Why I Smile When I Should Be Crying
I’ve read a lot of people’s stories about being raped but I never read a story like mine. So here it is.
TW: Rape, Sexual Assault, Depression, and Suicide.
About six years ago I was riding my bike and got hit by a car. I flew over my handlebars and crashed into the ground. Within minutes paramedics were on the scene and rushed to my aid. As they helped me into the ambulance they asked how I was doing.
Without even thinking I casually responded, a giant smile on my face, “Could have been worse.”
In my friend groups I’m usually the one who always has a good attitude. Nothing can get me down. When I recently lost my job I didn’t mope about it, I instantly cracked jokes. I regularly post motivational messages from the tops of mountains, one of my favorites being titled, “Don’t Be An Edgelord.”
I know I’ve downright confused friends when, in my darkest moments, I have a big smile on as I describe something fairly horrific.
Like how I’ve been raped. Twice.
Doesn’t seem like something I should be smiling about, does it? I’m sure most stories you’ve read about rape are appalling. They are. Mine certainly is. So why do I smile when I talk about these traumatic experiences?
It’s not because I’m about to become the inspiration for the next episode of Law and Order: SVU, nor is it because I genuinely believe rape is hilarious. It’s not, and rape jokes are rarely funny.
It’s because my kneejerk reaction is to never be sad. I’ll cover up any negative emotions with a smile.
“Why?” You might be wondering. To fully explain it I have to tell my story. My story of not just both times I was raped but what happened in the aftermath.
“Do you need to?” I mean hey, if you don’t want to read it feel free to click away. But yes, I do. The whole reason I’m even writing about this in the first place is because I’ve seen so few stories out there like mine.
Stories about men dealing with rape are few and far between. The ones I’ve managed to read are close to my experiences, but they aren’t exact. Every time I read one, while comforted, all I can think is that I wish I could find someone who had an experience like mine. A story I can connect to. A story that says, “it wasn’t just you.”
It’s kind of morbid to hope there’s someone else out there like me. I truly hope there isn’t, but sadly I’m sure there is. I’m sure they’re searching for a story just like me. So instead of waiting around for someone to write one, I’ll do it myself.
Because I’m awesome.
(Yeah, forgive if I throw in some lighthearted humor to this post. Come on, you know it’s gonna be sad. At least let me be a little lighthearted.)
The First Time
My father raped me when I was around seven or eight. It happened one afternoon when I was taking a bath with him. I had no concept at the time that most people around that age don’t still take baths with their fathers. I was close with my dad, so why not?
When he asked me to hold his penis, I had the same reaction. Why not?
I can’t remember exactly all the details after that, so I’ll spare you. After it happened my dad and I both went about our lives and it never happened again.
Not exactly what you were expecting was it? Doesn’t exactly fit the narrative you may have heard before, right? It’s weird, I know. I wondered for a long time why I didn’t have any reaction to this happening.
After doing a done of research/going to therapy I can make an educated guess. Deep down I knew something wasn’t normal. Deep down I knew this wasn’t right, but I was too young to do anything about it. So without the tools to process it, I buried it deep in my brain and put a smile on my face. It was easier to repress the memory than confront it, especially at that young age.
This quickly become my go to coping mechanism.
The First Aftermath
Along with being raped I also had to deal with all the hardships that come with being a kid. I was teased, bullied, and had to go through puberty.
Perhaps if I hadn’t been raped I could have dealt with these things in a healthier way, but my coping mechanism quickly came to my “rescue”. Instead of crying when I was teased for being fat, I smiled. If I just smiled my way through it, eventually it would all go away, right? I never cried much after that point in my life.
This became my way of dealing with just about every problem I had. When my father introduced me to porn a few years later (albeit it in an indirect way but it was still his fault), I refused to think it was a problem. I kept quiet about it. Eventually it would go away, so I thought.
My father and I continued to be close, despite all of this. My deep levels of repression and denial kept him as one of the most important people in my life. Maybe he engineered it that way. I don’t know.
Our relationship did finally collapse when my mother divorced him. Not even my deep levels of repression could hide the fact he treated her like crap. She deserved way better. Our lives were thrown into chaos for months. My dad would be up to all hours of the night, screaming or just devolving into what I can only describe as insanity. I had to walk around the house on eggshells, afraid I’d set him off. I hated my father then, not for abusing me, but for what he did to my life.
Still, even after we spent a night in a hotel because of how terrified we were of him, I went to school the next day and never mentioned it. I laughed and joked with my friends. It’s not that I was pretending nothing happened, I just chose not to let it get to me.
