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In the dawn of the (very necessary) #MeToo movement, my story is much like the others that you’ve heard. Stories that belong to many of you who are reading this.

But today, my message isn’t one of exposure. It is one of restoration and hope.

In an effort to honor fellow victims and to avoid triggers, details will not be shared. What is essential for you to know is that on the evening of what should have marked a new chapter of freedom and exploration, my 16th birthday, a new level of innocence was taken from me instead… and I experienced the effects in the years to follow.

Before I knew it, my physical boundaries had been crossed and I experienced immediate shame, regret, and disgust.

I blamed myself.

This was my response to most of life’s hurts; to turn inward. I carried those feelings into the next decade. I carried those feelings into each relationship. Into each proceeding sexual encounter. I was sent into a tailspin of self-destructive behaviors that took years to undo. I partook in anything that would numb the pain. Depression, anxiety, and panic were mainstays in my life until I came to know a new way to live.

Seventeen years have passed and I find myself living a life I could never have imagined as that damaged 16-year-old girl. A life full of joy, freedom, healthy and meaningful relationships, and the ability to cope with life’s hurts and disappointments with hope and comfort. My capacity for emotional intimacy has soared in addition to a true understanding of my value and self-worth.

My confidence has not only been restored but exceeded what it once was.

Most of all, I have a peace and ease in my day-to-day life that I did not know was obtainable in this lifetime. These are the fruits of hard work. Work that involved facing the trauma of my past and the willingness to push through the pain with the promise of relief and freedom on the other side. Some nights I didn’t think I would make it and gave up so many times. I even considered and planned to take my own life on several occasions.

There was a spark inside me that kept saying “just say yes to the next step.” With each “next step’” I received a measure of relief, clarity, or endurance to keep moving forward. This is courage though It didn’t look or feel courageous. I regularly felt defeated and like I was trudging through mud. It looked like hard, meaningful work. It looked like saying yes despite the fear, pain, and feelings of defeat. The biggest challenge of all for myself and most others that have experienced sexual assault is the choice to forgive.

Forgiveness?

How dare someone utter that word. They don’t deserve my forgiveness! I used to list the things they deserved instead of forgiveness in my hurt, anger, and resentment. Who wouldn’t feel that way? It was reasonable, understandable, and acceptable for me to go through those feelings. It was also necessary that I accept the feelings as my own rather than push them away in a white-knuckled attempt to cope with everyday life. I realized later in life that pushing aside my emotions was a form of self-rejection.

Those feelings belonged to me and I was denying a need within myself to be heard by myself. It is our inclination to deem uncomfortable feelings as negative or wrong no matter their origin. When in reality these are natural and often an indication that we need to practice self-care and sort through the root cause.

Forgiveness. What’s the benefit when we are the victim? It feels as if the other person’s needs are being catered to rather than our own. You see, when I hold onto the wrongs that someone has done, no matter how heinous, I’m holding myself in bondage. I’m holding onto resentment, anger or rage, fear, and my desire to see justice served in their life. I still vividly remember the pain and isolation created in those moments. Yes, they were initially created by my perpetrator.

However, it’s now my choice to stay there or to move toward freedom. When I hold onto bitterness and resentment I am creating a prison in which only I hold the key. I’m never allowing myself to leave the trauma in hopes that the wrong will be made right.

Forgiveness is not about the offender.

Forgiveness is about your freedom.

For me, this was a gradual process. It didn’t happen overnight or come with ease. It involved a series of choices. I first had to choose to open myself up to the idea that forgiveness would release me of the pain that I was experiencing and the ravaging effects I was seeing in my life. Then I had to choose to intend to forgive along with the intention to face my pain and sort through it.

I eventually chose to forgive even though my feelings didn’t connect with the words. I had to forgive over and over until my heart began to feel the release with those words. I also had to forgive myself. I had to release the shame, the blame, the disgust, and the constant track I played in my head justifying his actions. Telling myself that it wasn’t rape and that I was just as much to blame.

With each choice I felt, little by little, a heavy weight and cloud began to lift off of my heart. Freedom was within reach and my strength to move forward began to grow. Unexpectedly, I began to come alive.

I’ve experienced some pretty amazing phenomena on my journey to emotional healing and forgiveness. This rape was not the only trauma I once lay victim to and he was not the only person to receive forgiveness from myself. I have been raped more than once and I also have suffered many other atrocities throughout life.

The list of wrongs was long and pain was deeply inlayed in my heart. Once I began to truly forgive the people in my life I saw things happen that I cannot explain to this day. I received apologies from people in both my present and my past shortly following internal healing and forgiveness… when the message had not been relayed to them. I’ve seen relationships restored and my decision to work toward healing for myself has radiated to the people around me. My release has caused others to choose to get help for various struggles, to receive encounter and healing just from hearing my story, amongst many other experiences.

The most astonishing of these was when I received a message from my rapist, asking for my forgiveness.

I was speechless.

My choice to forgive was simply so that I may finally live a life separate from his and the others who had hurt me. For those emotional and spiritual ties to be broken so that they no longer had a hold on my emotions, relationships, choices, and thoughts. I had received all of those things so I didn’t expect any further fruit to spring forth from my choice. Unbeknownst to him, he had already received my forgiveness. I was faced with a decision to hear him out or shut the door and protect myself.

The latter would have been completely acceptable. Anyone who has been assaulted has the right to protect themselves from their attacker by any means necessary. If you have been a victim of assault and do not feel safe having contact with your assailant, that is ok! This may also be very necessary while you walk through the healing process. I knew I had gone through enough healing to hear him out. I knew deeply that my heart was protected and that I had developed the coping skills and healthy boundaries to shut things down if necessary. I chose to listen.

He let me know how deeply sorry he was for his actions and that being under the influence of drugs and alcohol was no excuse. He said that he had been sober for a year and felt that there was a higher power moving in his life. He heard me out and listened as I shared what I went through physically and emotionally during and after the rape. I wasn’t graceful towards him throughout the conversation but I was real and I was honest. He shared the shame and regret that he felt every day and I extended my forgiveness and I prayed for him.

My rapist didn’t deserve my forgiveness. I chose to give it to him for my freedom (and for his).

While I know many will argue that he isn’t worthy of forgiveness; neither am I. I’ve hurt people deeply. If I choose to hold him hostage for his wrong doing; I may as well place that judgement back on myself. I know the feelings of emotional and spiritual bondage, shame, self-hate, severe depression, amongst a host of others. I don’t wish that on my worst enemy (if I had one). I am not one who believes that we shouldn’t hold others accountable for their actions. If I found a lack of sincerity or self-seeking motives within our conversation my approach would have changed. My forgiveness would have remained the same, however, because that is a gift for myself.

After receiving emotional healing nothing that he could do or say will change the way I treat myself or change my character. I am in control of my actions, decisions, and thought life which in turn influence my emotional response. These are the choices of a powerful person. These are choices that lead to personal victory.

Forgiveness was me taking my choice back. Gaining my power back. Deciding my fate.

For years I believed a lie that I could regain my power by maintaining the upper hand in relationships, by being the one who cared less, and to unhealthily explore and promulgate my sexuality. I especially believed that anger and rage would make me powerful. If I remained angry and intimidating I would in turn protect myself from further violations. These were injurious belief systems that only trapped me in a cycle of instant gratification, pain, and isolation. These approaches do not bear sustainable fruit and will eventually lead to disappointment and despair.

There’s a better way.

The road to freedom is often counter to our culture and paved with challenging ideas. Your road ahead is illuminated with choice and righteous empowerment. I’m standing with you and fighting for your freedom.

You aren’t alone loved one.