I Spent My Quarantine Starting to Heal the Trauma From My Sexual Assault

[CW: This article mentions sexual assault. If you need help, please use these resources from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. If you’ve experienced sexual violence or sexual assault, Nadya Okamoto wrote an incredible resource for taking care of yourself this month.]

I have not spoken openly about being raped – not during the recent height of #MeToo – not really ever since I left my hometown where I lived with the belief that everyone knew. If you were at an event aSweatLife hosted years ago when we taught self-defense to a group of women, I tried to say the sentence, “If you are a victim of sexual assault, it’s not your fault” and burst into tears – you may have had some kind of idea.

And there are a lot of reasons why women like me stay silent, but before I detail the reasons I stayed quiet, I’d like to tell you why I’m talking about it now. At the time of writing this, I am 35 years old. When it happened to me – when a clear schism formed a before-and-after in my life that was the rape – I was 16 years old. I’ve spent most of the years since mastering ways to either protect myself by controlling every second of my time or numb myself, depending on the situation. 

But a year and a few months ago, I reached a point when I couldn’t do it anymore. I was depressed, having trouble getting out of bed, there were patterns and thoughts and beliefs that I had lived with for more than half of my life that I’d shoved into a box in the corner of my soul hoping they would just go away. If I’d worn something different. If I hadn’t talked to that guy. If I hadn’t been drinking.

“If only” makes for a pretty tough life.

I’d spent more than half of my life running from this – both physically and emotionally – and I believe with every ounce of my being that my soul knew that I needed to be stopped in order to finally start to heal.

And so, one morning, after telling my team I was sick – again – tears flowed down my face as I tapped a message to a therapy practice that had been recommended to me. By the next Monday, in January of 2020, I had my first session with a new therapist. Switching to teletherapy through COVID-19, it took me months to even broach what I was there to talk about. An episode of This American Life featured the story of a woman who had, like me, lived silently with her own assault as a secret and made the decision to seek treatment, recording it for national radio.

That’s when we started to unravel this complex lifetime of secrets, to circle the trauma using the technique called EMDR getting closer and closer to being able to un-believe some of the terrible things I thought about myself. EMDR is effective for PTSD, which is the diagnosis my therapist put into her notes. 

It was a few weeks ago during my EMDR session that I realized that the story of the beginning of aSweatLife has a lot to do with coping with my own trauma. If you’ve heard enough founders’ stories, you know they’re all slightly embellished or polished for the audience. 

My story, as I usually tell it goes like this:

I was bored in my career and looking for joy outside of my job and I thought back to where I’d found joy before – my fitness routine. So, I set out to try different studio fitness workouts and write about those that I loved, which all happened to coincide with the beginning of the boom of studio fitness.

But in reality, it’s more like this:

I was being actively harassed at work by an executive and I couldn’t seem to bring my mind into my body to do my job anymore. So, I thought about where I’d felt safe and at home in my body – and fitness had been that for me. So, I ravenously sought the safety of that, and doorways started to open for me.

Dissociation is a very clinical way to put something that I thought only I had ever experienced. I sheepishly described the concept of feeling like I was floating above my body to my therapist and she explained to me that this too was not unique to me. Dissociation is a coping mechanism used by trauma survivors. Imagine your life as a daydream – your body and voice go on without you – but your mind floats somewhere up above. Your mind stays there because your body isn’t safe for it anymore.

So, I used fitness to start to live in my body again, but I realize recently that I’ve kept all of this inside of me for so long mostly because of the way it started. 

When I was 16 and it happened, I knew very quickly that I wasn’t going to be in charge of the narrative. Because of the nature of high school and the way that it happened – at a party – it was something that people just knew. I was sitting on the cold metal bleachers at a coed softball game when someone shared that she’d heard someone got raped at a party over the weekend. The realization that I’d have to live with my darkest moment in the public domain for the remaining two years of high school washed over me in that moment as I said, “that was me.” (I feel called to note that the person who said that to me didn’t have any malice or intend any harm – in fact, she said it with concern in her voice – and I know that if I had held that same information, I probably would have done the same thing.)

And that belief was a seed that planted into my mind and grew for 19 years: My life is a storyline that I need to be in control of. 

And that’s what I’ve come to believe trauma is. Seeds that plant themselves into the garden of your mind and change its shape slowly and over time.

Shortly after it, a male cop who sounded like he was around my dad’s age, coerced me to drop the case. Even though, he explained, that there was evidence from the rape kit. “Did I really want to go through that?” “Did I really want to ruin some guy’s life?”

Seed planted: No one will protect me.

I decided, on some level, to leave and never go back. To go somewhere I could try to forget, not look people in the face and think about whether they knew or not. Whether they believed it or not. Whether they think I’d caused it or not. I still hesitate when I meet someone from Minnesota and they ask where I’m from. 

“Do they know?” I think.

More or less, avoidance and controlling my narrative worked for me until we were fundraising for the technology company we started at the height of #MeToo. I decided not to share my own story because I wasn’t ready, because I didn’t want to, because no one deserves the details of what happened (that last one is the only one that’s still true). But most importantly, there was a part of me that perceived it would make it much harder to walk into boardrooms filled with men where the power dynamic was already at a tilt.

And day by day, I got angrier. Sure, I was angry at the slights that people with checkbooks can throw your way without even thinking. But I was the kind of angry that keeps you awake. The kind of angry that disrupts your concentration. 

I was angry to once again be out of control and at the mercy of men. And because I’m not the kind of person who is generally filled with rage, that rage begot helplessness. And that helplessness led me to the aforementioned dark night of the soul.

I am finally at the point at which I can talk about it without ugly crying, without trying to understand what you think of me when I tell you about it. Without worrying about the repercussions of talking about what happened to me. And the thing I’ve found as I start to talk about it is how many women share that they’ve lived in the shadows with a story like this too.

Because I’m starting to weed out these beliefs, I’m sharing this now. I want YOU to know that if you’ve spent your life hiding from pain and feeling like this is just going to be your story now – it doesn’t have to be. You can start to unravel whatever your own pain is no matter how long you’ve lived with it.

I’m not sharing this to tell you that you must share your story. But your pain? That doesn’t have to be just yours. 

Seed planted: I deserve a full life with love, connection and support where my secrets will not be the weight keeping me down.

Find the help you need at a price you can afford: 

Mental Health Think & Feel

About Jeana Anderson Cohen

Jeana Anderson Cohen is the founder and CEO of asweatlife.com a premiere wellness media destination that creates content and community to help womxn live better lives and achieve their goals. Before founding health-focused companies Jeana earned a degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison - and fresh out of college she worked on the '08 Obama campaign in Michigan. From there, she created and executed social media strategies for brands. aSweatLife fuses her experience in building community and her passion for wellness. You can find Jeana leading the team at aSweatLife, trying to join a book club, and walking her dog Maverick.

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