Taking Back My Power: My Sexual Assault Story

Taking Back My Power: My Sexual Assault Story

I was 14 when a man broke into my family’s house. My friends and I were having a sleepover, and after hanging out in my backyard talking until late at night, we snuck back in to go to sleep, and I forgot to lock the door behind us. I was about to slip into sleep when I heard the back door open, footsteps walking in. I was sure of what I heard, but I didn’t understand it. It didn’t make sense to me. Who would be coming into our house? My body and mind froze. I couldn’t think or move. I lay there until I finally fell asleep. My dad woke us up a few hours later to tell us someone had broken in and robbed us. Before any other questions entered my head, the first thing I thought was: Is this all my fault? I forgot to lock the door. For months after that incident, I lay awake at night afraid it would happen again. I got up in the middle of the night to double, triple, quadruple check we’d locked all of our doors. To this day I have to double check my door is locked before I can fall asleep. Even when I’m positive I’ve already locked it, I sometimes lay awake in bed and then have to get up to go make sure it’s really locked.

Is this my fault? I forgot to lock the door.

I was 19 the first time I was sexually assaulted. I had always been a romantic, a believer in fairytales and love stories. I had only kissed a few people, and I wanted to be in love before I experienced anything else. That choice was taken from me. “Do you want to go further?” “No.” He disregarded that no and went further. And further. My body and mind froze. I froze and just laid there, as I had at fourteen. Even as I knew what was happening, I felt like I couldn’t stop it. I just hoped it would end quickly. I couldn’t understand what was happening. It didn’t make sense to me. So many questions flooded my mind. Why would he ignore the word no like that? Why would he do this to me? But one question floated to the forefront of my mind, clearer and louder than the rest: Is this my fault?

Why would he ignore the word no like that? Why would he do this to me?

I was 20 when the nightmare happened again. And again. The word no seemed to hold zero power and I felt my understanding of love and sex and intimacy slipping away. I told them no, I made sure to emphasize and explain and implore they listen to me. They looked me in the eyes and told me they understood, that they wouldn’t cross that line. That the person who did that to me in the past was an asshole. But then they did exactly the same thing. Why were they doing this to me? How do I get back what was taken from me? And again, that question rose to the surface louder and more defined than the rest: Is this my fault?

The word no seemed to hold zero power and I felt my understanding of love and sex and intimacy slipping away

I was 26 when I was groped walking to my car after work. I felt him following me, looked over my shoulder a few times, convinced myself I was imagining things. And then he grabbed me. I spent weeks, months, checking over my shoulder every day walking to my car to make sure I wasn’t being followed. I recounted the incident to the police, standing in my apartment. I reported it. I reported it for my 26-year-old self, for my 20-year-old self, for my 19-year-old self, even for my 14-year-old self. I reported for every version of me I had been, and every version of me I would be in the future. I reported for every other person out there, who has ever wondered, “Is this my fault?” For the first time in my life, that question hadn’t crossed my mind. After all these years, I was finally done letting them steal my power. I was finally done blaming myself. It was finally clear to me: none of it was ever my fault.

I reported it for my twenty six year old self, for my twenty-year-old self, for my nineteen-year-old self, even for my fourteen-year-old self. I reported for every version of me I had been, and every version of me I would be in the future. I reported for every other person out there, who has ever wondered, “Is this my fault?

My power and control were taken away from me during each of these moments. I’m finally taking it back the only way I know how. By talking about it. By reporting it. By standing up for myself. By sharing my story. I still don’t feel safe until I’ve double or triple checked my door is locked at night. I still have a hard time letting people get close to me, physically and emotionally. I still walk faster and clutch my keys in my hand like a weapon when I see a man walking near me on the street. I still wonder what someone’s intentions are, and if I can trust them, or feel safe with them, when we start to date. But what I don’t do anymore, what I refuse to do anymore, is blame myself. It wasn’t my fault. It was never my fault.

If you have experienced sexual assault or harassment or anything that made you feel violated or uncomfortable, I want you to know it was not your fault, and you’re not alone. Please feel free to reach out to me if you need to talk to someone.

