By Katie Nowack
*tw: sexual assault, rape, depression, ptsd
I’ve always wondered what it would take for me to truly publish my story beyond my immediate circle of friends.
Being the #wanderlust-infected escapist that I am, I thought that maybe it would be a perfect trip to Europe or a fairytale-like romance or some other tale of victory that would make me willing to come forward. I dreamed of telling a happily-ever-after to give women confidence everywhere that assault wouldn’t ruin their lives… like it almost ruined mine.
Little did I know, it is a great defeat instead that brings me forward to you today. I have posted most of this to my friends, but never to the world.
The day of the Kavanaugh hearing, I spent the entire day indoors, other than a two-block jaunt down the street to my therapist in the morning. I laid on my stomach on my couch for almost four hours, only getting up once – when absolutely necessary – to go to the bathroom. (No one likes pee on a couch, am I right?) My head spun when I went vertical, and I had to clutch the end of my bed to avoid crippling to the ground. My head was pounding and I felt nauseous. I had work to do, but I was completely useless. I felt frozen in my mind and my body, unable to not feel but too scared to feel anything but the numbness that washed over me.
I want to say “I am not sure why” I felt this way, but I know exactly why.
My anxiety has been at full tilt this week for a variety of reasons that seem to weave together into some kind of demon creature lurking in the back of my mind, waiting to strike on my sanity and self-worth.
I want to say “I don’t know where to begin.” But I know exactly where to begin.
“I hate to use the word ‘triggering,’ but these past few days have been very triggering for women who have experienced sexual assault,” my therapist told me this morning. “A lot of women are coming forward. It must be a difficult time for you.”
I started at him at first, numbly. My eyes were glazing over. I needed to put up a wall around myself to protect me from everyone, including my therapist.
“Where does your mind go?” he prodded.
I couldn’t look at him. My eyes were fixated on the curtains in front of me. I felt like I might pass out or throw up into the trash can next to me, the one meant for the soiled tissues of tears and mucus from sobbing that couldn’t escape my body. I held it in. I was afraid of the pain.
Could I handle it?
“I’m thinking of Kavanaugh,” I said simply. I felt frozen.
“What about him?”
“He symbolizes everything that has hurt me.”
My answers were short, an attempt to avoid the tears that tickled the back of my eyes, even despite my antidepressants.
“What do you mean by that?”
God, the doctor and all of his cliché therapy questions. I wanted to scream at him to be more original (I have been known to yell at therapists in the past), but I knew he was only helping.
“I’ll bucket the case into two things – the way I feel about Dr. Ford, and the way I feel about Kavanaugh,” I responded. In typical ‘me’ fashion, I was trying to coordinate my thoughts into a logical structure – like a consulting storyboard – to try to remove some of the emotion from my recount. I was trying to protect myself from the rage and pain whelming up inside of me… as I have been doing my entire life.
I bit the inside of my cheek and sat up straighter, as though having a better posture would prevent me from losing the fight against myself.
“Okay,” was his even, soft response. My eyes flicked back to him for a second, and I saw his calm, collected expression. It gave me a moment of comfort, and then I retreated to stare at the wall again.
Thank god it wasn’t white like that wall. I cringed.
“Regardless of who you believe, Dr. Ford embodies a lot of my experiences,” I started, slowly, trying to pinch my hand, hard, to maintain composure. It’s the same tactic I used at work when I started to have panic attacks.
“If one of the men who raped me were nominated to be on the Supreme Court, I don’t know what I would do. I wouldn’t want them on the highest court in all the land, regardless of their political position, but I don’t think I would have the courage to come forward like Dr. Ford. It would break me.”
It was silent in the room for a minute. The tears were waterfalls coming down my face. My legs were shaking violently in the chair, as though I had just suffered through an impossible leg day at boot camp.
I can’t remember what my therapist said in reaction when I paused. I tried to listen, but I couldn’t. My ears had stopped working. The light in the room started to look blurry. I suddenly couldn’t see anything at all. I went blind. My muscles tensed.
And then the dark water of the flashback pulled me under.
I was never a good swimmer.
“I’m hard… what are you going to do about it?” he slurred, ignoring my drunk pleas to be left alone.
