How my sexual assaults made me an advocate for male mental health

A social system of silence causes more harm than good

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This article discusses sexual assault and may be triggering for some readers. 

The writer’s name was omitted due to the sensitivity of the content.

“I just wish they were dead.”

To this day, I can’t believe I had ever been at such a point of darkness that I was able to speak such words about my abusers.

On the night of my high school graduation, I was sexually assaulted by two different people, two hours apart.

For nine months afterwards, I was in extreme denial. My mind didn’t want to believe what my body was suffering from. I couldn’t explain why I had no sex drive, why I would randomly start crying for hours at a time, or why I was scared to go to public places.

One day, out of nowhere, the reality of what had happened hit me, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

I thought about the guy that I used to cry over every night when I was 16, and how he punched me in the stomach when I told him my period was late. At the time, I laughed it off.

He guilted me into performing sexual activities I wasn’t ready for. Every time I attempted to put my clothes on, he was right there to pull them off. Every time I said “no,” he fought back. I thought all of this was normal.

Worse still, I thought this was love. I thought it had to be what they meant when they said you have to fight for true love.

I thought of all the times I was grabbed and slapped as I walked down the halls of my high school. I thought of not only the way guys spoke to me, but the way they talked about me when it was just “boys being boys.”

I thought of the time I felt the fingers of a stranger slide up my shorts while I was having a conversation with a friend. The times I was pinned in corners and yelled at for not reciprocating feelings and actions. I thought of the lies and rumours that ruined my reputation—all because I told someone “no.”

Mainly, I thought of the time one of my best friends led me down a back road, far away from our graduation party, where there were no cars left in sight. More importantly, there were no people in sight.

I thought of the time when the guy I had a crush on all through high school offered to help me get to bed when I insisted I was fine, and how he zipped the tent closed with himself still inside.

Those thoughts don’t go away. It was those moments of some people’s temporary pleasure that created my lifetime of pain.

Those thoughts don’t go away. It was those moments of some people’s temporary pleasure that created my lifetime of pain.

But this pain was more than just physical. There isn’t a single word that can truly describe this hellish feeling. I felt like I was just a shell of a body, pretending to be alive.

Every ounce of insecurity and darkness that I’d ever felt worsened exponentially after these experiences. If I saw my naked body in a mirror, I would throw up. If I ate, I would throw up. I had no appetite, no sex drive, and no sense of the future.

I couldn’t sleep without seeing it. I couldn’t be awake without seeing it. I couldn’t picture myself as anything but a pathetic girl who let all of those people abuse her.

I lived in constant fear of everything: intimacy, pleasure, and men.

But most of all, I was angry.

Waking up for what seemed like the hundredth night in a row in a sweaty panic, heaving and gasping for air, I got up to turn my lights on and convince myself I was safe. I fell to my floor, crying, the horrifying memories burnt into my brain. In a moment of pure exhaustion, I said to myself, “I just wish they were dead.”

When I said that, I reached my lowest point—one of hatred. I was letting evil win.

***

It was in that moment that I knew I needed help, but I was still too terrified to find it. I convinced myself that I needed to reclaim my body and identity by becoming sexually active again.

During my first sexual encounter in 18 months, I lasted approximately 10 seconds before my body completely shut down, and I began having a panic attack. Flashbacks flooded my mind and caused me to question what reality was. These were symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

However, what happened after I shut down was beautiful. The man I was with pulled away immediately and chose to comfort me, rather than make me feel guilty. It was the first time I’d told someone to stop, and they actually did.

I started to see the flicker of light in the overwhelming darkness. There was a difference between abusers and all men, something my mind was terrified to consider.

I started to see the flicker of light in the overwhelming darkness.

A major point of healing for me was putting myself in the shoes of men. At the time, I felt like I was becoming the enemy of women by doing so, but I was obsessed with figuring out how my painful experiences had happened to me.

To process my pain, I needed to learn how these men turned from strangers, friends, or lovers into abusers.

I was unlucky, but the multiple abuses I sustained, with no correlation to one another, weren’t a coincidence. They’re part of a societal pattern that didn’t start with me and won’t end with me.

As much as I thank movements like #MeToo for being one of the reasons why I’m still alive today, I also thank the advocates who have forged discussions about male mental health.

For too long, I was a hypocrite. I used to roll my eyes at social media posts about male mental health. Frankly, I thought men deserved to live in misery. How dare they not enjoy their lives after they so effortlessly ruined mine?

I looked at my abusers as anything but people, just as they had seen me.

I don’t sympathize with my abusers, but I do mourn their once-innocent souls. I was ignorant to the idea that the pain they inflicted on me likely came from an internal struggle so severe it led to feeling no guilt.

When I allowed myself to engage in conversations about male mental health, I saw the beauty of masculinity as a whole. I saw men’s potential for strength, kindness, and passion.

However, I also saw the pain of being raised in a system that forced them to fit into an impossible definition of masculinity. This is a social system that convinces men that emotions are a weakness, and to display them is to be anti-masculine. In short, it’s a system that praises silence.

What I found to be most important is that when I offered my ear to men and their problems, they reciprocated that for me as well. Suddenly, each of our struggles were no longer silent, and we found common ground in empathy and understanding.

Suddenly, each of our struggles were no longer silent, and we found common ground in empathy and understanding.

My trauma hasn’t gone away just because I understand this now. I live with PTSD that sometimes gets revealed against my will. My mental health can be very poor at times, and my relationships, both romantic and sexual, suffer because of it.

Even so, I don’t think twice about my safety when I’m surrounded by my male friends. Not only do I know the signs of potential abuse, but they do as well. Every day, they show me what it means to be a good man, and I will never be able to thank them enough.

I think of the numerous men who’ve had to deal with me bursting out into tears or completely turning cold on them, for reasons I still can’t explain, and how they back off immediately and ask me if I’m okay. I’m grateful for those who choose to listen, rather than control.

These are all forms of positive masculinity I wish I had seen before.

Being an advocate for male mental health doesn’t make me an enemy of women. Instead, it’s made me a better human. It’s taken the poison and hatred my abusers gave to me, and allowed me to turn that into love and strength instead.

It’s amazing how much better the world is when we stop and listen to each other with empathy and open minds.

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