How The #MeToo Movement Gave Me A Voice To Share My Own Story & Break My Silence.

By Rachel Cooper

It’s taken me eight years to be able to say #metoo, or to realize that those words even apply to me. I didn’t know I was a survivor, and I didn’t know I experienced harassment afterwards. But most importantly, I didn’t know I was victim-shamed because I was bullied into such silence that I was brainwashed into thinking it WAS my fault: I was the one who shouldn’t have been drinking underage; I was the one who let him in; I was the one who should’ve fought harder or screamed louder; I was the one who was too afraid to leave my room to report it, and when I tried to, I was the one too afraid say his name…

Why? Because I was told it didn’t matter. I was drunk. There was more of a problem in that than there was in what he did. “Move on.” “Get over it.” “There’s not much we can do.” And when you’re 19 and 20 years old, you think, ‘well that’s it then.’ You don’t question authority, especially when you’re traumatized.

When he catcalls you or comes after you in the months that pass, you run away, ashamed of what YOU did. You never wonder why administrators did nothing, even though you spoke up. You never once think it could be his fault, because you were already made to feel like it was yours. You never question the fact that he gets to walk around freely, without any repercussions, because you’re so focused on trying to keep yourself safe. And you try your best to just ignore it, to comprehend that maybe “that’s just how guys are” and maybe, that’s just how the next few years are going to be. But it doesn’t work like that.

Unprocessed trauma begets Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It creeps up on you slowly and consumes you in an unwanted shadow. Familiar sights, sounds, smells, and feelings bother you and you can’t figure out why.
You walk around feeling numb until you feel everything at once; the panic crashes into you like a wave, and all of a sudden you can’t shake the sensation that you may never be able to breathe again, or that your heart will never stop racing.

You begin to live in a world where counting down to catch your breath is normal, where sleep deprivation or nightmares are a regular occurrence, where it’s an everyday happening to feel sick to your stomach out of nowhere, or to feel your heart beating through your ears. It’s a world where you are constantly guarding against being triggered.

When it’s bad, you actively avoid situations and experiences you think may cause you to have flashbacks, and when it’s not bad, you’re unconsciously guarding yourself from anyone or anything that might hurt you. Your whole life becomes about hiding it, because you’re so embarrassed that you never want anyone to know. You stop letting people in and you blame yourself for everything.

Anyone who witnesses you having a reaction tends to shy away and avoid you, or worst of all, shame you or label you a crazy person, stomping on you like a cigarette butt that won’t go out. You lose friends, and you learn who you can really trust. Sometimes it’s no one, because so many people are uneducated about trauma and how to cope with it. And because so many people have been brainwashed into thinking rape culture is just normal culture, they think girls have to watch out for themselves and their safety. If they’re hurt, it’s on them: They should’ve known they couldn’t trust him. They shouldn’t have dressed that way. They shouldn’t have drank so much. They shouldn’t have gone to that bar or party…

But the reality is that this happens to 1 in 4 women. And of those women, 81% have PTSD, making PTSD the norm. The only way to truly move on is to work through it, to face things that scare you head on, to talk about it to someone—anyone—that will listen and care. You need your feelings to be validated. You need a professional to give you coping mechanisms. You need a support system—whether they know the full details of your experience or not—to make you laugh, listen to you vent, wipe your tears when you cry, and just make you feel normal again. You need to be able to breathe again. Slowly, you need to regain pieces of your life that make the puzzle of yourself whole.

If not fully dealt with, your PTSD symptoms may remain dormant and reappear if triggered by a specific experience. This is true in my case.
Six months ago, I was blindsided when my job had us undergo a mandated sexual assault training. Everything came flooding back as if the incident had just happened. However, this time it was different… This time I learned to speak up and ask for help. I told a few close friends who were mature enough to support me and look out for me, unlike in the past. This time, my experience was never—not once—invalidated. This time I didn’t have to do it all alone, and this is what I attribute to helping me heal.

Support gives survivors the courage and strength to face another day and to deal with those uncomfortable triggers that can seem like they take over our lives. It’ll never go away, but it can be manageable, until it becomes a blip in your rear view mirror that you can choose to look back at when you want, but doesn’t control your life anymore.

