"I don't party anymore." It was an admittedly bold declaration for a 17-year-old to make in the first line of her college application essay, but despite the numerous mistakes and missteps I've made since then it is one of the few things that has actually held true. To this day I haven't had a drink or drugs since the beginning of my sophomore year of high school. Problem is, it made the abusive relationship I got myself into at 20-years-old a lot more confusing and scary to face. Without drugs or alcohol to blame for my poor judgment, ridding myself of whatever defects of character I have which led to that situation took far more soul searching, self-acceptance, and internal, emotional work to discover and carry out.
I had five years of sober, solid recovery from drug and alcohol addiction when I got involved with the man who became my abuser. Unaware of it then, part of me believed that, because I was surrounded by fellow sober people who talked about recovery, I was somehow protected from individuals who would intentionally harm me. In retrospect it's easy to see how naïve that was, but at the time I truly thought my time away from drugs and alcohol gave me superior insight and would prevent the often devastating yet frequent consequences of being a woman with a history of childhood sexual abuse. Overcoming drug and alcohol addiction at such a young age clearly meant I would have it together as an adult -- it was just a matter of karma. No one could be as dedicated to sobriety as I had been and suffer that greatly from other issues, right?
To a girl raised from the age of fifteen with the belief that lying would quickly lead to relapse, there was no way a man with eighteen years of sobriety could be dishonest enough that they would lead me to believe our sixteen year age difference didn't matter if it actually did. There was no way he would tell me it was normal for a man his age to fantasize about 12-year-olds if it really wasn't. There was no way he would hit me like that if it wasn't part of a somewhat normal, albeit alternative, sexual lifestyle.
In the midst of pain over a recent heartbreak, I blindly trusted him; covered my eyes, held my breath, and sunk into an abyss of deep betrayal and utter dependence. Slowly I found myself submitting to things that, when I was honest, made my stomach churn. The man that I was supposed to look up to began paying bills for me under the guise of being a provider for his "little girl," and before I knew it he had begun calling me his daughter both in the bedroom and out, while buying me presents and while violently raping me. Going to him stopped being about a desire to escape pain over losing an ex-boyfriend and started being about survival. I couldn't think about what he forced me to do, couldn't step back and survey the bruises on my body because I had to have food to eat. There was no way out without drastically changing my life and leaving school.
My world continued to get smaller as the scenarios he created and began raping me in got darker. Some of what happened was so incredibly horrific and disturbing that I keep it mostly to myself out of respect for the peace of mind of those around me, but the degree of isolation I felt whilst those things were actually occurring was more complete than anything drugs or alcohol had ever caused. My spirit simply withered under the weight of my devastation as the pink-cloud, supportive world of recovery I had known for five years was slowly exposed and proven to be a predominately false charade. It broke my heart more than I will ever be able to articulate.
When I dropped out of college to escape that relationship at 21-years-old, I struggled for months to even call it abusive. It took three and a half years of silently suffering from horrific symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder before I fully divulged the humiliating details of what occurred with that man to anyone. Even then, after all that time, I only did it because I discovered he was dating another girl my age while attending an event they both happened to be at in 2010. I knew instinctively that speaking up might be the only thing that could prevent the same thing from happening to her, and thus I also almost instantaneously realized I was incapable of surviving through it all just to idly sit by and allow it to happen to another woman. The thought made me quite literally and physically sick.
Overcome with guilt that I had not pressed charges or spoken up about what had happened, I consulted with several women about what to do before taking action. Decision in hand, I took the young woman he was dating aside and, shaking, inquired whether he had done anything that made her uncomfortable or hurt her in any way. Just as I would have, she replied that he hadn't but asked why I would be concerned about it. I don't entirely remember what I said in response, but I ended the conversation tearfully begging, whether she stayed with him or not, that she not have kids with him because they would not be safe. Stunned, she thanked me, said she was going to go talk to her support group, and left. Twenty-four hours later I stopped him while he was leaving so I could impart one last message, "I still can't be around my own father." I nearly fell over from the resulting lightheaded panic as I walked away, and when I finally broke down in tears I knew I had taken a huge step forward that I would never be able to reverse.
