The conversation below is excerpted from an online discussion on relationships, identity, and sexuality that OBOS hosted while compiling the last print edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” You can learn more about the discussion and read bios of the participants.
Nidea: Something that is very difficult but helps so much is to learn how to love yourself for who you are. I really wish I could say definitely when these feelings would go away, but sometimes these feelings come back. But don’t let them affect the way you want to live; don’t let those who caused you harm be so powerful.
Some of the things that have helped me through this: reading, learning about how other people have coped. Also, music has helped me a lot. I have my feel-good playlist with nothing but positive music: songs by India.Arie, Mary J Blige, and even “Beautiful” by Christina Aguilera.
Natasha: What has helped me heal the most have been my partnership/marriage with my late spouse and my therapist of the last six years. My spouse respected my boundaries, always was concerned about my pleasure, and was happy for me to take the lead.
My current therapist is the first one I could tell everything about the date assaults I survived when I was a young woman, and has supported me in developing my creative gifts in writing, music, and art. I remember taking self-defense and karate classes in my early and late twenties. Both were very important in increasing my self-confidence and facilitating my healing.
Jaime: Time. Feminism. The abuse inflicted upon me was relatively mild, short in duration, and after childhood; it was a partner nonphysically forcing and manipulating me into having sex when I didn’t want to or to have kinds of sex I didn’t want to. I was eighteen at the time. What I mean to say is that it could have been worse. I didn’t recognize it as abuse for a little bit, just as a bad relationship.
With time, it’s faded, and I’ve been able to take it as a learning experience, so that I won’t find myself with another partner who does that. And if I should find myself there, I’ll recognize it for what it is and GTFO.
I mostly confide in the Internet—the anonymity makes this easier. I’m known as a bit of a strong, stoic woman in real life, so telling most friends and family would make me uncomfortable. I have told a couple of my partners, so that they could avoid doing things that trigger me. The Internet has been the most important resource in my healing. Feminist sites allow me a community, remind me that I’m not at fault, tell me it gets better, give me vocabularies, and help me process.
EJM: Being open with close friends helps a lot. I did not follow this advice while I was dealing with sexual/emotional abuse while in college. I am a very private person, and I thought that it was best not to burden my close friends with the things that were happening around me. However, I did see a therapist who helped me gain the courage to end the relationship. It was nice to talk to a stranger and hear an outside perspective.
A year later, when I did finally tell my close friends what had happened, instead of being angry at me for not telling them, they gave me hugs. They were thankful that I was able to find the help I needed. It was a huge relief to be able to tell them, and I realized that my life might have been a lot easier if I had their support and love from the beginning.
I continued to meet with a therapist to help me move on from the nightmarish experience I had. It helped me move on from the constant fear that I felt every day and allowed me to accept different relationships in my life. I’m not saying that therapy was the cure-all. I think I still struggle every day with uncertainty of relationships (Will this person suddenly turn on me and terrorize me? Can I cope with having this happen again?), but it helped to find a very patient and caring therapist who matched my needs and personality.
Lola: I was sexually, emotionally, and at times physically abused by a much older boyfriend from age fifteen to seventeen. Jaime said, “Time. Feminism.” Yeah, straight up. For me, “time” meant growing old enough to see the teenage me almost as a little sister. I see photos of me back then and think, “Why would anyone want to hurt her? She didn’t mean anyone harm.” At the same time, with that tiny bit of maturity, I think of telling myself that I couldn’t have stopped it or done anything more than I could have at the time. There’s a lot of forgiveness there, and peace, that was hard-won.
“Feminism” was definitely the other piece. Being able to connect the personal (“it was just a bad relationship”) to the political (violence against women, the overlying tropes of hegemony, power, and consent with older men/younger women) was an enormous relief when I was still unable to give myself the forgiveness I needed and helped me see myself in a larger struggle. It meant not being alone.
Also, I have to say, plain speaking was enormous: just finding the courage to say what happened without using the same tone of voice as you would use at a funeral. Stigma sucks, and for me, at least, I felt released by not acting like it was some big secret. Similarly, I was inspired by an “I was raped” shirt and hope to be strong enough one day to wear one of my own. [The shirts were created in 2008 as part of a rape awareness project.]
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