This piece discusses my healing progress as a survivor of sexual abuse. Clarification of terminology, as well as links to further information and support resources, are provided in the "Definitions and Support Resources" box below.
Definitions and Support Resources
It is the decision of each person who has experienced sexual violence to personally identify how they choose (victim, survivor, etc.) Each person has the right to share their story if, when, and to the extent they choose.
What is sexual assault?
Sexual assault is any unwanted sexual act done by one person to another. Sexual assault is never OK and if it’s happened to you, know it’s not your fault.
- quote from the article: "What is sexual assault?" by Kids Help Phone (Canada)
What is sexual abuse?
Sexual abuse is any sexual behavior that is unwanted and that is carried out without consent from both partners. While force or coercion is usually involved, any kind of pressure is still considered sexual abuse. This may also include trying to control your own decisions about your sexuality and reproductive rights.
- quote from the article: "What Does Teen Dating Abuse Look Like?" by the State of New York (USA)
What is force?
Force doesn’t always refer to physical pressure. Perpetrators may use emotional coercion, psychological force, or manipulation to coerce a victim into non-consensual sex. Some perpetrators will use threats to force a victim to comply, such as threatening to hurt the victim or their family or other intimidation tactics.
- quote from the article: "Sexual Assault" by RAINN (USA)
What is consent?
Consent is defined as a voluntary agreement to do something. When it comes to sex (e.g. mutual masturbation, oral sex, vaginal sex, anal sex, sexting, other intimate contact, etc.), it’s important for everyone involved to give/receive enthusiastic consent. Enthusiastic consent means everyone is into what’s happening, and shows they’re ready through words and actions. Establishing enthusiastic consent before and throughout sexual activity means everyone is on the same page and having fun together. Remember, if consent is not given by everyone involved, it’s sexual violence.
- quotes from the article: "Consent: What it is and why it's important" by Kids Help Phone (Canada)
Some resources for information and support:
I have always been worthy. Yet, when I was growing up there were two main factors that kept me from seeing the full extent of my worth. The chaotic neighbourhood I resided in for over a decade negatively impacted my formation of self. Then, from age fourteen to fifteen, I was abused by the guy I was dating. Growing up, I only had pockets of empathy around me, deep wells were elsewhere. I was grateful for visits to those wells as they provided essential rest and hope for me in my darkest seasons. I am grateful that wells of empathy have become far more abundant in my adult life. And I now feel worthy.
My feelings of worthiness during childhood and early adolescence were divided like the cloud pictured above. The rocks symbolize things that lowered my feelings of self-worth, while the floofs of cotton symbolize things that helped me feel worthy. Like the cotton floofs in the photo, the positive things were not unified. This meant they were vulnerable to the storms of life.
The neighbourhood I lived in was mostly comprised of my relatives. Empathy was quite rare there. This made positive people and places elsewhere stand out more vividly. Each year, I spent a week at summer camp, where I was surrounded by friendly people. Visits to my paternal grandmother's home also provided respite, joy, and love.
For most of my childhood, school was a place I felt safe and valued, where my contributions mattered. From age ten, I was part of the school band and chorus. Many of my closest friends were also part of the music program. When I was twelve, in grade seven, I began dating a guy within my friend group. He was two years older than me and one grade ahead. We broke up for the first time in May of my eighth grade year. By then, it was clear he could be careless with other people's boundaries, and during our time off his actions made me aware that he could have a temper.
Midway through my grade nine year, we started dating again. I made sure to watch for the guy's temper. But his violence toward me arrived in another form. At prom, our first date in high school, he sexually assaulted me. He repeatedly touched me in ways I told him made me uncomfortable. Though he sometimes apologized, it meant nothing as he'd assault me again later on. After prom, I told a trusted adult. The adult unhelpfully and incorrectly considered the guy's apologies to be authentic.
Throughout the following year, I felt a constant pressure from the guy for increased levels of intimacy. In January of 2006, he sexually assaulted me worse than ever before. He took my silence as permission to do what he wanted. But silence is not consent. That assault shattered any remaining trust I had in him. I knew I'd never again feel safe in his presence. We broke up for the last time. After a year of enduring the guy's abuse, I felt tainted and unworthy, like the cloud pictured is lower than before.
Most of the guy's abuse happened at our school, so I never reported him because I feared I'd get into trouble. I learned years later I was just one of the students who had experienced violence on that campus. I tried confiding in mutual friends, but the initial reactions of a few people made me reluctant to try opening up to others in the group. I felt nervous at school and isolated from my friend group.
