“If we are able to communicate only one thing about your role in a survivor’s journey, it is this: never ever underestimate your power to affect its course.”

“If we are able to communicate only one thing about your role in a survivor’s journey, it is this: never ever underestimate your power to affect its course.”

– Maile Zambuto, Joyful Heart CEO

This is an amazing quote from a phenomenal article on how you can help support a survivor brave enough to share their story with you. They have some excellent tips on what to say, how to take care of yourself, and the most important thing you can offer a survivor…

http://www.joyfulheartfoundation.org/blog/6-steps-supporting-survivor

Advertisements

The Unspoken Trauma

I was struck by a devastating reality the other day as I prepared my taxes for this past year: I owe the government money!

Often when we think of the aftermath of sexual assault, we think of the physical and psychological devastation witnesses and victims face. Perhaps what is less known, or less talked about, is the trauma of financial ruin.

2014 will go down as one of the worst years of my life. A chapter, I certainly do not wish to relive. Following my assault the previous August, January 2014 was filled with a greater darkness than I have ever known. I hit the depths of my depression that month. Just getting out of bed seemed an insurmountable task. The measure of my success became taking a shower because it meant I didn’t stay in bed the whole day. As my soul churned, I struggled to reestablish some footing in a world I thought I knew. I lived in the body of a person who no longer existed. The nothingness was consuming. Every day, I hoped only to make it to the end of that day because anything beyond that seemed impossible. I didn’t think I would survive it. I entertained suicidal thoughts and begged to die. I pleaded each night, that I wouldn’t wake up in the morning. I lost the ability to function and sleep evaded me. I watched the business that took me a year to build, slip away from me, as I was incapable of locating an ounce of motivation. As this business was my livelihood, my savings rapidly seeped from my bank account. Left with nothing, I was forced to turn to my family for money to pay rent and monthly bills.

Slowly but surely, I managed to pick up some babysitting jobs. For nearly six months, ten hours a week was all I had to offer. Every so often, my energy would increase and I would be able to accomplish a little bit more than before. The little money that came in was vital to my survival. Preparing my taxes made me all too aware of my incapacity for life the previous year and the debt of gratitude I owe to those who kept me afloat. My taxable income didn’t even reach $10,000! Finding out, in the wake of financial destruction, that I would need to resurrect more money I didn’t have, was yet another devastating blow.

I would love to say that I’m out of the woods now, but as with all aspects of the healing journey, it’s a process. Everyday, I make headway. As my sense of safety and security return, I can literally feel myself emerging from survival mode and beginning to dream again. There can be nothing better, no greater sign of healing, than the return of our ability to dream of a future we desire. And I know, that as I dream, my life will continue to awaken to all that God has awaiting me. It is this reality that gives me the faith that my finances, just like my heart, mind, body and soul, will heal. I will regain my footing. I will begin again, successfully.

Parole Day

Tomorrow, Sunday March 22, 2015, four weeks after the plea hearing, my assailant comes up for parole. He will be released from prison and begin his probation.

It’s amazing the freedom I have found to move forward, since that moment, just four weeks ago, when the gavel fell. I hadn’t realized how much of me was being held back, anchored in the past, constantly steeped in the details of my crime, due to my part in the justice system. I knew, throughout, that the process was draining. Simultaneously, I also knew that I was doing the work every day to fight to move forward, even if moving forward that day simply meant getting out of bed for five minutes. The legal system demanded, however, that I be repeatedly immersed in the details of my crime, the emotions of being a victim, the feelings of powerlessness. For a year and a half, while I worked to move forward, a part of me was bound to the origin of it all. This, I realize now, was perhaps the greatest sacrifice of choosing to report my crime. But, I would do it again. I would do it again because it was the right thing to do, it was truth brought to light. I would do it again, so that another woman need not know the pain and darkness of such torment. And, as difficult as it all was, I would do it again for me. Because, while the legal system took a great deal from me, it also gave me a support network, an opportunity to take a stand against violence, a platform from which to be heard, and validation of my suffering.

