You are in your early fifties now. Emotional scars don’t fade like physical scars do. You get a new job at a law firm — a fresh start.
The first day, you notice the harsh sound the door makes when it shuts. It jars old memories loose, when your stepfather used to come home and you’d sit in your bed, trembling.
Not too long after, you notice the sound your boss makes when he walks up the stairs. The door slamming, the heavy footsteps of a grown man heading toward you — together, these should be enough to break you down into pieces.
You realize you must face the reality head-on, much like when you were five years old and it confronted you without warning. But one thing has changed since then.
You’re bigger now. Older, wiser. You’re stronger in every sense of the word. You’re prepared.
One weekend, you allow your niece to paint your fingernails. She lets you choose the color.
You recall the way teal blue makes you feel — that awful color. The color that represents your cell, the one that imprisoned you for nearly a decade and that’s held you captive ever since. The color that’s tattooed your memories, making you wish you saw only black and white. That diseased color, that monstrous, oppressive color that never fails to make you sick to your stomach. Teal is ugly.
You insist that your niece paint your nails teal blue.
Teal blue — that beautiful color. The color that matches the new blouse you bought for work. The color that brightens up any outfit or party or painting. That vibrant color — a work of art in itself — that now puts a smile on your face just as fast as it used to wipe one off.
Holding your arms out straight, you finally see what’s in front of you. Your hands, teal blue fingernails, your future.
Life can be stressful. Our memories can haunt us and our experiences can define us if we let them. We can face our problems head-on or we can run from them until they catch up to us. This last part is inevitable.
Sometimes, we just need to hit the pause button. Cool off, relax, slow down — running gets exhausting. Accept and understand our situations. Let our problems catch up to us so we can turn around and grab them by the throat.
It takes patience. It takes hard work. It takes focus and determination. It takes getting past our memories. It takes getting past our fears. It takes getting past I don’t need anyone’s help.
Because sometimes, we do. And that’s fine.
Maureen Richards, a survivor of sexual abuse, knows this from experience. During our conversation, she described how she woke up one morning to absolute internal silence. Waking up to no sound seems like a good thing, but this was different. Maureen explained that it was as if her mind was completely quiet, like something was broken.
Fast-forward a couple of years, when Maureen has not only flourished in group sessions but has formed a support group of her own.
Her group — called Now We Thrive — meets weekly at a church in Neptune, New Jersey. When Maureen explained her concept to us, she stated her mission was simply to educate. As a witness, victim, and survivor, she knew she could help provide a soft landing ground for women in similar situations.
Maureen identified a problem with the current support system. Group sessions help victims face their issues head-on, but after the therapy process ends, counselors expect people to hit the ground running. Maureen’s goal is to help women settle back into their lives at their own paces after getting through the most difficult steps of adjustment.
She believes that the most important part of this process is moving past the label of victim and learning how to take control of life. It’s okay to express some anger, but we must eventually progress from that emotion and replace it with something more positive.
During the early stages of therapy, victims dig deep to find out exactly what triggers these emotions for them. It is crucial that, through open dialogue, we teach each other to associate these triggers with something positive. If we truly want to move past victim and learn to thrive, we must work to supersede the bad associations with good.
Too many support groups — which Maureen refers to as “bitch groups”— encourage practices that prove counterproductive for survivors of sexual assault and abuse. Complaining, expressing anger toward the offender, and comparing individual experiences may feel great short-term. However, these habits stunt our growth as people and never really allow us to graduate from those negative connotations.
After all, thriving isn’t about your rapist or abuser; it’s about you. It isn’t about how your story stacks up against another person’s. It’s about accepting your experiences as part of your past and learning to look ahead.
Thriving is about catharsis. When you release all of those bad feelings, you create space for good ones.
While writing the second installment of this series, I found myself wanting to compare the stories of two young women. These individuals’ experiences may have involved similar circumstances, but that does not make it right to juxtapose the two.
The comparison of victims’ experiences is another aspect of rape culture, a problem that society perpetuates in the most subtle of manners. My first instinct was to compare the stories because that was all I knew how to do. Educating ourselves and each other about ways to combat this problem is a necessary step for progress.
“I have been through it, survived it, and am now learning to thrive. Thriving should be the goal… not just surviving.”
As we learned from our conversation with Maureen, “We are all survivors of something.”
Tell your story. But when you’re done telling it, don’t be satisfied with labeling yourself a survivor. Because that’s all the word is — a label.
In addition to Now We Thrive, Maureen is working on a book about her experiences, entitled Press Pause. The book outlines her progression from breakdown to thriving, a topic we don’t seem to discuss enough.
Like most things, thriving is a process. We cannot learn to thrive in a day. It’s not a single moment that changes everything. It’s a conscious decision to thrive, followed by a series of events that help us move past our experiences— that help us accept and understand them, and allow them to fuel us rather than define us.
There is no end to this process, though. It is a constant struggle to reach the light at the end of the tunnel, a light whose true source we know we may never see. But we find solace in the fact that this light has given us a reason to look forward.
And as long as we focus on what’s in front of us — our present and our future — things look brighter than they ever have.
For readers outside of the New Jersey area, you can find more information about support groups and preventing rape and sexual assault on the following websites:
This is the final installment of a four-part series, based on an in-depth conversation Jenna and Ryan had with Maureen Richards. Maureen is a witness and victim of rape and sexual abuse who chooses to thrive. The informal interview took place on March 28, 2015.
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