Why am I unsure about this one?
The grapple with vulnerability and my eventual surrender to it's might have always led me to good places even after dragging me through painful lessons. Yet still, the level of openness required to share with the world what I am about to, I never had to put to the test before. This is new territory. My intention to tell my story and raise awareness through sharing my life experiences is the reason I created this platform, unchainingme blog. The instinct to dive into my #metooethiopia story has been fermenting and brewing for a while now. I have no other sane choice but to trust it. Like any other trauma of different magnitude, reaching to corners of the mind where memories of past hurt are imbedded is a difficult task. I'm at a place in my life where I have embraced almost all there is to embrace about my experiences, even some of the toughest ones. Through therapy and self reflection, I've learned not to take my traumas personally because I've accepted the human-ness I share with billions of others like me. So if the human experience deals to it's players some evil cards as well as good, what makes me the exception to the rule?As much as my ego reverts to asking "why me?" I've learned to pull it back down to a state of pragmatism with a healthy dose of "why not me?"
So why am I scared?
I keep asking "Why not let sleeping dogs lie? Why go around poking at memories after pouring a lot of effort into healing from them? " The answer is simple. Darkness makes us stumble but light helps guide us towards finding solutions. It's no breaking news that sexual assault claims the stories of individuals every single moment. As horrifying as the act of forcing/manipulating/taking advantage of someone for sexual gain is, It somehow keeps happening. "The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing", a wise person once said. It's clear why writing this has proved to be uncomfortable. It has to be the discomfort I myself grew up with when it comes to anything sexual. I anticipate the same discomfort in the reader that is prone to make judgements instead of yielding openly to my experiences. In a society that has it's priorities in reverse, one is better off talking about politics or how one tribe is superior to another than tackle a subject that knocks on every door. Sex and with it denying other people the right to refuse it. Sex and taking advantage of the victim's age, physical ability and condition to satisfy an animalistic urge. Whether you are allergic to taboo topics or a believer in victims fabricating accounts to earn your attention and sympathy, feel free to judge. There is no judgement out there that I have't already been subjected to, some even cooked by me myself in my own head. In my opinion, authentically sharing our stories is the only way to keep the conversations that get hyped at times only to die out soon after, in the lime light. Shake of the taboo under which these issues are shoved, embrace the discomfort and let it guide us towards listening to one another. Then maybe, if we do it well enough, we will make strides in the right direction.
So here I go, sticking my tongue out on fear.
The prompt was simple. "Let's talk about the R Kelly's in our community." It was on one of the most popular pages on Instagram for Ethiopian and Eritrean communities. I could feel surging, a powerful momentum of survivors reclaiming their courage to fight back through telling their stories, some for the very fist time. Most accounts of events that took place when the storytellers were very small children. I couldn't help but be amazed by the similarities of them all. Most included a trusted adult and a vulnerable child. Others were centered around an adult who was at the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong company. They included fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins, and friends as assailants, barely any strangers!
I wasn't alone.
I was 7 years old when my innocence was taken away from me, at my grandmother's house after my mom sent us to celebrate a birthday and spend the night, in an unprecedented show of liberal parenting for her. Anybody who knows her also knew she was unapologetically stern. Sleepovers with friends? Don't even bother trying! This woman censored any and all communications her daughters had with almost everyone outside of our family. A woman who made a name for herself for raising her kids borderline secluded from social mingling. Fate would have it, I believe she wasn't feeling too well that day. At my grandma's, I remember going to bed sad. The adults always get to stay up late and have all the fun! I could hear the laughter and commotion in a neighboring room. Although too young to know exactly what, I knew there were some type of special drinks being consumed and maybe even other stuff. They were loud, they were happy. "Lucky!" I must've thought. I stared in the almost-darkness and eventually fell asleep. In the world of dreams, this one was too vivid. Something was crawling up my legs under the blanket. I then felt it, in real life and in that dimly lit room, I suspected. His trembling lips on mine and his fingers continuing their ascent. His breath had an overwhelming scent, one I would later figure out to be soaked in alcohol. "Misaye" he whispered calling me by the name my family uses for me, more of the stink of his breath going up my nostrils as his fingers arrived at their destination. I was jolted fully awake. It was not a dream, It was my uncle and he was doing strange things to my body.
