This is, unsurprisingly, a rough story to write. But recent events in my life have caused me to rethink my decision to keep this a secret for so long. And, despite any repercussions that result, I hope this brings me the peace of mind I’m seeking. Or helps someone. I didn’t say anything then, but maybe my saying something now will matter.

Lately I’ve been involved in a legal battle stemming from an incident that occurred a couple months ago in Roseburg, the town where I grew up. My last visit there happened after years of never wanting to visit. Despite my family living there, it always was a painful place in my memory. But, after months of going to therapy, I thought it would be okay. That I would finally be okay. I was wrong. Day after day of triggers left me super anxious and super critical of my husband. I won’t go into details of what happened that resulted in legal action because it’s still ongoing, but suffice to say, everything culminated the way it did because I couldn’t handle being in a place with such history in my life.

In June of 2002 when I was 16 years old, I was doing laundry after being out of town the weekend before. My family often went on softball tournament trips, so this wasn’t out of the ordinary. My parents were both at work and I was getting things together for a trip to Mexico I was going on in just a day or two. I had clothes folded in piles all over the living room, with a couple baskets and probably some piles of socks strewn about, too.

I didn’t even hear him coming up the front steps. I also didn’t hear him knock. But that was because he didn’t knock. He had a key. We were out of town the weekend before and he watched the house and pets while we were gone. He was a family friend and trusted with a key. He let himself in that day because he knew I was there.

We had dated the summer prior, so it wasn’t totally strange that we sat together on the couch and chatted after he dropped the key off. He started tickling me and I (probably playfully) told him to stop. His tickling led to pulling my shirt up. My playful request turned to demands. STOP. He wouldn’t. He pulled up my bra and fondled my breasts. STOP. He wouldn’t. He kept going until he was satisfied. I have no idea how long it lasted. All I knew was that somehow, in the span of minutes, I went from a high school student to a statistic.

I don’t know what happened after that. I know he left. I know the laundry got done. I know my parents never found out. They could never know. I was afraid of what would happen. I knew that if they found out they would kill him. Or my brother would. Or my extended family would. They wouldn’t stop to listen to me or hear what I wanted. They’d kill him and they wouldn’t be sorry for it. They’d go to jail avenging me. And who could blame them for feeling that way, right? But I couldn’t let it happen. I couldn’t be responsible for that. I couldn’t tell a word. And I didn’t.

I didn’t handle life and difficult situations very well after that. Despite me looking like I “had it all together,” anyone watching closely could have seen something was wrong. A day or two later I left on a school trip for Mexico City, where I got drunk with three other students (I’d never really drank before). We climbed pyramids the next day and eventually got told on by a chaperone who caught us the night prior. We broke the rules so rightfully had to apologize to our teacher and parents, and were shamed with responsibility the rest of the trip. When we got back to school we received in-school suspension and/or community service. I enjoyed Mexico ultimately, but my assault has always tarnished the memory in my mind. Would I have made that choice to drink if I hadn’t been assaulted? Maybe. Would I have even been in Mexico if I had told? Most definitely not.

Beyond just my parents’ reaction, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be believed by my friends and school. And even if I was believed, I would be labeled a slut by the people who knew and liked my assaulter. And he was popular. He was a year younger than me and in the same grade as my brother, outplaying my brother in most sports. He also had a mother who made sure he’d get his way, even when he didn’t deserve it. And that was most of the time.

I didn’t tell anyone until college, when nobody knew him and nobody would dare do anything without asking me. Even with only telling a select few, people questioned my motives for not saying something until then. “Your parents would really kill him?” “Are you sure you don’t want to press charges?” All well meaning, but ultimately harmful. It reinforced the narrative I was already struggling with. That I didn’t know what happened and/or didn’t know the right course of action. That I wasn’t to be trusted in this situation. Somehow, other people knew better. Of course I had friends who did support me, but at that age I’d had enough experience of being doubted to learn how to put a wall up to anyone who could doubt me.

Now, 17 years after the assault, I’m done with that narrative. My life is different and I’m done with others writing the story for me. I’ve seen my worst fears be realized in Roseburg again, and though I’m suffering, I realize that I will rise above this, too. Because guess what? I’m getting better every day. I’m getting better every week. And I want people in my life who are willing to step that path with me. My husband understands the importance of introspection and mental health therapy when you need help with the struggles of life. One day, if my daughter struggles with growing up or dealing with us as parents, I hope to encourage her and get her access to an outlet for her pain. And I hope that if I am the cause of that pain, that I have the vagina to woman up and work on whatever crap I haven’t figured out yet. We are all the experts of how we feel. We just need to have the words to tell our own story.