The difference between ‘fitting in’ and ‘belonging’

The difference between ‘fitting in’ and ‘belonging’

I recently listened to Brene Brown’s audiobook Men, Women, and Worthiness and she touched on a subject that really struck a chord with me. She talked about the difference between fitting in and belonging, and clarified that you really cannot truly belong if you are trying to fit in. “The greatest barrier to belonging is fitting in.” The idea of fitting in is about assessing a situation or environment, and changing yourself to become who you think you need to be in order to be accepted. “Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”

At 27 years old, I feel I have finally reached a point in my life where I am belonging. I no longer strive (at least not as much as I used to) to fit in. I make my opinions and beliefs known to my friends, family, and social media audience. Though I’m always learning and growing and trying to be the best version of myself I can be, I am doing that in a way that first acknowledges that I am enough. I am not attempting to change parts of myself, but rather to get better acquainted with the parts of myself I have kept hidden for so many years.

“True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”

Brene brown

I started seeing a psychiatrist for the first time in December 2019, and in our first session he asked me a question that caught me off guard a bit. He asked me “When was the last time you really felt like yourself.” I hesitated for a few seconds, and then the honest answer bubbled to the top of my brain. This honest answer also answered another question: “When did you last truly feel like you were belonging rather than trying to fit in?” My answer? 8th grade.

In 8th grade, I was on the volleyball and basketball teams at my school. I had three best friends, and the four of us became inseparable over the course of that year. I was outspoken, silly, talkative, and a bit (or maybe a lot depending on who you ask) moody. I didn’t hold back. I was unapologetically me. I felt a sense of belonging from my group of friends, from the sports teams I was a part of, from the way I wasn’t trying to be someone I wasn’t.

8th grade besties before our school dance

Towards the end of 8th grade, something started to shift. Like I detailed in my blog post Finding My Voice, I started getting negative messages from my peers. That voice that has followed me through my teen and adult years started creeping in “you aren’t enough.” Or, perhaps, “you are too much.” I started to fear that my method of belonging was not the right move. That I needed to start fitting in. I had not yet heard the life-changing idea Brene Brown presents in her audiobook, that belonging is actually what we need to strive for, and trying to fit in will only hinder our ability to find belonging. I had reached that state of belonging without even trying in 8th grade, and the years that followed would set me back a few paces as I searched for answers in the world of fitting in.

The idea that middle school was the last time I felt like myself scared me at first. As I sat in that psychiatrist’s office, finding it hard to meet his gaze, I wondered if my answer was “typical”, if there was something wrong with me for saying I felt it had been about 13 years since I was truly myself. Of course, that was part of what brought me to his office in the first place. To see if medication might help me feel and act more like myself. I have felt more alive and more myself these past six months since I started on medication to help with my depression and anxiety. But I think something else has changed in these six months. I think something shifted inside me in that psychiatrist’s office when I realized I had been living in a state of inauthenticity, trying to fit in, trying to be someone I wasn’t. I realized I didn’t want to live that way anymore.

I made the decision (mostly sub-consciously) to start being more like Eight Grade Shelly. The Shelly I once thought I needed to fix, became the Shelly I admired, the Shelly I now strived to be more like. Eighth Grade Shelly was my new idol, my new muse. I was Eighth Grade Shelly’s newest, and greatest, fangirl. I’m smiling and tearing up as I write this, because I know that younger me would be proud. And she’d be so happy to know that someone thinks she’s perfect just the way she is. That she has achieved something, a sense of belonging, that many people spend most of their life trying to obtain. She has lessons I need to learn. She has the key to Present Day Shelly’s happier and more fulfilled life. Those voiced from her peers are the voices of people who do not yet understand that fitting in is detrimental. That being unique is cool. That standing up for what you believe in is important.

These past six months, something has shifted inside me. I’ve started being even more open on social media and this blog. I started a podcast called Vulnerable Views where we talked about, you guessed it, vulnerable topics such as dating and mental health. I’ve started being more honest with myself and others about what my true passions and goals are in life. I joined TikTok and post videos that are about as authentic as you can get. I’ve had people reach out to me to say my videos have helped them or inspired them or made them feel less alone. I really feel like I’ve found a sense of belonging on TikTok, where I’m applauded for being completely myself. I’ve found a sense of belonging in my friends and family, who allow me to be my imperfect self. I’ve finally come full circle back to being that outspoken, silly, talkative, and a bit (or maybe a lot) moody girl I was before. It feels good to belong.