More and more I repressed my feelings. As long as I could smile, I was in control. I never saw my father after the divorce went through and my life went on. I graduated high school and went to college.
Where I was raped again.
The Second Time
This is where my story really diverges from the more common narratives of rape. I was no longer a child. I was a full-grown man, a rather tall and imposing one at that.
And I was raped by my girlfriend.
We had started dating a few months prior and it was not a healthy relationship. As much as you’re about to hate this girl for what she did to me I was not perfect in this relationship, not that it justified what she did.
I tried to be her knight in shining armor (ugh) and get her “out of her shell”. She seemed sad so I did whatever I could to make her happy. I got her a job, I tried to ingratiate her in my friend group, and I sacrificed much of my time to be with her.
There was a point where I would have done anything for her. We had a sexual relationship but it was a twisted one.
Growing up as the victim of rape, addicted to porn, and being in the church meant my whole view of sex was messed up. I enjoyed the idea of sex but when it actually came down to penetration, I was petrified with fear. In high school it was easy enough to avoid this. People I dated weren’t into the idea of having sex just yet.
Here it was different. This girl wanted sex. Badly. And I thought that maybe, just maybe, I was ready for it. I was wrong.
That night she kept pressuring me to do it even when I started to back down.
“I deserve this.”
“You’d do it if you loved me.”
“We can just pretend.”
If you saw this girl, you’d never believe she could force anyone to do anything. She was scrawny, had zero strength, and could barely speak above a whisper.
But that night she forced me into having sex with her not with physical intimidation but mental. Whether aware of it or not (I choose to believe not) she used my weaknesses against me for her own pleasure.
After it happened I walked out of her apartment and we kept dating for the next few weeks.
“Why did you stay with her? She raped you!”
I felt like I deserved her. I wasn’t a “good person” because of my addiction to porn and what my father had done to me. (I didn’t realize this at the time; this is all looking at it in retrospect.) Maybe she was the best I was going to get. Maybe no one else would ever want to be with me. I might as well stay.
We never had sex again, if only because she broke up with me not too long after. Perfect! I wouldn’t have to be around her. It’d be easier than ever for my mind to just shovel this away right next to what my father did to me.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that those dark memories had taken root in my head and they were beginning to blossom.
The Second Aftermath
For months after I had recurring nightmares about someone trying to break into my apartment so they could rape me. This was probably fueled by the fact that, as much I tried to act like we were still friends, I was scared to be near my ex.
Anytime she was around I shook with fear. I actively avoided anywhere I thought she might show up. I would peek around corners to make sure I wouldn’t accidentally run into her. Even bringing her name up in conversation made me feel sick.
Unlike with what had happened with my dad, as much I tried to act like my girlfriend raping me wasn’t a big deal, I eventually started telling some very close friends what happened.
Talking to people about your own rape is… difficult. On the one hand your friends want to be there for you. On the other… who really wants to have a discussion about rape? No one wakes up one day and goes, “boy howdy, can’t wait to hear Shamus’ sad story about rape!”
So when trying to tell people about it, you usually have to find the right moment. There’s never really a right moment but you do your best. When I told people, I wouldn’t break down and cry. I’d describe it much like how someone describes their day at work. Normal, to the point, and leaving out any upsetting details. It made telling the story easier.
“Yeah, my girlfriend decided to take advantage of me. It sucked. Could have been worse.”
This would let whoever I was telling know what happened without making them worry too much. Again, the goal was always to “seem fine” to the outside world. If I could do that, the horrible pain inside me wouldn’t reveal itself.
The reactions I got were fairly comforting. Most offered the usual, “That’s awful”, “I’m here if you need anything”, or just stunned silence.
Were they the perfect responses? No, but they meant well. No one prepares anyone to hear about one of their closest friends getting raped.
My next girlfriend (who was about ten billion times better than my last one) encouraged me to go see a counselor and I did. While not everyone has success with counselors, this one seemed a fairly good fit for me. I told my story over about six sessions, felt better, and never went back. I thought I was “cured” and I could finally move on from all this.
(Not) Dealing With It
Whenever you’re sick, you want to get better instantly. You don’t want to take nasty cough syrup, miss work, or go through three boxes of tissues in a day. I was feeling the same way about dealing with my rape. I wanted to be “cured” of it. I wanted to think I was past some imaginary goal line where I’d never have to struggle with it again. I just wanted to forget all about it.
I’ve learned in the years since it doesn’t work that way. Can you get over it? Not exactly, but you can work with it. With the help of therapy and/or medication you may not be able to get rid of the memories or the impact it has on you, but you can manage it. It just takes a lot of work right up front and background work for the rest of your life.