Sexual assault leaves in its wake a great deal of unanswered questions, but seeing the legal process through to the end, allowed me to wipe away a few of those haunting thoughts: “What if I had done something?” What if he hurts someone else?” My assailant may be paroled tomorrow, but thanks to my courage, those who supported me, and the grace of God, I can know that I did my part to hold him accountable for his actions, to grant him the opportunity to acknowledge his wrongdoings and turn from them. At a time when I was wrestling with how to merge mercy and justice, a good friend of mine provided me a clarity I have clung to: “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and give unto God what is God’s.” A month ago, with the completion of my court case and the cessation of the need for my testimony, I walked away from that courtroom with the closure that I had truly given unto to Caesar (the state of Pennsylvania) all that I had to offer them. And, tomorrow, on the Lord’s day, when my perpetrator is released from prison, I will give to God what is God’s: his future, his choices, his conversion, and his judgement. I am a free woman. My assailant and what happens to him is no longer my responsibility. Tomorrow, he goes forth in the custody of the State (for his 5 year probation period) and in the custody of God. Tomorrow, I go forth into the new and wonderful life that awaits me, with freedom, joy and life reviving my soul more with each new day.

Consent: What is it?

Throughout the legal process, one of the overriding themes was the issue of “consent”. My assailant’s defense relied tremendously on the notion that the assault had simply been a “miscommunication.” Even the judge at my plea hearing, interrupted the assailant, at one point, to interject that this was “NOT a case of miscommunication.” Overall, consent seems to be an issue that could use a little clarity. This is a fantastic article I ran across this week that spells it out so plainly, any remaining confusion should be cleared up. Read it. Share it. Let’s demystify this seemingly complicated topic.

This woman just explained consent with the most perfect metaphor

My Day in Court

There are no words for the emotions that accompany standing so close to the person who assaulted you, reading aloud before a courtroom filled with inmates, defendants from other cases, lawyers, police officers, etc. your Victim Impact Statement which includes the details of how the crime has specifically effected you in each part of your life. As my assailant is not currently a US citizen, the greatest delay has been finding a plea that would allow him at least the opportunity to stay in the country. Thus, the State decided, with my approval, to plead him out to a much lesser sentence than that with which he was originally charged. After a full eight hour day, back and forth before the judge, the court reluctantly accepted his plea of guilty to the lesser charges.

I knew from the beginning that the justice system was not my means to healing. I knew that no matter what happened, the end result would not bring me peace. No sentence could have equalled the crime. I do, however, believe that good was done through this long arduous process. He will see the inside of a jail, which may provide another opportunity for conversion, he will be under the court’s supervision for five years after his incarceration doing community service, perpetrator counseling, etc., and he will now have a record, so that, heaven forbid, if he ever commits another crime, he will not be a first time offender and therefore not be treated with the same kid gloves he was treated with this time. It also means that aside from the time I need to process all of this, I am no longer at the whim of the legal system. My life is now entirely mine to move forward with. These are good things.

It’s tempting as a victim to believe that the purpose of the legal system can coincide with our own efforts to heal and move forward from the crime committed against us, but this is rarely the case. We can want to believe that when the gavel falls and our assailant is convicted, that our loss and pain will be vindicated, but, again, this is rarely the case. Instead, something that has been important to me, from the beginning, has been to remind myself to separate the judicial process from my own healing. To know that what I would gain from the criminal justice system was the peace that I had done my part to prevent future assaults. But that only through counseling, perseverance, prayer, and support would I gain the wholeness and healing I so desperately sought, and continue to seek.

Understanding this separation, is what gives me confidence and peace in the decision made Monday.

My Final Plea

A year and a half after the assault, exactly fourteen months after giving my official report to the police, a year after the preliminary/evidentiary hearing, six months after the first plea hearing, five months after the first scheduled trial date, two months after the second scheduled trial date, and following countless pretrial conferences involving negotiations between the defense and the state, yesterday brought to a close this long journey for justice. It’s hard to put into words the way I felt when that gavel finally fell. Amidst the mixture of relief and grief, there was suddenly this inexplicable void. I was absolutely overcome by it all. It felt like it was the first time my lungs fully expanded to take a breath in a year and a half. Simultaneously, there was incredible grief and anger as the words of his feigned apology replayed in my mind. I think many people anticipate that with a conviction will come satisfaction, closure, or maybe even joy. Instead, for me, it felt a little more akin to a break up. Don’t get me wrong, I was ready to be done with the many ways the legal process continuously interrupted my life and I was certainly ready to be done with the emotional roller coaster of it all, but, with all those wonderful things, something else was happening inside of me. Nobody talks about the emptiness the end of the process brings with it. Something that was such a major part of my life was suddenly just gone. Please don’t misunderstand me, that’s a good thing. But, it’s gone nonetheless. Something I poured my thoughts, emotions, and time into, relationships I formed with those connected to the proceedings…all of it came to a close when the sentence was handed out. During the worst year and a half of my life, my incredible ADA and the Victims/Witnesses of Crime Office were a steady part of my life. They were rocks on which I stood. And I feel a little funny for saying it, but the truth is, along with all the sadness tied to the proceedings, there is also a sadness tied to the loss of those relationships and the uncertainty of heading out into the great unknown: life after the legal process.

