It’s not a word I would have given to my life if you’d just asked, “Hey, describe your life – your story – in one word.” I might have said things like meaningful, growing, or supportive. My life is good, but I’ve always pictured myself as behind the scenes. My actions are usually helpful to others. I like to see others shine and be recognized. I enjoy smiling from behind the curtain while the actors bow and curtsy in front of it.
When I think about an uprising, what comes to mind are pictures of the person in front of the crowd, being charismatic and enthusiastic. Someone leading the charge. A hero creating change. That’s not how I’ve thought of myself.
That said, I have stood in front of a group of people and shared my life. I’ve told my story. I don’t shy away from admitting who I am, what I’ve been through, and how I’ve become the Annie I am today. But, always in hopes that I’ll inspire someone else.
So, I guess, my uprising may be quieter than some, but I’ve certainly overcome something difficult and created change in my life while helping others. I am leading, through love and with kindness. I do guide others, with gentle encouragement, to tell your story, find your path to healing, and love yourself. And maybe it doesn’t matter how quiet the revolution is. Maybe the facts that I didn’t let the odds beat me and fought to become more than I thought I could be are enough to start using that word to describe my life. My story. My uprising.
Whew. That felt good to write.
Telling other people’s stories is what I love most, but telling mine and embracing a word that I wasn’t sure fit it took a little effort, but I got there. It’s been a journey, though. One I’d like to share with you.
It started when a friend shared a post by a local photographer asking for anyone with a story to share to contact her. My husband was gone for work and I’d seen this woman’s work before – gorgeous – so I figured, “What harm could it do to contact her?” And I did.
Elaine Turso, the magical photographer, and I scheduled a consultation. I’d never done anything like this – have pictures taken, tell my story through photos – and I didn’t know what to expect. What happened was that I walked into her studio and felt comfortable and ready to share.
At this point I need to tell you that my story involves details that might trigger things for you. If you aren’t ready to read on, don’t. I want you to take care of yourself. I’ll put some more asterisks in the post to let you know when I’m done with the dark stuff.
***Trigger warning: sexual assault, rape, suicide
Elaine asked me what my story was. I told her. I was raped when I was thirteen. Someone I knew at school, who was a year or two older than me, held me down and didn’t listen to my pleading. I was raw, scared, and completely vulnerable. I wanted to forget, but couldn’t. I wanted to disappear, but didn’t.
In the days following my rape I went through the motions, in a haze. I walked the school halls feeling like everyone was judging me. Some were excited for me, having heard I’d willingly had sex. Others deemed me a slut without question. Teachers looked at me with pity, disgust, and confusion. The principal called me to his office, having heard I’d had sex on school property. When it was clear that that hadn’t happened he said, “I’m sorry. I can’t do anything because it didn’t happen here.” But he did walk me to the school psychologist. I didn’t want to talk. I think I was incapable of listening. The reel in my head was too loud to hear whatever she might have said.
I don’t know who else said what else until the night I cried in a corner of the gymnasium. I was supposed to be in the auditorium for our spring concert. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t stop crying and I wanted to die. I was planning that when a friend found me.
She hugged me and asked, “Did you say no?” I nodded. And she held me longer. This girl, a year younger than me, knew what I was going through because she’d been through it. She was the one to tell me I’d been raped. I don’t think I knew what that was. Sadly, she did. With her mom, we went and told my parents.
I did make a police report, but ultimately decided not to press charges. I did seek therapy, but ultimately learned to hide my hurt and put a smile on my face. And that’s how it went for years.
***Triggers should be about over now.
I didn’t realize how much I was ignoring until I got to college. I recognized then that I needed to grapple with what had happened to truly become healthy and whole again. I started counseling and it was hard work, but it made a difference.
When I say hard work, I don’t mean the same kind of hard work it takes to build a house, create a five course meal, or even run a triathlon – although I haven’t actually done any of those, but I’m pretty sure it’s different. This hard work was internal. There were questions asked, journals written, and letters never sent. I had to be honest with my therapist and with myself. Many a session was ended early so that I had time to stop crying and compose myself before leaving her office to go back to my dorm and sleep. It was exhausting. And worth it.
In time I started working with a peer group, others with similar experiences, and we developed programs to help educate our college about the subject of sexual assault. I stuck with brainstorming and folding pamphlets until I was ready to tell my story. Then I spoke in front of groups of students, sharing what I’d been through. It was rough every time, but helpful to me and to others who found the strength to come forward and seek counseling for themselves.
During my college years and the intense work with this counselor, I grew into a woman who wasn’t scared anymore. I became intentional in my healing, especially with the subject of sex. I didn’t want to be scared of physical intimacy. I didn’t want to hold back from the man I loved and married. I didn’t want to feel like my body wasn’t good enough for him or me. So, I read, took classes, and learned what I could about how sex should be – that it could be good. Suffices to say that it worked.
Even with the big steps I made and the knowledge in the back of my mind that I could still be triggered at various points in life, I was still taken by surprise when approaching the 20-year anniversary of my rape. By that point I’d incorporated the vulnerable part of me successfully into the rest of me, and was feeling pretty whole, confident, and healthy. Then I started sobbing during a set of sit-ups while working out. I took the time to listen to my obvious emotions and realized that I’d never mourned the little girl I was. I’d never been sad for the childhood that ended so suddenly. So I did. And my healing journey continued.
So, I told all of this to Elaine. I put this all in her lap and said, “What do you think?” She said, “I think we need to do a couple of photo shoots and tell your story, the story of your uprising.” And our collaboration took flight.
Through the whole process, from idea conception to the night before I saw the reveal of my photos, I was thinking about my story and the photo panel we were creating in terms of how they could inspire someone else and help others. During a conversation on the night before I witnessed Elaine’s work, my husband said, “It obviously means something important to you and that makes it worth doing. I support that.” I hadn’t realized until then that it did mean something important to me.
It occurred to me right then that these pictures were confirmation to me that I am rising up. Through the pain, with intentional steps, and necessary support systems – I am not the victim I once felt I was. I have healed in many ways. Some wounds will likely always be reopened and feel raw from time to time, but even those I am capably dealing with. I still hope to encourage others to tell their stories, seek self-love, and move forward on their healing journeys. I still hope to be a voice for sexual assault survivors that haven’t found theirs yet. With those goals, though, I am also sitting a little taller as I type this – feeling proud of ME.
It’s time for a deep breath, don’t you think. Sometimes I think it’s important to pause for a minute and let emotions settle.
To catch us all up…I told my story to a photographer. We worked together on a couple of photo shoots. And then I got to see the results. And, as it turned out, I wasn’t the only one who was feeling proud of me. Elaine saw my pain. She saw my emotions. And she saw my healing – my joy, strength, and beauty.
This photo strip tells that story, my story. My uprising.
Elaine and I hope that you share my story. That you’re inspired to help others or help yourself. Here’s a link to her post about our time together: Elaine Turso Photography. Thank you, Elaine for telling my story in pictures – all pictures in this post are through Elaine’s lens. Thank you to my husband for unwavering support even when he doesn’t understand why I’d open my wounds like this. Thank you to all those who’ve supported me from the principal who didn’t know what to do to the friend who held me while I cried to all the others that supported me in the last several decades. My story is ongoing, but it’s a good one, I’ve got to say. Thank you.