“It was 4 years ago this month I was sexually assaulted.”
I finally said that out loud for the first time the other day and it felt like the floor beneath me had fallen out. Typing it was almost impossible, because now that I am writing it down, it makes it real, it makes that secret of my life public.
When I first thought about writing this piece I reflected on the fact that it was this month, April, 4 years prior that I encountered a person that would change my life. How unfortunate that this incident coincided with Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
For as long as I can remember I have always struggled with mental health issues. This grew out of a place where I knew I was different; Growing up gay in Texas was not exactly a walk in the park, and everyone around me seemed to know before I did. I lived in a “glass closet.” I was constantly trying to fit into a masculine mold that just was not authentic to who I was, often at odds with the rural community where I grew up. When I went to college I wanted to put my best foot forward, so I toned down my flamboyancy, adopted a new wardrobe and image, and decided to be what I thought everyone else wanted me to be. I joined Theta Chi after the recommendation of some friends, and found a group of men that quickly saw through this front and supported me as best as they could. My first year in college was everything I needed, and helped tremendously with my self-image. My second year was probably the worst, as I fell into a depressing spiral that almost drove me to end my own life. Thankfully a number of brothers and administrators intervened and I finally got the help I needed.
I tell you all of this because I think the context of who I am, my identities, and the way I navigated my own sexual assault matter. These pieces all impact one another.
Just a few weeks prior to the incident I had just turned 21 years old. I was in my third year of undergrad and thought I was invincible. Likely harboring a few alcoholic tendencies, I was going out every chance I got. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, sometimes even on Sunday nights. It never negatively affected my grades, my involvement in co-curricular activities, or my friendships however, I was also drinking to nurse old wounds. After recently going through a break up with my first boyfriend, I was not in an emotional space that was healthy, and I was not willing or able to recognize it.
It was a Saturday night; I was out with my usual crowd by 9:30 p.m. (I had to take advantage of the cheap drink deals at the local college dive bar, 50 cents well drinks), and we found ourselves playing darts against a group of guys that we knew from intramural sports. Drink after drink, shot after shot, I likely had 10-15 drinks within a 3-hour period. I can remember every detail, the clothes I was wearing, the jeans, my shoes, even the way my hair was parted that night, but the last memory I have is being handed a drink by my eventual rapist.
From that point forward it is all a blur. A few images pop up every now and again of the room I was in, the apartment, things that were said, and the actual event itself. I remember saying, “No.” I remember crying. I can’t remember the whole event, just the memories of things that haunt me at the most inconvenient times (usually during a graphic scene in a movie, in the middle of a student staff training, or when I am in a particularly dark club). I woke up the next morning in my own apartment, sitting in the shower with all of my clothes still on. I did not move the rest of the day from my bed.
Feeling dirty, guilty, and helpless, I decided not to tell anyone for a while. The person who raped me was well-known on campus and I didn’t think anything would come of me reporting the information. I also felt like I had taken up a considerable amount of time from the student affairs administrators and the Greek life staff at the time, and I didn’t want to be a burden to them. Looking back, I regret not reporting the incident and wonder how things might have turned out had I decided to do so.
Additionally, I didn’t think anyone would believe me. I had internalized this message that gay men were inherently promiscuous, so this was likely my own fault. I had slept with this particular individual before and wondered whether or not I was asking for it.
“Did I consent? This is probably my fault; I was asking for it.
I shouldn’t have been so drunk and should have listened to my friends.
Some of my friends don’t believe me, why would anyone else?
What is my mom going to think? What about my dad?*
No one can know, I have things to do and don’t have time to be a victim.
It has been too long since then, I can’t report it now.”
*It should be noted that I did tell my parents this past week prior to this post becoming public, that is how long it took me to build up the courage to tell them this part of myself.
All of these thoughts ran through my head constantly (and sometimes still do). After a few months, I started to tell a few people, usually after getting drunk again and finally letting my guard down. However, it wasn’t until my senior year at my chapter’s senior night that I finally told my brothers. I was about to embark on the next journey in my life and it felt fitting to tell the group of men with whom I could be honest. I was met with compassionate reactions and hugs afterward; it was the perfect send off.
A few months later I went to graduate school in Vermont to become a higher education professional, and hopefully support students like myself that struggle with the same things. And while I thought I had finally dealt with all of my demons, we should know by now that it was just an illusion. Graduate school was difficult, and in the midst of grieving several deaths, I found it hard to survive.
It was not until my third semester in grad school that I decided to start seeing a counselor again. Here I was, an administrator referring students constantly to counseling services, constantly talking about how students should confront the deepest pieces of themselves, yet I was failing to take my own advice. If it wasn’t for my supervisor, friends in my cohort pushing me to receive counseling, and my faith in God, I’m not sure I would have finished my program. For me, going to church every Sunday, going through the sacraments, and finding peace in silence was instrumental in my recovery.
In retrospect, I think all of this means that we are never truly done dealing with our “crap.” It’s cyclical, and crops up every now and again. Even this past week as I was speaking with a student, I had to take a moment to process a traumatic piece of my past that was getting in the way of me being present. While I am in a better place of coping now, I know that I have a long road ahead of me.
But here are some things that I have learned thus far:
1. It was not my fault. No matter the circumstances, what I experienced was real, and it was not my fault.
2. It happens to men, and as a man it is my responsibility to end gender-based violence in our culture.
3. Tell somebody, when you’re ready, but please report it. Don’t let this person get away with it.
4. Take care of yourself, in whatever way is meaningful for you. If this is religion, meditation, running,
working out, Netflix-binge, whatever it is… THAT’S GREAT. Don’t let alcohol or drugs become your coping mechanism.
This is my story. It’s messy and horrible, but it is a part of my journey. It is also why I do the work that I do. If you ever need a helping hand, or a brother to talk to, I’m here.
Sean Smallwood (Delta Phi/North Texas 2013)
firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @SeanRSmallwood