While, I’ve worked daily to move forward, grow, and serve other victims of sexual assault in whatever means available, my life has remained anchored to the justice system. All I’ve known, since my assault, is life with the legal system. Now, it’s time for me to venture forward, built up by all of those who encouraged and empowered me along the way. It’s time for me to pour my strength into new adventures and life giving activities. As I begin to move forward, with the sun setting on this chapter of my life, I am forever indebted to each of those who made it possible for me to walk this long journey, to remain faithful to myself and what I knew to be true and good, to stay strong as my assailant sought to destroy my confidence in proceeding in my search for justice. There are no words for the place they each hold in my heart. Thanks to them, my voice has been heard. To me, that is the greatest and most healing gift to come out of this whole process, the opportunity to be heard. For that alone it would be worth it to do the whole thing all over again.

Below is the Victim Impact Statement I read to the court yesterday. (The blank spaces are where I’ve eliminated my assailant’s name). If you find yourself in the midst of the legal process, may it bring you comfort and strength to know you are not alone. To know that no matter what you may be feeling, it’s normal. And to know that, regardless of the outcome of your case, it’s all worth it because by taking a stand, you are using your voice to say NO MORE.

Your Honor, being here today is hard. It’s been a year and a half since my assault. That night was like three hours in hell. Each time I said “no” or “stop” or “please” and it was ignored, a little more light went out of my soul. This has been the darkest, most difficult time of my life. I’ve been diagnosed with Severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Depression and Anxiety. I needed prescription sleep aids just to get more than a few hours of tormented sleep a night.
For months following the assault, I felt like a zombie, like I was hollow inside. I couldn’t think or feel or sleep. I just went through the motions of my day. The few hours I did sleep were wracked with nightmares and flashbacks. When the depression was particularly severe, there were days, weeks, and even months when I barely got out of bed. I couldn’t eat. At 28 years old, I went from being a self sufficient, confident, self-employed entrepreneur who shot for the moon, to someone who’s greatest accomplishment in a day was taking a shower because it meant I didn’t stay in bed ALL day. So many times I prayed to die.  To just stop breathing. I didn’t know that it was possible to feel so much pain and torment.
Overcome by the darkness of it all, I lost my business and with it my income. I am now financially indebted to family for the months of rent and bills I could not pay. My family and friends were yet another casualty from the assault. I was not the only one who suffered the painful consequences of what was done to me. Many of my family and friends have needed to seek professional help themselves for the vicarious trauma they’ve suffered by having this happen to someone they love. My mother has perhaps suffered the worst of it.
Your Honor, I know that the court cannot give me back what was lost. I have known from the beginning that guilty or innocent, plea bargain or trial, no verdict or sentence could repair the damage or provide the healing I need. My perseverance and God alone have given me the strength to survive this and journey on the path to wholeness. It is important to me that you, and the defendant know, that I am not here to seek vengeance or to even a score. I’m here because my life was broken by _________’s choices that night. His choice to want to believe that “no” meant “she just needs encouragement” and “stop” meant “just try again.” And I realize that until that mentality is changed, it is possible he may cause the same harm to another woman.
___________, you said in your letter to me, following the assault, that your actions were because you “fell in love with me that night.” But, what happened that night was the opposite of love. Love is meant to be a mutual self giving. That night you took from me, an innocence that can never be restored. It is my hope that one day you will realize that what you considered a harmless misunderstanding, shattered my life. Not so that you’ll despair, but so that you may be changed and no longer remain a threat to other women whose boundaries you ignore. _________, I choose to forgive you, for that night, for drawing out this process, for all of it.  It’s not always easy, and whether or not it means anything to you…everyday I choose to forgive you.
Your Honor, it has remained my supreme hope through the legal proceedings, that they would be an opportunity for a change of heart. I have nothing specific to ask of you. I feel unworthy to suggest the punishment that may be deserved. Your Honor, I hand over to you both the  facts of my assault as well as the effects it has had on my life and my person. I am grateful that the responsibility for judgement and sentencing are yours and the District Attorney’s Office alone. I entrust them to you. Thank you for hearing my story and thank you for the work you do to change the rape culture in this country one case at a time.
IMG_0659**Above is the sunset on my journey home. And so, a new day, a new chapter begins.**

Deserted Road or Field?

