Time To Heal
Content Warning: sexual assault, trauma, depression, healing
I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to post this. Even now that it’s published, I’m still battling the little voice that says, “Does your story even count? Other people have had it way worse than you…”
But earlier this afternoon, I had the sudden urge to re-read this thing for the first time in over six months. And when I rolled over to my Twitter feed a couple hours later and saw these #WhyDidntIReport stories trending, I wondered if my arbitrary compulsion might have had a cosmic nudge.
Before I go any further, I want to remind you: you don’t ever owe anyone the telling of your intimate, personal, even painful stories if it doesn’t serve you to do so.
Your story is valid. You are valid. You don’t have to prove that to anyone by cracking your heart open for all to see for it to be true.
But in writing this, I realized how much it was another important part of my healing journey to do so. I can’t know if these words will impact anyone outside of me in a powerful or important way. But I certainly don’t want them to cause you harm, so again,
This piece includes detailed accounts of assault and trauma that may be triggering for some readers.
Please proceed with care.
— Cold Open —
A decisive incident that results in a sudden cascade of shock, upheaval, and pain.
It’s that precise moment when you are struck upside the head. Pinpricks of light speckle the sudden darkness behind your eyes. You touch your fingers to the gaping maw between curled lips of torn flesh. The blood is dark paint on your fingers. The colour drains from your face when you see it. Your knees give out. Your consciousness wavers. There are too many blank spots—burn marks on the film reel of your memory.
Did you pass out?
You can’t remember.
The damage is immediate and obvious. You might need stitches. You might need painkillers. You definitely need a hug from someone you love, assuring you that you are okay, that everything will be fine. You need everyone to leave you alone. You need silence.
You need time.
The consolation, they tell us, is that with time the wound will surely heal. As long as you don’t pick at the scabs or absently tear stitches out with nervous fingers, which is always a lot easier said than done.
You clean your wounds, apply the balms, change the dressings, and take the pills as prescribed. Pain subsides. Stitches come out. New skin grows.
But after the swelling goes down and the blacks and blues fade to sickly greens and finally disappear, you still feel tender. Softened by your own vulnerability. And what’s worse is that you have that ugly scar now. The hair comes back patchy, sprouts in the wrong directions. It takes a while before it can hide the constant reminder that you were beaten down like an animal.
You feel like everyone is looking at you. You hallucinate their whispers—they’re coming up with their own explanations for what happened to you (even though you haven’t told any of them that anything is wrong), making up all the ways you could have, should have prevented this from happening to yourself. Because it’s your own damn fault for putting yourself in harm’s way.
You start to believe the whispers.
You blame yourself, questioning your motivations and the series of decisions that opened you up to the assault. You ask yourself for years about how things might have played out if you would have done things differently.
You have flashbacks to the exact moment you were struck whenever you see an object even remotely capable of exacting the same pain. You pad on makeup and wrap yourself in shrouds to hide your jagged scars because you’d rather look uncomfortable than broken.
You are so lonely; you still want to be left alone.
You want to believe that you will heal, but what if some damage can’t be undone?
— My Story —
Nine years ago, someone I trusted unconditionally violated me without remorse. It was not a brutal, violent attack like the detailed metaphor described above; there was no blood or bruising, no stitches or concussions to speak of following the incident. But that doesn’t mean that it didn’t leave any nasty scars.
He was my teacher, my athletic trainer, and my employer. He was a confidante, a protector, a friend with whom I spent a lot of intimate time during my formative years. He grew to be someone I respected, admired, and trusted very much. He made me feel seen in a time when I felt particularly isolated and alone. He provided attention and affection when it felt like no one else cared.
Though it will be pretty obvious to anyone who knew me at that time who the characters in this story might be, I’ve kept the very specifics like names and places out of the narrative. From here on out, the antagonist will be referred to simply as Coach.
