At the end of every year, I think over all that went right, but a lot more about everything that went wrong. I think over the tests that I could have studied more for, or the papers that deserved more than a one night stand. I think about all the conversations that ended badly, and all the folks that I should have had a coffee date with. Grades are released, holiday cards were not sent in time, and the high of a new year approaching is coupled with the remorse of another year left behind. Failure: it's an inevitable cold sore after the holidays, and unfortunately, it takes a bit more than ointment to carry on with it.
When I think back at 2012, I think of a page-turner you pick up on a plane ride: difficult to remember when it started, but I sure can remember every chapter. This year, I welcomed my 20s, but like any book, I could only anticipate what was in store. Yet, I would never have expected what became of my story after this year.
In March 2012, a little less than a month after my 20th birthday, I was raped at an off-campus party, blocks away from the main campus of UNC-Chapel Hill. My memory of that night is cracked, shattered by the blow to my head just five minutes into my nightmare. I have no name, no face, no voice -- nothing but the recollection of the warm flames that trickled down my legs and formed a pool of dripping scarlet fire that stole away my voice, and that stuck to the thick soles of my boots, leaving living tracks on my run home. No one heard my silent screams, and no one felt the beating on my chest when I woke up to a bed soaked in the same living, bleeding flames that I had wished really were only a nightmare.
Only two years before, I had held my acceptance letter to UNC, the first in my family to have the chance to get that diploma. But, in just weeks, I withdrew from my success, and began letting my shame and doubt consume me. I was a student leader, and I was a fighter, but I could not escape my thoughts of failure -- why could I not save myself? Why could I not finish my classes? Why could I not cry away my shame? Why was everything my fault? Months passed by, and I never felt the change in semesters, only the pulsing pain and the inner bruising of my racing thoughts. I told no one my story, because after hearing dozens of stories, I had yet to meet a person that was believed and that was given justice. My destructive mindset worsened in Fall, and the bitter flame inside me grew, as my story burned away the happiness in my life. Friends were lost, and my life became an apathetic routine coupled with the eventual discovery of my own depression and the roots of my anxiety, anger and paranoia: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In 2012, my story included a rape, a mental disability, losing several friends, three academic withdrawals, daily migraines, and insomnia. Yet, what I learned in 2012 was that, although my story was singular, the pain, shame, and confusion was all too common a plot in the lives of those around me.
Last year, I met three friends who were suicidal, two who cut, five with eating disorders, three who were stalked, a dozen who were sexual harassed, and nine who were survivors of sexual assault within six weeks of the Fall semester, and over 40 by the end 2012.
Since I first came out as a survivor, I have the nightmares of hearing a knock on my door and there being another friend waiting to tell me the words I know too well -- "It happened, it happened to me too." I can't articulate what it feels like to hear these stories. I lived this never ending nightmare: reliving every single story I heard; hiding my PTSD so that others would not think me broken; fighting every inch of my own shame when I tried to connect with others, but could not even recollect my entire assault. And, while I am thankful that I can support fellow survivors, I wish that I would never have to hear "me too" again. I have met over 60 survivors since my time at UNC, but I can never speak for them, only seek to understand the strength and courage we all share. This makes all the difference. This is what 2012 taught me.
Each of the stories I heard this year taught me that that, though different each may be, we can connect on what it means to feel failure and still have courage. Every story I heard this year, though they often kept me restless at night, or had me clenching on my sides for the will to not cry, taught me that it is at our most difficult points that we find the strength we never knew about. For all of 2012, I struggled to remember what I wanted out of my life, and what purpose I had left after feeling engulfed in the same fire that originally took a part of me. Then I met one other survivor whose story echoed mine, and who gave me a voice I forgot I had; a "big sister" that helped me begin to see that the incredible strength that I had felt in every story I heard, was also the same strength I had within myself -- the courage that I had been ignoring in my failure. I learned that, though we may each have a bitter fire around us in some way, this fire doesn't consume us completely.
In 2012, my life changed forever, but there was also good amongst all the pain. I discovered just how beautiful true friendship is (even after struggling to recover from betrayal) and how "family" can come to you at all stages of life; how that understanding, strong big sister who you always needed can come to you in your 20s, or how there really are people that know exactly what you need, even when you don't know.
In 2013, I will enter the year knowing that my fight matters, that I am never alone, and that the courage I have is one that can burn stronger than any failure that I face. And, while my story is not one that everyone will know, I want everyone to believe that their story matters, and that they are bigger than those unmet expectations and resolutions.
You are bigger than the poor grades, the betrayals, and the painful past.
You are bigger than failure, because you aren't cowering, and you aren't giving up.
You are not just surviving: you are fighting, you are living.
You are supported, you are believed, and you are not alone.
2013 is my year; it's OUR year.