Long before it became Taylor Swift’s hit song, my best friend would “Shake it Off” anytime she was having a bad day, or simply found herself in a funk. This involved, quite literally, jumping around and shaking her whole body. Her claim: that you can’t help but smile when you’re jiggling around like a fool; and thus, you shake off your bad mood. While I’ve used her method several times and found it quite effective, I tend to be more of a “Write it Off” kind of girl, taking pen to paper or fingers to keyboard to dissipate whatever blues I may be feeling. And so, here I am.

This evening brings mixed emotions. There is a chance that the end of my week long birthday celebrations will bring with them the end of a very long journey through the legal system, as a plea hearing has been tentatively scheduled for Monday. There’s joy and hope that accompany the possibility that this aspect of the healing process may soon be over. There’s devastation and confusion that it may end with my assailant serving only minimal time in spite of the crime he committed. But mostly, there’s nothingness. How is one supposed to feel in this situation? I’ve found myself on the eve of a plea hearing, potential plea hearing, trial, and even jury selection, so many times that it seems impossible to muster the energy necessary to, yet again, consider the options before me.

The night I was assaulted, I was trapped in my assailant’s vehicle for three hours, with a deserted road and line of trees to my left and an endless field to my right. Assessing my situation, there seemed to be no good options for escape routes. Sometimes, in the midst of the ceaseless array of impossible decisions the criminal justice system throws at me, I feel pinned in the same position. The gamble of a trial, or a plea agreement that evokes a sentence that seems insignificant in comparison to the wreckage of the crime? Deserted road or field? How do you begin to choose? And when you do, how do you begin to feel confident you’ve made the best decision? Or instead, do you just decide, processing be damned, to make a gut decision and hope for the best, and then continue to move forward towards your new life? I opt for the latter.

Seen

You know those rare moments in your life, when you feel truly seen by another human being. As though, they were given a momentary gift to see straight into your heart and speak to it. I had one such moment this past week. For my 30th birthday, celebrations abounded with family and friends. In the midst of it all, I received a package from a dear friend, who had hand painted the following images for me. In that moment, as I tore open the packaging and tossed the tissue paper on the floor, my heart stopped for just a second, in awe of the way a person, 500 miles away, could speak the words it so desperately needed to hear. And so, I journey on.

image1
Whenever you find yourself doubting how far you can go, just remember how far you have come. Remember everything you have faced, all the battles you have won, and all the fears you have overcome.” -Unknown

image2

“She stood in the storm and when the wind did not blow her away, she adjusted her sails.” -Elizabeth Edwards

Everybody needs a Sam

It’s amazing how lonely the road to healing can be. It’s incredible how you can be surrounded by family and friends who love you and still feel alone. Even those who may understand more fully what you’re going through, other trauma victims, victim advocates, counselors, etc, cannot enter fully into the healing process with you. That journey, the journey from brokenness to wholeness, and the decision to choose everyday to persevere in taking another step…those are yours alone. Don’t get me wrong, the role we play in each others’ lives is vital. We can be each others’ cheerleaders, encouragers, hand holders, comforters, listeners, “empowerers” and companions. It reminds me of The Lord of the Rings, a series in which I often find applicable imagery. When someone we know has been through something traumatic, they’ve been handed a different life than the one they thought they’d have. They suddenly find themselves thrust, unwilling, on a journey through the darkest depths, with little hope of making it through alive, let alone unscathed. They are forced to battle exterior and interior demons alike, all based on a promise of the light that will follow the darkness, a light they cannot presently see, a light that becomes more difficult to fathom which each passing day. Much like Tolkien’s Frodo. And yet, in the brilliance of his writing, Tolkien did not leave Frodo to make the journey alone, knowing that such a feat would prove both realistically and theoretically impossible. Instead, he gave him Sam, a character who emulates all the qualities one might hope for in a companion for life’s most difficult and darkest journeys. But, Tolkien makes an important distinction, in that, while Sam is vital to Frodo’s surviving the journey, he cannot make the journey FOR Frodo, only WITH him. Sam cannot carry the load or battle the demons, but he can be a necessary source of strength for Frodo. Whatever your journey, I pray you have a Sam by your side. Or if you find yourself someone’s Sam, know that they alone must walk the road to healing, but, by not walking away when it get’s hard, not making them feel guilty for it taking longer than you think it should, having no other agenda than accepting them as they are in that particular moment…simply remaining by their side, wherever they may be and for however long the journey takes, you ease the burden they carry and you make it that much easier for them to take the next step because they know that in fact they are not alone.