When I was fifteen, Coach decided that there was something about me that he liked. I know this because he told me so. “You’re my girl this year,” he had said at the first competition of the season. I assumed he was talking about my athletic potential; I don’t want to speculate on any other possible innuendo.
When I was sixteen, Coach told me how proud he was of me, commenting often on how much I’d improved from one season to the next. He acknowledged how hard I worked. He cheered my successes and pushed me to be better. I felt appreciated and supported and most of all, I relished his praise.
Coach was attractive in a wiry, degenerate chic kind of way and his deliberately aloof style was endearing in its own right. I can’t say for sure if he was the first man that I was attracted to. I can say for sure that he was the first man to pay attention to me in a way that made me feel unequivocally good.
I feel the most shame when I acknowledge that I was ever attracted to him at all.
Coach was in his mid-thirties with a wife and two kids, so there was no doubting that he was an adult. But that didn’t stop him not acting his age with the teenage girls he surrounded himself with. It never really registered with me that he was over twice my age because at sixteen, it felt like we were meeting somewhere in the middle. At sixteen, I couldn’t discern how much his behavior within the context of our relationship was a blazing red flag. That said, my ignorance didn’t change how much it threw me when Coach began to make flirtatious advances towards me two years later.
Though most young girls start to pick up on the unchecked smarm of lecherous older men from an early age, no one teaches us what to do with it.
One day, just days after my eighteenth birthday, he told me that he couldn’t help me stretch out after our training sessions anymore because, “I’ve got to be honest with you”—dramatic pause—“I think the wrong things.” But even then, I couldn’t fathom that he would act on me in any tangible way. (I am ashamed to say that I still felt intrigue alongside my confusion — lest we forget that, though it wasn’t a romantic love, I did love this man intensely for many years.)
My response? I thanked him for being upfront rather than secretly abusing his position of authority over me.
Shame on you…
Things were convoluted after that. He put down my boyfriend on a regular basis. I sloughed it off as misplaced older brotherly protection. He very illegally supplied me and my underage female coworkers with alcohol, which he drank with us, during work hours. He slipped flirtatious texts to me that only exacerbated my inner turmoil. But I was too busy with what felt like typical adolescent fun and angst with him and the other girls to realize just how dubious the whole situation was.
It never gets easier to look back at all the warning signs that stacked up along with the staggering mountain of “what ifs” they evoke now.
Shame on me…
On my last shift at that job, it was just me and Coach. Despite any prior awkwardness, I was dreading the idea of goodbye. We had spent years cultivating a bond and my attachment to him ran deep.
Maybe that’s why I let him push the boundaries with me that night. That, and the fact that the fear of his rejection and disappointment still trumped anything else.
It escalated quickly. From us sitting in the comfortable silence of our imminent parting, sipping on tequila and orange juice from paper cups to him squatting down in front of me, about to attempt oral sex on me. I choked – on the shock, on the stench of hot tequila and cigarettes wafting up from him, between my knees, while I sucked back the tears welling in the bowls of my lower lids.
I did manage to find it in me to react and push him away before he had me fully exposed, but the damage was done. I was already rotting on the inside and it wasn’t from the tequila in my gut. And, sobbing into my palms, I hurtled immediately towards self-blame.
What is wrong with me? I have a boyfriend… How could I let this happen?
I can still smell his smoke-laden breath hovering over the fabric of my panties. I can still feel the way my pulse thumped so hard between my legs that I thought I was going to give birth to my heart; how wet I was when he slipped his finger past the cotton.
I hated myself for being aroused.
Did I want it to happen?
I would learn much later that this was a completely natural body response to the situation. That fear, anxiety, sexual arousal, humiliation — it all manifests the same way: flushed cheeks, dilated pupils, light-headedness, shortness of breath, pounding pulse, vaginal lubrication. Before I understood that, however, the misinterpretation of these body cues caused massive amounts of confusion and shame for many years.
I was gutted when it was clear that he was upset with me. He told me that he didn’t make plays if he didn’t already think he could score, insinuating that I was responsible for my own upset, that it was I who had wrongfully misled him.