He reached for my shirt, ripping it over my head as I tried to fight back. He wasn’t tall or particularly heavy, but he was too much for me to fight against given how much alcohol I had consumed. His body felt like a million tons on top of mine. I could feel him, hard against me through his jeans. I started to cry.
“No… please no…” I whimpered as his hands roamed across my bra. I started to pass out from the vodka – or was it my brain at work, starting to protect me from the memory that followed?
His touch kept me just at the brink of consciousness.
“Usually I get a hand job when I’m hard… or head… or sex,” he slurred into my ears, emphasis on ‘sex.’ He moved his hands behind me to rip off my bra, breaking the clasp.
“Stop, please stop,” I begged. I couldn’t fight. I felt like he and the vodka had shackled me to the bed.
Just like Tristian had when I was 10.
His hands moved down my stomach, toward my tights. He grabbed the top of the elastic in his hands. I tried to wiggle away, but he felt heavy… so heavy…
He ripped my tights off. I tried to will myself to get up when his body came off of me for an instant, but the alcohol kept me frozen. I started wiggling, trying to gain my composure to stand up, but he was back on me in an instant.
His jeans had come off now too, and I could feel his erection against me, through his boxers and my panties.
“No, no, please, no… I don’t want to,” I said, louder now. I was fighting the alcoholic haze. I was so, so drunk. I couldn’t fight him, but maybe my words would finally scare him off of me.
His hands slipped underneath my underwear and started touching me. I felt his fingers, like poison, on the lips of my vagina, and then they thrust into me.
“No. I said no!” my voice was getting louder and more desperate. But he didn’t stop. He didn’t even say anything. He just kept thrusting his fingers into me, into the dryness of me, and the pain started to cascade in waves over my body.
When he was finished violating me with his fingers, he tried to work back up my body to kiss me. I managed to weakly push his chest away from me. He leaned back up onto his knees, pulling my panties off my body.
“No, please, no…” it was all I could manage.
He started to kiss me in-between my thighs. I had never had someone do that before. To this day, it is a trigger.
I could feel his weight start to shift. He started to fondle himself through his boxers. I closed my eyes.
“No. No!” I said louder. I think I was screaming.
To my surprise, I suddenly heard a banging on the locked door of his dorm.
“Who do you have in there?” I heard a male voice shout through the door. I can hear it like it was yesterday.
“No, please, no…” it was my mantra.
“No one!” my abuser shouted back as he leaned over my body. I could feel a slight pressure on my vagina. It wasn’t a finger this time. His hips were close to mine.
I felt like no one. He made me no one.
I don’t know if it ever went in, that time. I can’t remember if he actually managed to thrust a bit into me, or not. The next thing I remember is more violent banging on the door. It sounded like kicks, and then suddenly the door swung off of its hinges, laying broken against the wall behind it.
Two of my abuser’s roommates tumbled in and found him on top of me. They turned on the lights immediately.
I felt ashamed. I was naked in front of them. Their mouths fell open. They stared at me. I cried violently. When they understood what they were seeing, they pulled their roommate off of my naked body. He hadn’t moved, even with the lights on. Was he inside of me when they pulled him off? I couldn’t fully register. The roommates stood quietly, staring from me to their friend, while I somehow got dressed. I was shaking. I don’t remember the details in the exchange that immediately followed. I only remember the shame.
I do know that they asked their roommate, my abuser, to walk me home. I remember being too shocked to say no. He said he would walk me halfway, that he was going to meet another girl in one of the buildings that taught religion on campus.
I wonder what he did to her.
I could barely walk. I was still drunk and, at this point, completely numb from my assault. Part of me thought about heading straight to the police department, but I was too fragile. I just knew that I wanted my bed, and that I would do anything to get there. Even if it meant letting him walk me halfway home.
He kissed me before we parted. After he walked away, I threw up in the bushes, violently. His touch had made me nauseous, but I was out of “no’s” to push him away.
I eventually made it back to my dorm. I passed out in my bed.
A part of my soul never woke up the next morning. It was dead. He had killed it and taken it away from me. My loss and his actions will haunt me for the rest of my life.
And he was only one of many.
My therapist pulled me back into the present. He had been trying to get my attention for some time now. There was water in the glass in front of me.
“Where did your mind go?”
