Finding Beauty Amongst the Pain

Words by Elizabeth Emery


This is my story about sexual assault and how it has affected my life. Instead of being the powerful, strong, independent woman I know I can be, I let the pain encompass me. I let it control me and destroy most of my life because I was scared and forced to feel ashamed by society. I blamed myself and let it ruin countless romantic and non-romantic relationships because my ability to trust people was completely shot. After my assault, I was broken. And this is how I taped myself back together. 

It has been seven years since my sexual assault, as of January 1st. I was a freshman in college. I had just finished my first semester at a small private school in Northern Ohio around 5 hours away from my hometown. During my first semester, I went to parties and made new friends. I also encountered boys. One particular night at I was at a party that was being held at a house off-campus with a bunch of my friends. We were dancing in the small living room area with a few guys from the football team, or at least I think they were on the football team. I was dancing with this guy when, out of nowhere, he took it upon himself to pick me up off the floor and started bouncing me up and down against his pelvis. Everyone laughed, he put me down and everyone continued dancing like nothing happened. It was a strange experience. 

Growing up in a small town (I graduated high school with a class of 18 people), I wasn’t used to attention from guys. I’m not skinny. I’m not an extravagant beauty. There were girls in my school that were considered far prettier and therefore gained more attention. By the time I graduated, people cared a little less and I was fairly liked. Yet, no one really wanted to date me. I was a random hook-up at a party. I hadn’t experienced much in terms of relationships. I spend a great deal of my time on the internet and had a few ridiculous online relationships. I altered my personality to fit what guys wanted from me. I thought I was worthless if I wasn’t in a relationship because I was made to believe that, as a woman, I needed to be in a relationship to be happy. I also dealt with the underlying issue that I was also attracted to girls. But I attended a Catholic high school and most of my family was very conservative Catholics. My brother constantly made fun of me for being a “dyke” because I played softball and volleyball. So I thought there was something wrong with me. Add this on top of being bullied a lot throughout middle school and most of high school, as well as dealing with my father who felt the need to constantly tell me everything that was wrong with me, specifically my weight. **(I do not want you to pity me, I’m 25 years old and I have mostly dealt with these issues. I just want you to get an idea of where my life used to be.)

College was supposed to be better. I was getting away from everyone I knew. I was so tired of feeling judged and worthless. I made a lot of friends and frequently went out to various activities on campus. Surprisingly, I didn’t drink that much my first semester of college. I was in a city with things to do hence I didn’t need alcohol to make things better. Things were better. Finally, I wasn’t in a town where the only thing worth doing was drinking in a parking lot next to a gas station with my friends. I had broken up with my online boyfriend of 3 years. I had just turned 18 (one month after I had moved into my college dorm). I was an adult. I was a whole new me. 

Therefore when this guy picked me up, I was completely embarrassed; then that part of my brain that had been fooled to think I was worthless without the attraction of a boy kicked in and I thought ‘oh my god this guy likes me’. It’s disheartening to think about now. I wish that there had been someone in my life to open my eyes to these demeaning thoughts. However, like most things, I was on by own in figuring all of this out. The guy didn’t like me. He didn’t ask for my number. I never saw him again. I was just an object for him to use. But my stupid 18 year old brain didn’t care because oh my god he noticed me. Blah.

Still, I had this shimmer of confidence I hadn’t really had before. I went on my first real date that semester. We went to a Straylight Run show, also a first for me. It was an amazing show. I met the band and just overall had a great night. Besides the fact that I didn’t really enjoy seeing the show with the guy. Every few seconds he shrugged his shoulders. I’m not really sure why but it was pretty distracting. I didn’t know what was wrong with him, yet I felt like it would be impolite to ask why he kept doing it. I went on another date with a guy whom I worked with on campus. He was adorable and he could dance like nobody’s business. He was sweet and funny so when he asked me out of course I said yes. But then I was awkward and didn’t know how to properly interact with a human. Plus, he seemed to want a relationship and I didn’t want anything serious. I just wanted to have fun. So cliche. 

It had been a great first semester and I was enjoying a freedom I had never felt before. So I was excited to go home, see my friends, and show them “the new and improved me”. Christmas was lovely. I believe that was the year I spent Christmas night at a bowing alley with my best friend and his brother. However, on New Year’s Eve all my friends were either doing family things or travelling so I had to figure out some plans for myself. I ended up making plans with another friend and we went to a party with former and current students from my high school. I had taken alcohol from my parents so I felt cool. Of course, a few jokes were made about me once I arrived. The bullying never really stopped in school, it just subsided and I dealt with it because popular people were talking to me. I didn’t drink much while I was there because I didn’t feel very comfortable. Plus, my friend and I had made plans to stay at another friend’s house since her parents were out so I was planning to drink more there.