It’s not something you can just get over in six counseling sessions, that’s for sure.
I went about my life acting like everything was fine, when it was anything but. It’s like when you drive a car you know needs to get serviced. It’ll run fine enough but slowly things will start to break and it’ll get harder and harder to get the car started every morning.
I’d get sad for what seemed like no reason. One day I didn’t eat for twenty-four hours. I’d consider throwing myself off the top of buildings.
What I later learned was that this was my coping mechanism no longer being useful. I’m about to repeat what my therapist told me years later, so check this knowledge.
The coping mechanisms we learn as kids can sometimes be carried over to parts of our lives where they’re no longer needed. Basically the defenses I built up as a kid to keep myself sane weren’t needed when I was an adult. Yet I kept using them. It was instinct by that point.
The pain did bleed through in other ways. Much like a pot ready to blow its top, my mind tried to let off some steam anyway it could. One way was to tell anyone I got even minorly close to about my rape. I once told a girl on the FIRST DATE about it.
Look, honesty is the best policy but if you’re looking to scare someone off? That’s a good way to do it. I don’t mean that someone’s an asshole if they don’t want to date you because you’re a rape victim (although really, they kinda are). What I mean is that it’s way too much information too soon. It’s too much of an emotional burden to hurl on a stranger.
Think of your most traumatic experience. Maybe you were mercilessly bullied in school. Maybe you had inappropriate photos leaked online. Maybe you really fucked over a friend of yours. Whatever the case may be, how often do you tell people about it? Not often, I’d imagine.
I’m not saying you should never tell people about your rape, but what I am saying is that you don’t NEED to tell everyone. Tell the people you feel safe with and trust.
(Yes, I’m fully aware I’m effectively telling the whole world my story by throwing this up on the Internet. To that I say, you chose to click on it.)
(Finally) Coming To Terms With It
For a while my “not dealing with it” seemed sustainable. It got me through college and across the country but fairly quickly I started to break down again. The more I didn’t deal with my rape the worse it got. I couldn’t hold down a meaningful relationship for more than a few months.
It was pretty tough to make one work when I was still afraid of penetration. I mean, I loved everything to do with sex. The making out, the foreplay, you name it. Up until the part where you had to have it.
While there are people out there who don’t want to have sex, it’s a lot harder to find someone who’s okay with heavy foreplay but doesn’t want to keep going after you’ve gotten them all hot and bothered.
My partners in college (with the one obvious exception) had been fine with this but I finally came to an impasse with the first girl I dated in LA. She meant well, but her main goal was to try and “fix me”. She thought if we slowly worked up to sex I’d be more comfortable with it. I’m sure reading that you think she’s some kind of monster but I hold no ill will towards her. She never forced me to do anything I didn’t want, she was just trying to help the only way she knew how.
It didn’t work. It’s like checking Web MD for medical advice. You’re better off going to a professional if you can.
I broke up with her, mostly because we just didn’t work as a couple. On our last night together she delicately suggested I should see a therapist. At the time I rejected it out of hand.
I was fine.
Ron Howard Voice: He was not fine.
I still thought I was over this. I thought I was so over it that I made a video about my second rape and put it online. Being an artsy kind of guy, the video itself was fairly artsy. Weird shots, voice over, etc. Was it the best way to talk about my rape? Maybe, maybe not, but oh boy did people have opinions on it.
While many complimented my bravery for putting something like that out there for everyone to see, others, in Hollywood lingo, had some notes. My boss told me I had to take it down because he thought it was a joke. Someone else said I hadn’t portrayed rape “correctly”. Another stated I hadn’t “really” been raped.
Bitch, I think I know I was raped. (Which if I ever write a book about all of this, that’s totally the title.)
I don’t care if my experiences don’t fit your narrative. I know what happened to me, so kindly go fuck off and I’ll express myself anyway I choose to. (Like I am right now, eyyyyyyy!)
This is one of the few times where my “smile through it all” attitude cracked. I lashed out at people. Okay, I gently told them to knock it off. Hey, that was a big step for me! Eventually I just took the video down because I got tired of correcting people.
I Wanna Get Better
For over a year I avoided relationships. I was still addicted to porn. Still worried that I’d see my ex on the street, even though three thousand miles separated us. Still refusing to truly deal with what happened.
Eventually I got off my ass and went to therapy again. Party because I was tried of feeling sad and partly because I knew I’d be off my mother’s health insurance soonish. Hey, whatever gets your ass there right?
