A Love Letter to My Fellow Rape Survivors Part 3: How We Might Reclaim Our Power

Photo Courtesy Morgan Jo Photography

Sometimes there are points in your life of such clarity that you are able to completely reframe how you function and live in this world.  Last night was one of those moments.

It’s good to have friends.  It’s great to have friends who get it.  Who know you so damn well, they say things that fundamentally help you understand exactly why you are feeling what you’re feeling–who suddenly unearth the causes of the pain you’ve been feeling.  For so long I’ve felt as though I’m continually at a bottom of a well, clueless as to how I got there, clawing my way to get out, and last night, one of the most important people in my life reached down to the very bottom of that well and pulled me out.

For those who know me well, and who follow this blog, you know I struggle very much with mental health issues.  Depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD, ADHD, and for whatever reason, this semester has been one of the most difficult semesters I’ve ever experienced.  I’ve had more days where I cry for no reason.  I’ve had more panic attacks, and feelings of such despair I’ve wished for illness and sickness so I could just take some time to run away from those horrible feelings–be free of all my responsibilities–and take a vacation from the constant negative internal monologue running through my brain.  What I wouldn’t give to have a remote control to just turn my brain off.  I am also a rape survivor and have written and researched this topic extensively.  Though I feel as though I’ve worked through much of the pain associated with this type of violence, I realized last night that even with all of the lectures I’ve given on this topic, the number of pieces I’ve devoted to this topic, a part of me never made peace with what happened.

This semester I went back to counseling.  I’m exercising more than I have in my entire life.  I’m learning how to do yoga properly, meditating, and figuring out how to take care of myself so I can get through the day.  I’m working on being present and mindful–to not get stuck in my prefrontal cortex that reevaluates the past and focuses on the future–a way of being  Buddhists call “suffering.”  And it’s helping.  But every day is still a struggle.

For those of you who suffer from anxiety or OCD, you know much of it has to do with control or feeling as though you’ve lost control.  When you feel as though everything around you is out of control, deep cleaning your apartment or color coordinating your closet can give you a semblance of control.  If you’ve only ever been in dysfunctional relationships, you find yourself figuring out ways to sabotage a healthy relationship because, again, your brain tells you that inserting drama into this healthy relationship seems like you have power over *something* when other parts of your life lie out of the realm of things you have a say in.

“So what has changed?”  My friend asked last night.  Last semester, even with everything going on in Wisconsin, I still loved my job.  I looked forward to going to work every day.  I didn’t have spans of hours where I simply couldn’t get out of bed or stop crying.  Life may have not been perfect, but for the most part I was happy.  And on paper, I have so much to be grateful for.  So what changed?

I’m still trying to figure that out, but it’s absolutely possible that nothing has changed.  That my “off switch” simply won’t let my brain relish in all of the amazing things I should be grateful for, and is intent on focusing solely on the negative–that which is out of my control–and that I’ve simply lost the coping skills I once had to deal with the anxiety that has always been there.

And then my friend said something that will forever change how I view what is currently going on and how I can regain my power.  He said, “You need to remember, something happened in 1997 that changed the course of your life forever.  You were raped.  You lost your virginity through that rape.  Your parents were going through a divorce.  Everything that you held dear slipped out of your life through no fault of your own.  You lost so much.  You lost control.  You lost your power.”  And then he said this:

Every time you allow yourself to let your anxiety get the best of you, he wins.

Every time you question the healthy relationship you are in, he wins.

Every time you question your decision to teach, to do the job you love, he wins.

Every time you can’t get out of bed, and cry, and let the sadness take over, he wins.

Every time you spend hours disinfecting the apartment to gain a sense of control, he wins.

Every time you tell yourself you’re not good enough, that you question your abilities, your intellect, your beauty, and your worth, he wins.

No one, no one in my life has ever put it that way.  For so long, I’ve allowed the man who took so much from me to continue to rule my life–how I feel about myself.  I’ve allowed him to sabotage all that is good in my life through self-doubt.  That is where it began and though I’ve gone to counselors, done everything in my power to control the uncontrollable, I’ve allowed him to be in the driver’s seat of my life.

