Content notice: Descriptions of sexual assault, domestic violence, and emotional abuse.
It’s late in the afternoon and my still-undiagnosed partner is drifting in and out of sleep in his hospital bed where he’s been for the past four days. I have barely left his side, and while I wouldn’t even consider being anywhere else, I have to admit, I’m both mentally and physically exhausted. With no nurse or doctor in sight, and my boyfriend finally getting some rest himself, I take the opportunity to pop in my earphones and put on a podcast to try and stop my head from whirring over a thousand possibilities and stressing over lab test results.
I don’t really pay attention to the title of the episode I choose, only registering that I’ve chosen one of my favorite true-crime podcasts. I’m starting to zone out during the promos and advertisements which play at the beginning, before the two hosts say something that gets my full attention.
“The first story that we’re going to read, comes from a listener who we are going to call, K…”
Six months beforehand, I was listening to the very same podcast when the show’s hosts called for their listeners to email in stories of their experiences of surviving an attack. As anyone who listens to podcasts regularly knows, it’s a really intimate experience. It can get to a point where you feel like you know the hosts, which is why so many podcasts have fan bases who coin terms to describe themselves, buy and wear podcast merchandise, fork out cash to go to live recordings of the show or travel hundreds of miles to attend podcasting conventions. I’m a pod-fanatic, and so when one of my favorites said they wanted to hear reader stories, I felt comfortable enough to send in mine.
I really didn’t think it would go anywhere, I just felt like I needed to share my story. I also thought that, on some level, writing out my trauma would somehow help it make sense to me. I was diagnosed with PTSD after the rape and still have nightmares about it, four years on. So I wrote out a lengthy email, signed it with my name and a disclaimer that I didn’t think my story was important or worthy of being read on-air, but if they did, could they only use the first initial of my name. I hit send and forgot about it.
My partner woke up at the noise of my gasp and asked what was wrong.
“The podcast decided to tell my story,” I told him, still in shock. “I wasn’t expecting it.”
“Are you sure you want to listen?” he asked, clearly worried about how reliving my trauma would affect me, and likely cautious that I hadn’t slept properly in days and was at risk of falling apart at the seams.
“Yes. I have to do this,” I replied.
I lay down in the tiny hospital bed with my boyfriend, who wrapped his arms around me. We each put in an earphone and continued to listen.
To say it was a surreal experience would be the largest understatement I’d ever uttered.
The hosts took turns reading my entire story aloud, going back through my life, from my dad leaving when I was younger to my struggles watching my mother’s abusive relationship. They meticulously detailed all of my insecurities and self-doubts, all the demons, guilt and blame I’ve held close to my chest since the assault.
Two people who I’d never even met detailed the events from my violent relationship, from the emotional abuse and manipulation to the physical abuse and ultimate sexual assault at the hands of my ex-boyfriend.
My current partner, who I’d never told the entire story to before, cried as he listened in. I felt numb the whole time, occasionally smiling at the black humor the hosts were dotting throughout the podcast, but most of the time, feeling as if I was floating above my body. Somewhere, far away, I could feel my boyfriend’s hand rubbing my shoulder to comfort me.
It was cathartic to hear them call my abusive ex derogatory names and say they wished something bad would happen to him as they paused to comment throughout my story. Even though I’m a non-violent person, I still have a lot of anger and hatred towards him for what he did, and to hear other people share that anger was extremely validating.
It felt good to hear them share their personal experiences with elements of my story. One of the hosts had been with an abusive partner herself, and said my story reminded her of her own. It made me feel so much less alone.
When they reflected on the section of my story in which I resented myself for staying with my abusive ex for so long, the hosts addressed me directly.
“Baby girl, do me a favor. Get up, brush your shoulders off, look in the mirror and tell yourself how fucking amazing you are.”
During the part of the podcast where they detailed the actual assault, my heart was in my throat, and I almost vomited. I felt my partner’s body go strangely stiff in anger and heartbreak as they read out my cries of protest at my ex’s hands on my body.
“I started to cry and push on his chest, screaming ‘No, no, get off me, stop it. I don’t want any of this, get off me.” But he didn’t stop. He put his hand on my head, turned it and pushed my head down into the pillow to stifle the cries and the screaming and just kept going. I was trying so hard to get him off me, pushing and kicking and hitting, but he didn’t stop…”
As they said the words, I was able to picture the room, the bed, the hot feeling of him on top of me, and the way the air was choking me. It was at this moment I suddenly became extremely aware of how many people the podcast would be heard by. Thousands streamed these episodes, and they would be living it with me. They’d also be in that hot, suffocating room with me.
While this realization did cause a moment of panic to course through my body, it was soon replaced with the feeling of finally not having to hide my story from the world any longer, like some kind of a dirty secret.
They closed out the podcast by reading the words in my original email to them, which reminded me of why I submitted my story in the first place, and why I wanted to share it.
“I wanted to tell people this story because abuse and violence don’t always have to be physical, and it doesn’t start all at once, and people who you thought were normal can turn out to be monsters. He thought he owned me so he could do anything he wanted to me. But he didn’t. It’s taken me almost three years to undo all of the damage he did to me and I still live with nightmares and wake up in panics some nights, not knowing where I am or thinking he is there. If someone touches me how he touched me, sometimes I go back to that moment.
I was raped, but it wasn’t in a dark alley by a stranger, it was by someone I’d shared my life with for three years, which was an entirely different kind of horror I never thought would happen to me.”
After listening to the podcast, I went to the Facebook group filled with other fans of the show to see if there had been any mention of my story. Because of my decision to keep my name anonymous, I felt safe traversing the posts and comment sections.
I was prepared to see comments ripping my story apart because that has been my experience in the past when I’ve shared my experience; people tell me I’m making it up to get back at my ex, or that I just ‘changed my mind’ or was ‘crying rape’ after having bad sex.
But I could never have been prepared for what I found.
“So much of K’s story is so familiar in my own story. I wanted to say, I understand and much love to K from another K.”
“What a roller coaster this week’s episode was!! I want to give Miss K a really big hug and make her some serious comfort food and tell her it’s okay and none of this is her fault.”
Words of support and kindness from strangers, mixed in with women saying my story reminded them of their past relationships. People telling me how strong we all were for living through domestic violence and coming out the other side. Well-wishes for the future, and many virtual hugs.
In the years since the rape, I’ve spent countless hours feeling like I was drowning in the emptiness and loneliness the violation left in my heart and the pit of my stomach. Every victim of an assault is going to feel similar – and different – emotions in the aftermath of their attack. As well as living with the memory of sexual assault, I was juggling the emotions of being abused by someone who was supposed to love me.
At times, the isolation has been crushing.
But after the podcast aired and I read the words of support from people thousands of miles away, who’d never, and would never, meet me, I felt a wave of comfort and validation I’d never been able to find on my own, even though years of therapy.
Rape is an extremely personal trauma, and many victims never want to disclose their attacks, which is completely valid. Having the most horrific event of their life read out to thousands of strangers across the world is not going to be everyone’s path to healing, and I didn’t realize it was going to be mine, either.
But, strangely, it was. And I’ll forever be grateful for that.
Image via tumblr.com.