Grade eleven arrived and added additional stress, like SATs and my driving test. The few coping resources I had became further depleted. I began to self-harm and struggled with suicidal thoughts. I found support in some friends and spoke with the school counsellor. Still, I never felt safe enough to tell the counsellor about my home life or the guy's abuse.
Since we were both in the music program, I still had to see the guy often. Every school day included music lessons, band, or chorus. Not to mention after-school music events. In grade eleven, I switched to the bassoon in band. Among other benefits, this change meant I had a new music lesson group, different from the guy. The bassoon symbolized a joyful sphere all my own.
Grade twelve held a special gift: the guy had graduated. I also gained valuable knowledge. At a youth retreat I learned the term "sexual assault" and that it fit what the guy had done to me. I also became aware of the other people, before and after me, who the guy had negatively affected. These insights proved to be validating catalysts for my healing.
In the autumn of 2008, I was gifted something I had deserved since the guy first began abusing me: a school campus all my very own. My self-worth cloud rose higher with that lovely new community. University helped me feel worthier and more whole. At that little university, there was safety, connection, and empathy. Living there was such a stark contrast to the empathy-drought that had characterized my neighbourhood.
Returning to my neighbourhood the summer following my first year at university, I found managing the neglect and lack of empathy harder than ever. I had grown accustomed to being around people who cared about one another. The summer heat, neighbourhood pressures, working night shift, lingering trauma from the guy's abuse, all combined with other stressors and caused me to attempt suicide. I confided in nobody about my attempt until I returned to university. At university, I felt safe enough to bring all of my stress, joy, and life, to counselling. I no longer felt afraid to discuss the abusive relationship and horrible living situation I had endured. Therefore, counselling sessions had greater potential to help me.
My growth and healing continued in the years following university. My self-worth cloud rose higher than ever. Friendships from university strengthened, I reconnected with old friends in new ways, and connections blossomed in the places I moved. I was able to process most of the pain from the guy's abuse.
As the years went on, I felt inferior when I spoke with friends the guy and I had in common. I worried they would respond poorly if they knew the guy had abused me. However, I disliked the wall of silence between us. I worked up the desire and courage to tell them the truth of the past. I was so relieved when each one responded well. I felt light and free knowing that they had proven worthy of my trust. I was grateful they believed me and valued my voice.
Since graduating from university, I got married. My husband, Kevin, is my biggest supporter. In him, my heart found its home. He did not think less of me when he learned I had survived an abusive relationship as a teenager. He helped me heal - through listening, through his presence, and through his love. He knows my struggles and my joys. He accepts me as bi, even before I had words for it. He loves me beyond words - all of me. Our love is spacious, mutual, and safe. We blossom together.
One day this September, a lingering trigger brought up painful memories of the guy's abuse. These memories made me feel like I had somehow failed in my healing. I later learned the memories were my mind's way of letting me know I was ready to heal at a deeper level. I was ready to turn the last lingering rocks into floofs of clean, light, cotton.
Even as I felt disheartened about the bad memory day, I noted areas of progress in my healing. For example, the coping methods I was using were healthy. I reached out to Kevin, his parents, and other confidants. I made a weighted pillow and we bought weighted blankets. I went on walks. I danced, wrote, and read. I also sought help from RAINN's resources, which motivated me to return to counselling.
I was ambivalent about returning to counselling. It had been years. But I set up virtual sessions with a local counsellor. Through the sessions, homework, and my own reflections and journalling, I began to feel better. I felt safe enough to process the remaining painful areas. When the last session, and later the last homework, was completed, I was pleasantly surprised to feel something I never thought possible as a survivor of sexual abuse: I felt a deep, permanent, positive shift in how I see myself. I feel whole. I feel clean. And I feel light and floaty within, as though I am filled with floofs of cotton.
A reminder for Chelsea D., all those years ago, in all her courage:
I am brave. I survived. I deserve to thrive.
I am innocent. It was not my fault he sexually abused me. I am not to blame for the harms others have done to me.
I am whole. Those who abused me damaged how I viewed myself. But they did not shatter me.
I am clean. I am worthy of feeling clean.
I am clean. My body is worthy of respect and love.
I am worthy of having my voice heard and respected. He assumed my silence to be consent. But silence is not consent.
I am worthy of joy.
I am worthy of safety.
I am worthy of taking up space.
I am worthy of existing.
I am worthy.
I have always been worthy.