Reposted from my blog Fourteen White Lilies
I am many things. I am a daughter, a sister, a friend, a future wife, a godmother, a student, a writer, a musician, a Catholic, a child of God. All of these things are an essential part of my identity. When faced with the question, “Who are you?” we use labels most often to answer.
Labels are powerful. They communicate our identity. We use them to make ourselves known to another. We use them to understand ourselves. They make sense out of chaos, and give a feeling of order. We use them to understand others. They tell us about a person’s occupation, passions, political identity, past, role in a family, role in society. Labels can be used to hurt others through calling others names, stereotyping them, boxing them in, controlling them. Labels can be used to heal though, as well, through praise, compliments, applying a kind label to another.
For the past two years, there has been one label that has absolutely terrified me. It is something about me that while objectively true, I didn’t want to admit to myself. I didn’t want to identify myself with this label, because the label would make my pain too real. So long as I was able to avoid consciously identifying myself with this label, I could pass my pain off as a distant dream.
I am a survivor of sexual assault.
The thing that is so scary about this label, is that it reveals a part of myself so deep, an experience so intimate and painful, that using this label requires me to be deeply vulnerable. It requires me to open myself up, to make one of my most horrible and intimate experiences known, and it terrifies me. It terrifies me, because I wonder what others will think. I wonder how this label will affect others’ view of me. And I am still struggling to understand what this label means for myself, my fiancé, my friends, my family, and eventually my children. How do I incorporate such a violating experience into my identity? How can I use that experience to help others? How will this experience potentially inadvertently cause me to hurt others in my life? What does it mean to be a survivor of sexual assault?
Two years ago I finally broke out of a two and a half year relationship in which my boundaries were pushed and manipulated. I felt broken, abused, and shamed for much of the time in that relationship, but I continued on with a smile for fear of what would happen to me if I broke up with him. I didn’t know how to talk to anyone about it, because I felt that things were my fault. That I wasn’t loving him enough. That I was the one that kept making the mistakes. And for the longest time, I didn’t want to call what happened to me “sexual assault” because it was easier. It made it less real. It made it more distant, because to say that “I am a survivor of sexual assault” is to say “this is a part of who I am” and I wasn’t ready for that. Sometimes I wonder if I’m ready even now, because I am still working through this. I am still coming to terms with what happened to me, and through the help of my counselor, I am now bravely able to say, “I am a survivor of sexual assault, and what happened to me was not my fault.”
As I have started working through this more deeply, I find myself asking “What does this label mean for me? How is this a part of my identity? How do I deal with that violation and make it a positive part of my identity?” Because by definition, “survivor” is a word that evokes some experience of pain or trauma. A google search for the definition of survivor will return this result “a person remaining alive after an event in which others have died” and “a person who copes well with difficulties in their life.” Both of these definitions have deep meaning for me. Where others may have seen their former selves “die” after what I experienced, I fought. I fought to find myself and to regain my innocence. I fought to find my faith and to find healing in Christ. And I strive to unite my difficulties to Christ each day.
As I continue to deal with my pain, and the pain and strength associated with being a survivor of sexual assault, I have learned this: I need my pain. I need my pain, because my pain helps me to never forget, and though sometimes it would be so much easier to forget, I don’t want to. I don’t want to forget, though I want to forgive, because to forget this experience would be to lose a part of myself. I need my pain, because pain is part of what makes us human, and part of being a survivor is being able to know your pain and see the beauty in it, the beauty that comes from it. Because without this pain, I would never have grown so deeply in my faith. I would not have the knowledge to minister to others who have experienced similar pain. Being a survivor is using your pain for the good of yourself and of others. It is turning your pain into healing through turning always to Christ and relying first on him. Being a survivor is a process of searching, a process of rediscovering oneself, a process of forgiving. Being a survivor is being strong enough to admit that you are weak, that you cannot walk this alone, that you need others to walk with you, and that you need Christ. Because at the end of the day, even though “survivor of sexual assault” is a label that describes my identity, the most powerful label of all is “I am a daughter of God.” That is a label that dispels all sin and all pain with love, mercy, healing, and forgiveness. So when asked, “Who am I?”, no matter my pain, no matter my passions, my response will always be,
“I am a daughter of God who seeks first the Heart of Christ.”