Saturday, October 24, 2020

Stories of survival

Three survivors, who were sexually assaulted off campus, share their experiences of substance abuse, self-exploration and growth

April 23, 2015

Rape — the most common violent crime on college campuses — victimizes one in four women and one in seven men while at college.

Each year, many survivors bring personal experiences of sexual invasion, violation and abuse to MSU’s campus, utilizing domestic and sexual assault services to begin their healing process.

As a survivor of rape myself, I was able to reach out to other members of that community at MSU. Three survivors, who were sexually assaulted off campus, shared their on campus experiences of substance abuse, self-exploration and growth, which shaped them to be the survivors they are today.

A story of triumph

“My story isn’t stereotypical or the portrayed image of sexual assault,” elementary education senior Patrick Harris said.

Harris’ story first began when he was 18 years old and working as a counselor at an overnight summer camp in West Michigan.

Living on campsite, after a day of training before camp officially started, Harris and his supervisor, the assistant camp director, had a long and meaningful talk.

“I have never had male friends,” he said. “I always hung around women. I wasn’t big into sports as a kid. I’m not extremely hyper-masculine, so I didn’t connect naturally with the male community.”

Despite this being the first man Harris ever connected with, Harris was still hesitant to accept the assistant camp director’s offer of a mentorship. His intuition served to be right.

“From there it turned ugly,” he said. “He was intentional about manipulating others as director. He pushed me to be where I was alone or could not say no.”

After lunchtime at the camp, the campers and counselors participated in “chillax time,” which was an hour spent in cabins to take naps. Lying down in his bunk, Harris was joined by the assistant camp director.

“At first I thought he was just chilling,” he said. “Then he starts talking to me and his leg starts going up my leg and genital area. My mind was absent. Do I scream? Do I yell? Do I make a scene in front of all these kids sleeping in the cabin 2 feet away from me?”

Harris’ sexual trauma became a trend, and he repeatedly began to wake up with the assistant camp director molesting him. Despite the experience, Harris returned to the camp again the following year.

The same trauma continued that year.

But Harris was done letting it happen and told another counselor about the trauma. The assistant camp director, who was revealed to be molesting other children, was immediately removed from the camp after admitting to all accusations.

“It was humiliating and embarrassing but I felt happy that I released it,” he said.

Through self-exploration and therapy, Harris discovered he was also the victim of sexual trauma at a young age.

Harris acknowledged his trauma head on and began his healing process by speaking out about male sexual assault.

“I confronted the first assault, sexuality, family relationships, power dynamics, masculinity and still took 14 credits,” he said.

After telling his story, Harris received a lot of backlash from family and friends because he had returned for a second year. It was hard to explain for Harris.

“He had my trust, I didn’t know what to do,” Harris said. “There was a strong power dynamic, feeling alone and under someone’s spell. The trust, being my first big brother.”

Harris now identifies as a survivor and has learned a few things to pass on to other survivors of sexual assault.

“You have more power than you think that you really do, you have a voice that echoes,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to use it. You don’t have to settle for a particular kind of friend.”

A story of healing

Emily Nichols is determined to create a future without violence on university campus.

Nichols, a human development and family studies doctoral student, has worked on every committee on campus raising awareness on sexual assault.

“I’m always going to be a survivor,” Nichols said. “It’s a part of me, but that rape was not me.”

Nichols said she was raped in high school at a party by a friend.

“We were never taught what rape was growing up,” she said. “Instead of people being sensitive about it, (my friends) didn’t understand and they just called me a slut.”

Nichols said she shut down for the rest of high school and just wanted to get out of the situation.

During Nichols’ Academic Orientation Program session at MSU, a relationship violence and sexual assault theater group performed a skit that opened her eyes to her abuse.

Nichols said her undergraduate years were a growing experience where she made really good friends but opted not to tell anyone about her abuse because of the negative reactions she received in high school.

Nichols officially acknowledged her abuse nine years later, after she reached her lowest point, which was triggered by loneliness. Nichols began visiting a therapist.

Nichols said she is now the happiest she has ever been and she is grateful for MSU sexual assault services and the support system.

“I’ve had a very positive experience,” Nichols said. “Positive experiences get lost in the mix with more people who have negative experiences.”

After telling her mother and best friend her experience one year ago, Nichols finds strength through friends, family and her boyfriend.

“Happiness can happen,” she said. “It can come without significant interventions. Those things can happen.”

A story of fulfillment

She woke up in the clothes she wore the night before, covered in vomit and unable to move.

Apryl Pooley, a neuroscience doctoral student studying post-traumatic stress disorder, was raped her senior year of high school by her best friend’s boyfriend.

Pooley said she had a couple of beers, then was offered a mixed drink that tasted like fruit juice. Sixteen hours later, she woke up disoriented as her rapist began undressing her.

“Then he raped me,” she said. “I remember seeing blood all over his hands, all over his bed and I was confused by all the blood. It was my first time.”

Returning to school, Pooley was quickly exiled from her friend group and labeled a slut, forcing her to suppress every detail from that night.

“I didn’t realize it was rape for a year,” Pooley said. “I kept telling myself that’s what happens when you drink, maybe you wanted it, any excuse to mask what happened or what it really was.”

Overnight, like a switch, Pooley began skipping school and drinking heavily, constantly thinking about the sequence of events leading to her rape, and began searching for other answers.

“It was like I was reading my story but it was other people,” she said after discovering she had been the victim of date rape. “I didn’t think I was the only person this happened to anymore. I acknowledged it was rape. I wanted to do something about it.”

Pooley said her mother became angry after disclosing the truth of what had happened. As a result, she decided she wasn’t going to talk about it anymore and that there was nothing more to do.

A year later, distracted with grades and drinking, Pooley’s rapist contacted her and showed up at her doorstep. Seeing him again triggered an emotional breakdown and Pooley attempted suicide. Her mother caught her just in time and stopped her.

The next year, Pooley and her cousin went to a party. Soon after arriving, Pooley caught the interest of another man and when she refused to go home with him, she said he forced her into a room and raped her.

“It lasted two to three minutes,” Pooley said. “It was horrible. Afterwards he said to me, ‘Wow thank you, that was the best orgasm I’ve had in a long time.’”

Despite her substance abuse, that began as a result of her experiences, Pooley graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She came to MSU with hopes for a fresh start in a Ph.D. program.

Within a week, she started going out every night and having sex with random strangers when she didn’t want to.

“It was a common theme,” she said. “I didn’t make the connection why I was doing things that were ruining my life because I’ve been raped twice.”

Each time a man took an interest in Pooley, she hid herself emotionally as a means of protecting herself and hit another roadblock.

After doing some research and discovering she had post-traumatic stress disorder, Pooley couldn’t leave her apartment.

For the first time in five years, she went a day without a sip of alcohol, and instantly began to experience severe withdrawal. Shaking and sweating, Pooley sought help and found herself in the Olin Health Center.

Today Pooley consistently goes to therapy, working on healing and understanding herself. Through therapy, she discovered that she is a lesbian. She later met her wife, whom she married last year.

“Together we have made friends who are supportive,” she said. “It gives purpose to it all. The recovery is rough but I’m glad I’m alive because I can help people.”

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