But even if I believed that I wanted him and had said so then—which I hadn’t—there is no debate now on how inappropriate this whole scene was:
I was drunk, on alcohol he had purchased for me—a minor—that I drank during my shift at work, in an unlicensed establishment, with a man who had a hand in raising me from child to young woman; a man who now had an uninvited hand in my pants. I was absolutely not in any state to be making any calls on who I may or may not have wanted to be having sex with that night, least of all with him.
He abused his power. He abused his position of authority. He abused my naive admiration for him. Yet somehow I was the one who was apologizing to him.
Why didn’t I leave sooner? Was he right? Did I ask for this? Did I want this to happen?
There are so many answers to these questions, yet none at all.
— Flash forward —
Eighteen months later, I was home for the Christmas holidays, excited to reconnect with some old faces, including a couple of girls I used to work with.
But apparently, these girls had kept up the old part-time job where Coach was still the manager and they had gotten to know him better since they were all legal adults and could go out drinking together.
I learned about all of this only moments before he arrived to join us that evening. I understand why the girls assumed it would be fine. I’d never told anyone that Coach and I left on poor terms. Not even the boyfriend.
I didn’t know what to say or do. I wanted to hang out with them, but when Coach walked into the room, I nearly threw up. He looked a little sheepish, somewhat avoiding my gaze, as if he was surprised I was there.
But of course, he knew I would be there. He came on purpose for that reason. He wanted to see me.
I was cornered.
As the night drew on, things had admittedly gone better than I thought they would with Coach present. (The several shots he’d bought us helped take the edge off, I guess.)
When I lost track of the other girls for a moment, I ran into another old friend. I hadn’t seen her for a while, but I knew that she had been close with a mutual acquaintance who had died suddenly only days prior. (I know. There’s a lot to unpack there, but that’s all you really need to know for the sake of this story.)
The weight of our combined emotions laced with holiday booze was enough to take me over the edge. I was overwhelmed and needed to leave immediately. Coach suddenly appeared then and offered to take me home. (Weeks later, an acquaintance who was also at the bar that night would comment to me on how he’d been uncomfortably aware of a certain wiry man who was watching my every move the whole night.) In that moment, Coach was the only escape route I could see through my drunken tunnel vision, so I went with him.
However, I was also embarrassed about my family seeing me in such a state. I can’t believe that was enough for me to want to prolong my time with Coach…
Instead of taking me home (at my request) we cruised aimlessly through the quiet, snow-laden streets of my hometown. I don’t know how long we drove, but Coach’s demeanour softened along the way. He apologized for how he had treated me in the past. He didn’t make any attempts to touch me or cross any other boundaries. Between the heat from the car’s vents and the alcohol cushioning my brain, I was washed with a sense of ease. I didn’t see a future where we would ever be friends again but at least I could move on knowing that we had resolved our past, that I had found some mythical closure.
Feeling much more relaxed, I was finally ready to go home.
But he had something else in mind.
Our drive took him past his house, and he decided suddenly that he needed to use the bathroom. I don’t remember if I thought I needed to use the facilities too or if I just didn’t want to stay in the car—it was late December in the middle of Canada after all and I have known people in my lifetime who have quite literally frozen to death, so perhaps I considered this. Or perhaps not.
While I sat on the couch to wait for him, I started to melt into a sleepy stupor. When Coach materialized again at the other end of the couch—a respectful distance—I mumbled that I should go. He explained that his wife and kids were out of town. He said I could stay as long as I needed. I know that I would have preferred to go home and sleep in my bed—because I always prefer that—but I was already losing consciousness. He said that there was plenty of room upstairs if I wanted. I’m not sure if he meant his sons’ empty bedrooms or the space next to him in his bed. Either way, I insisted I was fine where I was and fell asleep before he could turn the light off.
