How Addressing My Sexual Assault Changed Me Into a More Empathetic and Strong Woman
by Sarah Fader, Founder of Stigma Fighters
When I was in my early twenties, my gynecologist kissed me on the mouth. I quickly turned my head and pushed him away, but the damage was already done.
After the initial shock wore off and I was able to process what happened, I was left wondering what else he might have done.
Would his hands have roamed across my body?
What would I have done if he had decided to lay on top of me?
He was a trusted professional and he violated me. I will never forget that day and the way it changed me.
I am not the same woman I was before I entered his office.
I was left feeling vulnerable and scared. The incident gave me a skeptical view of the medical profession. Since I was a child I believed that doctors were people that could be trusted. This experience shattered my perspective. Broken and raw, I struggled with whether I should press charges against this man.
I moved forward with the paperwork to do so, but ultimately it required me to testify in a courtroom. I was young and afraid. Besides that, I did not feel that I had the strength to face him in person after what he had done to me.
I needed to find a way to heal after what had happened to me. For a while, I repressed the experience. I downplayed it.
It was only a kiss.
It's not like he raped me. Right? I thought to myself.
Like a kid blowing on a bright, plastic pinwheel to watch it spin and spin, my mind whirred about in circles. The whole incident wouldn't stop spinning, around and around. I tried, but I couldn't turn off the intrusive thoughts. They plagued me, particularly at night. I had trouble sleeping.
He could have gone farther than he did.
Who knows what he has done to other women, I thought.
In therapy, I'd talk around my fear of doctors. I started to have panic attacks whenever I thought something was wrong with my body. When I picked up the phone to make a doctor's appointment, my heart would race and I'd cower and hang up. I couldn't put myself in a position to be abused again. The idea of seeing a medical professional was now conjoined with violation as well as the loss of personal boundaries. Doctors were people who could absolutely not be trusted. The thought of placing myself in imminent danger was too much for me to bear.
After years of repressing the unwanted encounter, I finally wrote about it publicly. The panic attacks were so severe that they precluded me from seeing a doctor, when I really needed the professional help. It was clear that my health was more important than this trauma.
I made the choice to finally tell my story so that I could free myself from the flashbacks that this incident left me with.
[Editor's note: The above link is one of Sarah's more powerful pieces. You'd do well to check it out.]
Seeing my words in print made me recognize that my pain was valid. After I re-read my story, I was empowered. It felt real—what happened to me was real!
It was at that moment that I found within myself the resilience I'd been seeking for 15 years. I started to talk about the incident in therapy and my therapist and I delved into my fear of doctors.
I chose to be vulnerable and share my experience with close friends. I was no longer afraid to talk about it. There is a beauty in being vulnerable with those you are close to. It was frightening at first to speak about it, rather than just writing out the words, but it was worth it. I felt the muscles in my stomach release their tension as I opened up and spoke freely about the assault.
I left my shame behind in that waiting room on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I was now able to bounce back and make peace with what this man did to me. He didn't own me anymore—I owned the experience and destroyed the power it once wielded so mercilessly against me.
I took my power back by sharing my story, my truth. I no longer cared about being believed or whether or not it warranted a lawsuit. I experienced a trauma and I have a right to speak freely about it.
According to RAINN, 1 out of 6 women will be a survivor of sexual assault in her lifetime.
The women in question are warriors; they are walking among us every day. They are the veritable definition of resilient. They've been through hell and continue to live their lives. I have compassion for survivors of sexual assault.
Notice I use the word survivor rather than victim. This is crucial, because these human beings have endured traumatic experiences and they continue to live their lives. The extraordinary power lies in their ability to bounce back after their pain, anguish, and suffering.
When I see how hundreds and thousands of women have picked up the broken pieces of their lives and decided to move forward, "resilience" becomes more than just a word—it becomes a force to change the world for better.
We are our scars. We are our traumas. But they do not have to stagnate us. We don't have to let them push us over and scar us any deeper than they've already done. Rather, our pain and trauma serves to help us become stronger, and better able to navigate the world.
When I share my story, I humanize myself and I help others to open up. I want you to know that you're not alone! When you speak your truth about your wounds, you open up to healing, not only yourself, but others around you—maybe people who you haven't even met yet.
We’re capable of accomplishing so much more when we are honest about the traumas we’ve experienced, and we act decisively to reclaim our lives.
About the Author
Sarah Fader is a regular contributor to Transformation is Real. She is the CEO and Founder of Stigma Fighters, a non-profit organization that encourages individuals with mental illness to share their personal stories. She is an author and blogger, having been featured on Psychology Today, The Huffington Post, HuffPost Live, and Good Day New York. Sarah is a native New Yorker who enjoys naps, talking to strangers, and caring for her two small humans and two average-sized cats. Like six million other Americans, Sarah lives with panic disorder. Through Stigma Fighters, she hopes to change the world, one mental health stigma at a time.