(photography by Andri Raine)
"Forgiveness is about understanding the human experience."
I never believed in the forgiveness driven by religious dogma or overbearing mothers. As an angry teenager, forgiveness was meaningless to me. Just another social construct. I was too absorbed in my own anxiety and the terrors that came with my diagnosis. The world was out to get me. When you believe in evil, forgiveness is nearly impossible because evil can not be repented.
It wasn’t until I was a victim of sexual assault when I realized I didn’t want live with anger anymore. I was harboring anger for too long. With anxiety, you feel everything, you feel too much of everything. Every emotion was overwhelming for me. What was taken from me, couldn’t be retrieved with violent fantasies or revengeful ideologies.
I didn’t know how to deal with my trauma other than binge-drinking and relying on my SSRIs to get out of bed. I would be overwhelmed with intrusive thoughts and then debilitated by panic attacks for the rest of the day. I was used to being anxious, but not used to it being unbearable. I thought, the longer I suppressed the sexual assault that triggered my hour long panic attacks, then they would eventually go away. I wanted to stay angry at the man who had hurt me. But my anxiety was spilling out the seams of the mask I tried so hard to keep hidden. I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me. I still don’t want people to feel sorry for me. I can’t explain it, but this is my biggest fear. By suppressing, I was reliving it everyday. I was second-guessing the situation. I would be lying if I said I still don’t do this. I won’t pretend to be healed and to be completely confident now. I know who I am.
I think I always imagined that if I was ever in the situation of sexual assault, I would bite and scratch. That I would scream “no” until I lost my voice. You think you’re going to do all these things, because from an outsider’s view, that seems the most logical. I knew what I wanted and didn’t want, and when I expressed this to him I was coerced to comply to what he wanted. He didn’t threaten me because he didn’t need to. He kept asking until my voice gave out. Until I realized my body wasn’t mine anymore. Until I nodded when he cracked my legs open and every part of me spilled out, my voice, my strength, and my confidence. What people don’t realize is, when someone with twice the muscle mass than you is on top of you, asking something from you that they feel they’re entitled to, you feel like you have to give it to them.
In a court of law, this would never hold up. I’m a young woman that invited a man to my room and fooled around with him consensually in other ways. What did I think he wanted? I eventually gave in? I only cried during the act, instead of saying no? Why would I invite him back?
Why would I invite him back? To prove to myself that it never happened. It was all in my head if he kissed me goodnight. It was all in my head because I invited him over in the first place and I should have known what he really wanted. Because when I was held down, I must have liked it, must have wanted it. I thought that thinking like this would be my only way of getting over it.
Eight months after the incident, I realized what I desperately needed was closure. Even if it was just a little bit. After many rewrites and second guesses, I texted my assailant. I told him I wasn’t trying to “accuse him of anything” and proceeded to tell him my side of the story. I still overthink how I went about this. I didn’t want to accuse him of anything because, more than anything, I just wanted an apology. People don’t respond well when they’re being accused. I didn’t text him to yell at him or make him hate himself, and to this day, I’m not quite sure why I didn’t. I don’t think he’s a bad person, which, I don’t know why I think this either. I just wanted him to know. I wanted him to learn.
I went into the bathroom at work to read his text. There I was, sitting on the toilet seat, silently bawling. Energies I didn’t know I was harboring vanquished from my chest. I felt lighter. To this day, I don’t know if they were tears of joy or sadness or anger.
He apologized. He said hurting me was an accident, that he had no idea, which makes me think that he’s better at suppressing than I am. That’s a nonsense answer but I wasn’t looking for answers because I know what happened to me. I forgave him before he asked for forgiveness.
If I’m being honest, there’s no magic sentence that can undo trauma. If there is, I’d like to know it. I’d like to say since all of that a year ago, I’m fine. I am doing much better but I still need more time. Forgiving him made me feel so much lighter. I let go of anger, sadness, and have had significantly less panic attacks since.
I forgave him because I realized we both live in a world where sexual coercion and aggression is accepted. Where, “no” only legally means something during the act and not before it. Where crying and expressing pain doesn’t mean “no.” I can forgive him but I cannot forgive this world yet. To victims of sexual assault: Don’t give your assailant forgiveness if you don’t want to. You are in charge of you. Do what will make you feel better.
I learned that forgiveness doesn’t need to have any religious attachment. I forgive because I want to, not because someone told me to. Forgiveness is about understanding the human experience. We are all plagued with injustice. It wasn’t until I forgave my assailant until I could begin to forgive myself. The human experience is complicated. What I do know is that we can’t do differently than we’ve already done. Nothing can change the past, what-ifs can’t exist if time travel doesn’t. There are no what-ifs here, only what did happen. This is the only truth I know. I can blame my mental illness for my shortcomings, blame my anxiety for not standing up for myself in the first place. But it is a part of me I have to live with, so all I can do is to learn to love myself.
I never thought I’d have my body back, but here it is right now, opening itself up. The same fingers that touched him, type away into more honesty than I have ever known. I am more than what he did to me. I am vulnerable through words and words only. I share my experience because I choose to. Because it’s a hell of a lot easier to write this than tell some of my closest friends, many of whom don’t know. I don’t want to break their hearts. I don’t want to be a victim, I don’t want to do anything before I’m ready. I want to live on my own terms now. Not my assailant's terms, not my anxiety’s terms. I still feel everything too much, but I’m learning to thrive in my complex, intense emotions. I am not my anxiety. I am not his.
I never will be.
Possible resources for someone who has experienced sexual abuse: