The things that really matter, no one can take from us. Dignity. Resilience. Self-respect. Self-awareness. Self-agency. The power to define ourselves on our own terms. These pieces slip from our hands only if we surrender them. In any given moment, we hold the power to choose an identity and a narrative that are either empowering or disempowering.
I am 37. Thirteen years ago, I was raped. He was someone I knew, not very well but well enough for it to feel like the utmost betrayal.
Since that night, I’ve been haunted by anger and fear. I have tried everything to shake free. I’ve gone to years of therapy. I’ve read books on other women’s experiences with rape, books on forgiveness and on letting go. I consider myself an intelligent, educated woman, who has plenty of loved ones around her. I’ve tried to be in romantic relationships but each one has failed. Inevitably, I start hating sex and I start projecting my anger and fear onto any man I am with.
I hate my assaulter. I hate that he stole that night from me. I hate that he has imprinted himself onto me, my life, my identity. I hate that I am one of the countless women who have been raped. I hate being this person.
Just a Number
Every day, I run around a nearby lake. There is a dog park next to this lake. Two years I ago, I met one of my closest friends while passing this dog park. A man in his early 70s, he was walking his labradoodle, Casey. My friend is 6’4”, speaks in a warm, grizzled grumble, and rarely does a day go by now that we don’t talk. Every Monday, he asks me for my cashiering schedule at Whole Foods, so he can plan to visit while I’m on my shift. Sometimes all he buys is an apple or a muffin. What he leaves behind is priceless.
I know only two people with my ex-husband’s name. The first being my ex-husband and the second, my dear neighborhood friend. My ex-husband and I were together from when I was 25 to 27. Some days, that period of time from my life feels like an hour and half. Other days, the experience feels like an eternity of feeling. The morning my dear friend and I met, and he introduced himself and Casey, I thought, Well, that’s a name I won’t be forgetting any time soon. For better and for worse, memory is a complicated companion.
Thank you for your incredibly brave, tender letter. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself with me. I am deeply sorry for the pain you have endured. I am extremely sorry the reverberations of that night plague you still.
I was raped when I was 23. Today, I am 32. The assault happened shortly after I moved to New York City. Like your rapist, mine was a person I knew, not very well but well enough for the entire event to feel like a horrifying, shocking breach of unspoken contract. My rape was relatively quick and physically painless. He was efficient with time, pain, and me.
He left and I sat naked on my bed, in the inky stillness of night, cupping my future in my hands. I realized given the extreme voltage of the moment, any thought I decided to assign myself would stick, possibly forevermore. High stakes make for high emotion, and the words we give ourselves during high impact moments are the ones that shape us deeply and last the longest. I had to choose immediately, and I had to choose well.
I decided only I author my life. I decided this person was a rapist and not a man. I decided what had just happened was rape and not sex. I decided I was not and never will be a statistic of any kind. I am purely, completely, fully myself.
Today, while running around my lake, wondering how I would reply to your letter, I came across my beloved friend and his labradoodle, Casey. In my friend’s hand was a bottle of water.
“Here,” he said, holding out his offering.
“Thank you so much,” I replied, moved and surprised. “You’re amazing.”
“Ahh.” He shrugged away the compliment. “Someone’s got to look out for you.”
We spoke for a few minutes. The other park-dwellers know us well, our whimsical pairing. You can see us glow from the other’s nearness, each cherishing this daily ritual. Every day, he hands me a new piece of his tale. Today he told me about his first marriage, his shadows, and his journey to sobriety. He told me it’s things like our daily morning meetings that help him get out of bed and into the sunlight. As he spoke, a group of teenagers and their teachers from the high-school up the street gathered nearby. After brief instructions, the students paired up and began practicing a familiar trust exercise: one student wore a bandana as a blindfold, while the other one guided him or her down a path, not by hand but through words.
I looked up at my friend, the water he gave me still cool in my hand. My heart swelled, and I realized, nowadays, thanks to my memoir and the alchemic power of writing and connecting with loved ones, I no longer feel any anger, sorrow, or pain for anything in my past. My thirsty mind is quenched with love. I associate only this man, this angel, with his specific, fateful name. I realized anew, no moment or character is accidental, or needs to go wasted.
We are here to help each other recover the pieces of our lives. Each character and experience is ours to approach as we wish. Life is one long exercise in trust — all we are ever doing is giving, receiving, rejecting, bruising, and reclaiming faith.
My love, you were hurt in a fundamentally painful way. Had our assaulters been strangers and not familiar people, that too would be a violent breach of the unspoken contract of love, respect, kindness, care, and integrity all we humans are born into. Your anger and hatred are absolutely understandable.
But he did not steal the night from you. The evening was a brutal crime, but no moment, night, day, or piece of your story can be taken from you. Your life, your past, your future, and your identity are ultimately yours to define.
You say you have tried everything to help yourself live happily. Have you though, truly? I’m happy and relieved you have so many loved ones around you, and for the romantic love that has visited your life over the years. But have you vowed to love yourself despite, through, and amidst the brutality of life? Have you committed yourself to yourself, to live as the torch-bearer leading your tribe of loved ones, as they champion your happiness, your success, your wellbeing?
I feel you have made a choice: a choice that is harming rather than helping you.
Meditation is a gruesome, difficult thing — sitting inside oneself, while physically still or running, writing, or on a walk, is uncomfortable. The entire infrastructure of meditation is a metaphor and practice for what it is to be human, truly engaging with life. It practices and confirms the benefits of sitting with our thoughts and feelings, especially the painful ones. We learn to not panic, flee, combat, or punish ourselves, our pasts, or our present. We learn the way to shake free is to be still. We learn to work through ourselves. We learn to use every piece.
Our wounds have expiration dates. You can milk your wounds. Or you can meditate on them. You can let them use you. Or you can use them. There is an audible moment when a wound begins to sour and rot, unless you let it close. Let your wound become a scar. From our wounds we spread brutality, pain, and fear. From our wounds we commit assault, towards others and ourselves. But from our scars we create beauty, wisdom, and love. From our scars, we grow closer, realizing that pain in its different shapes is our shared commonality, less a reason to hate or attack, and more a reason to connect and embrace.
My love, you state correctly that rape is a crime inflicted on so many women. And men. We can bemoan this fact or use it as an invitation to love. This may sound grim, but as rape happens to so many of us, the atrocious frequency and commonality is precisely the reason to better understand and love each other, deeply, openly, fiercely. Don’t be used by your past but rather, use it for your deepening. The past has thus far truncated your life. Let it instead expand your wingspan. See what you can accomplish and who you can embrace because of the wealth of experience you hold within. Our personalities, our best selves, our contributions, are the temple we build on the ashes of our suffering.
Darling one, there is a tribe who loves you dearly. We are trying to help. To receive our love, you need first to commit to helping yourself. How will you define your one precious self? Victim, martyr, or warrior? I did not address you as “Just a Number” because you are not a number; you are the narrator of your tale. Yes, you have read, plenty. But what narrative are you writing? What is the story you wish to be?
The things that really matter, no one can take from us. Dignity. Resilience. Self-respect. Self-awareness. Self-agency. The power to define ourselves on our own terms. These pieces slip from our hands only if we surrender them. Return to that night, when you held your fate in your hands. Reclaim your pieces. Recognize and act on the truth that in any given moment, you hold the power to choose an identity and a narrative that are either empowering or disempowering.
Please do not hate yourself. Please, instead, love. The imprint that ultimately matters is the light you cast on your life and this world. Take stock of the gorgeous, powerful, inner resources you may have been ignoring. Choose well.
Only you author your life.