Rape: The horror, the depression, the healing

A quick disclaimer: It's taken me a long time to write about this specific incident because I don't want anybody's pity. Yes, it was hard. Yes, it's horrific that people think they have the right to force another human being into sex. Yes, I did have to be strong to get to the place I'm at now. But I did it. I'm not blaming the universe for the frustrating series of events this year. I'm doing my best to grow through them. I need encouragement, not pity. Now let's get into it. 

I was raped. It was a girl's night in, Netflix, tater tots, and smoothies, destroyed by a man I didn't even know. If you're here for details, you can go now. This post isn't about him, this post is about healing. 

When the police were finished, I called my mom crying. I insisted on driving myself to her house, probably a stupid decision, but I made it. There wasn't enough soap in the world. There weren't enough hugs in the world. I felt dirty and broken and ashamed. 

In the next few days, I used at least 6 bars of soap, scrubbed my skin raw, and went through two entire bottles of mouthwash. I still couldn't look at myself in the mirror. The thing is, I didn't feel like my own person anymore. I didn't know if I had STIs now, I didn't know if I was pregnant. I didn't know what it would all mean for my marriage. All I could think about what how my skin crawled at every sound, every time I caught a glimpse of myself I was nearly sick. I've been a strong believer that you have to love yourself first, before you ask anyone else to love you. (Note that it doesn't mean you are UNLOVABLE if you don't love yourself, absolutely not. Even at my worst, I know I've been so loved.) But I definitely didn't love myself anymore.  

After several weeks of numbness, I started to journal again. I was angry. Furious, all the time. I don't even know what I hated, but I hated it with all my heart. Myself? Him? The world? I still don't know who I was mad at during that time, but I was so angry I could hardly speak to anyone at all. When I wasn't angry, I was sobbing, when I wasn't angry or sobbing, I was asleep on a pillow wet from tears. When the tears wouldn't come anymore, I felt numb. 

It wasn't long before that positive pregnancy test came along. That was enough to drown the anger. We had been trying to have a baby for so long, we had a long string of miscarriages to prove it... and I was certain that rapist was going to be the father of my first child to be born. I was disgusted. I hated myself for not wanting an abortion, and also for even considering the idea. I remembered the horrible things some of my favorite people have done in the past, I remember that drugs and mental illness guided so many of those things, and I remembered how their children often ended up better people once they were given the tools they needed to cope with their illness. I'm a firm believer that children are not their parents. I didn't want to end the life of my child because their father was a disgusting person, that wasn't reason enough for me. (This post isn't about abortion, but let me just say I'm only sharing my thoughts here. This is absolutely not any judgment on another woman's decision. It's a choice nobody should have a say in besides the person making the decision, it's hard enough without irrelevant input!) So I was pregnant, most likely with the rapist's child. In a few months, I would be holding that child in my arms...? 

A few weeks later, the miscarriage happened. Another wave of emotions. I'd never felt so much at one time before. I was furious, devastated, disgusted, ashamed, even a little relieved... and somehow I still felt a numb. I hated myself, I thought I wanted it to happen. I caused the miscarriage by feeling so guilty over the decision to keep the child, and feeling guilty on top of that for feeling conflicted about that decision. I wanted that miscarriage, deep down, that's why it happened. I killed my baby. Right? (Hint, WRONG. We'll get there.)

My husband was the only man I'd ever been intimate with. That fact is very special to me. When I was raped, I felt like that was taken away from me. I felt dirty and disgusting. I thought that man left a stain on my entire being. I thought I could never give all of myself to anything or anyone ever again, that I would never be able to do my best or be my best for the rest of my life.
Then I committed to the idea of raising and loving the child of the man who hurt me. Of risking having to share custody of a child with him... I know what joint custody looks like. I know what a major decision it was to keep the baby. I asked my husband to support me in the decision and he did. We made a place in our hearts for the little one... only for the child to be stolen away just like the others. We had both wondered if we would regret keeping the child; I let myself believe that's why my body decided to miscarry. I was evil. I was a disgusting failure as a wife and a woman, and I would never deserve to be a mother after what I did. 

