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The Pursuit of Hope

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The months that followed the most horrific experience of my life are masked by layers of thick fog.

During the fall semester of my senior year in college I was sexually assaulted, became pregnant and miscarried. I thought about what happened every single day and longed for the moment that my thoughts would no longer be consumed with feelings of anger, guilt, loneliness and shame.

Weeks after the shock of being raped began to wear away I felt completely lost and alone. When the feeling of pure trauma started to settle and I was left alone with my thoughts my emotions quickly took over and rocked me to the core. Every part of my body ached. My eyes were swollen and stung from crying, my head was so congested I was pretty certain it might burst, I was so exhausted I could hardly sleep and my throat was scratchy and soar from screaming into my pillow, but none of this hurt as badly or bothered me as much as my aching heart. I have never felt so completely empty. I decided that forgetting as much as I could about what happened to me was the best way to handle the pain.

The haunting weeks of my recovery, also known as denial, soon turned into months and I became pretty good at ignoring my feelings. I was on my way to becoming a professional pretender or at least I thought so. I’m really good at this forgetting stuff! (Little side bar here--Survivors of sexual assault don’t have a strong handle on paying compliments to themselves, so I took whatever I could get at this point in the recovery process, even if it meant that my big kudos was for my new talent to forget.) As days went by it seemed to be getting easier, but sometimes the truth tried to creep back into my life, this happened mostly at night in my dreams. I tried to convince myself that the nightmares had nothing to do with me. It was someone else. It had to be. This is all very strange I know, but honestly, I was just not ready to remember.

One year after I was sexually assaulted I started to feel like myself again, I think. During my personal journey from victim to survivor I was trying so hard to be the Kelly everyone knew before the assault that I wasn’t sure how I felt or who I really was. What I did know is that for the first time in months I did not have to pretend to be okay, I actually was okay.

I can get through this.
I will get through this.
I will be okay.

I repeated these three sentences to myself daily over and over again and it was working. I was starting to feel somewhat confident again, thank God! I started to accept the fact that I will never be the same. This experience has affected me, like it or not, it has changed me. I added two more sentences to my chant.

I will never be the same.
I will be stronger.

Things got better, I felt stronger, more confident, more comfortable with the person and survivor I was becoming. I barely started to recognize the changes within me when I became certain of one thing, my purpose. It was my personal mission to break the silence, not just for myself but for others who were not yet ready to speak. I wanted to share my story with whoever was willing to listen in hopes of making a difference in someone’s life. Look out world; I am on a mission to end sexual violence!

For the first time I wanted to remember as much as I could and believing that I had a chance to make a difference was the driving force behind my compulsion to heal. I never imagined that I would have a tremendous urge to mentally revisit what happened to me and to remember how I felt after the assault, the pregnancy, the mixed emotions, the recovery, everything. I wanted so badly to get the memories and thoughts I had tried so hard to repress out of my head and onto paper, a sort of cleansing of my spirit so that my soul could completely heal. A journey to heal in pursuit of hope sounds good and almost comforting when I put it like that. But truly, I was scared, really scared. Was I ready? Could I handle this? Just thinking about where to begin was overwhelming. I had pushed everything so far back in my mind that I imagined my past as a mental storage area full of plastic bins with neat labels marked “private.” I realize it’s a little insane, okay down right weird, that in midst of attempting to recover from my own personal disaster I found myself daydreaming about my issues as complaint files stored away in tidy storage containers. Super bizarre, but acceptingly my way of handling emotion overflow.

It was finally time to remember, time to reach into the universe and to the depths of my fragile soul for the courage to take the most frightening and intimate experience of my life and shape it into a message of hope so of course I started chanting to myself again.

I can get through this.
I will get through this.
I will be okay.
I will never be the same.
I will be stronger.

Putting my story into words would be a struggle, one that I desperately needed to take on. I wanted to force out the pain, accept the sorrow, recognize the fear, anger and shame so that I could forgive myself, let it go and heal. It was time to put my personal nightmare into words to share with the world.

I sat in silence, alone with a pen and paper, and a computer. Since this was my first attempt at jotting everything down I was not sure which method would help my creative juices flow. My heart was pounding, my palms were sweating and my mouth was beyond parched. This is awful, I thought and my mind began to race. I wasn’t sure what to do with all the emotions that were doing a crazy drunken river dance in my head. Being alone with my thoughts was a place I had not been to in a very long time. Where should I start? Focus. I needed to focus. It’s too quiet, way too quiet. I fumbled with the CD player and popped in Tori Amos. Cliché I know, but my girl Tori is a tough fellow survivor. I have never listened to music so intently. I closed my eyes, took some long deep breathes and listened to every note. I felt every beat from the top of my pony tail to the bottoms of my bare feet. I focused on listening to the beautifully unique sound of her voice to help calm my racing heart.

Then it happened. My heart opened up and I began to write. The words flooded onto the page in such a rapid pace my fingers could hardly keep up. Tears rushed down my cheeks as I continued to type. I was hopeful, determined and most importantly, I was empowered.

As I write about my experiences now, years after my journey of survival began; I am reminded of how my life was forever changed at the young age of twenty-two. Today I am empowered. I am hopeful. I am determined. I am a survivor. I am incredibly proud to be all of these things and to have the chance to share my story with thousands of students each year and to encourage them to stand up and speak out against sexual violence. I am a proud activist, who happens to also be a rape survivor. I still have vulnerable moments in my life when I am forced to remind myself of how much I have changed and who I have become. When this happens, I go back to the chanting thing, I repeat these words over and over in my head: strong, empowered, courageous, hopeful, determined. Yes, after all these years, I’m still talking to myself and not just because I heard it’s a sign of intelligence. Repeating the words and focusing on the positive really helps me to work through painful reflections of my past. Rather than forget, I try my best to turn these moments of reflection into opportunities for healing… Perhaps I’ve been watching too much Dr. Phil, but it really does work for me.

Our hearts have an amazingly powerful way of healing we just have to learn how to listen to them and never give up hope.

We can get through this.
We will get through this.
We will be okay.
We will never be the same.
We will be stronger.


About the author: Kelly is an expert on sexual assault awareness and prevention as well as sexual empowerment. While in college she endured a personal experience with sexual assault that sent Kelly and her best friend, Becca Tieder on a journey to uncover true sexual empowerment. Since 2003, Kelly and Becca have had the honor of sharing their message and educating hundreds of campuses, communities and conferences nationally. Kelly is co-founder of Unite for Change, a national campaign to support sexual assault awareness and education and co-creator of Seversations® a card game designed to encourage honest, healthy conversations about sex. She continues to be inspired by the survivors, students, campus professionals and community activists she works with and is committed to helping create communities with zero tolerance for sexual violence. For more information about Kelly and her work go to www.kellyandbecca.com or www.uniteforchange.com.
written 02 Mar 2009 . updated 16 May 2010

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