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Trigger warning: the story below may contain triggering/and or sensitive material. Sexual assault, sexual violence, rape, childhood sexuality, and abuse are some of the topics mentioned throughout. The below story is shared in hopes to raise awareness on sexual assault. Many victims and survivors feel that sharing their story, or even just portions of their story, has empowered them and has been a key part of their healing and activism. The following stories were shared by survivors of sexual assault on the Issued Team. The rawness and vulnerability in these narratives speak to the courage and strength of survivors on our team, and beyond. May these words encourage all of us to remain steadfast in the fight to end sexual violence.

I remember being eight years old. I remember stealing my mom's Lady Gaga CD so I could have fashion shows in my basement. I remember practicing poses in front of the mirror for when I'd be on the cover of magazines. I remember telling myself every night before bed that I was the most beautiful girl in the world, and praying to God that my dreams of becoming a supermodel would one day be a reality.

Those dreams were erased the day that my cousin decided to lay his hands on me.

I was confused. I was scared. I remember telling my parents after the first incident, and how quickly they responded to protect me. Their protection didn't last, thanks to my abusers father moving in with us. Suddenly, I was trapped with not only my abuser, but also his enabler, who turned a blind eye to his behavior.

I retreated into myself. The sunny, extroverted, popular kid that I was collapsed. I had constant panic attacks. I resorted to harming myself, wanting any escape from the pain I was subjected to. By all definitions, I became an outcast, and suffered not only at the hands of family, but constant bullying all throughout my years of school.

I wanted to crawl out of my skin. I didn't know what he was doing to me, but I knew that it was something to be ashamed of. My confidence, my innocence, was gone in an instant. I felt like I couldn't tell my parents again after my cries appeared to fall on deaf ears. If they had known, I know they would have stopped it once and for all. And yet, I said nothing.

Suddenly, I was fourteen. I hit every single stereotype of the emo middle schooler. My colorful style was quickly replaced with band tees and as much black as my parents would let me wear. Making friends was out of the question, the social butterfly I once was had shriveled up. I couldn't conceal my self-inflicted wounds underneath my volleyball shorts. All the while, I fought for normalcy. I fought for a return of the person I once was. All it did was isolate me further from my peers.

Even to this day, I ask myself why it happened. I try to rationalize his actions in some way, attributing it to the situation of his family. For a long time, I blamed myself for my abuse, for not speaking up sooner. I pushed it all down, and tried to forget. But as the abuse continued, and my hopelessness grew, I knew that the only way that I would be free was to end my own life.

By this point, I was in and out of therapy for several years. All my parents could do was mourn the loss of their happy child. I remember sobbing in the arms of my mother, begging for her to let me die so I could stop hurting. I was planning on taking matters into my own hands soon. I resigned myself to the fact that as long as my abuse continued, I would never graduate high school. It didn't feel like a letdown, it felt more like a goal.

I was fifteen, trudging through what I thought were the final months of my life. There was a light at the end of the tunnel. It wasn't my life ending, but instead a new beginning. My dad's job was transferring him to another state, and we were moving at the start of summer. By the grace of God, I was free.

Moving across the country quite literally saved my life. Not only was I finally escaping years of abuse, but I had the chance to rewrite my story. I was determined to create the happy ending that my eight year old self so badly deserved.

There were certain aspects of my life I was sad to leave behind. Even now, I miss mucking out stalls and feeding horses with my mom. I miss my dad driving me to ice skating practice. I miss being in closer proximity to my grandparents and other family members. I miss my sweet pony rubbing his head on my shoulder. I was okay with giving it all up if it meant my survival was guaranteed.

My abuser visited us only once, bringing along his enabler. I can't call him my uncle anymore. He lost my love when his residence in our basement effectively placed his son over the pain of his niece. I was frozen in fear for the entire weekend, but for once in my life, I was prepared to protect myself. I never allowed a window of opportunity to open for him to prey on me. I locked my door every night. I wouldn't even sit next to him if I could help it.

And yet, I was healing. I graduated high school. I started competing in pageants. I was volunteering in the community, channeling my years of hurting into helping others. I started taking photography classes, and sparks of passion were ignited every time I was in front of the camera. It felt like my innocence was returning, even if those feelings were fleeting. I started college, and won my first pageant. To my parents, I was on top of the world.

But I was still hiding the truth from everyone around me.