I've watched Law and Order SVU religiously for years. Olivia Benson is my hero, she's someone I aspire to be like. So yeah, I know it's never the victim's fault. I know that miscarriage doesn't happen just because you feel scared or guilty. I know you can't just will a miscarriage to happen. I know I didn't ask to be raped, I know I didn't ask for any of my children to die, not even the rapist's child. But you know what? When it happens to you, that voice in your head doesn't care what you know. It doesn't care of Mariska Hargitay's voice is echoing in your mind saying you didn't do anything wrong. That nasty voice in your head is going to tell you over and over, day and night, relentlessly, "You did this, this is your fault, you caused this, you wanted this, you deserved this." And it did. 

So now you know what I look like at my worst. You know how low I sank. You know how deeply I was hurting. Let me tell you what the healing looked like. Let me tell you there is hope. I know there is, because I found it. 

I started doing yoga a month or two after I was raped. It was the one time that voice in the back of my brain would take a breath and let me be. It was hard. I didn't like my body anymore, I didn't know it anymore and I really didn't want to. I went to yoga hoping it would help my lungs improve and help to clear my mind- I was getting over a year-long lung infection at the time and I coughed through most of the yoga classes... needless to say, how much yoga helped me heal after being raped was a happy accident. I probably spent at least 4 hours every day doing yoga for months. 

In the silence of meditation at the end of classes, a softer voice would speak in my mind. She told me I was okay, that I am a beautiful person, that I deserve peace. After yoga, I would go home and write that down. I made a point of writing down every positive thought I had, or anything that someone else said or did that made me feel a glimmer of positivity. I was numb almost all the time, so there wasn't much to write at first, but it helped me find my feelings again. Even now, I still write down the positive thoughts and things I notice. Sometimes it's too much to write down, and a few months ago I wouldn't have believed that was possible. 

Let me stop for a second and just clarify. I didn't think there was nothing good in the world. I never thought that. I know I am blessed with a wonderful life. But I was depressed. I hurt, everything hurt. Everything was exhausting and overwhelming. It wasn't that there was nothing good in the world, it was that I couldn't remember how to feel the good things. I couldn't remember how it felt to be happy, how to enjoy something. I felt like I dimmed the lives of everyone around me because I was hurting so deeply. I was crushed. I nearly ended my marriage over confusing lack of feelings and what I imagined feelings must have felt like. It was that bad.

I've always known myself very well. When I was raped, that changed. I am still working at establishing a trusting, positive relationship with myself every single day. Some days are better than others. 

So, yoga helped. Finding that space that gave me a break from the negative chatter in my mind. Writing helped, I wrote anything I felt but was ashamed to say out loud, because at least then the unpleasant thought wasn't trapped inside me anymore. It was out on paper, and I could let it go if I wanted to. Talking helped sometimes, but mostly it was the love and reassurance of my family and my yoga instructors and partners that carried me through each day. I called my parents, I called my grandpa, I went on dates with my husband. I wrote my close friends. I didn't always want to talk about what happened, but it helped to just talk about the feelings- the confusion, the pain and the numbness. I had brunch with my grandpa and lunches with my mom, even my youngest siblings new I was hurting and I went to them for hugs often. I didn't want to tell everyone the story of what happened, but I knew I needed support. My mom helped me when I didn't know how to help myself, and I don't think I could have come out of this without hatred in my heart if it wasn't for her. 

Crying helped. I swear I ran out of tears a couple times every day. Hugs helped. When I couldn't find the words, I could always reach out for a hug. My marriage was shaky when the depression swallowed me, and the messy confusion that came after... but my husband has always been my best friend and no matter where we were at with our marriage, he was always there to offer a warm hug and a cup of tea. 

