Disclaimer: For mature audiences only
I was sexually assaulted on a first date when I was 24. The events of that evening landed me in Harlem Hospital at 2 am with a concussion and a bruise on my forehead (among other things). During the hours in which I took up residence in a private emergency room, I was coached by a nurse on how to proceed--to take legal action immediately or to not take legal action...to complete a rape kit or to not complete a rape kit. It was overwhelming. I also had to take 17 pills, mostly anti-viral meds. It was intense. There was a moment when I looked up to the ceiling and silently bemoaned. "Really God?" I said, as the quick air from a painful chuckle slipped through my lips. I felt like I was in an episode of Law & Order: SVU. I felt defeated. I felt stupid. I felt isolated. And all because I said, "yes." The details of what transpired that evening are not important to this post. What is important, however, is how the lingering trauma of that experience has affected (and continues to affect) my dating/love life.
After my ex and I parted ways this year, there was this assumption that I was wallowing in despair because I hadn't started dating again. Even only weeks after our breakup, there were people who were insinuating that I should have a prospect for Valentine's Day--that I should have dinner plans or someone to send me flowers. People were so ready for me to move on. I was appalled. But then I took a pause and realized that many people didn't know my history. Not even my parents and close friends understood the weight of what I was carrying--that not only was I dealing with feeling like a failure because my relationship ended abruptly, but I was having anxiety about the mere prospect of having to do this dating thing all over again (when the time came).
I have severe dating anxiety, much of which was brought on by the assault. After all, I was on a first date that I thought would last only 2 or 3 hours. I'd never dated much before moving to NYC when I was 22 years old. At the time, it was my friend circle who convinced me to try different dating apps--to be more open to meeting people and dating casually. I'd watch them go on date after date and they seemed happy! They seemed to enjoy swiping through profiles on OkCupid and chatting it up with strangers on Match. I must admit that I was and still am a bit old fashioned. While I aim to dismantle certain gender norms and the binary that creates them, I'm still a southern hetero-cis woman who was taught to believe in chivalry--to have standards regarding who you let in your life and how you let them in. Online dating was peculiar and NYC was not the south. It was a different ballgame up here that left a strange aftertaste in my mouth, but I conceded.
This perilous date, however, was not someone I met online. This person pursued me at my job and was quite relentless until I caved and said "yes." I was 24. I thought, "what do I have to lose?" "Everybody else is doing it!" I had yet to be in a serious relationship in my adult life and I was opening myself up to that, right? I had a rule about first dates--meet the guy in the daytime. Even before the assault I was skeptical about traveling alone in NYC at night (unless coming home from work), especially because many men I'd dated hadn't offered to pick me up or drop me off at my apartment. We take public transit here, so I let go of that expectation pretty quickly. Thus, meeting in the daytime gave me a sense of control. I had every intention of meeting my assaulter at 3 pm, indulging him for a few hours, and being home in bed by 7:30 pm to watch the Grammy's. Obvi, that didn't happen.
Moving forward after the assault was difficult. I dated people very loosely. I regressed and dated a guy I knew didn't make me happy but we had dated on and off for years and I felt safe with him, which is what mattered at the time. I was also finishing grad school that year and had career prospects for the fall that would take me out of NYC for a few months. I didn't date very much simply because I was afraid. I was afraid that it would happen again. I was afraid to meet up with someone I didn't know--with someone I didn't trust. Even up until the beginning of my last relationship, I was afraid to say "yes." Love seemed so distant--so difficult to find and sustain because my anxiety crippled me.
I stopped dating altogether in mid 2015 and focused on getting into seminary, building a strong spiritual foundation for myself, and working on my acting/music career. It took me weeks to come around to the idea of dating *Jasper in late 2016. It had been over 2.5 years since the assault and, while I had done this tremendous healing work on my self, I was afraid to say "yes." I had known Jasper for a few months before I finally agreed to go out with him, and it was my anxiety--my fear-- that almost kept me from experiencing the magic of that relationship. Saying yes to that took a lot of prayer, a lot of introspective work and confronting my diagnosed but untreated anxiety disorder. I literally went into my prayer closet (my shower lol) and asked God if this was a good idea. (God be so over me😏) I was really in distress and anguishing over the possibility of going on a first date with this person. A first date...like the first date that ended with me emptying my guts in an emergency room because an anti-viral pill caused adverse reactions.