The day after I won, I finally decided to have the most heartbreaking conversation of my life with my parents. I told them about the abuse, about how his father moving in with us gave him virtually unlimited access to my body. How I felt like I couldn't tell them that it continued after the first and last time I spoke up. I told them that I was prepared to end my life, had we not been forced to move. I remember how poorly my father reacted to the news that his baby girl had been repeatedly violated by a cousin that he viewed like a son. I remember my mother crying, but still hesitating to cut contact.

After my father came around, he was the most supportive of me. He is a fixer, and it pained him all of those years to watch me suffer without knowing how to help. He was the first to cut contact with him, and urged my mother to follow suit. My dirty childhood secret was out, but I was finally getting the love and support that I so desperately needed all those years ago. All of my "quirks" were suddenly explained, the nosedive that my mental health had taken was finally rationalized. Everything made sense.

The process of repairing myself truly began. Suppressing years of abuse wreaks havoc on your mind and body. But I was ready to have the life I didn't think I would ever have the chance to live.

I tried to date for what felt like the first time. My first boyfriend, prior to moving, cheated on me because I didn't want to have sex with him. To me, it made sense for him to do that. I was scared around men. My understanding of consent was beyond warped, and I was stripped of my power to say no. I felt like I only had value when I was sexualized, but I was so uncomfortable in my own skin that I couldn't respond the way I thought boys wanted me to. I would have panic attacks even just having my leg touched.

In those moments, their hands always morphed into my cousin's.

I wish that I could say that the story ends here. That I got past my fear of intimacy, met a nice boy who loved me despite my wounds, and magically healed from my years of trauma. Instead I met a boy who isolated me from friends, activities, and growth in my first year of college. He begged and pleaded for me to touch him, to be one of those hypersexual crazy girls that he thought were so hot. That wasn't me, but he wouldn't take no for an answer.

I was trapped once more. I still don't know if I can call it rape, but letting him do whatever he wanted to me in order to shut him up was the easiest route. I would disassociate once things heated up, essentially blacking out while he pleasured himself with the husk of my body. I wasn't there, but it didn't bother him because he was finally getting what he so badly wanted.

I remember gaining the courage to break up with him, airing out my anguish for him prioritizing his desires over my comfort. He responded with threatening to kill himself, saying that I was making him feel like a rapist for ignoring my hesitation in advancing our physical relationship. I hope he still feels that way. He deserves it after he stalked me, calling me a "dirty, pathetic slut." In that moment, I sure felt like one.

According to my therapist, my years of abuse essentially broke my fight or flight response. When I was in danger, I would just freeze. It was easier to disassociate and let it happen rather than face the repercussions of saying no. Those repercussions should never have been there to begin with. I now know that wasn't consent. That was survival.

Once again, I wish that I could say the story ended here. That freeing myself from a bad relationship, where my body was once again used without my permission, was empowering enough for the healing process to actually continue. I was mistaken, by a long shot.

I was raped twice by the same person in my second year of college.

The first time I still believe was my fault. When my sophomore year began, I flew off the rails. I started drinking and partying, completely unaware of my limits. My ex boyfriend didn't allow me to do either of those things, and I didn't care about being responsible in my ongoing quest for freedom. Instead of becoming a normal college girl, I landed myself on the floor of my bathroom, retching and convulsing with what I'm sure was alcohol poisoning.

I don't remember much of that night, but I remember just enough. I remember my roommate finding me in the bathroom, covered in vomit and drunkenly begging for some boy to come over. Anyone with eyes, or empathy, could have seen that I was in no place to have someone over. And yet, my roommate took my phone out of my shaky hands, sent him our address, and he showed up at our door. The two of them dragged me upstairs, and she left me alone with a boy I barely knew.

He waited until I stopped throwing up, and had his way with my limp, lifeless body. That part I don't remember in full, but I remember waking up next to him and feeling the same shame and confusion that I felt when I was eight. I was angry at my roommate for allowing me to be violated. I was angry at him for not being deterred by the clear fact that I was clearly in no position to consent. I was angry at myself for letting that happen.

Despite that, I had him over again. And yes, I still believe that this was my fault. Call it another form of self harm, or the worst judgement call ever, but I did. I felt like I needed to rewrite the image of the sloppy drunk girl that he saw. I did my usual act; I disassociated, removed myself from my body, and thought I had recovered my image.

It wasn't enough. He still wanted more, but I had one boundary that I refused to let anyone cross. I spoke up. I said no. I did not consent to what he wanted to do, and I made sure to vocalize it.