Today, and for the rest of my days in this world, he no longer wins.

I will still suffer from anxiety.  I will always suffer from mental illness.  There will be good days and bad.  But reminding myself that every time I choose to engage in destructive behavior or entertain untrue thoughts about my self-worth that I’m allowing him to win–to continue to wield power over me–my hope is that instead of feeling sad and overwhelmed, I will get angry, and, well, that feels empowering.  That is power.

For those who suffer from mental illness, we know much of it is irrational, and that searching for root causes might help, but our brains are just wired differently, and that that’s ok.  But for me, this was a breakthrough.

It’s been less than 24 hours since this breakthrough, so I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know this.  I will do everything in my power, in all aspects of my life, within the realm of what I can do mentally and physiologically to not let him win anymore.  To not let him dictate how I choose to view myself.  To view myself how others view me and believe them when they tell me I’m a good person.  That I deserve to love and be loved fully.  That I’m not damaged.  That I’m thriving and that what I do makes a difference.  That I am strong.  That I am good.

Today he doesn’t win anymore.  Today I win.  I am taking control back from him.  I am taking everything he stole from me and reclaiming it: my power, my self-worth, my dignity.  Today, and for the rest of my life, he doesn’t win anymore.

To those who have experienced the hell that is sexual assault and violence, my wish for you is that you no longer allow the person or persons in your life who stole something from you to win, either.  Because today, for me, it feels pretty damned great.  Peace and love to you all.

Yes. I Suffer From Mental Health Issues. I’m Not Ashamed. You Shouldn’t be Either.


Yesterday, I woke up feeling overwhelmed, sad for absolutely no reason, and just wanted to stay in bed and cry all day.  I haven’t had an episode like this in quite a long time so it scared the absolute shit out of me.  I texted a few very good friends who know me well and who would know exactly what I needed to hear, I took my medication, and slowly, throughout the day, things got better.  I still felt exhausted.  I still felt sad.  I still felt anxious about being sad but today I’m better.  Rationally, my brain knew this would be temporary, but physiologically, I was already in that head space, and there was nothing I could do to “snap” out of it.

My old therapist used to call this “getting on the bus.”  She said to me, “Kelly, if you saw a bus being hijacked, would you choose to get on the bus?”  I said, “Of course not.  That seems really dangerous.”  She said, “then why do you keep choosing to get on that hijacked bus?”  And that’s what it feels like.  It feels like you’re on a hijacked bus and you can’t get off.  Over the years, I’ve learned how to “not get on the bus” with the help of a great support system and wonderful counselors, but sometimes, your body just REALLY wants to get on that bus, and once you’re on, you’re Sandra Bullock and Keanu isn’t going to save you or anyone.

The worst part about suffering from mental illness is that even though I know far more people who suffer from depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and other illnesses than don’t, no one wants to talk about it.  There is still such a stigma surrounding it.  It’s also difficult when you’re in a relationship with someone who doesn’t suffer from anxiety or depression to try and explain what it feels like to them.  I have a wonderful, caring partner, but his brain doesn’t work like mine.  He listens to me, cares for me, and does everything he can to try and “fix it” when I’m having one of my moments, but it’s all so irrational it’s almost impossible to explain.  I’m reminded of the scene from “Masters of Sex” when Virginia Johnson is trying to explain to Dr. Masters what an orgasm feels like:

Johnson:  “It’s like trying to describe salt to someone that’s never tasted salt.”
Masters: “I’ve tasted salt.”
Johnson: “Not the way I’ve tasted salt.”

Your partner may have felt sad before, anxious, worried, etc., but not in the same sorts of irrational ways you do.  So they can sympathize and be there, but unless they’ve gone through it, it’s exactly like explaining what salt tastes like to someone who’s never tasted salt.

