by Katie Siple
A survivor is typically defined as a person remaining alive after an event in which other people have died, but I disagree. I think that the definition of a survivor is someone who has overcome all obstacles, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the situation or the background from which the person came from. I try to think of myself as a survivor. Some days it’s harder than others.
I grew up in a small town, went to a Catholic school, in a middle class household as normal as any 16-year-old white girl’s could be. This was around the time I was emerging from that awkward stage in my life and I was just beginning to find out who I was. I had great friends, was doing well in all my classes, and was getting very involved in numerous extracurricular activities, especially basketball and music. Under the surface, I was a complete mess.
The summer right before tenth grade, I lost 50 pounds, mainly for basketball, and it did wonders for my body image. I was finally “hot” according to beauty standards, but it came at a high price. I used many unhealthy methods of losing the weight, including not eating or if I did eat, I would eat very little. I was obsessed with keeping track of what I ate and if I ate something that was bad for me, I would guilt-trip myself into going harder and harder at the gym that day because I would tell myself I don’t deserve be eating like that, I was too fat. During the school day, I would eat literally just a couple bites of food to take the edge off my hunger, then go straight to basketball practice, go home and throw away the meals my mom kept warm for me because I told myself I wasn’t hungry, that I shouldn’t eat because I still wasn’t thin enough. I went from about 170 pounds to 120 in the span of four months. This had no impact on me though because I still felt like I was the fat, ugly, slow girl on the basketball team.
Along with losing all this weight, I’d get these things that I call “thoughts.” They still pop up in my head whenever something bad happens in my life or when I am not feeling the best about myself. I would pretty much get them every day in 10th grade, I thought everyone had them, that it was normal. The thoughts tell me that I’m ugly, worthless, that I should just go away because no one would notice or care. They would tell me I should starve myself and stop eating all together because I am fat and that’s why all this bad stuff is happening in my life. These thoughts tell me I am not good at anything so why bother trying? I should just give up because I’m never going to win or amount to anything. They tell me your life sucks, you have no friends, no one knows who you really are and if they did, they would see what an awful person I am. They tell me to keep the thoughts hidden away because no one can help me, no one but myself. The thoughts would tell me to gain control of myself by not eating, working out excessively, trying to be popular and “normal” because that was the only way I could be happy. I started to believe them. I did what I could to appease the thoughts because that was the only way they would go away. I would spend a lot of nights looking in the mirror, judging myself. The thoughts critiqued everything about me, from the size of my thighs to the amount of fat on my stomach, to my makeup. I would spend at least an hour every morning trying to look good for school. I would straighten my already straight hair, put on a lot of makeup, and put in a shit ton of effort into making myself presentable according to what the “thoughts” would say that day. It was a vicious cycle on repeat that never stopped. I never told anyone about them because I thought it was perfectly normal, that this was just the voice in my head trying to make myself look as awesome as possible in order to impress boys and eventually get a boyfriend that would make me desirable and happy and popular.
By October of sophomore year, I had gotten my first real boyfriend. His name was James. James made me feel pretty and needed all the time. We would text every day, hold hands in the halls, kiss, and go out places together. It was the first time I had a real “serious” crush on any boy before so I didn’t really know what I was doing or what a relationship was. No one had ever found me pretty before so I was extremely eager to dive right into this whole thing head first. We had French class together and we would put our desks together in the back of the room. The summer before, he had written a note in my yearbook in French telling me how much he liked me and that he wanted to be my boyfriend. I had to use Google translate to figure out what the note said. I thought it was the sweetest, most romantic thing ever, that he would never hurt me and that he would always be there for me. I trusted him too much.
One day in class, he decided to slip his hand up my skirt and caress my thigh. I let him because it felt nice and I didn’t really think there was anything wrong with it. Soon enough, he was taking my hand and putting it on his crotch. He would put his book bag over his lap so no one would see. He asked me to rub it, said it felt good, and I did it for weeks because I thought it was normal. I didn’t really know what I was doing because I had never had a sex ed class in my life. I had no idea what was going on.
Soon enough I grew tired of his little game and tried to stop. I told James I needed to focus on school work, but it was really because some people told me that I shouldn’t be doing that in class and that it was wrong. I still didn’t know why it was wrong or what I was doing. James didn’t like that I stopped. He got so angry at me and stopped treating me with respect. He said he wouldn’t be my boyfriend anymore if I didn’t continue doing what we had been doing before. I was so confused as to what was right and wrong. I got scared because I thought I was going to lose him so I continued doing it. I thought it was our little secret. I didn’t like what I was doing, I would try to tear my hand away, but he overpowered me every time. I couldn’t stop him, I felt so uncomfortable I didn’t know what to do. The sense of powerlessness was overwhelming to me. I was ashamed that I kept letting this happen even though I told him over and over again that it needed to stop. I was trapped in an endless cycle that I saw no end to.
