The following text describes sexual assault and violence, and can be disturbing and/or triggering for some readers. Please find resources listed at the bottom of the article.
For a week, I couldn’t walk by men on the street without a chill running down my spine, despite giving them the largest berth possible. For months, unexpected touches, like a classmate accidentally brushing their leg against mine, had me jumping out of my seat. The nightmares were worst of all. I used to wake up in the middle of night, thinking I was back in his room. I would feel naked, despite wearing pajamas and being under piles of blankets. It always took me a while to fall back asleep, if I could at all.
“You had a nightmare last night,” a friend told me during spring break, big dark circles under her eyes from sharing a bed with me. I tossed and kicked and cried out in a language that wasn’t at all English. When she asked what was wrong, I just shrugged and said his name. Her face wrinkled.
She is one of the few people who knows the story. Those who do still have not forgiven him. I appreciate the loyalty, but it is a grudge I neither encourage nor share. This was not always the case. Initially, I was so angry that my entire body shook with rage when I texted him to tell him that we needed to talk. I was mad at him for leaving me alone in an unlocked room in a frat house, that he slept with me when I was blacked out, not realizing he was in a similar state, that he was doubtful of the things I did remember. I don’t hold any resentment now. I forgave him for all the good I’ve seen in him, and because he was genuinely sorry.
It was the best thing I could have done for myself. I needed to forgive him in order to heal.
I don’t really know what happened that night. He doesn’t either. We probably never will. We have a decent idea, little bits that we both remember, pieces that others told him that I don’t know if I should believe. With the help of an amazing therapist, I’ve finally gotten to a point where it doesn’t matter if I believe the parts of the story from his brothers. What matters is that I believe him and that he never intended for any harm to come to me. I believe that his promise that “change will be made and nothing like this will ever happen again” was more than just empty words. He’s in a leadership position now, and I believe he is really trying to make changes. By trusting him, I’ve slowly been able to put it behind me more than I ever thought was possible.
I don’t agonize over the thought of it happening to another girl—I choose to believe he won’t let it, because I know he’s not just a “good guy,” the distinction used to indicate that a guy is a less shitty human being than the average member of the male species. He’s a good person.
I was fortunate enough to be supported by so many good people: him, my therapist, the family and friends I confided in, and another good guy who is also a good person. He’s a more complicated one. When I first met him, I wouldn’t have called him a good guy, let alone a good person. But he changed. While he is still undeniably a fuckboy, he is also undoubtedly a good person. He let things move at my pace and helped me to trust men again. I never doubted that he respected me—but I was also confident that I was not the only girl in his bed. We had no feelings for each other beyond friendship, but being with him was only ever a positive experience. It’s not the most orthodox way to learn to feel safe in your own body again. But it worked for me, and that’s really what healing is all about: finding what works for you. I needed to know that people could change, and he showed me that.
While I know I would not be where I am today without those two guys, they were not the ones who saved me. It was the women in my life who gave me the undying support I needed, who told me that they believed that I was strong, and never doubted that I was telling the truth. My best friend was the one who comforted me when months later, I broke down into drunken sobs, the first and only time I’ve been able to cry about it. The women in my life, through listening and sharing their own stories, were the ones who carried me. They provided a safe haven where I could fall apart and rebuild myself.
I needed to do a lot of rebuilding, because that night broke me. I know I’ll never be able to forget the little I can remember, but I also know that I’m not broken anymore. I am more jaded and cautious. I’m also kinder, more understanding, more outspoken, and more resilient. Like a broken bone, I’ve healed stronger than I used to be. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have bad days too. At these times, my therapist reminds me that healing is never linear—there are always low points, but eventually you return to the baseline upward trajectory.
On the one year anniversary, I only got out of bed to refill my sleeping pills, which I hadn’t needed in over six months. I considered taking all the pills, letting myself peacefully drift off into a more permanent sleep. I obsessed over my limited, fragmented memories of the night. I was hurt, and I was angry, not just at his brothers, who I doubt I will ever fully forgive, but I was angry at him for not protecting me, something I thought I had long forgiven him for.
The pain didn’t go away at midnight either. Two days later, I bolted out of bed, because spooning was making me feel trapped to the point of a panic attack. I caught my breath in a grimy off–campus frat house bathroom, reminding myself that this is a guy who I trust completely, whose brothers I know and would never want anything bad to happen to me. I still hardly slept. It was a bad couple of days. I don’t know if the bad days will ever go away entirely.
They probably won’t, because all the support in the world and the nearly five figure sum my parents have spent on therapy doesn’t erase what happened. But the bad days become much less frequent.
I can’t forget, but I can forgive. I can and do believe that people can change. I believe that there are good men who are trying to do better and help others do better, and that even subpar humans can become good ones. I believe that my generation can raise sons who are different than our brothers and fathers. I believe that one day, #metoo will be the exception, rather than the rule.
Most importantly, if you are reading this and you are broken, I believe that you will heal too, stronger than ever before.
The HELP Line: 215-898-HELP:
A 24–hour–a–day phone number for members of the Penn community who seek help in navigating Penn's resources for health and wellness.
Counseling and Psychological Services: 215-898-7021 (active 24/7):
The counseling center for the University of Pennsylvania.
Student Health Service: 215-746-3535:
Student Health Service can provide medical evaluations and treatment to victims/survivors of sexual and relationship violence regardless of whether they make a report or seek additional resources. Both male and female providers can perform examinations, discuss testing and treatment of sexually transmissible infections, provide emergency contraception if necessary and arrange for referrals and follow up.
Reach–A–Peer Hotline - 215-573-2727 (every day from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.):
A peer hotline to provide peer support, information, and referrals to Penn students.
Penn Violence Prevention: 3539 Locust Walk (Office Hours: 9 am – 5 pm), (215) 746-2642, Jessica Mertz (Director of Student Sexual Violence Prevention, Education) firstname.lastname@example.org,
Read the Penn Violence Prevention resource guide.
Sexual Trauma Treatment Outreach and Prevention Team:
A multidisciplinary team at CAPS dedicated to supporting students who have experienced sexual trauma.
Public Safety Special Services:
Trained personnel offer crisis intervention, accompaniment to legal and medical proceedings, options counseling and advocacy, and linkages to other community resources.