It’s Not Me, It’s You
Overcoming self-blame after sexual assault
**Trigger warning: sexual violence**
It’s not you, it’s me: the phrase that often fits a particular mold. Person A meets Person B. They go on a few dates and there’s promise for the relationship to continue until there isn’t. Incompatibility rears its inevitable head and Person A or B, hoping to spare the other person’s feelings, utters that cliche, cringe worthy phrase. Usually through the lens of the individual saying the phrase, it actually is the other person, but still it’s easier to avoid the conversation and avoid the potential hurt that could result for both parties — put the blame on themselves instead of facing reality.
As a survivor of sexual assault, I eat, sleep, and breathe this phrase — or at least I used to. For the longest time, I thought it wasn’t him, it was me. I thought I was somehow responsible for what happened. It seemed easier this way. I knew I had been wronged but thought I was overreacting or that I was the cause for the hurt that happened to me. Maybe I was too trusting, too passive, I didn’t say “no” enough, I lead him on. To be fair to myself, this was a completely normal response. After all, the evidence that seemingly refuted my feelings was apparent. All previously formed personal schemas pointed to the false, alternative narrative— the one where I was at fault. He seemed like a good person, I thought I knew him. He used to be my boyfriend. He was close to and remained good friends with several of my girl friends. The night of, he was so drunk. Maybe he didn’t know what he was doing. Except, we drank from the same bottle of liquor and it rendered me helpless and him a predator. Still, I thought it must be me — not him.
Except, we drank from the same bottle of liquor and it rendered me helpless and him a predator.
When I told my friends what happened, their doubt was so obvious it was almost tangible — an uncomfortable thickness filled the air like heavy fog. It was clear they did not purposely want to hurt me but still, “like are you sure? That doesn’t sound like something he’d do.” Evasive retorts like this felt like actual daggers to my insides. It was clear where they stood. I must have been lying or exaggerating because if I were telling the truth, the implications would be so much more devastating than the thought of their 16-year-old friend stretching the truth to hide promiscuity or garner attention. If I were telling the truth, their dear friend, my assailant: someone they grew up with, cared about, and admired was capable of something so unspeakable; something they too were particularly vulnerable to just for existing as females. Their entire world view could be shattered. Seemingly good people are not capable of this kind of thing.
No. I was wrong. My truth, my pain didn’t matter. I didn’t matter.
It didn’t take long for me to buy into this fallacy. And believe me, I never would’ve referred to it as a fallacy at the time. In fact, it hurt too much to even think or talk about it at all. Post-traumatic stress was a leech that sucked all of my happiness, my energy, my optimism, and sense of safety and security. Most mornings, I woke up with a sense of shame that could swallow me whole. But I tried to put on a brave face, act like everything was okay so I wouldn’t have to feel like a burden — like I was overreacting and imposing on other people by talking about it and feeling. One night, my mom, sensing something was wrong, sat on the edge of my bed like a TV-movie and spoke softly, “sweetheart, are you depressed?” No, I was just tired. Over school-issued chicken nuggets and chocolate milk, my friends told me lately my smile seemed fake. They wondered why this was as we sat ten feet from his lunch table in the high school cafeteria. I stole a few glances at him and told them they were crazy — I was fine.
…my friends told me lately my smile seemed fake. They wondered why this was as we sat ten feet from his lunch table in the high school cafeteria.
Overtime, somehow my brain compartmentalized the memories of what happened and how it left me feeling. I became desensitized to seeing him several days a week in school. I stopped internally swearing at the back of his head in economics class, where he sat directly in front of me. I mentally retreated when my friends talked about him or casually brought him up in conversation — “he is sooooo funny, what a charming guy,” — but, I became so used to this that numbing eventually took over. Conscious thought of what happened faded.
Unfortunately, the effect of what happened never faded. It colored my everyday existence and became a part of who I was and still am. It was alive in my passivity, my insecurity, and my perception of myself and my own value (or lack thereof). It materialized as broad strokes over the canvas that informed my view on the world around me. Outwardly, everything was fine and at surface-level, I believed this. I lived this ill-fitted tale. But that night left an imprint on my brain. And since the human brain is so evolved and efficient at protecting us, it tried it’s very best to make sure I wasn’t aware of the cerebral tattoo I involuntarily possessed. Sure, I was jumpier, more anxious than others, and yeah, I was projecting scary false narratives on strangers I knew nothing about, but this was just part of my personality. TV shows, movies, and articles about sexual violence made me anxious, and my self-esteem was so low I developed social anxiety, but all of this was just me being me. I often felt like a burden just for talking about myself or sharing parts of myself with others — as if I wasn’t fit to take up space in this world — but I was so used to those feelings, I wore them like armor. I couldn’t truly let anyone in. Most of these thoughts were unconscious but continuously displayed themselves in my every waking (and often not waking) moment. And still, I was in denial. It was still me, not him.
I often felt like a burden just for talking about myself or sharing parts of myself with others — as if I wasn’t fit to take up space in this world — but I was so used to those feelings, I wore them like armor. I couldn’t truly let anyone in.
After seven long years passed, my counseling master’s program required I attend six personal counseling sessions. I was petrified at the thought of having to talk about myself for so long and knew trauma may come up, but understood why it was necessary. In the intake, I acknowledged what I always knew happened: I was a survivor of sexual violence. A few sessions in, I began to talk about what happened to me and my healing progressed from there. I began to further accept not only what happened, but how it affected me and I received the validation I was starving for. My counselor believed me. I was not being ridiculous or over dramatic. I didn’t do anything wrong. He made a choice to ignore what I wanted and do what he wanted to a body that wasn’t his. I mattered, what happened to me mattered, and I deserved to be heard.
I mattered, what happened to me mattered, and I deserved to be heard.
Facing what happened head-on has lead to a roller coaster of emotions. Some days I feel great, I feel empowered, I feel happy and confident as though I can take on the world. And others, I want to hide away and pretend the scary world doesn’t exist. Healing isn’t a linear process and I certainly can’t snap my fingers and feel better. People I trust and care about are capable of hurting me, and that’s a scary thought. After everything happened, I was constantly looking for confirmation of the negativity in our world. It’s everywhere. That’s still a part of me I struggle with everyday, but with all that is scary and negative in the world, I know there is also infinite beauty and love. I try to remind myself to look for confirmation of that and confirmation in myself, because I deserve that. I deserve to be valued and appreciated. My experiences and feelings deserve to be validated. I deserve a healthy self-esteem and existence free from the turmoil he created that night. And most of all, I deserve to live with the reality that I did not cause any of this. It’s not me, it’s him. It was him all along.