Mid December, the administration caught wind of what was happening. I was called out of class to the Dean of Student’s office. I was so confused as to what was happening, why I was being called down, because I couldn’t get in trouble, I’ve never got in trouble before. They asked me so many questions about what was happening in French class, probing questions, uncomfortable questions that I didn’t know how to answer. How could I when I didn’t understand what was happening or the gravity of the situation? They never asked if it was consensual, like I even knew what that word meant anyway. They branded my punishment before I even walked in that door. I was suspended for four days. So was James. I missed all my midterms. My mom came and picked me up at school that afternoon. I wouldn’t stop hysterically crying. I saw the look on her face. She wouldn’t even look me in the eye. The administration had already told her what had transpired.
My parents had a long talk with me when I got home, but even I could tell they didn’t know what to do with me. I was grounded, left alone in my room. I didn’t tell anyone what happened. I was too ashamed to speak up and too embarrassed to talk about it. I cried for several days in my room, curled up in a ball, alone with the thoughts.
It was Christmas Eve. My mother’s family lives in New Jersey so we traveled there for the holidays. My Mom-Mom had not been doing well, ever since October she’d been in critical condition. I think seeing the dementia take its hold on her was the worst part. It got to the point where she couldn’t recognize me or my mom or my dad. We drove four hours to see her for Christmas Eve. I remember going to the house Mom-Mom had lived in her whole life and standing around the bed staring down at her. My mom would talk to her, telling her things about the past and the present, but Mom-Mom couldn’t answer her anymore. She’d just smile at her and reach her hand out to hold it. I remember being uncomfortable and unable to speak to her because I did not know what to do or say. I felt so helpless. I touched her hand and we said our goodbyes. We had just sat down at my aunt’s house for Christmas Eve dinner when we got the call. Mom-Mom had passed away. I wish I had said more to her. I wish I had told her so many things, but I didn’t cry, not once. I had to be the rock for my mom. I pushed my feelings aside and tried to be there for her, be strong. The funeral was New Year’s Eve. I played the role of the perfect daughter. I was numb to everything by that point. I was afraid to feel anything so I just shut all the feelings away. It seemed easier than dealing with it all. I remember we sat quietly around the TV that night and watched the ball drop in silence.
I told myself all the clichés: to buck up, stop feeling sorry for myself, no more crying, and don’t be afraid, but I was so terrified to go back to school. I could hide myself away, avoid answering questions as long as I stayed home because in a small school where news travels as fast as lightning, everyone knew what had happened or what they thought had happened. I remember walking down the hallway and seeing him for the first time. We made eye contact and he looked away, he hasn’t spoken to me since. I could hear the whispers start behind me about what had happened. I heard crazy, terrible things about myself. Most of them centered around one word – slut. Did they really think I couldn’t hear what they were saying? That it wouldn’t affect me at all?
The “thoughts” were at an all time high at this point, never stopping, always lurking, agreeing with everything everyone said about me. I started believing them. I remember James getting high fives from his guy friends and he was grinning and laughing with them. No one would talk to me about anything except what had happened to me before Christmas break. I was taunted incessantly because I refused to say anything about it. I wanted my privacy and I didn’t know what to say to people. I remember thinking no one would believe me anyways if I said I didn’t want this to happen to me, that I was coerced into doing it, but the words were stuck in my throat. All of my “friends” had already made up their minds about me – I was a slut. I could see it in their smug faces. I would still sit with them, a whole full table, and no one would speak to me the entire lunch period. Random boys I barely knew would harass me in the halls and make horrible comments and mess with my things just because they could. Was it because of how I looked? I tried to tug down my school skirt as far as it would go, thinking it would help stop the slut rumors, and wear my hair down so I could hide my face and the look of hurt on it. I kept my head down, trying to make myself as small as possible, and wish it would all just end. What’s worse is I had to make up all of my midterms I had missed while suspended. I was forced to take them in the same room with James and a few other students. I couldn’t focus on my tests when all I wanted to do was jump out the window and run as far away from him as I possibly could.
The school’s “attempt” at counseling me was pathetic. It was mandatory that I had counseling sessions. I was pulled from my free periods where I usually got caught up on homework and was sent to talk to a psychologist instead. I told her about my life, what I was doing, what I was involved in, how I was feeling. I bullshitted my way through most of it, telling her, oh yes my life is fine and dandy, I’m smiling so genuinely right now, I’ve got a handle on my life, and oh have I told you how I’m on honor roll and I play basketball and I’m in band? She would ask me these vague questions trying to get information out of me and elicit an emotional response but I shut it down, brushing them aside, letting her hear what she wanted to hear. I was determined to block the whole ordeal from my mind and move on with my life like nothing had even happened to me. I didn’t need to rehash the events of my life, thank you very much. I guess she believed me well enough that I was deemed stable and that further counseling would not be necessary. James was never forced to go to counseling. I never got an apology. I had almost every single class with him every day. I couldn’t escape him. I was stuck seeing him for the next two years of high school and it served as a constant, uncomfortable reminder of what happened.
