with my boyfriend, Sam. It is not going well.
“Baby,” he keeps saying, his voice desperate, his hands on either side of my face, “baby, please, talk to me.”
I am mute, frozen, trapped inside my own body. I cannot speak. One minute, I’m there, present, myself -- in control. The next, I have gone somewhere else. Somewhere where I can only scream raggedly in a little walled-off corner in my own mind. To the world, I am silent.
I can’t explain why this happens. I can’t explain why sex is incredibly painful, either -- why something that everyone tells me feels so good has only ever felt like a knife. Vaginismus, a cold-faced gynecologist told me when I was 19. She did not explain what it meant, beyond the fact that it was all in my head. I do my own research, and it leaves me feeling nothing but empty.
Tonight is especially bad. I don’t know why, can’t remember what set me off. Was it his hands sliding down my hips, a little too low? Was it the way his breath rushed past my ear earlier? The dark? All three? I have no fucking idea. All I know is that it’s been half an hour and I cannot move.
Finally, his voice cracking, Sam says, “I want to help you. I want to help you. It’s just me.” His hands stroke my hair; he pulls me into his chest. “Can I ask you something?”
I do not respond. I try so hard to force something out.
“Did someone hurt you?” he asks, voice soft.
I do not respond.
All of a sudden, I am nodding my head. Every single piece of me strains against it. The sobs rise out of me without warning, animalistic and ragged and loud enough that I’m sure I’ve woken not only his roommate, but the entire apartment complex. I do not care.
Sam holds me. He is crying, too.
There are no questions until 4 AM. We have both calmed down. I am breathing shallowly, trying not to look at him. It is not the first time in my life I have wanted to die, but it is the first time I’ve considered doing something about it.
“How old were you?” Sam whispers.
“Five,” I say. “It happened until I was eight.”
His hand is tight around mine.
“Who?” he says.
“My next door neighbor,” I say. “He was my age.”
Sam is crying again, wordlessly. I bury my face in his shoulder and try to sleep.
It is the first time that I have ever told a single person.
What happens next seems to flash by in a series of snapshot moments. The counselor at my college is the first person to use the word “abused.” I recoil the first time: for god’s sake, my neighbor was five when it began, the same age I was. He didn’t know what he was doing. It certainly couldn’t have been abuse. It was my fault.
The first time I use the word, I am seeing a new counselor, a specialist in EMDR. It slips out and I feel indescribably guilty, stammering around the weight of it. Abused.
To me, it has always been a shameful secret, something that has weighed heavily on me my entire life, something to be ignored. It was a horror I was complicit in, something I allowed to happen. After all, I still went to his house nearly every day. We played together. Sometimes, we were best friends. Sometimes, there was nothing dark. It is so hard to think of a little boy who once hugged me and told me his family would adopt me if my parents died as an abuser, as the monster who skulks though my nightmares.
I go to therapy every week. I do not cry about it again until I tell my parents, one year later. While I do not tell them who it was, it is the hardest conversation I have ever had. They are as kind and loving and supportive as I could have hoped.
I tell myself I am getting stronger.
Two months later, I am lying on the floor of my bathroom having my first ever panic attack. I do not eat for 48 hours. I am incoherent, unable to catch my breath. At the emergency room, I have to admit in front of my worried and utterly confused best friend that I have PTSD.
“It all wants to come out,” my mom says when she flies out to see me the weekend after it happens. I am still a complete wreck. As she says it, her hand steady over my shaking one, I remember how the shock went through her like a physical slap the first time I told her about the abuse. She puts her hand to my cheek, eyes locked on mine. “Maybe you should let it.”
Here is the truth: I was sexually abused. We were both children. It was not my fault. Even now, I do not truly think it could have been his. I can say that the abuse was often violent: I have still not been able to disclose details to anyone of what specifically happened. I hope one day, I find those words. Right now, they are not important.
I forgive myself. I forgive the little girl I hated for so long. I tell her it was not her fault it happened, not her fault she was too afraid to ask for help. I send her love, reach out to protect her. I thank her for giving me my defense mechanism of checking out, or as my therapist more aptly puts it, disassociating. It used to be necessary, something to help me survive. It has kept things from me that are probably best not fully remembered. It gave me a childhood.
And now, I can let myself know I don’t need that anymore. I am healing, piece by broken piece. The old words -- worthless, weak, stupid, dirty -- are fading, replaced by words I never thought could define me. On one quiet night, I whisper them to myself.
Worthy. Strong. Smart. Pure.
The last word comes slowly, as though it has been waiting a long time to be heard. I say it out loud just once in the dark, grateful for its weight on my tongue.
I can get used to the sound of that.