My truth is a process of coming together and simultaneously coming undone. I first told my mom my brother was violating me at 11. She wasn’t able to face it. For two more years, I endured his intimidation, mind games, nightly visits, and molestation of my friends. I remember the last time it happened, I spent hours throwing up in the bathroom and in desperation got the courage to tell again. The next day I went to school and didn’t say much more. My story and my emotions always came at the expense of my family’s and brother’s dignity. But the silence slowly morphed into migraines, stomachaches, and depression. 

I found I needed words. I started collecting the concepts and vocabulary I craved by studying feminism, rape culture, and power. And although I began to understand the dynamics that disempowered me, I still found it difficult to act. I was scared to be around children, I dissociated when I had sex, I couldn’t stand up for myself, I was obsessed with being perfect. I felt really numb.

Then I began to travel. The fear of the unknown, the necessity to go with the flow gave me the strength to explore deeper. It was on an ancient lake surrounded by volcanoes that I came undone. A boy with jet black eyes told me he loved me and the weight sent me crying hysterically, “I can’t get clean, I’m dirty, I’m dirty, I’m worthless.” He held me as I thrashed saying, “Its not on you Natalie, that guilt and shame is not yours to carry.” I never understood until then that it wasn’t my fault. Sadly, our relationship grew abusive as our lack of honesty and our inability to escape childhood patterns overwhelmed us. I stayed for over a year thinking I was compassionate and brave in the face of his lies and need for control. I stayed because I didn’t know how to love that part of myself. I felt I only had value if I was caring for someone else. 

Walking home from New Year’s Mass on the lake again, I felt the familiar strength of traveling run like rods run down my back. I knew I had to leave him. As I packed my wet laundry, I felt the same sensations I had when my brother use to drown me—that flailing for air. I walked out early in the morning and stepped on the first bus ready to go anywhere. 

I spent the next 7 months backpacking through Central America solo. My ex continued to harass me during these months calling me evil, a slut, a coward, and threatening to hurt me. His hostility ripped me open. In my mind’s eye my heart look raw and infected. The pain in my chest kept me hunched over for months. I started having flashbacks of being abused by my brother, neighbors, father, boyfriend. The more overwhelmed I was, the more intensely they came. I would have nightmares, shake, cry, twitch restlessly, and become easily triggered. I became wild: sleeping with strangers in strange houses, running for miles and miles on the beach, and taking drugs when I became restless. Some days I felt incredibly resilient and other times I would wake up wanting to kill myself for days on end. I thought I was going crazy, and in some ways I was. 

I realized I held not only the memories of the trauma, but enormous amounts of shame and maladaptive coping mechanism: obsessive people pleasing, need for approval, self-hatred, dissociation, numbing, depression, anxiety, migraines, lying, stealing, an eating disorder, drug dependency, risky sex, bad boundaries, and fear of failure. I did it all. My biggest fear, however, was being seen: having someone know my story and accept me. 

It was on the road that my body was slowly starting to unravel and clean itself. With every new place, every yoga practice, and every time I got to tell my story I was getting stronger. I took up surfing and found myself talking to people from all over the world with amazing confidence. I started dancing, singing, painting and make sculptures on the beach. I fell in love a few times, and managed to keep my spirits alive after two robberies. What I learned is that the universe has always had me. I can trust myself in it. The mothers, sisters, fathers, brothers, lovers, and friends I needed appeared at the moment I needed them. This travel family, along with the strength of endless hours of ocean waves, gave me the strength to return home and make peace with my family.

I continually work on making peace with myself as new conflicts dig up old wounds.

This struggle of surviving feels like an emotional swing ranging from profound weakness to incredible bravery. I am still riding this ride, and think I always will. But I think I know myself to a depth that not many others are pushed to explore. I find my experience has give me compassion, bravery, and awareness. Pura Vida, I’m proud to be a survivor.