Wednesday, April 22, 2015

From Survivor to Advocate of Sexual Assault

Yesterday I shared part one of Jessie's story... from victim to survivor of sexual assault. Today we are picking up six years after the incident... six years of Jessie keeping it all a deep secret. Today she is sharing about how she took steps to get out of that silence and how that drove her to become an advocate.


During the six years after the assault I gave birth to two daughters, earned two bachelor’s degrees, one master’s degree, worked full time for the Department of Veterans Affairs and part time for the Department of the Army.  However, I do not have many memories associated to these years.  I remember bits and pieces but I don’t have any real memories.  My therapist has used the terminology of autopilot.  I was simply going through the movements of life and not really living it.

In the spring of 2011, I was leading my daughters' Girl Scout troop.  To help reinforce the idea that police are the good guys, I invited some to come talk to the girls.  During the event, we got onto the subject of "bathing suit areas" and who was allowed to touch  those areas.  We discussed safe adults that we could talk to if someone was hurting us.  One of my girls asked the question What if it’s a "safe adult” that is hurting us?  I told her to tell another safe adult.  I told her to tell me or her teacher or nurse or police officer, just tell someone. 

At that moment it hit me, “how can I properly lead these girls if I didn’t tell?”

The next day I told my best friend my secret, then later that night I told my husband. 

My friend was supportive. My husband was not.  The first thing my husband said to me was, “call the VA, I can’t help you”.  His second response was, “please tell me you were already pregnant.  Don’t take our daughter away from me.”  His words were hurtful.  I don’t know what I expected him to say, but I’m pretty sure those were not the words I expected.  Next I told my mother and she responded very similar to my husband.  She told me to, “blow my nose and get it out of my head, bad stuff happens to everyone.” 

I felt alone.
I felt ashamed.
I felt like a victim all over again.
I felt dirty.
I felt like it was my fault.
I felt like I was tainted, that no one would love me again.
I felt like every person in my life would look at me as damaged goods.
I felt like I should just have kept my secret and maybe my life would have been “normal”.

Then my dad told me he was sorry this happened to me and that he would be as supportive as I needed him to be.  He encouraged me to seek the help I needed and gave me faith that I would be ok again someday.

I started treatment at the VA Butler Medical Center the following week.  I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  I was told that I wasn’t alone, 1 in 4 women in the military are survivors of Military Sexual Trauma (MST).  My therapist told me that recovery would be a lifelong process and that it was possible for me to get my life back.  She told me that it wasn’t my fault and that I shouldn’t be ashamed of what happened to me.

The symptoms I often have with PTSD are the pretty standard ones; nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks, trouble with authority, anxiety, lack of trust, sabotage of healthy relationships, memory loss, lack of emotion.  If something makes me uncomfortable, I avoid it.  I could go on and on about the symptoms I face every day and how they affect my daily life.

After I started treatment, I began to own my story.  I was able to piece together events and look back on the assaults that happened.  I came to terms with the fact that there was no way I could have known that my friend would turn on me.  There was no way I could have prevented the assaults.  There was no physical way I could have fought him off.  (He was about a foot taller than me and outweighed me by about 100 pounds.)  I was pregnant with my daughter and my mind and body automatically did what they had to do to survive to the best of my ability.  That’s what I had done.  I was not a victim any longer.

I was strong.  I was confident.
I was a SURVIVOR.

I began talking more freely about my rape.  In 2013 I was no longer afraid.  I decided to report my rape to the Army CID (Criminal Investigation Division).  This was a decision I did not take lightly.  It was risky and would be a long process with an uncertain outcome.  I also knew that the stigma of the Army was to blame the victim.

Luckily, I had an amazing Special Agent (SA) assigned to my case.  She was an amazing young woman that really kicked ass when it came to investigating.  Through the evidence that she found, my attacker was titled (that’s a military word for charged) with “cruelty to subordinates”.  Since nearly 8 years had passed and I had no physical evidence, I was actually ok with the findings.  I felt like someone besides my therapist believed me.  I felt vindicated.  My attacker was given a GOMAR (General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand) and then allowed to retire. 

A GOMAR is basically a scolding from a General.  It means that a General (you know the guys that wear the stars), the highest ranking officer in the Army, told him that he was bad and that he shouldn’t have treated me the way he did.

Since 2013, I’ve become an advocate.  I speak to other survivors of sexual assault and let them know that they are not alone.  I’ve been in their shoes and I know what it’s like to live in fear.  I know what it’s like to not trust anyone, even you.   I still attend therapy every week at the VA.  We actually just started a group therapy program where a handful of other veterans, including me, get together once a week to discuss our assaults and the affects they have had on our lives.  We have all been diagnosed with PTSD, stemming from the sexual trauma we encountered while serving our country.  This group of women has given me strength just by being there.  With them by my side, I truly know I am not alone.

My husband and my mother are now two of my biggest supporters and they have both expressed to me their discontent with how they approached things in the beginning.  My husband has stood by my side through the recovery.  I’m sure it’s not easy to be married to a survivor.  I know that at times I can be a very challenging person to live with.  Our relationship has improved drastically over the last two years.  We’ve fallen in love with each other again.  He has become my rock and my biggest supporter.  I could not advocate if it were not for his support.

My mother is now my best friend.  She loves me for who I am.  She is proud of the woman I’ve become.  She realized that society was wrong and that there is no reason to be ashamed of a rape survivor.  We are closer now then we’ve ever been. 

If you or someone you love is struggling with the after effects of sexual assault, please feel free to reach out to me at advocatemst@gmail.com.  I’m willing to help guide you through the process and even try to get you set up with a counselor in your area.  If you don’t feel comfortable contacting me, (I’m not a trained professional, just a survivor) then please contact the Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255.  If you are a veteran, press 1 to be transferred to the VA Crisis line.  The VA Crisis Line also has a text number that I’ve used several times.  I find it more anonymous this way.  The text number is 838255.

Thank you for reading my story and remember, you are not alone.

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