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What I Learned About Power by Suing My Rapist

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

We tend to think of power as something held, something inflicted on others and something awarded — usually, to the already-powerful. But what if I told you that you were thinking about the concept of power all wrong? 

• What is PTSD?

In 2014, I was the victim of a crime that, by definition, is an evisceration of one’s personal power — rape.

I was already vulnerable. I was only 20, trying to hold down an entry-level job at a law firm. I didn’t have a lot of resources — my live-in boyfriend had become abusive; I didn’t have a license. I thought my friend and mentor was helping me — I sat in his living room one night, crying into a beer about how I felt my life spiraling out of control. One of the last things I remember is crawling around his bathroom and throwing up. When I woke up, I was in his bed, and he was raping my lifeless body.

You might meet me and think I look confident, healthy and recovered. But the reality is that no matter how rock-solid you are before, rape shatters your sense of personal autonomy. After I was attacked, I started having nightmares. I stopped sleeping. And when I did sleep, doctors discovered, I was not breathing enough — and I was diagnosed with sleep apnea. I startled easily. I was hypervigilant, angry, couldn’t keep my thoughts straight. And those symptoms still continue to this day. At some point, as shaky as I was, I decided I wanted revenge. Over the course of the five years I spent suing my rapist, recovering and ultimately getting my control back, my understanding of power changed.

First, power can be potential.

Before he died, my best friend Kevin said something I’ll never forget. I was fretting and scared about seeing my rapist face-to-face in court, of getting cross-examined. I thought, was doing this the right decision? Was I going to retraumatize myself? And he turned to me and said: “No matter what you choose to do, know that your rapist has very little control over what happens in your life now.”

That statement transformed my thinking. My rapist might have done something to me that affects every day of my waking life — I have health problems, I have fears, you name it — but at the same time, I was not the one with blood on my hands. I’m never going to wake up in the morning with the guilt of what I’ve done. I’m not going to spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder for my victim’s dad to show up with a two-by-four. I’m never going to wonder if the cops are going to burst into my office to arrest me in front of my co-workers. While I might be wounded now, I can be powerful because I welcome my position of just potentially being a force of change. Thinking about situations in which we are victims, in which we feel powerless, framed in this way can be instrumental in rerouting our attitudes about ourselves.

Second, power is something you can possess in spite of being disabled or damaged.

Being powerful is a state of mind, not necessarily a state of wholeness. It’s really easy to fall into the trap of thinking that, because something horrific or painful happened to us — a mugging, a period of abuse, a rape — we are somehow inherently no longer powerful at all. The problem isn’t one of identifying ourselves as victims, or recognizing our pain — such things are totally valid and should never be ignored or dismissed. The problem is ascribing the loss of power experienced in that reduction in ability to a character trait — one that is fixed, unchangeable and, most importantly, that applies to everything else. Your trauma might make it more difficult to make decisions and experience life, but it does not mean your personal autonomy is gone. Recognize that difference.

We equate power with success in social arenas such as the court system or business, but you can all but lose and still be powerful.

I used to believe I would feel my control was restored when I won the court case against my rapist — I wanted a gold medal of achievement and perseverance. In reality, we didn’t get as far as a civil trial, but a settlement. When I signed my magic signature on the document that authorized $400,000 out of his bank to me — blood money — I didn’t feel a sense of glowing achievement like I had anticipated. It wasn’t just in the symbolic award of monetary damages that sustained my experience, I realized, but it was the process of getting there. Because in a sense, a piece of that girl who was drugged that night never woke up, but that part of her returned as a ghost that would haunt, disrupt and terrify her rapist in the years that followed — so it wasn’t really the winning, but the battle itself that restored my sense of my abilities.

Anger is power.

Anger, especially in women, is so often seen by others as an undesirable, uncomfortable, inconvenient, unfeminine emotion.

But let’s examine what anger is. Anger is an emotion designed to incite us to protect ourselves. Anger, in other words, comes from the ingrained knowledge that the self is valuable, and therefore is a motivator to self-preservation. Anger, then, is a valuable message that, if ignored, often means leaving that motivation untapped. Suppressed or misdirected anger means frustration. Experiencing a rape means experiencing emotions on all ends of the spectrum. One thing I noticed during my recovery is that whenever I was sad, I found my available options rather limited — when I was depressed, I didn’t want to pick up the phone and shop for lawyers. I didn’t want to go to my therapy appointments. But things were different when I allowed myself to be truly pissed off on my own behalf. It was when I was angry that I got things done, that I stood up for myself, that I was more willing to lay down my boundaries.

Power can mean being willing to listen to that message and route that motivation or attention to where it is helpful for you. Now, listening to your anger and routing it toward a road rage attack is probably not something that is going to help you, certainly. But developing the practice of making choices to consciously focus your anger into positive actions will be liberating and empowering.

Power can also be created when it is shared with other people. Shouldn’t sharing power mean you’re giving it away? Not necessarily. Consider this — I understood my rapist wanted me to be silent and disappear. So, one of the strategies I used to heal was refusing to ever shut up about what he did to me. Over social media, I openly broadcasted where it happened, what happened and what I was learning along the way. The DMs and emails poured in from women who saw my posts seeking more control themselves. They were in situations that ranged from the police not investigating their cases to not knowing the first steps on how to take their attackers to court. I was able to draw on my own academic background as well as my own experience to do everything from brainstorming actions they could take, to being emotional support. This empowered them to make decisions for themselves, which in turn made me powerful because of the critical influence I learned I could have. 

So, understand this. I am a victim — I have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I have depression. I take five different psychiatric medications and two different pain medications to function. I might be walking wounded, but you’d better believe I’m still standing. I might not own a Fortune 500 company, hold political office or have a well-known family name, but I am the most powerful person I know. You, too, can tap into an incredible amount of control — you just have to change how you think about power.

Photo by Yoann Boyer on Unsplash

Originally published: July 9, 2019
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