Sometime later, still curled up in a loose fetal position on the couch, partially wrapped in whatever blanket he had provided me, I was almost completely engulfed in shadows. My breath hitched when I realized the shadows’ fingers were groping me.
Standing next to the couch, leering over me, Coach’s hands were on me. He didn’t disrobe me but he slipped his hand under and around my layers without regard.
Paralyzed with shocked, head spinning, and fully doubting any power I may have had left in the reserves, I simply feigned unconsciousness.
I was dying, so I played dead.
He tasted like ashtray and filth when he put his finger in my mouth and curled it around the ball of my tongue piercing. He’d commented earlier in the evening on how he liked it.
He pried my mouth open wider and replaced his finger with his flaccid dick. Lucky for him, my jaw forgot it could move in the opposite direction. With that fleshy hairless caterpillar in his hand, he prodded at the bloat of my atrophied tongue.
I was a corpse. Wrapped in a blanket; frozen to death.
When he pulled out, I pretended the change in stimulus had caused me to stir, just enough to make me move without actually waking. I didn’t dare open my eyes and give myself away. The only thing I had left was that he thought I was asleep. I rolled over, turning to face the inside of the couch.
I shifted my focus completely to my breath, to maintain my impression of a person sleeping soundly while also stifling the contents of my stomach.
Eventually, he did slink back off into the shadows. I heard him climb back up the stairs, stop in the bathroom, and move around his room until the ceiling fell silent.
Then I sat bolt upright, suddenly reanimated, as if the zombie virus he’d passed on to me through my mouth had finally taken hold and my limbs were finding animation again. My fight-or-flight response was piqued and any sensation of inebriation had disappeared, erased by the turbo-shot of adrenaline pumping through me. With my head cocked to one side, I listened intently for any sign of life upstairs.
Thankfully, the house was silent as the grave from which I had just risen.
Carefully, I stood and moved through the shadows with the stealth of a specter, and the undeniable conviction to live again. It’s these moments that I remember the clearest when they call us survivors.
When my socked feet slid from the wooden floor to the linoleum in the kitchen, I saw the time on the stove. 7:34 a.m. How many hours had been spent with his hands on me? How far was he able to go while I was completely unconscious? I’ll never know.
My phone was missing. I only had one mitten. I didn’t know what to do or where to go. All I knew is I had to get out and away as quickly and silently as possible. I slid my boots quietly onto my feet and walked out the front door. I might not even have closed the door all the way for fear of making a sound.
I never wanted to see his face again.
The sun was rising. The morning was silent and cold, like everyone else had died right along with me during the night. I didn’t look back as I crunched in the brittle snow towards the sidewalk. My heavy breaths hung in thick white clouds around my face. I trembled like I’d been wandering around outside all night. Tears stung my frozen cheeks and formed a line of jagged icicles on my lashes.
I just ran.
The sun was all the way up and so was my family by the time I got back home. I said as little as I could on my way to my room. I stayed there until my boyfriend called to check in that afternoon. He told me about our friend’s funeral service. He asked me if I had a good time out with the girls. While I was on the line with him pretending everything was fine when the doorbell rang. My mom answered the door. When I came around the corner, the receiver still pressed to my ear, my heart jumped right out of my throat and splattered on the floor.
I was stunned to see Coach’s face darkening my doorstep. I don’t think I even said anything. I certainly didn’t invite the demon in. He handed me my rogue cellphone and my missing mitten, flashed me a fiendish smirk and waved a silent goodbye.
My mom said something about how lucky I was that he was a nice guy.
That was the last I ever saw of him.
— #WhyDidntIReport ? —
You mean, besides the obvious fears of public judgment, or worse, incredulity over making such accusations of an upstanding community member, the victim-blaming, the slut-shaming, the minimizing “Well, it could have been a lot worse” rhetoric, the daunting task of admitting that someone you loved was capable of such a nasty betrayal all along, and knowing that it’s his word against yours without any “real evidence” to support you if push ever came to shove?
