I encourage you to sit down. This blog post is long, and there is no TL;DR. It's raw. It's graphic. It's honest. It contains triggers, truths, and secrets. I am a licensed psychotherapist and this is my story as a sexual assault victim survivor, and why I support the #METOO movement and the TIME'S UP Legal Defense Fund.  

My husband and I met during a really difficult time in my life. 

My grandmother died the year I turned 13, and in the years leading up to her death, I coped with her illness in a number of really unhealthy ways. One of those was the Internet. 

Nowadays, this might seem like a potentially healthy outlet, a way to seek encouragement from others around the world dealing with similar issues. Unfortunately, I came of age at a time when the Internet was not policed. I was a victim of Internet predators, and my mother, like many other mothers during those days, was none the wiser. 

At 13, I was already familiar with the concept of sexual assault. I didn't have a name for sexual assault or understand the effect it was having on my life. In fact, even as I am writing this, I caught myself writing it. Like something that must not be named. I was molested around the time I was 5 or 6 years old by an older family friend. It was chalked up to normative childhood experiences, but the truth is, it wasn't normative and it really, really affected my development. 

It wasn't until I entered high school that I became brave enough to talk about it with my parents.  They were floored and apologetic, but the reality is that they did the best they could when it first happened. They came to my rescue, and I was never allowed around that person again. They just didn't know that the effects had lingered. The dots were there, they just didn't know how to connect them, and neither did most other people back then. 

By the time I met my husband, he was a sophomore and I was a freshman in high school. I was struggling with depression and puberty, which had started when I was nine years old. There had already been a slew of people in my life who had either sexualized my childhood or behaved in ways that were covertly inappropriate. As I got older, more and more adults around me chalked it up to me being a "pretty girl" and looking "womanly" for my age. At one point, I made a discovery that indicated someone who played a major role in my life was most likely a pedophile. When I brought my evidence forward to someone I trusted, it was summarily explained away. 

As an adult, this still haunts me. When I was finally brave enough to bring it up to the authorities, it had been so long that they thought it was a false claim, a retaliation designed to harm the other person. They told me they would follow up with me, but it's been years and I never heard back from the law enforcement agency I made the report to. 

You may have guessed that I am being very purposeful in not providing more details. For legal reasons, I can't do that. For personal reasons, I can't do that. 

It's hard to find the words to explain this. I'm no journalist; I'm just a clinician, so bear with me. You see, the sexual assault and harassment go beyond the survivors, whether the offender is a family member, friend, date, acquaintance, or a complete stranger. Families deal with the revelation differently. They may have appropriate and healthy responses, or they may disintegrate into denial, shame, rationalization... That's trauma for you. Everyone responds to trauma differently. 

The thing is too that people's lives don't just stop because the trauma does. I still had to learn how to live with all of the people in my life. Good people, bad people, neutral people. I had to learn how to make sense of a world that was messy and grotesque. 

I didn't feel like I could trust my family with the whole truth. It's not necessarily their fault. I was a teenager, and teenagers don't think clearly. But my home life also wasn't very secure, which in clinical terms means it wasn't safe. Physically, emotionally, psychologically, it wasn't a safe place for me to make disclosures about my trauma. 

I also couldn't trust my friends. Many had connections to our pastoral community. Others were dealing with similar issues, and I didn't want to highlight myself in the midst of their trauma. I also acted out terribly in high school, and it made the pool of potential confidants quite small. 

So when I met my husband, who was an extraordinarily kind and exceptional listener, I let it all out. I told him things I swore I would never tell another living soul. Yet he listened, encouraged, and consoled me in a way that no one ever had before. In clinical terms, it was the reparative experience I had been craving. 

But I wasn't out of the dark. College was difficult. I chose to move away and live in the dorms, and that presented its own set of challenges. I chose to study psychology, hoping to explore ways to give back to other young women like myself who couldn't make sense of their internal turmoil and why the world around me kept telling me to be grateful for the unwanted sexual attention I had received. It made me crazy, figuratively and literally. 

