Learning how to live in my body — a story of self-love and loss after sexual trauma

I have historically been a self-assured person. When I headed off to college at Boston University, I was confident. I was conventionally pretty and thin. I spoke my mind, passionately and unflinchingly. I was confident in my sexuality, loved looking at my body, and loved having sex. I was working hard at a rewarding job as a real estate agent and appreciated that I was no longer working retail.

One evening at a holiday Christmas party, my boss sexually assaulted me. The details of the actual assault are standard and disgusting. However, the physical attachment I felt to myself deteriorated instantly. During the assault, the detachment was a coping method to distance myself from what was happening to me, but in the weeks following, it manifested further.

I spent the night of the assault crying in my bed so hard that the next morning, my eyes were swollen shut, pink and puffy. I could barely see out of them, and no amount of warm rags placed on them made the swelling go down. I couldn’t really get a good look at myself, and I didn’t want to. The next morning, when I tried to make coffee like I always did, I burned myself. But I didn’t flinch, didn’t verbalize the pain. I just stared at the little red spot on my arm beginning to bubble and grow.

That night, I layered my clothing instead of sleeping naked. I didn’t rub lotion on my legs because I didn’t want to touch my skin. I didn’t look at the bruises on my arms. I refused to look into the mirror. The feeling of sadness was so overwhelming that I began to, instead, feel nothing at all. I stopped eating and started drinking heavily every night. It was comforting to get so drunk that my limbs began to slow down, because it meant I didn’t have to think about them. The mornings I spent vomiting into my toilet didn’t bother me; I fought through them to get to a point where I could drink again. My body was not mine anymore. I didn’t love it and I didn’t want to live inside it.

After being questioned by friends for my abuser’s “side of the story,” why I didn’t file a police report, what I was wearing, what I had to drink, and when I was going back to work, speaking out was more of a defense of my story, my honesty, and my personhood. It grew difficult, tiring. I felt the few people I told what happened were growing weary of my tears and retellings. I refused to speak with the police; if my own friends doubted me, surely law enforcement would as well. I decided it was easier not to speak. My voice was not mine any more. I didn’t love it and I didn’t want to use it.

I quit my job. I dropped out of school. I stopped writing music. The thought of sex or sexuality made me nauseous. I didn’t trust anyone I met, any stranger who walked near me on the street, any stranger who looked at me. Riding the train became an exercise in disappearance, as I avoided eye contact with the men sitting next to me or across from me. I smiled only as a performance for my friends, a shallow act of theater to protect myself from questions. I barely left my bed, except to buy cigarettes or go drinking. I gained 50 pounds without noticing because I avoided thinking about, looking at, or interacting with my own body. I had completely dissociated myself from the body I inhabited.

In June of 2014, I decided that the only way I might be able to save my own life was to ask for help. My best friend drove to Boston to help me pack all my belongings, load them into a U-Haul truck, and drive across the country back to my hometown in Michigan. I melted into several weeks of sighs of relief. I hugged my mom. My distance from Boston made me feel safe. I never had to walk by the bar where it happened again. I got to sleep in fresh sheets untainted by nights spent crying or wallowing in fear. However, no amount of affection from family and friends could fill the hole in myself that self-love used to occupy.

I got a job to distract myself and unknowingly began my healing process. Working helped me remember that I am smart and dedicated. I spent time with my best friends, and even fell in love with one of them. I started to find my voice again. They listened to me. They believed me. They were angry with me. I made jokes, I laughed, I passionately stood up for other women.

After I remembered how to speak, I remembered how to sing. I started playing music again, I started writing about the assault, and eventually I started writing about falling in love with myself. I loved listening to myself sing. I finally started looking in the mirror again, but I didn’t recognize myself. I could see my eyes looking back at me from within a face I didn’t understand. My body was holding all the pieces of myself I was starting to love again in one place, but I still didn’t interact with it. Instead of taking bubble baths, I took showers and cleaned my body with my eyes staring straight ahead. I decided I had to make an effort to love my body. I watched soapy water slide down my breasts, belly and legs in the shower. I stared at myself naked, however uncomfortable I felt. I pulled at the places on my body where fat now existed. I counted the freckles on my arms. I looked at the different colors of my eyes. I held myself in my own arms. I started running in an attempt to feel energy moving through my body again.

In October 2015, almost two years after the assault, my parents convinced me to run in a 5K race. I wasn’t confident I was going to be able to finish it, and quite honestly, I wasn’t looking forward to participating in it. It was a cold, grey day. The run was through a gorgeous cemetery complete with rolling hills, flower gardens and small waterfalls. The whistle blew, and I started to run. I felt strong. I could feel my heart begin to pound in my chest. I could feel beads of sweat start to roll down the sides of my temples. Warmth started creeping through every bit of my body, starting at the center of me and finding its way through my legs, arms, fingertips and toes. My body was doing exactly what I told it to do. My legs listened. My arms listened. My heart listened. It pounded, and I loved listening to it beating, pushing blood through me. My lungs burned from inhaling cold air, but that meant I was still breathing. I crossed the finish line and felt tears starting to burn the backs of my eyes. I began to cry.

I went home and as I undressed from my running clothes, I stopped to look at myself in the mirror. I undoubtedly had weight in places that were new since the assault, and I loved the weight because it meant I survived. I looked at my belly, and loved that I was filling it with more food than alcohol. I looked at my legs, and loved that I was walking my dog with them. I looked at my arms, and loved that I was pushing my little sister on swing sets. I looked at my hands, and loved that I was using them to press piano keys. I looked at my toes, and loved that I was again digging them into the sand. I looked at my lips, and loved that I was using them to speak my mind, to kiss my loved ones, to sing songs, to laugh. I looked at my crooked nose, the space between my teeth, my bitten fingernails, the scars on my knees and fingertips. I looked at the curves and lines and bumps of my body — and I loved them all. Warmth grew in my chest. My body was mine again. I belonged to myself again. For the first time in a long time, I felt, at last, in love with myself.