I've always been an overachiever: I was top of every class, I took on three extra subjects in high school purely because I knew that I would do well in them, I graduated from high school with straight A's, I was awarded scholarships from three different universities, I completed a postgraduate diploma part-time while working, and I'm currently busy getting my masters degree. Achieving academically always came naturally for me.
I was also a real goody two-shoes in high school. I barely knew what alcohol tasted like before I started university. I saw the inside of a nightclub for the first time when I was 17 years old, on the night of my prom. I also felt overwhelming pressure to constantly do well. I was an intelligent, sensible, responsible person in everyone's eyes — my family, friends, schoolmates, teachers. As a result, I was the one who people generally turned to when they needed help, perspective or a shoulder to cry on. I was the one who would help everyone as much as possible. I was the one who had all my shit together. I had my head screwed on right and life was going my way.
At least that's what people thought.
To be honest, I was painfully lonely. I felt like I didn't fit in, but I desperately wanted to. My schoolwork was my haven. It was the one thing that I could control, so I immersed myself in it. By the time I was in my second year of college, however, having schoolwork as the center of my life wasn't working for me anymore. All my friends were going out partying and having a good time. They seemed happy. I began going out with my friends, and more often than not, I was drunk by the end of the evening.
I started getting attention from guys, which stroked my ego. Eventually, I was kissing a different guy almost every time I went out. I craved the attention, and when I got it, I felt confident.
I began taking an interest in one of my classmate's friends, Parker*. He was tall, sexy, confident, and had almost every girl that he met eating out of the palm of his hand. He was the one guy I liked that wasn't chasing after me.
I made sure that I hung out with my classmate more so that I could get to know Parker better and make myself a regular in his social life. At some point, my efforts paid off: we began spending time alone together and had a friends-with-benefits arrangement. I knew that we would never date, but I didn't think about that too much.
Soon, Parker began asking me when we'd progress to the next level, i.e. have sex. I was a virgin at the time, and I had told him that much. He had offered to help me through the process of losing my virginity, since I had mentioned that I didn't want to wait much longer. I'd told him that I needed a bit of time to think it through, and he seemed to be fine with that.
One night, I was out with Parker and some of his friends. After two or three drinks, I began to feel strange — light-headed, weak, and sleepy. I had grown accustomed to drinking a large amount of alcohol before losing my composure, but on this night, something felt different. I felt ready to pass out after consuming only a fraction of what I was used to. When I tried to stand up, I fell to the floor and struggled to get up. Parker offered to take me out to his car so that I could get some air.
The last thing I remember was trying to hold on to him while he carried me out.
I woke up the following morning in a bedroom I'd never seen before. I felt some pain between my legs and, and realised that I was naked from the waist down. My jeans and panties were strewn on the floor beside the bed, along with what appeared to be a couple of used condoms. My worst fears were confirmed when I put my hand between my legs and saw a tiny amount of blood on my fingertips.
Time seemed to stand still, and I felt sick to the core. I came crashing back to reality when a door opened and Parker walked into the bedroom with a towel around his waist, fresh out of the shower. All I could do was stare at him. I couldn't even cry. All I remember was him telling me that he knew I had "wanted it from the start." I needed to get out of there as quickly as possible, and called a cab to pick me up and take me home.
Over the next few days, I withdrew. I barely spoke to anybody. I didn't leave my room unless absolutely necessary. I hardly ate. I refused to answer my phone. All I did was lie in bed, wallowing in the shame I felt. My parents didn't know what had come over me, but they gave me the space that I requested.
About four days after it happened, I told my mom that I was raped. She didn't press me for details; she took me to see a doctor, where I was given emergency contraception and an HIV test. The doctor explained that my negative HIV status didn't mean that I was in the clear yet; I could only safely assume that I was out of the woods after three months. Because I couldn't be sure that he had worn a condom throughout, I was put on a month's course of anti-retrovirals. The side effects were horrendous, and each time I took a tablet, my anger towards both him and myself grew deeper. I was consumed by self-loathing. Fortunately, I remained HIV negative, but the experience scarred me for life.
The experience ruined my self-esteem, and my self-respect became non-existent. I needed extensive therapy before I stopped blaming myself for what had happened. It took several months before I saw myself as deserving of anything good. I came to realise that what he had done to me was not because of anything wrong with me.
I didn't take legal action. There came a time when I was so sick and tired of waking up to the thought of going over the same story yet again, of being made to feel like I needed to share the blame for what I went through. My case was also not as strong as it could have been because I hadn't gone for a rape kit examination. It took me a very long time to accept the fact that I was letting him get away with it. However, my sanity depended upon moving past the experience.
The rape had far-reaching effects on my relationships from that point forward. I struggled to trust any man for years. I refused to let anybody see my vulnerabilities. I walked away before I got emotionally close to anybody. I was seeing many guys, but I was still lonely.
One day, my therapist told me that I needed to force myself to stay single and abstain from any kind of sexual activity until I got to a better place. I thought that it was a ridiculous idea — after all, how would I like myself if I couldn't see that other people liked me?
And this is where my thinking was flawed. I thought that I needed people to like me, in order to be able to like myself — to be able to see something to like. It took me 10 years of failed relationships, toxic habits, and avoidance of unresolved issues to realise that things would only start getting better once I took an honest look at myself.
And only once I got to know myself, and consequently learned to like (and eventually love) myself, could I expect and accept genuine love from other people without question or suspicion. I realised that I would always be imperfect, but that I was worthy of love and respect anyway; I was able to accept my past and do my best to change the path of my future.