I learned to survive my sexual assault by writing love letters
When I was around seventeen or eighteen, my dad and I were taking one of our regular walks around the neighborhood. We looped around under the bridge that connected our favorite waterfront park to a small downtown-ish area so we could stop at the convenience store to pick up necessities on the way home.
I don’t remember why, but the topic of sexual violence and how many people statistically become victims came up. I let out a proclamation: “If I’m ever raped, I think I’ll just kill myself. I don’t think I could live through that.”
It wasn’t a proclamation I gave often, but it was also my stance if I knew for certain I wouldn’t make it out of an apocalyptic or horror movie situation. My fear was waiting for the inevitable, curled up in some garage somewhere holding my breath so whatever was trying to kill me wouldn’t find out I was there. Everyone always says they want to die in their sleep, but would they feel differently if someone told them death was coming the night before they went to bed?
I was just a few days shy of turning nineteen and a freshman in college when I was raped. I spent months in denial, the way I imagined I’d try to outlive an influx of zombies—this isn’t happening to me, I can still make it out, I have time.
When the knowledge caught up to me, I didn’t know if I could carry out my earlier proclamation. I’d so been so decisive—I couldn’t live through that—that I had no idea what my life looked like if I actually did. There’s a saying people toss around, that we can’t really love anyone else until we love ourselves. I knew that was a lie. I didn’t love myself enough to stay alive for me.
I’d call my dad on the phone, sitting on the bench outside the dorm in forty-degree weather because the cell service inside was bad, just to hear his voice. I’d unwrap the handwritten letters from my girlfriend very carefully, pressing into each fold, pretending that her questions about my classes and complaints about her roommate were her asking me to stay. I’d make a study date with my best friend and ask her questions for the upcoming linguistics exam and even look up the answers, knowing I wasn’t preparing for the test because I didn’t care if I passed. But I cared that she did. I love all of them enough to stay for them, even the smallest moments that kept me tethered, breaking my earlier promise.
Most people didn’t Google search entire questions Ask Jeeves-style by 2012 when I was assaulted, but if there were a montage of me during those first weeks, it would feature me typing into the search bar: “How do you survive something you never thought you’d be able to survive?”
I couldn’t figure out how to love myself enough, so she loved me twice as hard.
I thought I could survive by filling all the parts of me that were hurt and angry and scared with love. Actually, at first, I thought I could fill those parts with alcohol. Or sex. Or sleeping too much, or not enough. Or skipping class. Or taking too many classes. Or staying out late in dorm rooms packed with people I didn’t know shouting over one another. And then I thought I could survive my filling those parts with love. Love pouring into my cracks, taking over the fact that I jumped half a foot when someone who looked like my rapist bumped into me on the city bus. What if I could just erase every cell in my body that remembered the trauma and replace each of them with love?
I was surviving despite the many times I’d said I would die if I lived through this. The old me—the person I was before the assault—didn’t even exist anymore and I had to decide how to be this new person who had taken her place.
My girlfriend and I visited each other on the weekends. We had a custom sushi bar at the dining hall on my campus. One Sunday evening, I suggested we go eat some, knowing there was almost no chance she would make her bus back to campus if we did. As we walked to the dining hall in the cold, we talked about how close we were cutting it. “I really want sushi, though,” my girlfriend said. I never asked, but I think she knew she wasn’t going to make her bus. That we’d have just a few more hours between us if she didn’t get on, hours I could spend listening to her talk about her math professor’s wacky instructions and sleeping tucked next to each other in my twin XL. Neither of us brought it up while we ate maki rolls with salmon and cream cheese. When we got to the bus stop, we saw that the Peter Pan back to her school had already left and she stayed over another night, leaving early in the morning to get back in time for class.
