I had already been volunteering at the crisis intervention center for more than a year when I signed up to take additional training to become a counselor for people who had been raped. I had already started an internship as part of my graduate program in counseling, and undergoing the training would be a way to build up hours and get experience I really needed.
But to be honest, that’s not the only reason.
I did it because it matters, of course. And I did it because I didn’t want anyone to feel they had to go through an experience like that alone. I wanted to do my part to make sure that someone who had just been raped could have someone there waiting to help.
Because that’s not what happened for me.
It wasn’t anyone’s fault. I simply didn’t know that help could be so easy to find. I assumed that the only options I had were to go to the police or to keep it quiet. And sure that going to the police would not result in help, I kept it to myself. For years. For more than a decade.
I knew it wouldn’t be an easy training. Simply going through the training to get on the staff of the counseling center was grueling. It was 65 hours of a few lectures and many hours of small group experiences. In these groups, we talked about what had been learned in lectures, practiced listening and empathy and shared experiences from our lives. Often, very painful experiences.
The night with the lecture on sexual assault comes up in the second week of the training. I knew it was coming and I dreaded it. I didn’t think I could handle hearing about the tragic and horrifying experiences from people in my group. In a short time, through hours of listening to them talk honestly and emotionally about their lives, I anticipated it would hurt too much to hear how inevitably some of them had been hurt.
I was on edge during the lecture, where the basics of rape-related post-traumatic stress disorder were outlined. I listened, sometimes more intently than others. Sometimes I tuned out for a few minutes when I thought I couldn’t hear anymore without getting emotional. I dreaded the group session coming up after the break.
During the break, I called my girlfriend. Because all of a sudden, I knew.
“I can’t do this,” I told her.
“Because we’re going to go back into group and then I’m going to tell them.”
“You don’t have to,” she said.
“But I do. I do. Because I can’t hold it back.”
I was feeling sick. I was barely holding it together. Finally, it was time. The group facilitator made a brief statement about the lecture and then opened it up to whoever wanted to say something. I went ahead.
“I was dreading this night. I told myself it was because I didn’t think I could stand to hear some of you talk about your own experiences, but that wasn’t the truth. The truth is, it’s me. It’s me.”
I started crying. I don’t know exactly what I said next, except that it was the first time I’d ever told a soul about what had happened to me over six hours on a cruel Florida night 14 years earlier.
“I was so scared I was going to die. It was violent. I was too scared to try to stop it.”
I was crying. Sobbing. Out of control. I felt like I might never regain control again.
“The next day, I told an exboyfriend about it. He told me I had been stupid.” I remember looking at Cara, one of the center’s longest-serving volunteers who would later become a trusted friend. “I still feel stupid.”
It was frightening to be open like that, but the reception was all anyone could hope for. It was met with compassion and empathy. I survived.
Now, I was getting ready for 40 hours like that. More lectures and small groups, but this time, all centered on one topic.
I made it through three nights of it without losing it. But Saturday was an all-day session, and by then I’d been soaking in the stuff for so long, I couldn’t keep the flood at bay forever.
In the morning, we had a lecture about the different kinds of rapists – how some fantasize their victim actually wants them, while others simply want to subject someone to their power, and others are outright sadistic or want to take out their anger toward women on one person.
I sat there wondering which category my rapist fell under. I wanted to know the answer to the eternal question: Why? Why did he do it? Why wasn’t he content to have consensual sex? Why me? Why had I been so afraid?
I was feeling raw when we headed into group. I’m not sure what finally did it, or if it was one thing on top of another for day after day that brought me to it. But suddenly, I remembered.
Hands. Hands on my throat. Squeezing. I couldn’t breathe. I mean, I couldn’t breathe in the memory, and I couldn’t breathe in the here and now. Because if I did, I might lose it.
I spoke up.
“I feel like I’m in a barrel and I’m about to go Niagara Falls,” I said.
“What does that feel like?”
“Like I might lose control and never find my way back.” It was starting. “Like I might be lost forever.”
“I believe you will regain control. We’ll be here with you.”
I told them what I remembered. Being strangled. Calculating that he liked to be angry, and he liked my resistance because it made him angry, and that’s why I complied.
Memories I had locked away were back. But not all of them. I felt sick. I cried myself out, and we moved on, but I was still stuck in limbo between then and now. And in some ways, I still am. I’m haunted by what I can’t remember. I hate that I can’t. It feels like he still has a part of me.
I forgot so much, I think, because I worked hard to make myself forget. In the hours after my rape, I considered going to the police. But because of the circumstances of the attack, I was fairly sure nothing would come of it. I’m still pretty sure of that. So I didn’t tell them. Like I mentioned, I told my exboyfriend. He told me I was stupid. I was already feeling stupid, but that told me – rightly or wrongly (hint: wrongly) – that stupid people don’t deserve compassion.
So I told no one else. I resolved that what had happened would not affect me. I told myself I would not change because of it. I pushed myself ahead and cut myself off from what had been done to me.
And that worked for a long time, until the memories got stirred and wouldn’t quiet down again.
But I don’t regret become a counselor for survivors of rape. It’s an honor and a privilege to help people through some of the worst experiences a person can have. It’s a responsibility I take very seriously, and one that has been greatly rewarding, even if it has come at a personal cost.