I did nothing wrong when I was violently attacked and gang raped on February 27, 2011, yet I’ve spent the last five years silent and ashamed. My therapist begs me to believe the shame isn’t mine, but theirs…yet I’m the one who feels humiliated and painfully alone.

As stories pour in about rape that didn’t involve strangers or dark places outside or duct tape, I question—why me? When my parents told me they didn’t believe me, I began to wonder if I would always be rejected. If we go by the standards women are taught to memorize, I did most things exactly right: I was completely sober, I got a ride from my best friend’s dorm back to mine, I texted her when I arrived, I was wearing jeans and a baggy sweatshirt, I walked directly from the car toward my dorm on a common sidewalk. I was just in the right place at the very wrong time…and still I’m stuck on the outside of this growing community of collegiate women who experienced rape in nearly opposite circumstances. If rape wasn’t enough to make me feel alone, the who, what, where, when distinction allowing so many college women a voice also begins to silence mine.

I’ve spent the last six months avoiding eye contact with my therapist as I spin in the tension between the urgency of stopping the silence and the terror of further rejection and humiliation. When Brené Brown wrote “owning our own story and loving ourselves through the process is the bravest thing we will ever do,” I knew I’d need to share my story in order to own it…

Five years ago my best friend and I learned there’s a significant difference between outside your dorm and inside your room, and you don’t text “I’m home” until you’ve locked the door. I glided across the walkway to turn toward my building and I was kicked in the back of the knee. As I fell, someone threw my head against the brick wall. The next thing I remember is a guy I knew sitting on my hips with his hands up my shirt squeezing my breasts and softly biting my jawline and neck.  The cold, damp concrete scraped my back as I remembered this was the place outside my dorm where just a few months earlier my parents and I had carried my boxes through the door up to my room on the 3rd floor. There was another guy pinning my arms down. One of them pushed up my sports bra and as he continued squeezing and biting everything exposed.

I bit my lip started shaking. As I heard unzipping, I knew what was going to happen. I looked up and begged the four stars in the sky, “Don’t let this happen!” One of them forced his fingers into the sides of my mouth and pushed his penis inside. Gagging and disgusted, I tried turning my head away but they held it straight. I didn’t know what else to do. I gave in and performed oral sex. I thought that they’d let me go if I did it.

There was a pause, and then a flicker of fire to light a cigarette. One masturbated behind me and they began taking turns shoving themselves down my throat and pushed the lit cigarette into my back each time to keep count. One of them ejaculated in my mouth, covered my mouth and nose and in a growling whisper ordered me to “Swallow it, bitch.” With that, I gave up, I was done squirming and biting and fighting…it wasn’t working. 

The door behind us opened. They wrapped my tshirt around my eyes and secured it with duct tape so I couldn’t see a thing. In some ways, I think it might be helpful that they did that because now I don’t have visual memories to invade my brain space…but it also means my flashbacks are all physical sensations and just that much more intense.

Inside, I was thrown on a bed and my clothes were ripped off my body by multiple hands. My body was treated like a favorite toy—thrown around the room, passed from person to person. Burning cigarettes on my back and arms and legs, they continued to keep track. Someone pushed into me against the wall. Then pulling my hair, someone thrusted me across the carpet. No part of my body was safe from desecration. When they get tired of sharing, three would penetrate me at once—they called this game “three-hole wonder.” I’d never felt such invasive pain and hopelessness before.

As I laid there, I just wished I would die. I have no idea how long it lasted, just too long.

I was just 19. I dreamed sex would come out of love and safety and affection, and despite having sex with dozens and dozens of men in the past five years in an attempt to turn around my terror, I’ve never even been able to enjoy it. My 19 year-old body learned that sex felt like pain and alone and being used. Sex feels like violence. I haven’t been able to change that yet.

Rape ruins lives, it certainly changed mine. I only truly feel safe underwater in a swimming pool when all I hear is the sound of my breathing and all I feel is my heart whispering, “You’re doing well, you’re still alive.” Give me a mirror and I can still count the burn scars telling the story of my first sexual experience. Give me 10 minutes and I can share a synopsis of the nightmares I had last night. Give me an extra 15 minutes to drive home at night, I'll probably need to stop in a parking lot because driving through a body-oriented flashback is too dangerous. Give me a therapy hour and I'll spend half of it staring into space and the other half avoiding looking at you.

Rape is not caused by irresponsible drinking. It is not caused by flirting or by short dresses. It is not caused by miscommunication. It isn’t even caused by sexual desire. Rape IS caused by rapists. Rape is caused by a desire for violence and control. And it is NOT a sexual act. It is a calculated crime used to exert power. It violates an act designed for love and fills it with feelings of shame, powerlessness, and hatred. If you didn’t want it, it’s assault.

If you have been sexually assaulted, I am crying with you and it was not your fault. It is not something you asked for or deserved or brought upon yourself or needed to become a better person. What happened to you was wrong and it is a big deal, you deserve to be heard and helped. And you are NOT alone. You will probably encounter people who don’t believe you or who push too hard or who just walk away because you’re “too broken.” Don’t believe them. Keep reaching out and you will find a soul to hold yours. If it means anything, I believe you and I’m here for you. 

If this has happened to a loved one, the most important thing you can do is believe them. How would you feel if your sibling, your child, your parent, your spouse, or your best friend was assaulted and they'd been hiding it from you for years because they thought you wouldn't believe them? Or that it was their fault? Or that you would be ashamed of them? I'm somebody's sister, daughter, and best friend, and I can tell you exactly how debilitating it is to hear your parents deny your Truth as well as how holy it feels to have your best friend hold your head when fear and sadness weigh you down. It’s been a long five years and I have no magic or poignant stories to tell how I’ve overcome or found strength or healing. All I have is a commitment to tell my Truth and create space for connection within the vulnerability it creates. Nearly every time I see her, my therapist somehow tells me she thinks I’m brave or courageous or strong…sharing this Truth allows me to accept those words for the very first time.

Thank you Annie for holding my head…Julie for being bewildered…Sam for helping me see beyond my wounds…Kelsey for being normal…Holly for believing in me…Charlotte for putting the pieces together.