My therapist’s favorite line. I think he said it about five times a session. My sudden frustration with his tagline pushed my pain deep down inside. I doggy paddled to the best of my ability above the waters of my flashback. I leaned forward to take a sip of water and, when a tear slipped off my nose into the glass, I realized that my face was wet from silent crying.
I took a minute to gain composure. I straightened up again.
I tried to go back to my earlier train of thought.
“I would like to think that I would be able to come forward now,” I said, “if one of the men who raped me were significant in politics, but I don’t know if I could do what Dr. Ford is doing. I can’t imagine the hell she is going through.
The PTSD is enough to make you want to die. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have that, compounded with judgmental society trying to rip you apart. It’s why I never reported my assaults. I don’t think I could have survived.
I think I would have killed myself.”
My therapist looked up at me from his notes.
“You know what the worst part is?
“I have felt so ashamed my whole life. Even telling you now how I feel about the Kavanaugh case makes me feel guilty. I feel ashamed for ‘not being strong enough’ or for being ‘triggered’ today. It makes me feel weak. I feel like there’s something wrong with me. I feel stupid and like I am overreacting.”
“That’s part of the socialization,” my therapist responded. “You have been conditioned to feel like that. It is one of the most difficult thought circles to break. When you feel the pain, society tells you that you are ‘hysterical.’ You are not.”
I started to cry and shake again, silently. Or maybe I never stopped. I am surprised my contacts stayed in.
“I feel guilty even telling you about these things,” I said quietly. “I feel like I’m overreacting when I say I want to take it easy today or take the weekend to recover.”
“You should not feel ashamed. You should not feel guilty. You should take the weekend but surround yourself by those that are in the same headspace as you. It doesn’t sound like your parents are the correct outlet,” my therapist advised.
I nodded. Thanks, Captain Obvious. Pleased that I am getting such earth-shattering advice for my thousands of dollars…
“You shouldn’t be isolated. Try not to be alone this weekend.”
Our session was at its end, taken up mostly by me ranting earlier. Quelle surprise!
“I will see you again Monday and Friday next week – let’s try to stick to this cadence. Please, please call me if anything comes up before then.”
And then I left the safe space of his office and walked out into the busy streets of NYC. The streets had always looked dirty to me before, but today they felt toxic. I could feel the toxicity clogging my pores.
I realized as I walked home, crying, that part of the reason I had suffered all these years is because I had convinced myself I wasn’t allowed to feel the pain of my rapes. It was my fault and I couldn’t bear to assume responsibility. It would kill me. But now I understand, with the help of Dr. Ford and my therapist, that I am allowed to grieve what has happened to me. It is never too late to grieve, to come forward, or to start creating change. This weekend, I will finally truly grieve my loss and my pain for the first time since the abuse started. Since the first time a man touched me against my will, and I was forced to keep quiet to avoid any inconveniences to him.
I don’t want anyone else to feel how I have felt my whole life. I don’t want people to feel like they have been brainwashed by their parents, their friends, their teachers, or their immediate society or culture to stay quiet and feel guilty about their assaults.
“We will never get back the life we waste trying to be normal.”
One of my best friends sent me that quote today, written by one of my favorite Instagram poets named Atticus. I used to think that it meant “stay goofy, stay you!” Now, it reads differently to me.
“Don’t hide your pain,” it says. “Don’t pretend to be like everyone else. Live your truth and don’t judge yourself. Don’t pretend like it never happened.”
I am mourning today, like I have been mourning my entire life. But, for the first time, I am going to share my story with you. It will be a fully “R” rated account of my assaults and the aftermath – the depression, anxiety, and PTSD, to name a few star actors.
We must create change by creating dialogue and shedding light on these issues. I will write for all of you. I will create a community. I will organize events. I will share my story in overcoming societal stigmas that being raped or assaulted and feeling upset about it is ‘weak’ or ‘hysterical’ – or worse, that you ‘asked’ for it. Assault cannot be a rite of passage for men. I will empower women (and men) like me, and I will save them from their pain.
#ShoutYourAbuse, ladies and gentlemen, just like Dr. Ford. We must break the cycle. It is our duty to ourselves, to women and men everywhere, and our future daughters and sons.
Check out Katie’s blog at pursuitofserotonin.com
(Graphic by Tara Steinmetz)