Coming Forward, Moving Forward
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department estimates that between the years 2017 and 2018, there were more than 1900 sexual assaults, averaging 950 per year. To put that into a more sobering perspective, there are more than 2 a day. On August 21, 2019, I was one of those people.
These are stats based on sexual assaults that are actually reported in Charlotte. Three out of four sex assaults are not. I had no intention of reporting mine.
So how did I end up coming forward to report a sexual assault to the police 3 months later? Kindness. Respect. Dignity. Things that are free, yet so rare in the world of someone who has had all of those things taken away before.
In the aftermath of the assault, I cried tears of shame, guilt, self-loathing, and fear. Waterfalls of words I couldn’t speak until several hours later; into the next day. When I did tell a select few people what happened, I was victim-blamed. I decided then that I was going to do what I always do: Push the pain deep inside and let it live in my head where the rest of the trauma-demons hide.
Purely out of hurt and anger, I wrote this on Twitter in an attempt to have the last word before I sealed up the pain inside the vault.
That most people scrolled past my Tweet made me feel all alone. I thought what happened just really didn’t matter. That *I* didn’t matter.
I’m no stranger to pushing down trauma. In the 1990s, I was brutally raped by a police officer that I knew, the physical and emotional scars from which I carry to this day. I’m still triggered by the police uniform.
So reporting the August 2019 sexual assault to the police didn’t feel like a safe choice for me.
I thought that would be the end of the story but it was only the beginning of one that is both tragic and healing.
After I posted the Tweet, I barely got out of bed and I wept until I was numb enough to sleep. When I did sleep, I had graphic flashbacks and nightmares. I didn’t speak for several days. The people around me were increasingly alarmed by my uncharacteristic silence. When I did have to get out of bed, I was a walking ghost. My body was there but not my soul.
That was my routine until I got an alert on my phone. It was a DM on Twitter from a reporter who couldn’t ignore my Tweet and wanted to reach out. “I am so sorry this happened to you”, he said.
There was compassion for the first time since the assault.
Apparently it’s not common for someone to talk about their recent sexual assault in such a public way, and even more uncommon that it happened while filming a documentary on the subject. So it went noticed.
I realized I was shaking. Not out of being nervous; I’ve been in the media many times about my community work and my career in patient safety and public health. It was merely trying to hold it together during an emotional interview. As I was sharing my story, I fell apart and cried.
“I’m sorry. Can I take a minute?” I pleaded.
“Of course”, Nate replied.
It was the first time I had ever walked out of an interview. I walked into another room to try to compose myself.
Instead, I broke out in wailing sobs, not realizing the microphone was still attached.
Those sobs still haunt me when I watch the news clip because they were so visceral and raw, and the pain came out like a howl. At first, I felt embarrassed that I broke down both on and off-camera, but I don’t anymore because I was given a safe space to tell my story- in my own words, at my own pace, and with my expressed consent at every step.
It is a marked difference from the usual articulate and confident media interviews I’ve always done. But what I hope came out of that news story was not just that this horrible thing happened to me, it happens to a lot of women every day. Women who suffer in silence when they are sexually violated and their choices are robbed from them. I wanted this to shine a light on the dark spaces that women are forced into when their assault is minimized or dismissed. We live in a culture where it’s more common to blame the victim and to dehumanize them, rather than show compassion and dignity. The words “I am so sorry this happened to you” is powerful.
After the NBC Charlotte story aired, other reporters who saw the story reached out to me expressing how sorry they were that I was assaulted and stating that they want to continue to get the word out. It felt encouraging to me that more awareness would be spread about how underreported sexual assaults actually are and perhaps help answer the misguided question of why victims don’t report.
So many times, I found myself in the parking lot of a police station, trying to push past the PTSD, fear, shame, and embarrassment, only to turn back before I reached the door.
A month to the day following the first story, a woman recognized me from the October news story and confided in me that she didn’t report her assault either- for the same reason I didn’t- and that she planned to report hers because I was brave enough to come forward.
I texted Nate and told him about this encounter and that I was finally ready to report mine. I asked him to come with me to document it.
After I broke down in tears in my car, I walked the long pathway to the door of the police station. The closer I got to the door, the more flashbacks were making me feel more scared and hesitant to go through with this. Somehow I opened the door, walked up to the reception desk, and shakily stated I was there to report a sexual assault.
When an officer came out to take my report, I stood face to face with one of my biggest fears: a police officer, in uniform, who was in the same profession as the first man who violated me decades ago and that triggers my PTSD. He was so understanding and patient, though. I couldn’t help but notice the difference between the first time I was sexually assaulted and had been re-victimized by the officers who were tasked with investigating one of their own, and the gentle, kind officer taking my report of the recent assault. He made me feel safe and gave me choices that were mine alone to make. He made sure that I knew that he understood that this was traumatic for me and that what happened was not my fault. That I’d done nothing to provoke a sexual assault and that I had the right to expect that I could be anywhere and not have someone put their hands on me. I had the right to not be judged by it or be defined by it. He told me that I am very brave and for the first time, I believed it.
The second story, which documented me reporting the crime aired on November 15.
I don’t regret reporting the assault. I’m claiming my power back and I’m clawing my way back with hard work and more support than I’d ever thought possible. For that, I am grateful.
It is not lost on me that this journey of healing started with a Tweet, and that someone who cared not only couldn’t ignore it, he made it about the broader conversation that needs to happen, which is that so many sexual assaults go unreported every day and that the people who bury their pain have no voice.
I was given one and my sincere hope is to use that voice to encourage others to come forward- when the time is right and with their own well-being as part of the foundation.
These journeys are hell. Having stepping stones along the way reminds me that I’m not alone.
How others treat victims could either break them or build them up. Wouldn’t it be a great world if we could build up the people who feel broken instead of pushing what is left of them through the wood chipper, breaking them irrevocably? That is a choice. One that matters more than people realize.
Some scars never heal. They only show where you’ve been. Not where you’re going.
To anyone going through this: You are not alone and I care about what happened to you.
To those who earned my trust and gave me a safe space to speak out: Thank you. There needs to be more people like you.