Six years ago, I was sexually abused by a stranger.
The day after it happened, I called my mum.
“Mum, I’ve been beat up,” I told her. It didn’t cross my mind to inform her that he had forced himself on me; that I had sex against my will. Maybe I was afraid of scaring her. Maybe I was afraid of scaring myself.
It certainly didn’t cross my mind to call it rape.
Even now, I’m not sure if it was shock that stopped me from labeling it or a carefully constructed story that my mind created to stop me from falling down a deep rabbit hole of grief.
I came home—I was away at university at the time. My dad wanted to kill this man; my mum begged me to call the cops. In Canada, the person abused has to be the one to report the incident for anything to come of it. I felt the heaviness of it all sitting on me like an obesity of confusion. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t act.
I called my best friend. We had a conversation that began the unraveling of a 13-year friendship. “If you report this,” she told me, “no one is going to believe you. You’re going to get him a slap on the wrist, and when it’s all over, everyone will hate you.”
In my vulnerable state and with the naiveté of an 18-year-old fresh out of high school, I believed every word she said.
I spent the next four years burying this event deep down in my soul. I could count the people that knew what happened on one hand.
In this place, I felt like I had a choice: I could either allow myself to be a victim and wallow in my own self pity, or I could use this deep-seated fury and pain and channel it towards something productive.
My grades soared; I attained scholarships and was on the dean’s honor list. I ran distance races; my first half marathon followed by a second and third. Before I knew it, I was living in London, attending a prestigious medical school and training for the London marathon.
My ego skyrocketed: I didn’t need anyone! I had proved it.
All I needed was my own damn self and a sense of willpower that could cut through steel. But where was all of this willpower coming from? Never mind—I was independent, free and certainly no victim. I was in complete control of my own life.
I had held myself together…
I believed I had held myself together until my mum met me at the finish line of my first-ever full marathon, halfway across the world after not seeing me for months, and instead of pride or joy, I felt sad and disappointed in myself.
I believed I had held myself together until messages came pouring in from all around the world congratulating me and telling me how amazing my life looked—and I began to shake with rage.
I believed I had held myself together until finally one night, after much confusion about why I wasn’t happy, I looked at the full moon and I said to no one in particular, “Alright, I’ve had enough. Show me my weaknesses, show me what it is I’m missing.”
The next night I met the love of my life.
I believed I had held myself together until I tried to let somebody else into the carefully and tightly-wound circle around me that kept me trapped and certainly allowed no one else in.
It took me half a year of fighting and running, fighting and running, to finally tell him my story. I felt broken, and I think that unconsciously I was still harboring the belief that if anybody found out about the abuse, they would hate me.
To my shock, he accepted me and chose to stay. But that was just the beginning. For months, almost everything he did triggered me and sent me spiraling down. I lashed out; I held too tight; I ran away and I came back.
The only thing that I knew for sure was that to run away from this love for good, to run away from these emotions, was to run from myself.
It was very difficult for both of us. At the same time that I was working through layers and years of pushing away my truth, he was watching me relive my abuse again and again through his own actions. He never did anything wrong, but in every little action, in every word, I felt my past coming to life. All that bottled up grief came pouring out, almost every single day, for about a year.
I had to learn how to explain my emotions instead of expressing them. It took a long time for me to figure out how to honor what I was feeling in a way that respected him and my truth. There were many nights that we sat in silence, not knowing how we could go on, but not willing to leave until we figured it out together.
Some things can only be healed through and with another. Sometimes we need a mirror to see ourselves in the places we cannot see with our own naked eyes.
I finally feel that I have come out the other side as a happier, healthier, more whole human being, with awareness, understanding, and strength. And I can pinpoint two major factors that helped me process my emotions:
Allowing what was coming up to be as it was. Creating space for my pain and my fury and my sadness to grieve, over and over again, no matter how much time it took. Even if it meant that I was going to be depressed for the rest of my life, I knew that I could not bury these emotions any longer. They were there and I had to accept them. I had to stop fearing my emotions and the thoughts that came with them. I had to stop avoiding situations that brought these feelings to the surface.
For months after moving in with my partner, whenever he would stay out later than me, I would fall asleep only to wake up gasping, tears streaming down my face, heart pounding, not sure what was happening or why. I would stay up all night, filled with anxiety. I had to let it be.
I had to learn to honor his right to live his life the way he pleased, even while this was happening to me. I had to take full responsibility for my emotions, while at the same time trying to come to terms with the fact that it was not my responsibility to take on the shame and blame of the abuse. I had to let it all be, exactly the way it was—no matter how painful.
When I started practicing mindfulness, something spectacular happened. I started to realize the profoundly transitory nature of thoughts and emotions. As I watched them come up, stay a while and leave, I learned to allow that process to inform my life.
If I could observe my emotions, I could not be my emotions. This sadness, this anger and this shame were not who I was.
A turning point came for me when my partner and I got relocated across the country for his job. Never being one to enjoy change, I immediately fell into a bit of a slump. I didn’t want to go out, I didn’t want to meet new people. I just wanted to feel like I had finally gotten my life back in order. It was a long fall from running marathons to not being able to get out of bed because I had been crying for weeks.
One day, while sitting outside in our beautiful garden, I noticed that I did not have the energy to socialize. And then I realized that if I was not my emotions, then the desire to socialize didn’t need to be there in order for me to do exactly that. At the same time, I knew that connection and laughter and joy were what I needed most to create a new life for myself in our new home.
Six months later and my life is thriving. I have great friends, my business is prospering and every week, new opportunities for friendship, health and sharing the joy of well-being with others are arriving for me. I’ve used my experiences, along with my formal education in psychology, to form my own mindfulness workshops, which are gaining popularity and changing perspectives every day. I am my own boss, but more than that, I am my own friend.
And today, I honor myself and my story with relative ease.
I still get people congratulating me and complimenting how my life looks incredible. Now, I beam at those words. Some would say that I’ve worked hard to get here, but that doesn’t feel like the whole truth.
For me to get through it all, I had to stop the work. I had to allow. I had to observe.
Now I’m learning how to approach work, success and life from a place of love and peace.
Author: Alexandra Birrell
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Image: Author’s Own