Navigating life after sexual assault

A student reflects on her experience coping with sexual assault and how becoming comfortable at Temple served as a healing tool.


Content Warning: This essay contains mention of, sexual assault. If you find the content disturbing, please seek help at Tuttleman Counseling Services or click here to find resources regarding rape, sexual assault and sexual violence. 

During my first month of college, I was sexually assaulted.

I want to know who I would be if I wasn’t assaulted. I feel robbed of the version of myself I could have been. There’s nothing I can do to find that out, so I have no choice but to sit with my experience.

Since that night, all of my energy has gone toward finding peace in my own body. If I could, I would sweep the moment and all the nasty feelings attached to it under the rug, but repressing it is counterproductive and exhausting. 

Caught up with the new beginnings that came along with starting college, I didn’t process my assault well — if I did at all. 

At the time, I only digested the immediate feeling of my assault; I recognized it as a violation and a line being crossed, but I had other things to adjust to, like living with a roommate and doing well in classes. I wanted to enjoy my first semester at college, so I suppressed it and adjusted around it.

I worked to make a safe space in my mind through avoidance. Subconsciously ignoring what happened worked for me, but I had no control over my interactions with others. 

Following the incident, my emotions would arise and become amplified in uncomfortable situations — whether I was alone with another person or in a large group —  making life stressful and confusing. I would experience unwarranted anxiety surrounded by people at a party, on a date with someone new or if someone accidentally grazed my arm in an elevator.

In these countless situations, I simply go mute because I’m experiencing one of the five instinctive trauma responses: freezing. 

I’m still affected by subtle reminders of my sexual assault and when that happens I sit there, stunned and unable to communicate clearly. Articulating words to describe my engulfing uncomfortable feeling is impossible, so I freeze up. 

Sometimes if I’m exhausted enough, I’ll start to cry. For a long time, I didn’t understand why I responded like this, but I hated it. My knee-jerk reactions surprised me, and when I tried to pick them apart I would be met with a self-made mental block: I struggled to acknowledge there might be a connection between my assault and my paranoid behavior around others. 

I would get stuck overthinking and become overwhelmed trying to make sense of my behavior. 

It took me a long time to realize this wasn’t healthy. After months of not knowing how to recognize or cope with my trauma, I realized I needed to learn how. I worked to be both strong and soft for myself and to listen to my emotions when I feel vulnerable in random situations. 

In the spring of my freshman year, I started to find my place at Temple and grow into a new version of myself. I became comfortable within my own space, developed friendships and became involved with extracurriculars. I was relearning my personality and how to cope with stress, conflict and time management. I liked who I was becoming.

My anxiety flared up again before moving out of my dorm at the end of the semester. The idea of going home was very overwhelming because any drastic change would inevitably reignite anxieties and potentially create new ones. 

I moved out and coped as best I could, managing to find comfort in being back at home and spending time with myself and my family. 

I was excited about returning to school in the fall because it was a new semester where I could start fresh in a way. I had a newfound love for journalism and decided to pursue it as my major. I was excited about being at Temple, where I was writing for student media outlets, getting involved with clubs, adjusting to my first apartment and establishing a daily routine. 

It was through my involvement and outreach with student life at Temple I realized that I wasn’t alone. 

I have taken opportunities to get involved with advocacy by spreading awareness about issues related to sexual assault and connecting with Student Activists Against Sexual Assault. Advocacy allowed me a healthy outlet for my complex feelings and an incredibly important cause. I’m beyond grateful to be surrounded by other students who are passionate about what they advocate for and are also looking to enjoy their experience at Temple. 

I still struggle with understanding my assault wasn’t my fault, and my anxieties are not unwarranted. I learn new things about my trauma frequently, and it still comes up randomly and without warning, but with time and support, I’ve learned to take care of myself and cope with what happened to me. 

Ignoring my feelings and actively working to forget my assault happened is unfair to me. I now understand that my voice is an important one. Because sexual assault is so intertwined with my life and how I move through it, I owe it to myself to take up space and speak up about my experience.

Anyone going through anything similar should allow themselves grace and patience and give themselves credit for coming as far as they have. I hope that by coming forward and sharing my story, readers have a chance to reflect on sexual assault and how it can affect individuals. 

I am proud to take up this space.

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