I wanted to report it. But I didn’t have everything I needed to do it on my own.
I did call one of my best friends the same day of the incident, hoping he’d provide the counsel I was looking for. And he did. He even offered to drive the few hours it would take for him to get to me and accompany me to the police station and/or beat the shit out of the guy who dared do something like that to me. I still regret declining both generous offers.
When I reunited with the boyfriend two days later, I told him what had happened too. I’m almost certain I even started the conversation with “I think I need to go to the police…” But he more or less blamed me for letting it happen—he never trusted Coach, and I should have known better. It turned into a kind of “I told you so” moment that helped squash my gumption to go to the authorities.
But I think worst of all was that the boyfriend’s father was a judge for the provincial court. Because I was too small and shy to do it myself, I had him consult his father on my behalf (anonymously) regarding what a girl in this situation should do. The judge told this girl to forget about it.
Three strikes, girl; you’re out.
— The Aftermath —
I plummeted. My depression exploded to the deepest, darkest place it had ever been. My relationship crumbled before the year was through — I cheated on him to prove to myself once and for all that I was unworthy of his respect. I distracted myself by taking on an even heavier course load at school while over-working two jobs. I drank more nights than not because the hangover was somehow more tolerable than my frighteningly low self-worth. I spent countless nights rolled up in a ball of tears and snot on the living room floor because I didn’t have the energy to do anything else.
And I couldn’t understand what was wrong with me.
It took me the better part of two years to start scraping myself up off that floor. To really acknowledge that I wasn’t okay. To really start searching for a doctor who might take me seriously and a therapist whose insight was more than just that I shouldn’t drink so much. To figure out what it was that was severed, impeding my capacity to love myself.
Even when I finally found a doctor I trusted, I was reluctant to go on medication because I was still in denial that I needed that level of help. The drinking continued and I would frequently blackout even with the smallest amounts of alcohol. The medication may have contributed to that but I suspect now that it was exacerbated by the severe emotional drain. Because I still wasn’t addressing the foundation of my pain.
Though the medication made it possible eventually for me to find incredible value in the complimentary cognitive therapy, it put me in a state of numbness that was almost as debilitating as the extremes could be and it made it nearly impossible to orgasm, which only further complicated my sordid relationship with sex in my early twenties.
In the years following the initial incident with Coach, I went on to be violated several more times in similar fashion—with a predator who waits until the prey is asleep to make his dastardly move. Which is especially harrowing because every one of these assaults happened in the presumed safety of a friend’s house, or my own bedroom. It’s never the victim’s fault for being violated but I couldn’t help but wonder more than once if this pattern developed and persisted because of me.
Contrary to popular belief, progress is not a smooth, uphill trajectory.
— What’s your point? —
After a couple lifetimes of running laps around my own mind, something did start to take hold. The days that I felt stable, if not really good, came more often. I found a therapist who worked for and with me. We cracked me right open and the work we did together brought me up to a point where I started to feel strong enough to truly believe that I deserved to reclaim my joy. I owe her so much; I wouldn’t have made it this far without the space she held for me.
After years of medical and psychological assistance, of challenging my self-confidence and cultivating my power, of bouncing back (eventually) time and again after every draining emotional and literal hangover, I started to develop enough clarity of vision to look back and see some of the progress I had made.
I never did formally report this to the authorities and at this point, I don’t intend to. Not that I forgive him because I absolutely do not. Nor am I somehow grateful for the journey I went on because of his transgressions. No one should have to learn their limits because of someone else’s loathsome, unwelcome behaviour.
But, I can look back on my timeline from the point of the initial shock onwards and even share my story out loud now without having the most visceral reaction, which I count as a win. These experiences are a part of who I was and who I have become, but they no longer hold any power over me. Because I refuse to let them.
— Long story short, sometimes I harness what I can and use it for smutty good now —
We are shaped by our experiences, for better and worse. With my retrospective lucidity, I have been able to observe how this experience, and what came of it, has probably influenced my sexual predilections.
