By Shannon Sheehan. Shannon is a senior Sociology, Gender Studies major at the University of Notre Dame. Besides interning at The UnSlut Project this summer, Shannon's senior thesis focuses on the effects of the sexual double standard on identity formation in college students. In her free time she loves social outings, running, writing, and cooking vegan meals.
Shelly and I were talking last night, and she asked me a question about sex addiction that got me really thinking. She asked me who I was hurting by having random sex, because unlike an addiction to drugs or alcohol it’s a lot less clear. I realized the answer is really just myself. Anytime I hookup with a guy I immediately go into this place of intense and overwhelming fear, like up until that point it was exhilarating and exciting to feel wanted, but now here we are, and I can’t let myself be hurt again. I feel like I have to be the one to offer sex immediately because it’s the only way I can be completely in control of the situation, making sure I never give him the opportunity to ask me, making sure I won’t say no and then be raped again. But really, I’m giving up my power out of fear, fear of what my past experience has taught me will always happen to me in sexual situations. I am teaching myself that the only part of me that can garner control and power is my sexual side. I’m tying my worth to sex, which means that if it’s a one-time thing, I’m easily disposable and replaceable. It hit me that last semester, I was basically just engraining the feeling that I’ve had my whole life, that I am broken because of my abuse, I am good for one thing and then easily discarded, into my own self image. In a sense, I was re-assaulting myself.
I am not a rape victim. I am a rape survivor. For the first time in 21 years, eight of which I was being molested and one of which I spent reeling from my second assault, I can finally say that I am not living in the hell that defines life as a victim, instead I am living life on the other side, as a survivor. I pray that if you are reading this, you are neither a victim nor a survivor of sexual violence, but if you are, I hope reading this will give you a glimmer of hope I spent years wishing for: you are not alone, there is recovery from this dark place.
That’s what scared me into seeking treatment at a Residential Rehabilitation center this spring. I had hit a breaking point, a place where I felt there could be no recovery from. I was twenty years old, and my earliest memory is of being molested by a family member who would continue to do so until I entered high school. My life was literally defined by trauma. Before every family gathering or holiday party the anxiety would set in, the nightmares would increase, and the fear became overwhelming. I was so confused, I didn’t even understand what was happening, just that it felt terribly wrong. After trying one time to tell a parent about my abuse and being told I was “making it up,” I stayed silent out of manipulation and fear until I hit high school, we moved away, the abuse stopped, and it felt safer to confide in a few close friends.
As strange as it sounds, once the abuse stopped everything about my PTSD intensified. It was like I knew how to deal with it but I had absolutely no idea how to cope once it stopped. I spiraled into a deep depression, battled constant body dysmorphia and disordered eating. There was not a day when I wouldn’t catch myself staring into a mirror, or some other reflective surface, thinking how dirty I was, like the glass should shatter just from me looking in. As I began to enter a world of teenage first dates and high school hookups, my sexual identity grew more polluted and distinct from my friends, after it had already been exploited for so many years. I began to engage in sexual encounters, but not in a way that felt right, more so in a way that felt like I was trying to prove something. Part of me felt so used, and then another part felt like maybe engaging in hookups meant I wasn’t wasted, I was more than just damaged goods. A grey fog settled around my perspective; I became restless, hungry to excel at something and bury this past I was so ashamed of. I became the bubbly, vivacious party girl, the honors student with goals and dreams, and a leader in cheerleading and Youth in Government. Despite my set backs, the occasional night terrors or flashbacks, I was here, I was trying. I was running from a past I hated, pushing it further and further into the abyss
It wasn’t until September 13th, 2014 that this ability to subsist, to trick myself into thinking I was okay, shattered. I was returning to school to start my junior year fresh off of studying abroad in London and having the time of my life. I finally had a major I loved, friendships that were solid, and I felt more confident in who I was as a person. I finally thought the depression was clearing – I was at a high point, determined to make this my best year yet. Then it happened again. My campus sexual assault completely pulled the rug out from under my carefully calculated trauma distraction plan. Everything about that night shattered me. I had heard the statistics, I knew them by heart, hell, I was a Sexual Assault Student Advocate at the Gender Relations Center and a Gender Studies major! I knew that 1 out of 4 college girls are sexually assaulted. But I thought I could check that box – I was already a statistic, and who does this happen to more than once? Did you know that women who have been victimized before are seven times more likely to be raped again? Seven. That is the most fucked up statistic in the world. Living through one sexual trauma is enough for a lifetime. Two? Two knocks the wind out of you.