I’d love to hear your experience and opinions on this topic. When was the last time you felt like yourself? Do you think you are belonging or just fitting in currently? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Opening Up About my Mental Health

Opening Up About my Mental Health

Starting when I was about five years old, I used to say to my mom, “I’m sad but I don’t know why.” Even as a child, I recognized the common response to “I feel sad” was “Why?” But what if I didn’t know why? What if that was just how I felt? I can still remember those times so clearly. That feeling of sadness welling up inside me, often seemingly out of nowhere with no real trigger, and the frustration I felt trying to figure out what was causing it. Most of the time, I couldn’t pinpoint any “reason” for my sadness. It was just there. Sometimes it would last for a long time, sometimes it would be gone within minutes. My mom tells me I went through a phase in first grade when I would cry and throw a tantrum every single day. She’d hold me until I regained control.

Some of my most vivid memories from elementary school are of feeling scared about things that, as an adult looking back, most other kids my age probably didn’t even worry about. I started wearing glasses when I was three years old, and I remember every time I would get a new pair of lenses, I would be so nervous the night before going back to school. I thought everyone would make fun of me or say they didn’t like my new glasses or say I looked weird. I remember feeling genuinely terrified to step into my classroom wearing my new glasses. And every time, as you can probably predict reading this, literally nobody noticed or cared. My close friends might notice, and say something like “I like your new glasses!” All my fears were for nothing. The same exact thing would happen when I got a haircut (normally a trim that my dad probably couldn’t even tell the difference after). I can still remember that feeling of panic I experienced every single time, and how I would convince myself that something bad was going to happen. Because I got new glasses or a new haircut.

Fast forward to my freshman year in college. I went through a period where I couldn’t drink alcohol (even just one drink) without ending the night hysterically crying for no apparent reason. Alas, the old “I’m sad but I don’t know why” and regular temper tantrums were back in full force! Aren’t I too old for these? At first I thought the alcohol was to blame, but that didn’t explain the times where I’d go from having a great time with my friends, to feeling irrationally annoyed, or unbearably sad, all while completely sober. Just like I remembered from childhood, these feelings of sadness didn’t appear to have any specific rhyme or reason, and they were often gone in the blink of an eye.

I finally decided to try therapy. The therapist helped me work through and talk about the main things I felt I was struggling with. I had trouble falling asleep at night because I had so much on my mind, I would lay awake worrying about future scenarios, and replaying past events in my head over and over again. Just like I had in elementary school, except instead of worrying about my new glasses or haircut, I was worrying about conversations I’d had or tests I’d taken. I also felt nervous in most social settings, and generally stayed quiet around people I didn’t know. I wanted to be able to put myself out there more, make more friends, and not be so afraid of what other people thought. By the end of my first couple of sessions, the therapist told me she felt I had moderate depression and anxiety, and that I would benefit from medication. The thought of medication scared me, and I decided against it. I didn’t think needed it. Sure, I probably had depression and anxiety, but so many people have it way worse! I had never thought about killing myself, I had never experienced a panic attack. To me this meant it was not bad enough to warrant medication.

After only one semester of therapy, I took a break from it for the rest of college. Partially because I genuinely felt like I was in a better mental place, and partially because it was expensive and I felt bad making my parents pay for it if I didn’t really “need” it. (Note: I’m planning to write a whole blog post about why I think everyone “needs” therapy, so stay tuned for that.) Looking back, I’m not sure that was the right decision. Though I was feeling much better emotionally, and my social anxiety and random crying had all but gone away, without therapy, I found my own ways to fight my demons. And most of them were not healthy or helpful to my healing. I started denying and pushing aside a lot of negative feelings and traumatic experiences I went through, putting them away in a box until I was ready to unpack them. It took me years, up until this past year to be exact, to even start to unpack some of it. I also started some coping mechanisms such as emotional eating, which I am still dealing with to this day. I’m planning to write a separate blog post that goes into that more in detail as well.