I completely idolize the femme fatale—the sinister, devil-may-care succubus who takes what she wants and doesn’t care who she hurts in the process because she’s in it for her pleasure.
I fantasize about dominating my partner, stripping them of any overt authority and taking it all for myself.
I fantasize almost as often about fully submitting, letting go of my restraints and insecurities with someone I have built a strong relationship of trust and understanding.
In all scenarios, it’s about feeling that I am in control of the narrative and communicating that control to my partner, even if I’m the one in a state of submission.
Because there is always power in choice.
I explore most of the permutations of my fantasies by way of my erotic writing, which has allowed me to be honest with myself in a safe, intimate, and uniquely liberating way.
I have even gone so far as to write deliberately about Coach.
On the surface, this may seem like a bizarre and uncomfortable exercise because it can involve imagining myself finding pleasure and enjoyment with my abuser. The point, however, is not to imagine literal sex with him but to reprogram the context of the memories and associated feelings like I’m painting right over them with another, better color. A tangible set of images to show me what it is that I demand from myself along with my future partners to feel good, safe, and sexually free.
I have written fictional erotic stories that feature a character that strongly resembles Coach which manifest as idealized re-imaginings of what might have played out if there had been any element of mutual interest, consent and pleasure between us. Others develop as kinky exaggerations where he has to fully submit to a devastatingly dominant female. Then there are the horrifically graphic scenes where he ends up some combination of raped, crudely castrated and left for dead by a ruthless demon queen.
I don’t know if I’d recommend this method to anyone else, because the results can be extremely volatile. The catharsis of putting these scenes to paper has certainly galvanized a variety of intensely emotional responses from me. Sometimes sadness, sometimes anger, sometimes empowerment and sometimes even genuine arousal. But for me, of all the feelings that might crop up, pain is no longer one of them.
— So, when did the healing start? —
It’s been happening all along. Right from the first word—Trauma. Healing may not be as obvious as the onset or fallout of a trauma but it doesn’t mean it’s not already happening. It starts the very moment hurt is inflicted and continues at varying degrees indefinitely. Just like that gaping wound produces plasma and starts to clot as soon as the blood comes in contact with air, you are somewhere on the road to recovery, however obscured it may seem, the very instant the initial blow is delivered.
There is no sugar-coating it. To come back to the grisly physical metaphor we started with: abuse leaves chronic pain and repetitive strain injuries that can’t be fully reversed, only rehabilitated and maintained. No amount of reconstructive surgery can reverse the damage and erase the scars. And it takes a heck of a lot of gumption and diligence (after every time you come crashing down again) to make any of the work work for you.
But just like maintaining a healthy diet and exercising often, or doing your physio exercises following a sports injury or an accident that significantly alters the way you live in your body, it takes a certain level of tenacity and discipline to realize and maintain a practice of loving yourself in a healthy, sustainable way.
Nearly a decade later, I don’t think head-on about Coach or the details of what went down between us very often anymore. But the echoes never quite silence. There are still days that are harder than others to make the conscious choice to reinforce my self-worth. There are days that I need to sit in dark teary-eyed silence when something kicks the more jagged memories into my present. There are days that it takes substantial effort to remind myself that I love the scarred face in the mirror. There are days when I have to sit down in the shower and hug myself into submission because I’m sobbing uncontrollably after writing this particularly heart-opening piece about trauma and healing for you; for me.
These days are an unavoidable part of the process that I have learned to trust. Through them I have learned the power of self-love. I have learned to appreciate the cleansing quality of silent shadows. I have learned to relish in the sensation of lightness that follows a particularly violent purge of tears and tumultuous emotion. I have learned to shirk the shame I once associated with the scars. This is the proof of my stubborn, albeit awesome will to survive.
If you are a survivor, you are healing. It doesn’t take time to start healing; it takes time to realize just how far you have come.