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Rape survivor finds support through writing, therapy

This is a story about a girl called Kate.

Kate is a student at Belmont University.

Kate was raped by an acquaintance early in her college experience.

Kate’s name has been changed, as the Vision does not identify victims of rape or sexual assault.

This is not the story of what happened to Kate.

This is the story of what happened after.

It took a long time for Kate to process what had happened to her. As alcohol had been involved, some of the details were hazy in her memory, she said.

“It was a slow realization,” said Kate. “I tried rationalizing it and reading into it and honestly wondered if I was making it up.”

Surrounding herself with people who normalized the attack and her attacker only made things worse, Kate said.

“I had friends who knew the entirety of the story and still said, ‘oh, he’s a good guy,’” said Kate. “I tried to look past it and pretend like it never happened because that just seemed easier.”

As Kate shared her story with the Vision, she stared blankly ahead and spoke bluntly about her trauma – though it’s been years, she said she still hasn’t fully digested her rape. She speaks as though the words coming out of her mouth aren’t quite registering.

Kate exhausted herself trying to forget her rape. The next semester, she buried herself in her studies. She got straight A’s and kept herself as busy as possible to prevent her thoughts from wandering back to the pain she was trying to hide.

“I didn’t even say the word rape until a couple semesters later,” said Kate. “I had to suppress it just to function, in order to wake up and look at myself in the mirror each day.”

Once school was no longer enough to distract her, Kate turned to other, more dangerous, coping methods.

“I honestly turned to alcohol and other guys, which was so unlike me. I just needed a distraction. After a while I realized I hated the person I’d become,” said Kate. “I had to disassociate myself and become a different person from ‘freshman Kate’ in order to survive because of everything that happened.”

Kate had planned on staying abstinent until marriage, wanting her first sexual experience to be with someone special. This was taken away from her.

As she kept fighting her need to seek help, Kate’s physical health deteriorated.

“I kept getting panic attacks all the time. I realized I was having them after my freshman year but didn’t connect them to my attack at first because I didn’t want to think about it,” said Kate. “It just took such a toll on my body.”

A few semesters after her assault, Kate began taking a writing class. She didn’t know it at the time, but that class would start her on the path to healing.

When she was asked to write about trauma, she found a space where she was able to confront the horrifying details of her attack in ways she spent years trying to avoid.

“Writing about it helped me so much, because it was the first time I was able to get everything out,” said Kate. “Somehow it’s both cathartic and horrifying to go inside myself and tell the facts in such a raw way.”

But getting her story out was not always easy.

“It can be hard to write because it’s so dark and twisted. But so is the reality of what happened, so it’s an important part of accepting it,” said Kate.

Through her own words, Kate came to terms with how much she was struggling. Her writing gave her the courage she needed to take the next step in seeking help – therapy. Kate now sees a counselor at Belmont every week.

Another major part of Kate’s healing was finding other women who are assault survivors who could understand the weight of her struggle. Being able to lean on this support was instrumental for Kate, who admitted she weeded people out of her life after her attack.

“I love my other friends and many of them have been extremely supportive and helpful, but it’s the other girls that have been through it that I know I can call at 3 a.m.,” said Kate.

One of the biggest things Kate wants other survivors to know is that they are not alone.

“It feels so lonely sometimes, but the reality is, if you are in a room with six women, it is so likely that at least one of them has been assaulted, and we need to address that,” said Kate.

Kate’s estimate is correct – according to a study by the Association of American Universities, one in four undergraduate women experience sexual assault or rape.

Although sexual assault happens to so many women, there is no one way, or right way to react to the aftermath of the attack.

“With any kind of trauma like sexual assault, there is no clear definition of what is normal and what is not,” said Title IX Coordinator Molly Zlock. “There’s really a wide spectrum of reactions and it varies person to person.”

Kate’s initial instinct to ignore her assault and to shame herself is not uncommon.

“Blame is a natural reaction, although everyone experiences it differently,” said Zlock. “There is a natural defense to identifying as a victim so sometimes it’s easier for victims to place blame on themselves than owning that someone is responsible for doing this it to you.”

Through writing, Kate was able to reclaim her story and, in many ways, reclaim a happy, normal life. Kate is now empowered to help other women — she wants to make fighting sexual assault and helping other survivors her life’s work. She also plans to turn her story into a memoir after she graduates.

“Obviously it’s a long process, and every survivor deals with it differently,” said Kate. “Rome wasn’t built in a day. The healing process is messy and painful, but at the end of the day, it’s made me who I am and I’m infinitely stronger because of it.”

To see a step-by-step guide on how to report a sexual assault, click here.

More stories like Kate’s will be shared on April 6 at Take Back the Night, an event aimed at increasing awareness of sexual assault. Students are also encouraged to fill out the 2016-2017 Title IX Campus Climate Survey.

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