Thus began the process of disclosure to my close friends and, eventually, to my family. I wish I could say that my parents were supportive, that they welcomed me back at whatever pace I needed, understood why it was going to take time and why I jerked away every time they reached out to touch me, but that isn't what happened. Instead my mother yelled at me for bringing that man into their home like I had somehow betrayed them by having been abused. It was been impossible not to take that as further reason to be ashamed of what had happened.
My journey has been extraordinarily trying and full of unintentional yet self-inflicted setbacks, but with unwavering determination and a seemingly bottomless well of divine resilience I continue to prove that I am not a woman to bet against. Today I am 25-years-old, ten years sober, healing from a horseback riding accident that caused me to need three different surgeries, actively helping young people find recovery, and have my eyes set on law school with the hope to one day advocate for women and work for a nonprofit organization.
Last weekend I helped put on a conference that was attended by 5,000 sober young people in downtown San Francisco, and I am amazed by the size of my life despite all that I have been through. The best part of the entire weekend-long event for me, however, was actually incredibly short. The same woman I pulled aside and spoke to in 2010, the one whose involvement with my former abuser had inspired me to begin talking about it, found me amid the crowd of people, walked up and simply said that she wanted to tell me "hi". Given that I knew they had broken up about six months earlier, she didn't need to tell me anything else for me to get the message: I had done the right thing by telling her. She forgave me for not speaking up sooner. She knew I was not crazy and that I had her best intentions at heart, and most of all that she was okay.
That moment with the woman I may or may not have saved from a life with my former abuser is the best summation of why I want and am ready to complete the Bachelor's Degree I abandoned when I left him in 2007. I may have failed in my previous attempt to return to school in 2008-2009, but that was before I started sharing my story and stopped hiding from my responsibilities to my fellow women. I am a different person today -- independent, strong, capable, and confident in my ability to stick to my own path. I have not dated anyone in almost two years and today I finally have the confidence to feel safe by myself. For a childhood victim of sexual abuse who grew up to become a survivor of partner abuse and rape, that is a very big deal.
After my horseback riding accident, I knew that any physical exploration of the world I wanted to do had to be put off while I healed. It didn't take long to realize that this was an opportune time to go back to school. Rather than sitting around while unable to work, I decided to enroll in classes and explore the world of my mind instead. Unfortunately, the injuries and my resulting inability to work for the past three and a half months have put me in a situation where, without a scholarship, grant, or other kind of financial assistance, I will have to drop out of the Dominican University of California program for Adult Learning that I am currently enrolled in. Desperate for guidance and assistance, willing to do whatever work may be asked of me, I am reaching out with my story for help.
I am often misunderstood, seldom recognized for what I do because I prefer to work in the background, and am already incredibly indebted to all that have helped me along the way. I know that this is a long shot and I am most likely going to have to withdraw for the semester, but I don't have it in me to give up without a fight. The road to recovering the desire to finish my Bachelor's Degree and go to Law School has been far too fraught with hurdles that led me directly here for me to be able to view it all as coincidence.
When I realized the financial challenge I currently face, I recalled a story I saw on the news years ago about a young immigrant girl who was the first of her family to get into college. She was from a small village in Africa and had gotten into Columbia College -- her top choice. Despite that victory, she wasn't going to be able to afford the tuition and was going to have to withdraw. Instead of giving up, that young woman made a large sign about her story and went and stood outside the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street with it. She ended up being covered by several major news networks. I have no desire to make a sign saying I am a woman trying to return to school after leaving because of an abusive relationship, but I will send this letter out to as many outlets as I possibly can in the hopes that someone might be able to help or even just cosign a student loan with me. With parents who are unwilling to do even that, I am truly at the mercy of the world's compassion. All I need is a break and then, even though I doubt I can ever do enough to fully pay back all that has been given to me, I plan to do everything in my power to try.
Please help me stay in school so I can keep moving forward. I have never given up on myself but can't keep on this path without having someone else out there believe in me enough to help too. I want to use my life, story, and personal drive to give the world but simply can't do all I am capable of without a full education. Please, find it in your heart to not pass me by today.
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