So, I started counseling. 

That was a disaster. My very first therapist was a male, and through no fault of his own, reminded me of my original abuser. He looked like the same person, just aged like in some forensic software. Except he talked and asked intimate questions that I wasn't ready to tell this male therapist. And instead of addressing the giant elephant in the room, of focusing on my trauma (the whole reason I wanted to be seen) my first therapist focused on me having sex outside of marriage while away from home for college. So he decided to call my mother to ask her permission. 

He called my mother. Right in front of me. 

It was mortifying. 

So I found a new therapist. Let me tell you this as a therapist myself: it is OK to fire your therapist

My own experiences have taught me that some therapists are not always a good fit. Maybe it's because they lack training, sensitivity, empathy, awareness, or maybe they just suck at being a therapist. Shitty therapists exist. You don't have to weather that shit. The therapist does. That's their job. Your job is just to focus on getting well. 

So I learned my lesson, and I asked for a different therapist. I was more purposeful in asking my own questions and checking in with myself to make sure I felt comfortable and that I knew what they were planning to focus on. Turns out, it was a perfect fit. She listened to me, she encouraged me, and she empowered me. I was so in awe of her in college, that one day I decided to ask her how she got her start. What she told me changed my life forever. I had always figured I would conduct research, but I made the decision to pursue a clinical path and never looked back. 

Going to graduate school was also difficult because it forced me to face my experiences and to name them. It forced me to use the word trauma and apply that label to myself. Graduate school has a nasty and somewhat ruthless way of making you look at your own self and family in a way that even counseling cannot accomplish. So much of what you learn is churned out through exposing projects and introspective papers. It's an education, but it's also an uncovering of who you really are and what you bring to "the couch" (and not just the table).  

Slowly, for good and bad, I came undone.

At the height of my very first clinical internship, I took a leave of absence. I was once again struggling with depression. My caseload was full of men women who had been molested as children (AMAC), survivors of incest, and women who felt trapped at work with inappropriate bosses and standards. I couldn't understand how I had so many people on my caseload with similar experiences, or why I was enjoying counseling them. In fact, I was even good at it. As good as an intern can be, anyway.  

I am forever indebted to my clinical supervisor at the time who recognized what was going on. I remember sitting in his office one day, asking him in a purely hypothetical way about the ethics of disclosure. Dude saw right through it, and I'm grateful that he did. I still remember that tear-choked conversation of telling him I didn't want to be a therapist and how he helped me drill down into how my unique caseload was bringing up what I had been trying to entomb for years. 

He encouraged me to consider what purpose it would serve for me and my client to disclose my own experience. Would it help my client on her journey to normalize some of her experiences as a person and not just a statistic? Would it make me a better therapist to be able to be able to walk the fine line of disclosure? Would it adversely affect the outcome of the therapy one way or the other? When would I even bring it up? 

In the end, I did share it with my client. Not the details I am sharing now. Just the simple and powerful moment of being able to say with warmth, confidence, compassion, and unconditional positive regard for this other human being, "This journey you're on is familiar to me too, and we can conquer this together." The timing was just right, and we were able to openly discuss what effect my transparency had on her understanding of her counseling and her own journey.  

It was phenomenal.

After this disclosure and some much-needed time off, I felt rejuvenated. I became so empowered, I volunteered with my local Sexual Assault Response Team (SART). I would accompany other victims to their forensic exam. Fun fact: A sexual assault forensic exam is called a SAFE. There's a psychology about that acronym, and there's a stupidity about it. Trust me, I know

Over the years, I disclosed my personal history to a select few people in my personal life. I have shared it with some colleagues. Some people I've regretted telling, but most of the time I'm grateful for the experience. I truly believe sharing is cathartic. I've lived it, and I am in the business of sharing. I practice what I preach. 