Fast forward to my post-grad life, starting about five years ago. I experienced a lot of change all at once: starting my first full-time job, moving out on my own for the first time, and navigating my first serious relationship (part of which was long-distance). Though by most accounts my life was going well, I was suddenly attacked by my old demons. I would get annoyed at my boyfriend for the smallest things, and the annoyance would often escalate into a fit of tears. Unlike my childhood, I could usually pinpoint “why” I felt upset, but the reason didn’t always make sense, and I often felt like my reaction did not line up with the situation. I had moments where I felt like that first grader again, lying on the floor crying, this time with my boyfriend comforting me instead of my mom. I felt totally out of control and at a loss for how to cope with these experiences, and when this pattern continued for several months without getting better, I decided it was time to give therapy another try.

I started seeing my therapist, the same therapist I still see to this day, in the spring of 2016. It’s hard to believe it’s been four years now! What started out as a need to process and try to “fix” the emotional behavior I was experiencing in my relationship, turned into a way to process the countless other aspects of my life, and the many changes I encountered. This therapist has been with me through changes with my jobs, relationship status, living situation, family dynamics, friendships, hobbies, interests. I’ve found it extremely helpful to talk through what I’m feeling and experiencing. There have been times where I wanted to quit therapy because I didn’t feel I needed it, just like I did in college, but I’ve stuck with it and instead of quitting outright, I’ve taken small steps to make changes. While I used to see my therapist once a week, I’ve now cut back to twice a month. Eventually I want to shift to once a month, and then maybe on an as-needed basis.

One thing that has become abundantly clear to me over the past few years, especially when looking back at my childhood and early adolescence at some of what I described in this post, is that my struggle with mental health has not been situational. My mental illnesses have been with me since birth. They’re as much a part of me as the color of my eyes and the freckles on my skin. Feeling sad for no reason and throwing tantrums were possibly the first signs of depression, and my fear and obsession with small changes like new glasses and haircuts was anxiety. Today, I still experience a lot of those same basic feelings and behaviors. There is no cure for them. Small things can feel astronomical to me. I worry about things I shouldn’t worry about. I feel irrationally annoyed and get moody with people I’m close to. I still have moments where I feel like a scared child and I don’t know how to cope. Just yesterday morning, I woke up feeling sad, and, you guessed it: I didn’t know why.

Realizing that my mental health has always been, and will always be, something I have to work on, has been oddly comforting to me. It also allowed me to take a major step in the process of getting myself the help I need: getting on medication. From the first time my first therapist suggested medication, I was terrified of the idea. Maybe it goes back to that fear of the unknown, or fear of change. But about six months ago, I finally found a psychiatrist and started on a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI), which helps me manage my depression and anxiety. It hasn’t been a quick fix or a cure-all. Nothing is. But the way I would describe it is a breath of fresh air. A weight lifted off my shoulders. Small changes every day that help me live my life a bit fuller. I’m no longer quite so bogged down by small changes and decisions. I find I can recognize and move past moments of sadness or fear a little easier. When I feel myself getting irritated with someone, I just let myself feel that and let it pass. The best feeling is when something happens and I react in a way that I know I never would have a few years ago.

I’m writing this post for five-year-old Shelly, throwing tantrums every day for no reason. For ten-year-old Shelly, worried everyone would make fun of her new glasses. For 19-year-old Shelly, ending a fun night with her friends by crying herself to sleep. For 23-year-old-Shelly, brave enough to give therapy a second chance. For 26-year-old Shelly, letting go of the fear and starting medication. And lastly, I’m writing this post for myself, right now, as I am, working on bettering myself and becoming the best version of me, while understanding that there was never anything that needed fixing. That I have always been whole exactly how I am. And that I was always, and will always be, worthy of love and of getting the help I need to feel the best I can feel.

If you’re struggling with a mental illness, or you’re unsure if you should start medication or start seeing a therapist, please feel free to leave me a comment, or reach out to me on Instagram @shellyrayblog! I want you to know whatever you are feeling, you are not alone. And you will get through it. ❤️