Concluding the “Letters From…” Project | Opinion

MaKayla Polak | Northwest Missourian

I am a survivor of sexual assault, not once, not twice, but three times.

I grew up thinking that as long as I didn’t walk down a dark alley in the downtown portion of a large city, I would be fine — I was wrong. The first guy was someone who I thought I was going to date, the second was an authority figure and the third, I still don’t know who it was.

The first time, I was a freshman in college. I had just gotten used to what college was like when my life was turned upside down. A guy who I thought I was going to be in a relationship with was suddenly the reason I was afraid to leave my dorm and have a good time. I was afraid to do anything. I didn’t want to go to classes, I didn’t want to go to work and I never wanted to go out on a Friday night.

Eventually, I overpowered my fears, started a new job, went back to my classes, and then it happened again. A person who I was supposed to look up to took advantage of how weak I was. He knew what had happened to me and did the same thing. Someone I trusted, someone who I thought cared about me, left me in tears once again.

I quit my job and tried to move on with my life. I already knew how to power through the pain; I just had to do it again. I found a whole new set of friends and I started to actually enjoy my time in college. Things were looking up — until they weren’t.

I went to a local bar with some of my friends to celebrate the end of the semester. What started off as a fun night turned out to be a night that would haunt me. A man, who I still don’t know, pulled me into the bathroom and left me with emotional and physical scars.

The emotional pain that follows you after you have been sexually assaulted is nothing you can ever prepare for.

Being called “hun” was sincere, but after my assault, I developed a heightened panic attack that still happens when I hear it. I shake with anxiety when I see a specific vehicle driving down Main Street. I freeze when anyone talks about going to the bar that ruined my life.

But the worst is when someone doesn’t believe you. My own set of friends — the ones I spent every day with — didn’t believe me when I told them. The worst isn’t your friends though; it’s when you take a leap of faith, give it all you have in front of a judge, and the “justice” system seamlessly fails you.

If there is one thing that I have learned over these last three years, it is that your support system is single-handedly the most valuable thing in your life — having people who you and will never pressure you into doing anything that you are not comfortable with. Having someone to talk to when things start looking down again is the most important part of the healing process.

I hesitated to reach out to people when it first happened to me. I was afraid to admit it and I feared judgment. But if there is one thing I would do differently, it would be just that. For anyone who has experienced sexual assault, know that there are resources, people who will actually believe you and people who will listen to you cry. Never be ashamed of what happened to you — it wasn’t your fault.

Meghann Kosman | North Star Advocacy Center

Many thoughts go through my mind when I’m called to sit with a victim who has just been sexually assaulted. Wearing my “professional hat,” my trained brain remembers my binder of paperwork, my business cards and a working pen. Oh, and a charger for our phone if we’re going to the hospital —because we’re going to be there awhile.

Silently, I’m thinking through all the things I want to make sure the victim knows before, during and after this traumatizing process. I walk in knowing the person I’m there with needs as much choice put back in their hands as possible, even if that means they choose not to report. My coworkers and I believe, above all else, the victim should know it wasn’t their fault. Admittedly for me, sometimes that message is difficult. I believe it, but without a doubt, I know this will be the hardest truth for the victim to hold true for themselves. Trauma — a sexual assault — changes a person. Even though there is hope, knowing of that change is possibly the hardest part of the job.

Over the past 12 1/2 years, I’ve listened to countless stories of people who were assaulted. Sometimes, North Star are the first people to hear them. Other times, my colleagues and I are the first people to believe them. Some cases have unnerved me and have affected my dreams. Other cases have frustrated me as they get wrapped up in the very imperfect “justice” system.And even in a successful case, whatever that means, it still all came from a significant cost of someone’s self worth, sense of safety and loss of humanity . As unhopeful and heartbreaking as this is, these are the reasons why my colleagues and I advocate for people who have been sexually assaulted.

There are so many reasons, many of them personal, advocates get into this work. Through advocacy, we work to educate the public about victim blaming, consent and culture challenges. Some of us take the frustrations and are empowered to help create and change laws. We are energized by finding people who also feel strongly in helping the cause. And we’re humbled to continue to be the ones people are personal and vulnerable with.

During this month of April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I feel sad but humbled by those who have decided to write into the “Letters From…” Project and share their stories anonymously. I hope that everyone who wrote in is hearing nothing but support and belief by those reading their stories, even if the reader has no idea one of the writers is sitting right beside them. To all the ones who wrote in, and to all the ones who chose not to write in just yet, we feel you. Through the nightmares, panic attacks and societal blame, we believe in the healing you deserve. We believe you.

Kasey Ragan | Northwest Wellness Center

Reading the “Letters From…” stories y’all told has been inspirational. Your strength, survival and voices mean a lot to me and to so many other readers. I’m honored to be a part of this project, to provide a place for survivors to tell their stories.

I’m also a survivor. At 4 years old, an older boy in the neighborhood molested me. I showed all the classic symptoms of being sexually abused; though, it was the early 1980s and my parents were unaware what these signs meant. No one talked about abuse then, and child molesters were thought of as the creepy stranger lurking in the bushes. They weren’t 17-year-old middle-class babysitters. They weren’t from good families; they didn’t look like your friends, people you trusted. Back then, survivors didn’t openly tell their stories, and newspapers didn’t print the reality of assault.

After the abuse started, I became afraid of the dark, insisting I sleep with my door open and the hall light blazing. I began regularly wetting the bed. I would cry and beg my folks not to hire the babysitter. My parents didn’t understand. They wouldn’t know the truth until the one night my parents came home early, and my mom found him in my bed with my nightgown pulled up. She finally understood.

My parents seek professional advice on what to do. They were told not to press charges, that he was a good boy from a good family, and no one would believe us. But I was a good girl from a good family, what about me? My parents were also told never to talk about it with me, that I was too young to remember the abuse, and if they just let me forget about it, I would never be traumatized as an adult. They were wrong, I did remember. I often wonder what my life would be like if my parents had access to projects like “Letters From…” or advocacy groups like North Star, if they knew the truth about sexual assault.

When I was 14 years old, the family secret finally came out. I will never forget standing in the kitchen, helping my mom cut up carrots for dinner. I was telling her about a friend who was in the foster care system because her mom was caught selling my friend for sex. I was trying to process this violence when I told my mom that I was glad nothing like that had ever happened to me. My mom broke down crying and told me the truth of my childhood. The memories I had of a man coming into my room, getting into my bed and telling me to be quiet while I clung to my pillow. The lucky pennies I stored in that pillow in the hopes they would ward off the abuse. All of it finally made sense to me. I was angry.

After lots of therapy, I no longer live in fear. Those memories no longer make me cry, and I devoted my life to ensuring that no other survivor misses out on the justice and healing they need. This is how I channel my anger; this is how I get justice.

My story, all our stories, show why a project like “Letters From…” is so important. There is strength in listening and supporting one another. There is peace in healing. To those of you reading this, who feel alone and afraid, please know that you have people and places to turn to. Counseling services and North Star are great places to start on your journey to healing.

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