As a clinician, I somewhat break the mold by blogging about my personal life and not just "sticking to the facts." In the clinical field, there are competing theories about what a clinician should represent. Among the many, we are supposed to represent:
  • A mirror
  • Blank Canvas
  • Reparative relationships
  • A secure attachment figure
  • An authentic human being
  • Our own personality
  • Coach
  • Facilitator
  • Guide
  • Expert
That list is not exhaustive, but it is exhausting. I'm of the opinion that authenticity is key. It doesn't mean I make my clients' therapy my own, but it means I am present, sincere, and real. That means my experiences are also present, sincere, and real. They inform my practice. They affect how clients perceive me, and how I perceive them. Any therapist who tries to tell you differently isn't acknowledging their own biases and their own hang-ups. Trust me on this one.

Blogging about these very private experiences means my clients have access to it. And that's OK. I have reached a point in my life where I am at peace with my history and how it has molded me. It's also OK because I respect my client's time and space as their own. It's not about me. I also respect their right to know what I stand for and to know the person behind the questions. It's called transparency. I want to be the right fit for my clients, and my experiences as a survivor affect that. 

So now you know parts of my story. Other parts still aren't suitable for this blog, but maybe now you know why supporting sexual assault survivors is something I live and breathe every day. Because you can't walk away from trauma. You can't run from it. You can't hide from it. It's an invisible wound that needs lifelong caregiving (hey, there's that word again).

I show that I care by being creating spaces for my clients and other people in my life to share their stories when they are ready. I show my solidarity through volunteering and donating to campaigns that I believe it. Which is what brings me to my purpose for writing this today.

You may have heard of the #METOO movement. Heck, you may even be reading this because you found me on Instagram or Facebook posting furiously about it. If you've come this far, I want to say thank you. Thank you for reading my story, and being brave enough to carry it with me for a few moments.

Now I'm asking one more thing of you: please read the TIME'S UP Letter of Solidarity. If #METOO was the provocation of something powerful, the Letter of Solidarity is the rallying battle cry before the thunderous stampede. As a trainee and an intern, I used to wonder how I saw so many clients who had been victims of sexual assault and harassment. Word of mouth is a powerful thing in the clinical field, but it is not so powerful as reality. The truth of it is that as more and more men and women come forward, we begin to understand the depth of underreporting. We begin to really grasp how pervasive sex crimes are.

The #METOO social media movement taught us all just how many of us there really are. Sometimes we already know one another, and sometimes it's a revelation. That #metoo becomes a #youtoo? And before #METOO, there were the Vagina Monologues, where I first stepped forward as a survivor in public in a theater full of my peers and shocked my roommates and my best friends who attended with me. I wonder now how crowded that theater might seem today if more of us had felt the courage and safety to come forward back then.

But not everyone is safe to come forward. I know this from experience, and I have known others in my personal and professional lives who have made difficult decisions to protect their livelihoods, families, and their very lives. In response to this, TIME'S UP is launching a Legal Defense Fund.

This excerpt is taken from their GoFundMe page:

"TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund will provide subsidized legal support to women and men who have experienced sexual harassment, assault, or abuse in the workplace and while in pursuit of their careers. The Fund will ultimately be housed at and administrated by the National Women’s Law Center, an established, national women’s rights legal organization. A network of lawyers and public relations professionals across the country will work with the Center’s Legal Network for Gender Equity to provide assistance to those ready to stand up. Access to prompt and comprehensive legal and communications help will mean empowerment for these individuals and long term growth for our culture and communities as a whole."
The Legal Defense Fund needs your help. It's Ok if you aren't in a space to donate. You can also digitally sign the Letter of Solidarity, share, repost, and tweet about the campaign. Our digital voices are powerful and have immense reach.

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted or harassed, use any of these resources to reach out for help. You have the right to make informed decisions about your experience: past, present, and future.

  • 24HR Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673
  • National Sexual Assault Hotline (RAINN): 800.656.HOPE (4673)
  • For the Department of Defense Community, call the Safe Helpline: (877) 995-5247
Remember, I believe you and I stand in solidary with you. 

Photo credit from top to bottom: George Shervashidze, Tabitha Mort, Unknown, Pixabay, Negative Space, Unknown.