My partner helped me survive after I was raped in college
Trigger Warning: In this essay, the writer recalls memories of sexual assault and subsequent trauma.
My partner and I were at a house party in our western Massachusetts college town and everyone was dressed in Halloween costumes. A couple of guys started aggressively hitting on my roommate as she danced around in her cheetah costume, and they wouldn’t leave her alone. I opened my mouth to say something, but I could barely speak; I was shaking so hard. One of our other friends intervened to protect my roommate, and before I even knew what was happening, I was out the door and racing halfway down the street.
My partner, Macey, came out after me. She asked if there was anything I needed and offered to sit with me and listen if I wanted to talk. I told her that I just wanted to hang out for a little while with her near me.
A few months before, I had survived a rape at a college dorm party.
Certain aspects of a party setting—especially people getting nonconsensual and pushy—would send my heart racing and remind me of the night I was assaulted. Macey and I had been in a relationship for a few years before the assault, and in the months after it happened, she was a foundational part of my support system. She worked tirelessly to make sure she treated me with love and respect, and to show me that she was there in whatever way I needed at the time.
“Trauma is destabilizing, and a healthy partnership can be stabilizing, explains Rachel Kazez, LCSW, therapist and founder of All Along, which helps people understand mental health and find therapy. “Having someone who listens and engages in consensual connection with you can be healing—a corrective emotional experience, we call it.
While I was healing after the rape, my relationship with Macey was that corrective emotional experience: It kept me grounded and helped me feel like my entire world hadn’t been shaken up from right under me. Nothing else about my life made sense at the time, except my relationships with the people who gave me their full, unconditional support—like Macey, my dad, and several of my closest friends.
One afternoon, I had a trauma flashback on the bus because someone with a similar hair color to my rapist walked past me. Macey held my hand, keeping eye contact with me to keep me grounded. She didn’t pressure me to talk about it, and when we got off the bus, I felt calm. We ate at the mall food court and went shopping.
Macey was continuously gentle with me, particularly in the first few months when I tried to figure out what I needed after the assault. My emotions and sense of identity were all over the place, yet she never questioned me. Kazez recommends that partners remain open to this kind of flexibility and adaptability after a trauma:
“Learn what your partner needs by asking and listening to your partner, on an ongoing basis, and believing them, and letting their needs change, she says. “It's not your partner's job to teach you what they need, and they may not have the emotional/cognitive energy to teach you right now.
My needs changed all the time. Some days, I wanted to talk about what happened to me. Other days, I didn’t want to talk at all. Macey would just sit with me to watch episodes of Dexter or we’d go out on a silent walk together. When I wanted space, she was ready to give it to me. When I preferred company, she’d pull together a group of friends to go to the dining hall.
After trauma, people don’t always know exactly what they need from a relationship, or what will feel right.
I had to completely rethink my healing process: What parts of my life were nourishing me and what parts were draining? I went to a support group and visited a therapist on campus weekly to figure out the answers. Often, when I’d get back, I’d tell Macey what I learned and what I thought was the right next step for me.
Macey helped me get through some of the day-to-day tasks that felt overwhelming. In those first few weeks after the assault, I had a hard time remembering my class schedule and the assignments I needed to turn in.
“Memory and detail-oriented tasks become vastly more difficult in intense stress,” explains Kazez. “Our brains simply have the wrong combination of chemicals to be able to do this kind of work.” Macey helped me make phone calls to set up appointments with my therapist and walked with me to check out the buildings where my classes were held. Whenever a step felt too terrifying to tackle on my own, she was right there with me, ready to help however she was able.
Macey allowed me to heal after the assault while she also healed from intense emotions. A majority of sexual assaults are committed by someone the survivor knows, Kazez explains, which can also complicate the experience of trauma. My assailant was someone we’d both been close to, and Macey often felt angry and frustrated, just like I did. She sometimes blamed herself for not begging me to stay in instead of going to that party, or for not predicting that my assailant was capable of this level of violence.
“A trauma suddenly depletes someone’s sense of control, as well as their sense of connection,” says Kazez. “But especially with someone the person knows, it can sometimes feel more complex than this. Know that ambivalence and confusion can be part of trauma recovery.” This was something that I talked about with my therapist and with Macey. Because I used to be friends with my assailant, I had a lot of complicated feelings about how I could heal and move forward.
I blamed myself for not seeing it coming and for being that person’s friend in the first place. I was hurt. My sense of trust was completely skewed. Would this happen again? Did I bring this on myself by being this person’s friend, by not being aggressive enough about my lack of romantic interest? Every single time I started questioning myself, Macey reminded me that it was not my fault I was assaulted and that there was no way I could have known this would happen. She also put consent at the forefront of all our interactions—she let me guide our romantic relationship, particularly physical touch.
Kazez says that any time you’re unsure about your partner’s boundaries and want to clarify their needs and preferences, or you think a situation might negatively impact them, that you should ask questions and check in. She suggests that partners ask questions like, “Would you like me to do this?” and then continue to ask for consent along the way.
It has been almost seven years since I was assaulted, and Macey is still as supportive as she was in the months right after it happened.
Last October, a group of students from Ithaca College contacted me because they wanted to make a short film about my experience as a survivor for a class project. While they were at our apartment filming, they asked me about Macey: “How did she support you after you were raped?” A camera was focused on me, along with several bright lights that filled our teal living room with an almost fluorescent glow. I talked about the simple, small things she did to help me through the assault, like going with me to the campus store when I bought my textbooks.
Macey was in the other room, reading a book and staying quiet so her voice wouldn’t get picked up by the microphone. Just like she did seven years ago, she was ready to be there for me in any way I needed.
That night after we finished filming and the students left, I was drained and emotionally exhausted from talking about and reliving my trauma. I asked Macey to hold me from behind and wrap me in her arms. We stayed that way until I was ready to go to sleep.
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).