Though I had been drinking, after midnight I drove us back to my friend’s house. Once we got there, I was doing shots of whiskey with my friends and my friend’s younger brother as well as his friend. My friends decided to go to bed but I stayed up a little longer, doing more shots. I eventually threw up. I went to get in bed with my friend and pass out but I just couldn’t sleep in bed with her (I’m a bed hog) so I went into another room to sleep. My friend’s brother and his friend came in to sleep in the other beds in the room (my friend had a lot of brothers and sisters). I pretended to be asleep because drunk, awkward Elizabeth is drunk and awkward. I rolled around and made sleep noises so they wouldn’t bother me then hopefully fake sleep would become real sleep. But I guess I was a little too convincing.

After about 20 or 30 minutes, they both got up and walked over to where I was sleeping. I had my eyes closed but I could feel them walk next to my bed. I wasn’t sure what they were doing until one of them starting touching my leg. I moved around but still pretended to be asleep because I was a little freaked out at this point and the only other person in the house was my friend who was already asleep in another room. Then they starting touching my arm. I moved again and made some noises so maybe they would leave me alone. But they didn’t. One of them started to lift up my shirt and I pushed him away. Then from the other side of the bed the other guy grabbed my arm and held it down on the bed. At this point, I froze. I didn’t know what to do. Yes, they were younger then me but there were two of them and one of me. But for a split second, I thought, “at least someone finds me attractive.” 

They then proceeded to treat me like I was some sort of toy they could use and experiment with. And I let them. When that thought crossed my mind, I gave up. At that moment, all I could think about was every awful thing that had happened to me in my life. The years of depression and thoughts of suicide because no one ever saw me as a person with worth. All I could ask myself was why? After all I had been through, what had I done to deserve this? 

The next day I woke up in a haze and for a few seconds I had forgotten what happened. Then the pain hit me, inside and out. I went home and laid in bed all day. It’s all I wanted to do. But I had to go back to school. I didn’t tell anyone what had happened to me. Once I was back at school, I fell apart. I wasn’t sleeping at night, I was missing class. I stopped going out, I stopped doing everything. I remember spending a lot of time crying in the shower. But I didn’t talk to a soul about what happened. I just blamed myself, and I was afraid if I told anyone what happened, they would judge me even more than I had already been judged my whole life. But in the end, I was constantly judging myself, more so then anyone else ever did. I hated myself. 

Mid-March, I had a mental breakdown. I called my mother at 5:30 in the morning and asked her to come pick me up from school, that I wanted to come home. Two days later, I was heading back home. I had let myself be defeated. I did nothing for a year. I laid in bed and spent most of my time on the internet. I thought my life was ruined. I let this horrible event change myself and the way I lead my life. I built so many walls and only let a few people in. Sometimes I let the wrong people in and that devastated me. My walls became higher and closer to my heart. I told very few people about my sexual assault. I was too stubborn to let anyone help me. I had always been the one who was there for my friends whenever they needed me. I listened when they needed me, I bought them chocolate ice cream and complained about exes with them. But I didn’t do that. I had to make everyone believe I was strong even though I was crumbling apart on the inside. It took so long for me to come to terms with everything. Now I’m a college drop out just trying to get my shit together. 

Fortunately, I am getting my shit together. Around April of 2012, I finally starting loving myself. I realized that I couldn’t blame myself for what happened. I was a broken shell of a girl who didn’t understand anything about life or love; I was lost. But I was no longer that girl. I was no longer going to let society fool me into thinking that I mattered only if someone desired me. Excuse my language, but fuck that. I am a strong and amazing woman who has so much to offer the world. Who cares if someone is attracted to me or not? I’m still going to be awesome. With this realization, I began to focus on the positive things in my life and how I could continue to make my life, or someone else’s life, better. I began devoting my time to what made me happy; writing, reading, spending time with my friends. And I found happiness. Soon the struggles I faced were the normal obstacles of a broke 20-something living on their own. And I found a strange happiness in that because I was finally creating a life for myself rather than floating in a sea of self-loathing. However, I wouldn’t have been able to do any of that without all the amazing people in my life who stood with me and supported me through everything. I learned that I could be healed from the love and kind words from a friend. I still have a hard time trusting people, but I don’t let it hold be back anymore.

I also found solace in music. Music had always guided me through the tough times in my life. I would spend hours listening to Brand New, Fleetwood Mac, The Avett Brothers, Manchester Orchestra, Mumford & Sons, etc. Their song lyrics brought comfort to my soul and made me realize that beauty can come from pain. If I had to pick two songs that really changed my life, that would be ‘All I Want’ by Joni Mitchell and and ‘Rhiannon’ by Fleetwood Mac (If you feel like ugly crying, listen to ‘Songbird’ by Fleetwood Mac). These songs, along with countless others, empowered me to be a better woman, but also a better human being. I was obviously born in the wrong decade but that’s not important.

What is important is that if you are suffering, you do need help and there is nothing wrong with admitting that. You may ask why I decided to share my story. I’m exposing myself and being completely vulnerable. Like the beautiful words of C.S. Lewis say, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

I love every single person who reads this. Above all, when I decided not to let what happened control my life, I decided to surround myself in love. And if by sharing my story, I help someone, that will bring me happiness. If I could maybe save someone the pain and hardships I faced, that happiness would outweigh any pain I had ever felt.

Elizabeth in her favorite Brand New t-shirt

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