**Content warning: The following text describes sexual assault, violence, and substance abuse and can be disturbing and/or triggering for some readers. Please find resources listed at the bottom of the article.**
“Drink this, it’ll make you more fun,” he chuckles. I hesitate.
“Come on. I love you. You trust me, right?” The liquid burns its way into my stomach. I want to vomit, but I’m afraid of what will happen if I do, so I lie there. His hands grip around my neck as he thrusts in and out of me, but there’s no emotion behind his eyes. I stop screaming, my tense body goes limp as I succumb to the numbness.
The pressure of his body on mine becomes overwhelming, and my eyes jolt open. I’m sweating, twisted in my sheets, and my watch asks me if I’m exercising because my heart rate is beating out of control. My breathing slows down.
I’m in my bed. He’s not here. I am safe.
I didn’t tell anyone about my first time having sex, or about most of the sex I had for about two years after that. I remember going to the doctor for my yearly checkup soon after that first time. I flinched when she lifted my gown and she asked me if I was sexually active. I paused and considered telling her, but I decided against it. She accepted my answer and moved on.
That was only the beginning. What followed was a dark road of being addicted to a manipulative monster, and the ensuing self–hatred.
I would go to his house, he would suggest a harmless activity like homework or watching TV, and I would breathe a quiet sigh of relief that I wouldn’t have to have sex. Then, like clockwork, he would reach under my shirt or unzip my pants. I would move his hand away from me, and he would chip away at my self–worth, one insult at a time, until I would take my pants off myself and just lie there waiting for it to be over.
But it didn’t matter. He always reminded me how much he loved me.
Soon, the rouse of hanging out wasn’t even there. I couldn’t bear the insults any longer, so I’d just undress and wait for him in his bed. “You’re lucky you have me because I don’t know how anyone else would put up with that,” he’d say.
People told me I was very lucky to have a boyfriend who really loved me. I convinced myself that this was normal, that I should be more grateful. When I was ready to go to college, a little bit of light flickered back into my eyes, and I had real hope that things would get better.
They got exponentially worse.
One of the best parts about college is the freedom to discover your passions and purpose—but we’re so focused on this excitement that we forget, or avoid talking about, the darkness it can bring out in people. The frequency, roughness, and drunkenness of the sex increased. I couldn’t use my parents as an excuse for not coming over anymore.
I don’t remember most of the sex I had that year, but there were days when I woke up alone, naked, writhing in pain. He used his freedom to smother mine. His anger seeped outside the bedroom and splattered all over the rest of my life. I isolated myself from my friends and never called my family, my grades began to slip, and I quit extracurriculars.
He admitted to cheating on me with several people I knew—and many more that I didn’t—but he was my only lifeline. So I stayed.
A lot of people did reach out to me—friends, family, professors, and advisors. I am thankful for all of them, and I wish I had allowed them to help me. But I didn’t crack until he finally broke up with me several months later.
Things get better. We all say it, but no one talks about all of the time spent in between saying it and actually believing it. Some people take less time, others more. For me, it took two years.
We’re all so conditioned to mute our feelings until we finish the next thing—a big assignment, getting a job, enjoying Fling. Except, those things are going to keep coming. If you’re like me, you’ll welcome them with open arms, to give yourself another reason to avoid thinking about how much you’re hurting. Accepting an offer in a field that I had always secretly wanted to pursue, mending existing friendships and forging new ones, trying new things, and putting myself out there all happened in those two years, which I am now so proud of.
I didn’t really think about my pain because I didn’t have time to. Whenever I remembered it was there, I applied a new metaphorical band–aid and moved on. But one day I ran out of band–aids. I looked closer and realized that I had been convincing myself that my stab wound was more of a paper cut.
I became sadder than I had been at any point during or after my relationship. I didn’t just finally come to terms with how much damage had been done. I was also so mad at myself for letting it fester as long as it did. And as much as that moment hurt, it was my breakthrough.
Healing became my full–time job. After such a long time wavering on the edge of the plane’s doorway, I jumped. I invited whatever memories or emotions surfaced, even if they scared me. I was ready to trust myself to pull the string and activate my parachute in order to land safely. I found a wonderful therapist, discovered a love for exercise, traveled, and admitted to friends and family that I was struggling.
I learned how to find strength within myself rather than relying on others to validate me. I gained confidence, mended relationships, and pursued my passions. After a long time swearing off love at Penn, I met an amazing person who has shown me what a healthy relationship actually looks like, and who respects my past.
I still have trouble talking about, or classifying my first relationship—I’ve tried about every adjective in the dictionary, from abusive to unstable. No word feels right.
I’m still figuring that out, but there are a few things I know for certain. It is possible to take back the night, or too many nights to count. It is possible to stop feeling like it’s your fault. It is possible to fall in love with yourself and someone else when you are ready. I think we all deserve that, and we deserve better.
This WOTS was written anonymously by a Penn student.
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.