There’s strength in knowing that I am in charge of how my story is told.
When it happened, I was bounced around between so many people, desperate for someone to do something, but I was repeatedly failed by them. It was like I was living in earthquake that never stopped; everything was shaken up and it seemed as if my experience was brushed under the rug. It was a different time, and people weren’t as socially conscious or understanding… They were very quick to blame the victim, so I acted out. I drank too much to cope with the flashbacks, and I eventually suppressed it in an effort to forget that it ever happened.

And I handled it all alone. No one held my hand through the flashbacks, and no one was there when I was scared to go to sleep alone, or struggled to catch my breath. Nobody was there to tell me it was going to be okay. You learn the true meaning of loneliness and strength when you fight through this on your own. My experience remained a dark secret I never wanted anyone to find out about, as the embarrassment of what I thought I had done weighed me down. Even years later, it unknowingly affected my dating life, my ability to trust, and most importantly, my self-esteem. No matter what I did, I never felt like it could make up for this incident; I was always going to be “tainted” or “bad,” and unworthy of true love.

When it came up for me again a few months ago, I found myself filled with an anger I never knew existed, like a captive tiger breaking free from its chains; I didn’t know humans were capable of such a strong emotion. There were times I was overwhelmed with panic and anxiety, other times where I felt waves of sadness, but there was always that anger and it made me want to speak up. When Dr. Christine Blasey Ford shared her testimony, I was glued to the news because finally—for the first time—I felt like I wasn’t the only one. I knew then that I could no longer remain silent. I had to do something.

I could no longer stand by as girls’ experiences were invalidated as mine were. I recently found my voice by confronting those I felt failed me. I refused to be ignored or brushed aside, but telling me that the protocols weren’t in place or it was a different time is like telling me it doesn’t matter that it happened. Telling me that the male “frat boy” culture is changing doesn’t make my experience go away.

I was angered more couldn’t be done, and angered to learn there’s a statute of limitations on these types of crimes. What is that saying to survivors? If you don’t report it in time, it doesn’t matter? So with this left-over anger, I decided to continue to use my voice and write this.
If you know me, you may look at me differently after reading this. I fully take that risk, and if our relationship changes, I’ve come to learn that it tells me a lot more about who you are than who I am. It’s important for me to have people in my life who support me and all survivors, and who are willing to take part in changing the culture.

I’m not writing this to ask for pity. I’m not looking for attention. I’m writing this to spread awareness: we all should talk to someone—anyone—about this issue. Regardless of your political beliefs, spread the word that we will not continue to let survivors be shamed, guilted, and bullied into silence. We will not let them continue to think it’s their fault. If we can create a culture that supports and listens, instead of avoids and blames, that is half the battle.

If you know a survivor or someone who can relate, please check up on them. Ask them how they are, because even if they seem fine, it doesn’t just go away. People often shy away from this topic because it’s taboo. Survivors already feel so much embarrassment to begin with that they don’t need someone acting awkward around them, making them feel like there is something wrong with them or like they’re a delicate piece of glass that will break at any moment. They want to feel normal again. Be that person for someone— be kind, be patient, be a listening ear, or be a good laugh. Just be there. That’s enough. I may have lost the past eight years, but I write this in hoping that no woman has to lose time at all. If you’re a survivor, it’s okay to speak up. Please, please, please know I stand with you and you are NOT alone.

If you’re uncomfortable talking about sexual assault, but you think it’s a problem, please venture out of your comfort zone and share this. If you don’t normally get political on social media, but you believe more should be done to bring justice to survivors, please share this. If you support survivors or if you care about women’s rights, please share this. Use your voice for those who can’t, and together we can #changetheculture.

Rachel is a writer who recently found her voice. She comes from a long line of strong women, and is passionate about human rights and gender equality. You can catch this FRIENDS fanatic traveling the world (on a plane without a “phalange”), spending time with loved ones, or playing with her dog. Her friends describe her as having a “zest for life”, as she appreciates things like a beautiful sunset or tasty desert. On a serious note, she is committed to work to #changetheculture and can be contacted by emailing info@girltalkhq.com.

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