Taking back my freedom after the trauma of assault
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Here, HG contributor Kelly Mishelle recounts her experiences being twice stalked, groped, and attacked by the same man in one year, and moving forward with the post-traumatic stress it caused her. Please read with caution if these subjects trigger you.
I want the record to show that I believe the world can be a beautiful place, even in the midst of disrespected women shouting out “me too.” Even as a president can intimidate women openly and with fervor. I have decided to believe the world can be a beautiful place, yes, even as women are killed for simply saying “no,” and even when I have been hunted and harassed by men in broad daylight. I have come to this decision not out of youthful ignorance or blind will, but because I have experienced the cage that fear can place you in. I have decided, above all else, to be free.
Not long ago, I found myself locked in a bathroom stall in the administration building of my university’s campus. Too terrified to raise my voice above a whisper, I refused to call out for help and instead texted six words to my close friend: “Can you please come get me?”
I had just been followed by a strange man through the campus quad. As I turned to make my escape into the nearby administration building, the man kicked me—hard—in the small of my back. I ran, and in the privacy of that bathroom stall, I crumpled to the floor and cried. Partially out of fear, I’m sure, but also out of shock.
The shock that something like this could happen to me again.
A year before this incident, I encountered the same strange man. Only that time, instead of stalking me through an empty courtyard, he hounded me through a throng of people as I walked through the campus food court. He insisted that I give him my number. I blatantly ignored him, hoping that he’d “get the message.” He became increasingly angry, cursing and calling me names. As I went up the steps to the food court entrance, he groped my backside and ran off. I couldn’t do anything but furiously yell after him, embarrassed and ashamed, as people around me watched with sick curiosity.
It should come as no surprise that sexual assault victims experience some form of PTSD after their experiences.
Specifically, up to 50% of women will experience this debilitating stress long-term. After the first encounter at the food court, I became hyper-vigilant of my surroundings. In an effort to feel more in control—which is to say, to simply feel safe—I constantly checked over my shoulder. If I was alone, which I tried not to be, I avoided walking past groups of men if at all possible. At night, even though my harassment happened in the daytime, I stayed inside. I developed an oddly fast gait, as if walking faster could somehow shield me from the ill intentions of an abuser. I didn’t go to that food court for an entire semester.
For a long time, I was satisfied by my hyper-vigilance—which was really just paranoia and trauma by another name. I thought that it kept me safe. As time passed without me experiencing another violation, some sense of normalcy returned. I went back to feeling almost as free to roam the world outside as I had before. Which is why, when I encountered that same man again, my whole sense of reality—and safety—shattered. Huddled on the bathroom floor of the administration building, waiting for my friend to come find me, I felt myself slipping back into the confines of fear that had me living in the shadows, traumatized and frozen, for so long.
I didn’t want this disgusting man to alter the hope and love I had for not only my future, but for the entire world in which I lived.
In that moment, though, it seemed inevitable. But in the days after the attack, I thought about a James Baldwin quote: “Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be.” Depending on the situation, of course, this idea is debatable. But for me, it helped me realize that I had a choice.
I decided not to view the world as an enemy, even though this man had hurt me. Instead, I decided that I would wake up every day and say, “Thank you for my life,” because I was okay. Yes, I had trauma to work through, and I would remain careful and alert when I ventured into the world. But I would never be afraid. I decided, by the grace of God, exactly how free I wanted to be.
If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault or violence, you can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673).