After I was assaulted for the second time, this time by a friend, not a family member, my brain was in trauma overload, reeling with years of unprocessed pain. I entered a complete psychological shut down. I had been waiting to have sex, but now that it was taken from me again? I felt like "damaged goods" didn’t even begin to cover me. So I started to have sex, in a confused and desperate attempt to not feel like a wasted person. I started to have sex to feel something, anything other than what I was feeling right then.
There was a pretty girl, from some small suburb of Dallas, and she came up to New York with a dream. In the confusion and the noise, all of her beauty and her poise, turned grey like snow beside the city street. She met a boy named Steven, they made love in his apartment, in a second story walk up out in Queens. And the thing she hoped to find beneath him on that August night was, was the farthest thing from her as she dressed to leave.
During this time I felt like the lyrics from my favorite song A Wedding in Connecticut (above) by Ron Pope. The PTSD was so bad that I didn’t sleep in my bed for a month, and only after my roommates agreed to completely switch our bedrooms up and I ordered new sheets to replace the blood stained ones, was I able to even stand being in there again. But the night terrors were too much; I woke up in cold sweats, screaming, delirious, swaddled in a mess of blankets on the floor. It was like everything around me kept speeding up and the demands of school, work, research, just life, were too much, let alone the social atmosphere of a college party scene. Life just kept going and I catapulted ahead, grabbing at anything to numb the pain – alcohol, prescriptions that never seemed to curb the spiking anxiety, sex to replace otherwise sleepless nights. I was starting to break down. As the year went on and things only got worse, I started to question it – was life really worth living? How much longer can I do this? How much longer can I live disgusted by myself? The realization that my life had been perpetually living as a victim, trapped with the guilt, the shame, the anxiety and the self-blame, overwhelmed me. I didn’t believe someone could heal from what I’d be through. All my life I had felt broken and I was looking for ways, for people, to fix me. No one ever did. Now I truly believed I was un-fixable. Crying in a parking lot one cold spring night, I said the words allowed to my best friend while we dialed the SOS Rape Hotline... “I am not okay.”
The opening passage is taken from my nearly 200-page journal I kept everyday that I was in residential treatment. I entered in as what my mom would later describe “a shell of a person” and emerged one month later as someone with color starting to return to her life. I can’t describe everything I went through in rehab, or the deeply personal experience of it. But I can tell you that it saved my life. I grew in an understanding of my events and myself, I received the validation and support I needed to see that there was in fact a happy and healthy life for me. My problem before had been that I knew I was broken and I wanted to be fixed, to be made whole and pretty and to make everything go away. But now I knew that I didn’t want to be fixed, my trauma was a part of who I was and formed my strength, my character, and my abilities. It molds me, but it does not define me. Slowly I began to understand that trauma recovery is a lifelong process of picking up the pieces and putting them together with glue, the old with the new. It is the process of becoming a mosaic – a composite, more beautiful creation of glass that has been shattered, one that is stronger, and more resistant to fracture in the future.
This story is just beginning and I am only now starting to get to know myself, and what it means to live in this post-traumatic growth period. This summer, my internship with Emily at The UnSlut Project was an amazing medium to facilitate this change. I was involved in an issue so near and dear to my heart as a survivor of sexual violence, and I was afforded the chance to help spread a movement of change. I have been called a “slut” more times than I can count, first by my abuser and then time and time again by peers who could not possibly understand the sting it had for me. There is absolutely no reason to ever define a woman by her perceived sexual behavior, or preferences of appearance. No one should be reduced to a label. After seeing all of the good that the online community of support created by The UnSlut Project can do, I felt compelled to tell my story publicly for the first time. Not only to spread awareness and start to break the stigma of victim blaming and silence, but to courageously do what so many have done through this project – show that you are not alone. Whether you are a survivor of sexual violence, "slut" shaming, harassment, bullying, or simply an advocate, we have all been touched by the culture of shaming in some way. This needs to end, and the best way to do that is to start speaking up.