I sat across the cafe table from a young girl. She's only twenty and her story is already horrific. So much damage has been done. So much hurt and pain in her short life.
But she continues to smile, while we both clutch our coffee mugs. These conversations are hard. One stranger confiding in another regarding things we don't even talk to our best friends about.
We have a common ground, though, which is why we met. We've both been repeatedly raped and molested. I hate that there are other people in the world like me and I equally am so grateful that I can finally see I'm not alone. And I know she feels the same.
As this young woman pours out her heart to me about the emotions and fears she's been dealing with, she remains vague about the actual abuse done to her. She describes nothing in detail except her constant fears, the feeling of being unseen and unwanted, and just wanting to stop hurting.
It's amazing to me that something done to us, without our consent and that is long over can still have so much power over us. I remember having to talk about my own rapes in detail with my therapist and literally jumping back in my chair, yelling "no!" when I thought about those moments. I know the kind of fear that rises up in us at the thought of going back there.
It doesn't matter how many times we tell ourselves we're safe. It doesn't matter how many times we hear it wasn't our fault. Those memories don't go away. No amount of time lessens those visions for us.
That's what many non-victims don't seem to understand. They think we can just forget about it and move on. They make it sound so simple, but there's nothing simple about the recovery. They want it to go away so they don't have to think about it. Even though we still do. We can't stop.
As our conversation moved along, I tried to remember all the things I wanted people to say to me when I was going through my own healing. I kept listing off all the things in my head of what to say and what not to say. I wanted to grab her and squeeze all her pain away so she could just breathe again. I wanted to tell her support system to do better, to be better. Kinder. More compassionate. More patient.
Instead, I told her how worth it it is to go through the process and to be on the other side. I encouraged her to keep doing the hard work, keep going to counseling, keep talking to safe people. Keep remembering that she is not alone. Keep telling her story, even if it's in her journal because there is healing every time she tells it. It loses it's power the more she uses her voice.
She shared her lack of trust in people, even those in her own household. I understand this so well. How awful it is to know that those who are supposed to protect us are the ones that can do the most damage with their words.
There was a period years ago when I tried to change my story so I didn't have to use the word "rape." I was so beaten down by those in my life dismissing what happened and telling me to get over it, that my only defense was to change the story so it didn't happen at all. I couldn't trust people with my truth, so I changed the truth to protect myself.
Fear kept me from telling the truth. Fear of my family's angry words. Fear that they would continue to minimize me. Fear that people wouldn't believe me or that they'd blame me. Fear that all their words would be the actual truth.
And that is what this new friend felt. Fear.
There is a systemic problem of creating fear in the victim's heart that keeps them from telling the truth and talking about what was done to them.
My prayer is that this young woman, and every other person I have the privilege of listening to, will not allow fear to keep them from taking back their dignity. They will not allow fear to take one more day from them. They will not allow shame to keep them silent any longer.
Dear survivor, you were created for more than to be abused with your soul left shattered. You were created to be beautiful and loved and wanted. You were meant to be safe, protected, and valued. You deserve these things.
So keep fighting. Keep fighting the fear and shame. Keep fighting against the unkind and thoughtless words. Keep fighting so you can eventually have a conversation with someone in a coffee shop, or diner, or over a glass of wine that passes along the hope that someone once gave me.