For a split second, I was proud of myself for saying no, and not sacrificing myself to gain the approval of a man. I should have known from his actions the first time that nothing would stop him from getting what he wanted. My weak attempts at protest were blissfully ignored by him, and I couldn't disassociate myself away. I was trapped in my body, fighting my instinct to freeze, choking out the word "no" as many times as I could manage. At least he stopped after a while, I guess.

I remember kicking him out, begging him to leave my house. I remember laying in my bed, fighting the urge to cry, asking myself over and over, "Did I just get raped?"

All of my growth, all of my healing, was undone in a matter of days. I was a shell of myself once again. The pain wasn't just mental this time, it was physical, too. I contracted an STI. I got the call while getting ready for a frat formal, bawling my eyes out while trying to put makeup on. Thankfully, it was curable, but it still served as a reminder of the betrayal I faced at the hands of this man. I felt disgusting. I felt dirty. I felt like my ex boyfriend's sentiments were coming true.

I wanted to claw my way out of my body, and find somewhere else for my battered soul to take residence. I leaned even more into drinking. I went out as often as I could, and stopped caring if I threw up at the end of the night or not. I ballooned in weight from the copious amounts of alcohol I was drinking, making me hate myself even more. My schoolwork fell by the wayside, but I knew I had to hold on enough to at least keep my scholarship. I managed to do that, but my drinking problem continued to grow.

I told my parents shortly after, leaving out the drunkenness and STI. I knew how ashamed they would be of me for putting myself into that situation. Two years later, and they would still be ashamed if they knew. They wanted me to press charges, to bring my rapist to justice. I said no. He was in a fraternity, and if they got a whiff of what was happening, I knew that they had the ability to make my life a living hell. Going against him in court, my word versus his, would just force me to relive another chapter in my long series of trauma. I wish I was strong enough to go through that, to see him get the punishment he deserves.

I remember the cold embrace of the toilet bowl being my only comfort as I drunkenly howled for a release, berating myself for not ending it all like I had planned. Moving across the country wouldn't save me this time, yet something in me pushed me to move forward.

I relapsed into self harming, albeit only once. It was the only thing that I thought would ease my pain, until I found a different outlet. It wasn't drinking this time, but the dream that I somehow managed to hold onto, for my eight year old self. The year before, I went to a casting call for a fashion show, and managed to get in. I won their editorial photo challenge, and for once in my adult life, I felt beautiful. I felt like it was safe to reside in my body when it was in front of the camera. COVID put everything on pause, and when I tried to return for their next casting call, I was turned away for what I'm sure was because of my excessive weight gain.

Something shifted in me after that. I'd like to think that it was a sign from God, telling me that my childhood dreams would be the ticket out of my life of trauma. I stopped drinking. I started eating healthy and going to the gym. I slowly, painstakingly, lost 30 pounds. I returned the next year for another one of their model castings, and I got in.

Two years later, and I am two years clean. I'm about to graduate college, another milestone I thought I would never reach. The physical scars may have faded, but the memories continue to wage a war in my mind when their anniversaries approach.

But I have reclaimed my body. By some bizarre twist of events, fashion and modeling were the things that saved me. I won another editorial photo challenge. I completely changed my appearance. I continued to work out, determined to create a body that no man would ever take advantage of again. I've met with agencies, I've walked in large fashion shows. I built a career on my body, on my own terms.

I feel like I'm honoring my eight year old self through this. I still listen to Lady Gaga when I work on my runway walk. I still practice posing in the mirror. My self confidence still hasn't returned to its childhood levels, but I'm putting the pieces back together in a way that almost makes me believe that I'm beautiful.

I found someone who loves me, who sees me not as the broken person I still picture, but as someone with the strength and resilience to overcome so much. He holds me tightly when the memories resurface, and in turn I've found a safe space within him that I've never been able to find before.

My insufferable independence would have allowed me to heal without him in my life, but there's something much more satisfying about sharing my life and career with a man that I've never had to be scared of. Coincidentally, my modeling career began to gain traction after he became a part of my life, and the joy of rebuilding my confidence knowing that he's in my corner pushes me to work for the life that my eight year old self wanted.

I remember him almost tackling me after I won my second photo challenge, as if he was more excited about my victory than I was. The photo in question painted a picture of strength that I didn't know I had residing in me. One click of the shutter released a hidden power that I will never let anyone stifle.

Through the lens of a camera, I became whole again.

If this has happened to you or someone you know, call 567-SHATTER for support from Take Back The Night Foundation National Sexual Assault Legal Hotline, available 24/7 so you can immediately connect with a real person ready to help.

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