The first time I had a word for what happened to me, I was squatting over a toilet, trying not to touch the seat. A flyer on the back of the stall door defined sexual assault as sexual contact or behavior that occurs “without explicit consent of the victim.” I quietly slid my nail under the taped edges, folded the flyer and slipped it in my pocket.
I didn’t say no. I said, “I don’t understand,” and “What about your wife?” and “I just want to go to sleep,” but I didn’t say no.
I’ve been seeing my therapist for a couple years, and I tell her everything about my life. But I haven’t told her about this. I’ve tried a couple times, but the words get stuck at the back of my throat. Maybe because I get the impression she likes me.
Last Sunday morning my husband rolled over drowsily and put his arm around me. My eyes shot open and I shrugged him off violently, uninvited terror suffocating my gut. “I’m sorry,” I said quickly, “I just don’t like surprises.”
I’m ashamed to tell this story, and I’m also ashamed it’s taken me so long to tell it. That I’m more afraid of what people might think than of never being free. More willing to carry the weight of someone else’s guilt than believe I’m a victim.
In the flight-fight-freeze threat response paradigm, freeze won. It was reflexive and out of my control, but still, it feels like my body betrayed me. Or I betrayed my body. I feel frozen now, trying to find the right words to describe what happened, words that will make you believe me.
I was 22 and drunk when I was sexually assaulted by an acquaintance. He was drunk too, but he was allowed to be. It took me years to say the words out loud, and I still can’t bring myself to call it rape. Rape is something that happens in dark alleys to innocent girls, not hotel rooms to friends too naive to realize they are asking for it.
Sometimes when my daughter and I are cozied up under the covers at bedtime reading Little House, her arm accidentally brushes across my breast. Without warning, my flight response triggers and I angrily recoil. I turn away and snap at her to respect other peoples’ personal space. My body betrays her, too.
I didn’t fight and I didn’t leave and I didn’t say no. But I didn’t say yes. I didn’t explicitly consent. With my words or my body. I thought if I stayed very, very still, it might end quickly. My lack of response making it obvious the situation had been misread. All just a misunderstanding, really. I stayed so still I blacked out.
The freeze response is just another way your body tries to protect you. Not a better or worse way. It’s an evolutionary survival tactic, and women are good at surviving. I am good at surviving. Sometimes to survive we have to bury our stories deep in the earth, without a single stone to mark the spot.
My husband and I saw a therapist together once, to talk about the assault and work out how it was affecting our marriage. I insisted it had to be a man, worried a woman might instinctively cut me too much slack. But even when the male therapist said I didn’t do anything to deserve what happened, that it wasn’t my fault and probably not even about me, I didn’t believe him. I don’t know how.
I don’t remember everything about that night, all the incidental details. My body’s olive branch. Even in the morning, only fragments came through — translucent bits and pieces of shame. Some more clear, like crying out in pain at penetration.
Listen to your body, my therapist has been encouraging me, you can trust what she tells you. I close my eyes and inhale slowly, desperate to hear. Baby girl, it wasn’t me who betrayed you.
Ali Kojak is loud talker and habitual oversharer who frequently realizes she said too much. Her work has been published in Cleaver Magazine. After spending nearly two decades as a nomad courtesy of the Air Force, she and her husband put down roots in Oak Park, Illinois, where they are currently raising three wild children and a naughty French Bulldog. You can connect with her at alikojak.com.
Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Kim Love
Alison – I found this story by searching Facebook for an old acquaintance from school. I am so glad I found you, but so sorry to hear of this. We were not close in school , but I often think about how your life turned out when you moved from Blan schools. I’m glad you have found a way to tell others your story, especially the young vulnerable girls/women out there. My daughter is 20 and I feel I need to have her read this and have that conversation.
Ali, this is so moving. And courageous. I have been trying to tell a similar story for years and you’ve given me a little more power to do so. I hope you got some healing from this as well.
I hope that your story finds its way out! More than the writing, hearing from other women has been an unexpected and beautiful salve!
This resonated so deeply with me. Thank you for sharing. I didn’t say “no” either. And, I’m a loud talker as well. Well done!
Thank you for reading. And ugh, I carried so much shame for so many years about my response — I’d always assumed I’d react different. It seemed so out of character. May we change the narrative for those who come after us!
Thank you for your bravery and vulnerability. It is so hard to be honest in writing, but that is what humans want and need.
I appreciate you reading! I try to ask myself, Is this actually the most true thing I can say about XXX? And if it’s not, I try to ask why. It is SO hard, but knowing it helps other women feel understood is worth it!
“Sometimes to survive we have to bury our stories deep in the earth, without a single stone to mark the spot.” THIS! And now you’ve marked the spot and women weep and honor your bravery as they recall their own stories. Blessings.
Dear Friend, thanks for your vulnerability in sharing. The body keeps the score, and this amazingly written piece is a step in healing. Honored to bear witness to it.
That was a huge burden you were carrying. I hope it’s a bit lighter now. Thanks for being brave enough to share it. That kind of strength is inspiring.
You are so brave. These words hit home for so many!!!
Your writing authentically captures the feelings that are so hard to say out loud. Thank you for sharing them! 💜
Thanks for Sharing;
🌹Hugs & Love🌹
Thank you for sharing your story. You put into words what many of us can never.