I began writing love letters. The first few letters were actual, physical notes to my girlfriend. I would write them during the classes I didn’t skip, in between the lectures I actually listened to and the homework I completed and turned in. I’d begin with the date and a greeting. I didn’t say much of substance, but I knew every word would be read. I’d make jokes about her classes, tell her what events were happening on campus. Every once in a while, I’d love myself just a little, write about plans I wanted to make six, nine, twelve months away. “When we have an orange kitten,” I’d say, or “I can’t wait to read next to you in bed someday.” There was something to write for—a future when I might open the basement door, step outside and after six years, discover the apocalypse was over. Except that surviving sexual violence isn’t quite like that, it’s more like if things were really okay for about eight months and then a crowd of twelve zombies burst through your door in the middle of the night trying to eat you. And then things were pretty okay for another seven weeks until someone made a gurgling noise on the subway that reminded you of the apocalypse and you had nightmares for a week. Things were quiet for three and a half years until you froze in the middle of a keynote conference speech because you saw that a zombie was waiting to hack your arm off at the back entrance.
Still, I wrote for that basement door.
“How do you survive something you never thought you’d be able to survive?”
There are a lot of guides to loving someone after they survive an assault: How to hold them, how to listen and empathize, how to be respectful and consensual. How to help them deal if they have post-traumatic stress or need to totally change the physical intimacy routine. There are guides for survivors too. Being gentle with yourself, learning to trust again, maintaining communication with your partner. I couldn’t follow the guides. Expert quotes from trained therapists didn’t help me. It all felt prescriptive, like a recipe book or a how-to guide.
My girlfriend was patient and warm, like someone copy and pasted her out of a textbook on how to support your significant other through an assault. I couldn’t figure out how to love myself enough, so she loved me twice as hard. She brought novels to my dorm and told me to read them, then asked me about my favorite characters. She sat through completely silent dinners while I barely touched the dining hall food, and asked if I wanted to order a pizza later. She heard me get up in the middle of the night and found me sitting by the window in the common room, asked if I wanted her to sit with me and waited until I was ready to go back to sleep.
I wasn’t ready to love myself the right amount yet. Some days, a little. Those days I would take selfies with my friends, paint with blues and purples on a canvas, find myself smiling while reading a book. Some days, barely at all. I would sleep through my morning classes and forget to eat dinner. Quietly and steadily, she continued to love me. Keeping my love letters for a day when I might be ready.
My love letters were plans to exchange holiday presents with my friends. A date to see an animated holiday movie about magical guardians who protect kids’ dreams. The square wooden box I made in my therapy group for survivors, carefully painted teal with song lyrics and filled with sea glass. The hot pink stationery taped to my desk by my roommate, who’d picked up some of my favorite Godiva chocolate just to make me feel better. A photo of my girlfriend and I playing in a pile of autumn leaves, her big brown eyes wide under the red hues.
It was six years and some months after I was raped. I climbed out of bed carefully, tiptoeing across our bedroom’s old creaky floor and into the living room. Pulled a book by Nina LaCour off the bookshelf and flipped to the first page, where my girlfriend’s handwriting made a tiny love letter. We gave each other at least one book on every celebratory occasion, each with a few sentences written, sometimes about why we picked that book or what we hoped for in the next year. I stretched out on our gray couch with a round sleeping tabby cat next to me, her small tongue peeking out of her mouth.
A few minutes later, I heard my girlfriend get out of bed. She passed me on her way to the bathroom, paused in the doorway, messy dark hair and sleepy eyes illuminated by the dim light from the lamp I had on. “Are you okay, love?”
I nodded. “I’m just reading for a little while before I come back to bed.” She came over to kiss my forehead. Early in our relationship, I read that kisses on the forehead mean forever and we adopted it as our own.
I stayed like that, reading for almost an hour until the dreams that had woken me began to fade and the universe inside the book took over. Just before I went back to bed, I pulled out a small piece of notebook paper and began to write: “Hi love: You really need to read this book.”
Love letters became my new proclamation: I was raped, and I will live.