It happened in phases, the anger and the crying. Some days I would go out hiking on my own because I felt too angry to be around people. I didn't know what I might say or do, I wanted to be alone where I couldn't hurt anyone. A day in the mountains made it tough to stay angry. I'd get home that night feeling numb again, and grateful to not be angry for a while. As the cycle of anger and crying slowed, I found gaps where I almost felt like myself again. I used those gaps to take care of myself. I'd wash my hair, trim my nails, maybe exfoliate... I became a fan of Lush bath bombs. I'd walk through the graveyard near our house or snuggle my cat and dog on the couch. I'm realizing now that the feeling I was finding was peace, but at the time I just knew it felt nice to not be angry or on the verge of tears. It felt nice to just feel nice. It felt nice to have just a tiny bit of energy. 

This is probably an obvious one, but once I found that tiny little gap between anger and sadness, counseling really helped. It made it so much worse at first; it made me angry about things from the past AND about being raped. I thought I was a complete nutcase, I was so emotional all the time. I was so tired from being so emotional, it took everything I had just to get out of bed, eat a meal, and brush my teeth. Depression isn't pretty, folks. "You don't have to like it, you don't have to be the best at it, but you have to show up." That's what I told myself. I don't have to feel good doing it, but I need to get out of bed. I have to comb my hair. I have to do yoga. I have to go to counseling. I have to let the feelings in. And when I did it, I rewarded myself with a bath bomb or a glass of wine. 

I wish there was some magical answer to how I healed, to how others can heal, but that's it. I let the feelings in, I found ways to stay soft, I wrote down anything that made me feel positive, and when I couldn't see the light through all the darkness, I opened up my journal to read those positive things I'd written the day before. The healing came one day at a time. There was no heroic feat or epiphany or mantra that made it all better; it was baby steps to a better version of myself than the one I woke up as. 

I know this is getting long. I guess I'm trying to figure out how to write the feeling of a hug for any survivors reading this. I know this post was sad, my heart is aching just thinking about how I will have to read through it again before I post it for you to see. I just want to honor the journey. I want you to know there is hope, it does get better, you will feel again, you deserve happiness and peace... but I want you to know this journey of healing is hard and it's long. I want you to know that because you're going to get through it, and when you do, nobody can ever take that away from you. It's worth it. YOU are worth it. I promise. 

I've healed. I've come back from a disgusting attack, and I still radiate love and light. I'm not the smiley ball of giggles I was before, but I'm learning to be happy again. I feel at peace today. The world did not end, and I am not ruined. I fell apart, but I was able to pick up the pieces and so can you. 

Just a few final notes- I've come to realize that my husband still is the only man I've ever been intimate with. That part of myself that I give to my husband, I've never given it to anyone else, and it's not something anyone else can steal away. The man who raped me forced sex upon me, period. That's it. There's nothing else he has. He couldn't take away the love I have for my family. He couldn't break my spirit. He sure as hell doesn't have the power to leave a stain on my soul. If my body is a temple, he broke into it. Maybe he shattered a beautiful, one-of-a-kind stained glass window, but that is all. He didn't burn the temple to the ground, he didn't blow it up, he didn't steal the soul from inside of it. He broke a window. Nothing more. That window can be replaced, the temple can be redecorated. He doesn't own it. He has no power over me, and no part of me belongs to that man. 

We live in a society where you are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, and sometimes that idea causes rape victims to be questioned or even overlooked. I like to hope it's mostly innocent, trying to give the defendant the benefit of the doubt, to truly be innocent until they are proven guilty. It's a frustrating and broken system sometimes. I think this is why with rape so much shame and fear overwhelms the victim. But I am not disgusting. I have nothing to be ashamed of. I've had to learn that. I've had to hear it and say it to myself thousands of times to finally be able to believe it. If you've been hurt in this way, I am so so sorry or your pain, and above everything else I just want you to know that this is not your fault, you do not have anything to be ashamed of here, and you have the strength to recover from this hurt. 

Sharing the pain and the journey behind some of my recent struggles is an important step in my own healing process. I sincerely hope sharing my struggles helps others to overcome their own. 

Thank you so much for joining me in this space.

With love,

Jessica Peña