Eventually, things started to get better. I found new friends, ones that stuck by my side long after the others had left. Those are the friends I keep to this day, the ones I am eternally grateful for because they helped me when I needed them the most. They became my new family, my escape from reality, people I could trust. I never really told them the whole truth about what happened to me and they never asked because it didn’t matter to them and for that I am so grateful. Katie, Catie, Faff, and Alexa, you all have the most beautiful souls I have ever met and I will always love you and cherish our friendship. You’re my family and I don’t think I could have made it through without you guys having my back. I distracted myself mainly through basketball and other activities like band and music. I threw myself into my studies and got kickass grades that semester because I wanted to prove to myself, to everyone, that I could do it – that I was not going to let this mistake define my life or let it get me down any longer. I stopped listening to the thoughts in my head and I started to pave a new path for myself, one that was much healthier. I channeled all of my negative, unhealthy, angry energy into activities to keep myself busy. I tried my hardest to forget it ever happened and told myself that it was all just a bad dream. I kept on living because I knew that was what my Mom-Mom would want me to do and that I had so much worth living for and goals and dreams that I wanted to accomplish in my life. So I kept going.
I never really defined what had happened to me as sexual assault until years later. I blocked out a lot of what happened to me. I don’t remember a lot of details. I used to want to forget it all, but now I wish I could remember. Looking back, this case was handled so terribly by everyone involved. Someone should have noticed what was happening sooner. The school shouldn’t have punished us both equally or forced me to be in the same room with him every single day until graduation. The school should have taken preventative measures so that students would know what consent is, what a healthy relationship looks like, and how to protect ourselves against sexual violence. I had no idea what sexual assault even meant, let alone that it happened to me. I shouldn’t have had to be slut shamed and known as “that girl” for the rest of my time in high school. I should have spoke up for myself. But now I am. I will no longer be silent or complacent about sexual assault. Victim shaming needs to end and it all starts by coming forward and sharing our stories because through conversation, change is possible.
I want to educate young students about these issues so that this same exact thing does not happen to another young girl struggling to find her identity. I had to learn most of what I know about feminism and sexual assault and rape through Internet research. No one taught it to me in school because it was not part of the religious curriculum assigned to our school. Teachers skirted around topics such as sex and contraceptives because that is not allowed in the Catholic church. Why should we be denied sex education based on outdated, ridiculous religious principles? Educating the youth of society is of the upmost importance so that we can prevent some instances of sexual abuse from happening in the first place.
Mental illnesses were not very well covered either. I don’t recall learning about depression or anxiety or what to do or where to get help if we were feeling terrible about ourselves. I know now that the thoughts I would get every day (and still get sometimes) are not healthy. The only difference between the thoughts tenth grade Katie heard and the Katie today hears is that now I know they’re lying to me. I know that it’s all false, that the thoughts won’t help me get better. But I don’t succumb to them, not ever again, because I know what path they lead me down and it’s one I’ve worked too hard to get away from to ever go back.
I wish I had better guidance available to me at the school, more rigorous guidance, that looked out for me and would be with me through every step of this terrible ordeal. I felt for a long time that I had no one to talk to about this, so I kept it all inside. I didn’t even tell my parents about any of this until very recently when I finally felt ready to tell them what had happened to me. It’s not healthy to bottle it up inside, and I regret not talking to more people about this sooner. I make an effort now to make sure people feel included and comfortable enough to tell me about difficult things that they are struggling with because I want to make sure no one else has to go through what I did alone. I want people to know that you can get through sexual violence, that you can move on with your life, and be happy as well as successful. Sometimes it’s okay to feel sad about it or acknowledge that you have weak moments and I want to be there for my friends every step of the way in this wild, twisted journey called life. Sometimes it’s downright shitty, but there are those unforgettable moments that make it all worth the struggle.
Do I regret what happened to me? No. I don’t think I would be the same person I am today without it. I am a much more mature, compassionate, accepting, passionate person because I have something worth fighting for now. I wanted to write this to not only help myself but to also help others who may be suffering in silence. I was so ashamed and in denial about what happened to me for so many years. I told myself the sexual assault didn’t really effect me, didn’t have an impact on my life, but I often wonder would I be the same if it didn’t happen to me? And yet, here I am, just finishing up my freshman year at Ithaca College. College was a brand new start for me, the blank slate I had wanted for two long, long years, to make a new name for myself, and to be unapologetically me. It seems so surreal, the person I have become today vs. the person I used to be. I’m proud of how far I’ve come and how far I still have to go. I feel so lucky and so much stronger knowing that I can accomplish anything I set my mind on and that I have so many friends that are there for me when I stumble. Writing my experiences has been such a reflective and cathartic experience for me, so thank you for reading this. I hope that anyone who reads this story feels inspired and empowered to go out and make a difference in the world. So be brave, be beautiful, and above all else, be strong.