I felt as if I heard God in the shower that morning say, "It's okay to say yes." I also heard God say, "Be patient," among other things. To this day, I wrestle with that conversation I had with God, wondering what the "patience" part was/is referring to. Nonetheless, for the most part, Jasper and I had a beautiful relationship and it was the first time I experienced love after my assault, letting me know that it was and is possible to honor my anxiety while not letting it cripple me, and also letting me know that I was still capable of loving and being loved despite the mess of my past. [That's a word for somebody]
But here we are again. As I press forward into this new season of life, I'm assessing all the ways in which the trauma from my assault is resurfacing and connecting with the trauma from dealing with a failed relationship, the trauma of separation, and the trauma of being vulnerable enough to tell my story so that those around me can support me the best ways they know how. My therapist calls this 'compounding traumas,' or something like that. There's just so much angst around finding love again that I can't even begin to explain to most people how difficult moving on actually is. Firstly, finding love starts with finding safety. I'm not a casual dater for this reason. I don't want to just meet up with any and every body for free drinks or a meal. I don't want to do happy hours alone (or with people, for that matter) in crowded places--it induces anxiety. I have to do serious assessments before I even offer up my phone number. In online dating, it seems as if people are so quick to want to move from chatting on the platform to a meetup. It's almost as if everyone else is rushing except for me. My anxiety makes it so I have to take my time. I'm learning not to apologize for that.
Secondly, my dating method is counter-cultural--it is antithetical to the way most people around my age are dating. I'm not judging, I'm just not interested in investing the few hours I allot for socializing with someone who is callously moving through people's lives with no regard--with people who just wanna have fun. I'm an extreme introvert and an empath, so that's a waste of emotional and spiritual resources that are already strained because of my line of work. Lastly, I must wrestle with when/how to tell them about my assault--if I'll tell them about it--because it has proven to be important in how the relationship does or doesn't proceed. The few times I've mentioned my trauma to men, it has happened around date 3 or 4. In my experience, when a guy has realized he isn't able to end the evening the way he thought he was going to end the evening (y'all know what I'm talmbout😎), he either makes peace with that and sticks around a little longer or he ghosts.
Telling guys about my assault usually hints to them that I'm not playing any games with my life or my body.
This also means, however that many disappear (which I'm totally fine with✌) and I'm left to start the finding love/finding safety journey all over again. As discouraging as that is, I still believe love is possible. Part of moving through heartbreak and this separation from Jasper has also been moving through this trauma--picking apart the ways in which it still holds me hostage and wrestling with the insecurities that it brings up. After several months of therapy and personal introspective work, I'm realizing the ways in which my dating process has been similar to the building of friendship. Because I'm always looking for safety first, I feel as if I've built strong friendships with a core group of people whom I trust with my life and my heart. That took years and the work/the vetting/the assessment has paid off. Thus, love after an assault is possible. Building something worth sustaining after and through trauma is possible. Friendship has proven that to me, and while it may be a different kind of love, it flows through the same heart.
I don't give advice much. I just write and people can take it or leave it. But I will say that guarding my heart has been the best decision I've made over the years following my assault, even if that decision meant being single. I'd rather be single and safe than a victim of physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual, verbal or financial violence (if I can help it). I'd also confess that I move slower through the pursuit of love and partnership than most people. It's been hard not to constantly compare myself to those who are able to jump from relationship to relationship--to those who are able to go on date after date. I've had to learn how to release myself from those comparisons. The culture has us thinking that if we haven't moved on in a certain amount of time that something is wrong with us. There are countless sites on the internet that provide timelines for healing, for getting over your ex and for getting back in the dating scene. These sites have often felt abrasive and aggressive to me because they leave little or no room for compounded traumas stemming from sexual assault, intimate partner violence or child abuse, to name a few. I've made peace with the idea that much advice isn't for me and that's okay. This is why I write--to provide another perspective. There are people who don't like how vocal I am--who take issue with the gravity of my interrogations of life, love and the pursuit of happiness. But I will not be silenced by those who are uncomfortable with how my testimony makes them feel. I will not be held hostage by the ways in which many communities refuse to acknowledge or even talk about the fallout and trauma from sexual violence. I pray that my testimony can be the catalyst for someone else's breakthrough.
Love is possible. It is possible. You can love and be loved despite whatever unfortunate circumstances you've had to endure. It is possible. I hang onto this hope as I press into this unfamiliar, yet divinely ordained season of my life.
Amen and Ase'