[Content Warning: The effects of sexual assault on mental health]
I think for a long time I’ve strived to be normal or to “pass” for normal. I’ve tried to hide my past and my continued struggles, but my past is a part of me. And those struggles? Well, they are too. Today, I feel stronger and better able to face my challenges, but this wasn’t always the case.
Coming to terms with mental health struggles
When I was a freshman in college, I was sexually assaulted. My college did everything in their power to cover this up and my mental health rapidly deteriorated. I was slammed with overwhelming depression and anxiety. I was suicidal. I tried to cope and turned to self-harm and food restriction. I obsessively exercised and drank alcohol as ways to muddle through. Toxic shame overwhelmed me. I was not only ashamed of the assault, but of what had become of my mental health.
My embarrassment over the state of my mental health made it even harder for me to seek help. I was so worried about what others would think of me so I put on a happy face for the world, while internally I was struggling. Finally after four years of silence and self-hatred, someone stepped in and saw that I was having difficulty coping and helped me get the help I needed.
Lifting the lid and letting it out
That was all four years ago now – so since then I have acquired four years of therapy and reflection and growth under my belt. The journey hasn’t been easy, but it was certainly important. And I’ve come to a realization, just like what happened to me was not my fault, my mental health struggles are not my fault.
Last summer, I decided to go public about not only my assault, but about what happened to my mental health in its aftermath. I wrote a book about my rape and recovery, and I decided that going public in advance of the book was what I needed to do. People have been incredibly supportive and kind overall. But what has blown me away the most is the amount of people (friends, acquaintances, and strangers) who have shared with me that either they were also assaulted, or that they, too, struggle with their mental health, or both. So many people, some of which I have known for years, have shared their stories and it’s eye-opening how many of us suffer in silence right next to each other.
I also want to add that it is valid to not want to share your struggles in a public way, this just happened to be the right choice for me. Just know that if you are having a hard time, there are good people who can help you and that you don’t need to carry whatever you are carrying alone.
This time last year, only a handful of people were aware of my past and what I struggle with and now this is all kind of out there and I am ok with that. I have blonde hair, I have ten fingers, I was raped, and I have mental health struggles – I did not cause any of these things.
Finding a new “normal”
I still have panic attacks. I sometimes still agonize over what I eat and can slip into my eating disorder mentality. I have anxiety – that’s a part of me and so is my depression, BUT I am so much more than these things and I am so much more than what happened to me. I have learned what my triggers are and healthy ways to cope. I have built a relationship of trust with my therapist and this has been so important to my healing. My life was changed by what happened to me, but I am stronger now than I ever thought I could be. I love my life, struggles and all.
It took me a long time to let go of my shame, but it is amazing to see how how I am not as alone as I thought. So many people struggle with their mental health. Millions of people struggle the way that I did in the past and the way that I still do, and yet, so many of us feel alone. There can be such a stigma associated with mental health struggles, but they are so incredibly common. If you’re struggling, it is more likely than not that someone else in your life is struggling, too. Just because people aren’t talking about it, doesn’t mean it is isn’t happening to them. Mental health struggles are not your fault, just like rape is never the victim’s fault. Help is out there and there’s no shame in seeking it.
If you’re struggling, reach out. The National Sexual Assault Hotline is anonymous, confidential, and available 24/7. Call 800.656.HOPE or chat at http://online.rainn.org . The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is also available 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for anyone struggling to cope. Visit http://suicidepreventionlifeline.org to learn more.