This time I stuck around for longer than six sessions, in fact I was in therapy for well over a year. I finally opened up. I dropped the smile. We dug deep into my psyche and pulled out all the bad things that had happened to me. We traced it all back to the memory I had repressed for so long.
My father raping me.
This didn’t come to me in some earth shattering moment. In fact it just kind of dawned on me one day when I was cleaning my room. I didn’t fall to the floor, paralyzed with shock, or break down in tears. I simply went, “Huh. That’s fucked up.”
Doing all this deep mental work is what probably brought it back to the surface. My therapist and I worked through it. I discovered exactly what my coping mechanism was and that I needed to, bluntly, tone it the fuck down. I had to learn to process my emotions and say to myself, “It’s okay to be sad” or “It’s okay to be angry.” Sounds simple, but it was tough for me.
But that doesn’t mean I totally got rid of it. For one, you can’t exactly get rid of a coping mechanism that’s been with you for over twenty years. It takes a long time to dismantle something like that and I’ll probably never be completely rid of it. That and… It’s not always a bad thing.
Yeah! My coping mechanism can be a positive, so long as I use it at the right time. Being able to stay upbeat in bad situations is not a horrible skill to have. It’s one of the reasons why I haven’t given up on my goal of writing for TV. Helps me roll with the punches of that journey, you know? I just have to know how to keep it in check.
I have to let myself feel like crap sometimes, otherwise it all bottles up and eventually I’m hit with some massive waves of depression. It’s not an easy skill to learn and I’m still coming to grips with it.
Oh, by the by I did eventually have consensual sex and it went just fine. I also managed to get the whole porn addiction thing under control. It took a lot of mental prep work in therapy to get to that point, but it was worth it. I’ll probably struggle with both of these in various ways over time but they’re much more manageable than they were before.
These days I still have trouble admitting to people (and myself) when I need help. It’s so ingrained in me to act like everything’s fine, but I’m trying more and more. Even if it’s just to say, “Eh, today sucks.” It’s not much, but it’s a quantum leap forward for me.
That’s not to say I’m always suffering quietly and my friends just need to come along and pull me out of it. That’s not on them. If I need help, I’ve got to ask for it. I also have some alternative ways of dealing with problems.
Sometimes I go hiking. Being on mountains is really inspiring.
Sometimes I listen to jazz/hip-hop. That combination of music always seems to calm my thoughts and get me thinking inwardly.
Sometimes I draw. Recently I’ve been sketching out little journal comics about my emotions and they make the problems not seem so bad.
Sometimes I just type out what I feel in a Word document. About once a week I stand there and write at least a thousand words about what I feel. I don’t think about it too hard, I just type out whatever’s on my mind at that moment. I rarely show these to anyone; they’re just to get my thoughts in order. I assure you this was not one of those; I had to heavily edit this after my first draft.
Give Me Pain If That’s What’s Real
I still have a lot of lingering questions/thoughts about these rapes.
Why did my father only rape me that one time?
Did he do this to anyone else?
Do I have any other memories of him that are repressed?
How has this impacted my relationships with men?
Will I ever enjoy sex as much as so many others do?
Does my ex-girlfriend know what she did?
I don’t know if I’ll ever get answers for them.
Is it fair I’ve got to do all this work and wrestle with all these questions because two people raped me? No, it isn’t. It sucks but I’m going to keep going anyway. I won’t let those two people continue to have power over me.
To paraphrase one of my favorite hip-hop artists, Bop Alloy, I’m going to try and heal the world with what’s been hurting me.
These are just a few books/TV shows/songs that have helped me deal with my trauma outside of therapy. Maybe they’ll help you to.
The Body Keeps The Score: Brain Mind, And Body In The Healing Of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.. Fantastic book that explores many of the therapeutic techniques I touched on in this post with a lot more science to back it up.
On Being Raped by Raymond M. Douglas. One of the rare accounts of rape by a male author that attempts to touch on some of the after effects.
Something Terrible by Dean Trippe. A short comic about a boy who was raped and how comic books and nerdy properties helped him through it.
Jessica Jones (Netflix): Quite possibly the most realistic depiction of trauma I’ve ever seen on TV. A very tough watch but well worth it.
Steven Universe (Cartoon Network): A series that realistically portrays not only abuse but the aftereffects of it. The character of Lapis is clearly depicted as an abuse victim and the episode “Room for Ruby” specifically demonstrates her coping mechanism and how it isn’t always a bad thing.
Recovery Playlist: A group of songs I put together when I was in the deepest trenches of my recovery. Starts slow and reflective but quickly picks up into some uplifting jams.
My Groovy Twitter: Why not?