I’ve probably suffered from anxiety and depression my entire life, but it didn’t manifest until graduate school.  I started having panic attacks so I finally went to see a psychiatrist because it was to the point where I wasn’t able to function normally.  I was afraid to go on medication.  Would it change my brain chemistry to the point where I can’t think like I used to?  Would it change my personality?  I’d heard horror stories of people turning into zombies, unable to feel.  I didn’t want that.  I’d seen a close family member drooling in a mental health facility because they’d put him on some cocktail of  meds to keep him from hurting himself.  I had every reason NOT to get the help I needed.

And I was ashamed and embarrassed.  I was ashamed that I couldn’t just “suck it up.”  But I went ahead and took medication anyway.  My anxiety subsided.  I was able to function.  No more panic attacks.  But even then, even though my life was remarkably better than it was before I began getting help, I had people in my life questioning my decision to get on medication.  I was told to “just run it off.  Exercise more and that will cure you.”  I was told that “maybe this will only be temporary and you won’t have to be on this medication forever.”  On days when I just didn’t want to get out of bed, the answer was, “Well, just get out of bed.  Get some sunshine.  That’ll do it!” I felt as though I was doing something wrong.  I was “giving into” taking pills to solve my problems and being shamed for it.  I felt weak.  I felt horrible.  And at that time, I didn’t know others who struggled, too, so I felt very alone.  That didn’t help things.

My point in writing all of this is that though there are many articles on destigmatizing mental health issues and illnesses, I live in a world where I have friends who still feel as though they cannot discuss this openly, who live with their deep dark secrets for fear of being judged.  We don’t treat mental illness the same way we treat other illnesses.  If I had a heart condition and was told to take medication for it, no one would judge me whatsoever.  In fact, they’d be grateful I was being treated.  But not so with mental health.

On paper, my life seems pretty perfect.  I have a wonderful partner who loves me (even on days like yesterday), I have a good job, I can pay my bills, I have a great support system of family and friends, and I consider myself successful in my career.  This doesn’t mean that some days, I’m going to cry for no good reason at all.  That my lovely friend, depression, isn’t going to just decide to wake up and say, “hey, I’m going to make you feel awful all day and there is nothing you can do about it.”  That my anxiety will manifest into OCD and I won’t be able to sleep unless I meet a deadline or disinfect the tops of every soap dispenser in my apartment.

So much of what I struggle with is irrational.  Being on medication helps me see the irrationality.  It helps me choose to not “get on the bus.”  Not always, but most days.  Being on medication helps the logical side of my brain kick in and understand what is happening to my body.

I see too many people in my life either not getting the help they need (in whatever form that takes), or feeling like struggling with mental illness is still something we should all be ashamed of.  It isn’t a matter of strength or weakness.  It isn’t a matter of “praying away” the horrible sadness and anxiousness.  Sometimes, you just need to get help.  Sometimes that may involve medication; other times not.  But in the end, can we please stop shaming those who do suffer from mental illness?  Can we please look at this like the disease it is and talk about it openly instead of suffering in silence?  Can we please stop telling people that just “jogging it off” will cure what’s going on inside their heads?  I exercise.  I eat well.  I take care of my body, and yes, all of those things are great habits to get into.  But they don’t cure my depression and anxiety–at least for me and my brain.  Do they help?  Absolutely.  But I could jog 24 hours a day every day for the rest of my life and some days, I’m just going to feel miserable, or on edge, or like the world is just too much.  And that’s ok.  If you have felt like that–that’s ok.

So to all the people in my life who supported me yesterday, who have been there for me on the worst days, and who have listened without judgment, I would not be where I am without you.  To all who recognize or struggle with mental illness, I’m with you.  I hear you.  It is unbearable but having people in your life who love you and support you help.  And if you find yourself surrounded by those who don’t, who don’t try to even understand what it’s like to spend one day in your body and in your head, it’s time to cut ties.  Let’s stop the shaming and admit far more of us live lives that aren’t perfect in any way shape or form–and that’s ok.  We need to stop being embarrassed or ashamed of what we perceive as failures due to our brain chemistry.  We’re not “less than.”  Our brains just function differently.  And there is no shame–nor should there be–in difference.