Nearly five years ago, I had just turned 17 and I needed a ride to my grandparents' house before going to my dance auditions. My parents had recently divorced, and my mom asked my grandfather to pick me up. The idea of him doing it felt strange; even though I had known him my whole life, I had barely spoken to him. Something about him always scared me -- I never wanted to hug him, never wanted to kiss him, never wanted to remotely go near him. But I was grateful he was picking me up, and was hoping it would be a time for us to bond.
I got in the car and thanked him profusely for taking time out of his day to get me. He responded by saying that he was glad my mom had asked -- he said he had a question he wanted to ask me, but I couldn't tell anyone. I obliged, unsure of where the conversation was about to go.
He began saying "I know you like money -- how would you like to make a thousand dollars?" I was confused and silent, so he pressed more: He said I was about to be 18 and could soon make my own decisions. Then he asked, "Do you like boys? Do you have a boyfriend?"
It was then that I started crying and begging him to stop talking. There was something about his questions that felt unsafe; I knew they were not innocent, but I didn't know what direction they were going in. He started talking louder, begging me to not tell anyone about this conversation, stating over and over that he loved me. I remember this very distinct moment of staring at my cell phone at my feet and wondering if I had the chance to call the police if he tried to do anything to me. Finally, he said, "Can I write you a check to keep you from telling anyone?"
I told him I didn't want his money; I knew that I wouldn't tell anyway. Instead of going back to his house, I told him to drop me off at my dance studio. As I closed the door behind me, I felt myself closing too. There was such confusion -- so much of a gray area -- that I didn't feel like I ever deserved to bring attention to it. I told some friends, but stood staunch in my beliefs of never telling my family. I sat across him at dinners, wearing my most conservative shirts, praying it wouldn't happen another time. I did everything I could to make sure I never needed a ride from him again. Finally, I decided to cut ties with my grandparents, so I could avoid him completely. A year after doing so, my grandmother passed away suddenly. I have never stopped regretting that year -- he was the reason I sacrificed my relationship with her. Around the same time, I told my cousin what had happened, but begged her not to tell anyone else.
Two and a half years after the incident -- shortly after creating Project Unbreakable, a project for which I photographed sexual assault survivors holding posters with quotes from their attackers -- I decided I was ready to talk about it again. I had been having flashbacks, I wasn't sleeping well, and I began to realize how often I had dreams about confronting him and telling my family. But I didn't expect to be believed. I knew my story was confusing, and I knew it was not black and white, but I also knew my truth: He wanted to ask me something that very clearly crossed a boundary, and I needed to expose him.
Finally, I decided to tell an adult family member (to remain unidentified). I called her while crying in a very public Starbucks in Brooklyn. Before I told the story, I said I would understand if she didn't believe me. I internally had come to peace with the idea that I would potentially lose my family by coming out about it. But she did believe me. Then she told me why she believed me: He had molested her as a child. She only told two people and neither of them were in my family. She carried the secret her whole life.
After everything happened with my grandfather, I had gone back through my story over and over, trying to find a hole, trying to figure out what had happened, trying to see if I was wrong. But as soon as my aunt shared her experience, I realized I was right all along. There was something inappropriate about him: He was a pedophile and I knew it -- I likely knew it my whole life.
I began to tell the rest of my family and I thought it was the end to my healing -- they all believed me. One of my aunts even encouraged me to call him and confront him; she was incredibly supportive of both myself and the other family member who had come out about the abuse.
When I called him, he denied it. He denied it over and over, and finally, I received a call from that same aunt who encouraged me to call him in the first place. She opened the conversation by congratulating me for a Project Unbreakable feature in TIME, then she stated matter-of-factly that she was suing me for slander against my grandfather, for reasons I may never know. Naturally, since I never released his name, she had nothing to stand on. She began to make accusations about other people in my family, and she did everything she could to try and sabotage Project Unbreakable. She wrote comments on public pages, reached out to organizations supporting the project, and threatened to create a website exposing everything: all because she couldn't handle the truth. We have not spoken since.
She did not succeed in sabotaging Project Unbreakable, but she did succeed in another way: She silenced me. I stopped telling my story and I tried to hide it from all corners of the internet. The first person I opened up to again was my girlfriend of over a year. For a long time, I didn't feel like I deserved to share it; it wasn't that bad -- I was never physically assaulted.
It wasn't until I was at an event recently where people began sharing stories similar to mine when I realized it was still something I had to deal with. I ached so badly to open my mouth, but I viewed that part of my life as a cobwebbed corner; I was supposed to be the strong one, the one who ran Project Unbreakable, not the one who burst into tears in the middle of an event. In the two years of working on Project Unbreakable, I never allowed myself to break. I focused on only giving others a voice. I didn't realize I had allowed my family anguish -- and myself -- to silence my own.
So here I am. Telling my story again, and this time, I'm not going to take it back. My grandfather died a year ago, and I will never know exactly what he was about to proposition me. But I do know that I am not alone in this -- that there are thousands of others like me who exists in that "gray area" between harassment and assault. That we too need to heal from it, and to learn to trust again, and to stand confident in our truths.
I am often asked "What has Project Unbreakable taught you?" and usually, I say something rather clichéd. But now I know what it has taught me: You can't help heal others if you do not allow yourself to heal as well. You must give yourself the same amount of compassion as you do the people you work with.
When I sat down to write this, it was the first time that I was able to fully understand the staggering courage behind the people who participate in Project Unbreakable. If they can do that, I can do this.