Redefining self: Victim to survivor

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany -- (Editor's note: The author of this commentary wished to remain anonymous)

Trust is a valuable asset in our Air Force. To me it is the cornerstone to our core values.

Throughout our military education we are taught to trust our fellow Airmen. We build a foundation around that trust.

Several years ago, my trust was taken away when I was sexually assaulted by a fellow Airman.

My friends and I decided to celebrate another successful school year by attending a party with some of our classmates. When we arrived I saw a few students at the party who were a year ahead of us, but everyone recognized each other. I didn't think much of it.

I didn't realize that night would dramatically change my life. How could I have known that night I would be held against my will and assaulted?

When it was time to leave, I remember hearing my friend call my name as I lay on the cold, bathroom floor. The pungent smell of pine-scented cleaner burned my nostrils as I tried to peel myself off the tile.

I had always associated sexual assault with "stranger danger," never did I think it could happen to me. I never imagined it would be someone I knew, someone I trusted.

Unsure of what had just happened, I refused to let myself believe I had been raped.

Slowly, I pulled away from those I loved. I didn't know who I could trust. Denial became easier than facing the problem.

The next semester, the attacker attended some of the same classes I did. He would often sit close to me and act like we were friends.

My grades began to suffer. I could not concentrate and became angry. Angry at my friends for not knowing what I was going through; angry at myself for what had happened and not knowing what to do. Merely a shell of my former self, I no longer recognized my own reflection in the mirror.

My relationships suffered, grades plummeted and I bled from the unseen wounds as many victims of sexual assault do. At times I felt completely empty and void of any feeling, other times I felt like I would burst with pain. There were moments when I would become overwhelmed with the feeling that there were a thousand tasks for me to do, but I couldn't bring myself to complete a single, simple one.

I did not realize how lost I had become until I overheard someone use the term "damaged." Finally, a word that described the scars and pain I was experiencing.

Damaged, it was a simple word that described me. At that moment all of my pain, anguish and anger came flooding to the surface. All of those feelings filled my body while also numbing my soul leaving a dark emptiness.

A friend of mine knew something had not been right for many months and kept reaching out to let me know he was there. I kept pushing him away until finally I broke down and told him I needed someone to talk to.

He walked beside me to the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator office and waited outside until I was ready to go back home. Although, I had pushed my friends away and isolated myself, this person stood by me when I needed someone the most.

The SARC assigned me to a victim advocate to talk about different programs and to just stand by as support if I needed to talk. During a time when I lost my trust for people, talking to someone I had never met before regarding something so personal felt strange, but refreshing.

I could focus on stepping up to get the help I needed and refocus on the important things in my life. Yoga, life skills and other programs helped me identify who I am and who I had lost. The pain began to ease and the darkness began to fade as I slowly began to find my voice.

The person before the attack was gone, in her place now stood a new, stronger person. I had redefined myself from victim to survivor.

Throughout the journey as a survivor, I face many setbacks from the smell of certain colognes to how someone reaches out to touch my shoulder. No matter how many setbacks I have, each day is a new step forward on that journey.

As an Air Force officer I've had many opportunities and an incredible career traveling across the world. My wonderful husband and I plan on having a family and lifting up those around us. From the darkest moments of life, I've found a shimmer of hope.

The trust that was once broken, has been rebuilt. My relationships are now stronger as I have found solace in forgiving.

I became a victim advocate to help others rediscover their strength and have been able to share my story with many people. Those who are still lost as sexual assault victims need to know that they are not alone.

We need to help others take that step forward as a survivor. If not for my friend who stepped in to rescue me from desolation and the downward spiral I was caught in, this would be a different story today.

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