I wiggled my legs as he added force to his hand and pushed down on my lips too. I continued to wiggle, managed to catch a breath long enough to shout his name. He didn't expect my voice to be that loud, I could tell because it made him stop. "Misaye benatish" All I wanted was for him to take his hands and head off me. I said his name again, this time even louder. He took his hands off me and hurried out of the room. Don't get me wrong, I never fail to recognize how lucky I was that he left. That the odds were not stacked up all that high against me, for he left me some level of sanity by not proceeding to rape me. Many little girls couldn't scream loud enough to chase their assailants away. Of course I know I was dealt better cards, better shitty cards - that night. Even though he would never again lay a finger on me, he would go on unchallenged repeating his behavior, later impregnating an underage domestic worker.
But my uncle did start a chain reaction in an innocent child's life that day. I felt bad. Not just in the sense of wrongfully owning the guilt but also like I wasn't 'good' or 'clean' anymore. The shame that was sowed in those dreadful few moments, un-dealt with, would cancerously grow to take over my sense of self worth, it would be internalized to the extent that it robbed me of self-esteem before I could nurture any to grow, it would design a young woman who made bad decisions and terrible choices because she believed -deep down- that she wasn't worthy.
Until some decade and a half later, another man she trusted would violate her. This time she would be the one intoxicated, her lifeless body unable to wiggle or scare him off. No one to alert in the apartment building where she lived alone in a foreign land. This time, it would go all the way. The seeds of shame would harvest more of themselves in the life of a girl who believed she deserved to be punished.
I had just gotten out of a relationship. It was the draining kind so the feeling was that of relief and even celebration. I convinced a childhood friend to go out with me, we were going to hit one of the best Ethiopian parties in town. The party promoters were men I knew through my ex, good men in my eyes, there won't be cover charge to pay and plenty of dancing for us two single girls. It was going to be a good night. Drinks kept flowing. Some we paid for and plenty we didn't. I went too far, things were quickly getting blurry. We decided to leave and got my car back from the valet and drove for less than a block when I realized it was a terrible idea being behind the wheel. It was getting impossible to keep my eyes open nor see the road clearly. This was way before UBER and Lyft era. I remembered one of the promoters would most likely be driving in our direction so I dialed his number. He was the closest to my ex and we had hosted him in our place multiple times. I didn't even second guess my pick. He would get us both home safe and sound, I would come back to get my car the next morning.
"Good decision", I'm sure I thought. He came as I was dozing off behind the wheel. I threw up violently on the curb next to my car. The last thing I remember and faintly so, is my friend helping me get in his car and buckling my seat belt for me. I woke up to bright sunlight beaming through my bedroom window. The severe hangover hit me the second I opened my eyes. Then I noticed, I was fully undressed. That's when something that felt like a slideshow of scenes from a nightmare hit me and hit me hard. "He was on top of me!" I thought. "Lord please let it be a dream!" I waited a few moments but couldn't shake off the visual, I got sick to my stomach although there was nothing but bile my body to get rid of. As soon as I could stand up right, I frantically grabbed my dead phone and went in search of my charger pressing tight on my temples to ease the throbbing headache. I was utterly terrified at the thought of what could've happened to me hours ago. My phone turns back on to reveal a few missed calls from him that morning. I dialed back his number. A clam voice awaited on the other side, I wasn't ready for what followed. He went on explaining how WE had made a mistake, how he won't let anything or anyone sabotage what he has built with his girlfriend and that I should keep what happened to myself and never say a word of it to anyone. "what thing?" I asked him, "all I remember is passing out in your car" "what did you do to me?" In a defensive rant, he kept repeating to me that I was an equal participant. Almost like he was programming my brain. I repeatedly told him I couldn't have been. I couldn't drive, I didn't walk up to my apartment, I didn't undress myself. How on earth did I participate? How on earth did I consent? I told him that I had never thought of him that way, nor was I the one-night-stand-from the bar kinda girl. If I were, I told him he would've never been on my list of wants. I needed a ride and that was all. Calling him was, in my head, the most responsible thing I could've done that night. Life had other plans, my trust was dangerously misplaced on a man who didn't deserve it. He fiercely argued with me, begged some and then threatened some. I hung up and called my friend who confirmed what I already knew. I was unresponsive for the whole ride. She had offered to help him take me upstairs to my apartment to which he insisted he dropped her off first because it was more convenient for him which was untrue. Walking out of my apartment later that day, the concierge desk attendant who was on duty that morning confirmed I was unable to walk and that he saw "your friend" dragging me across the hallway and into the elevator. To him, It was all a humorous display of a drunk girl with limp body who couldn't even carry her stilettos.
I remember feeling angry and betrayed. Those feelings didn't persist though, I was soon overcome by an old friend, shame. Comfortably familiar, the habit of internalizing the presence of my friend shame, I wallowed in what could've been if I was a 'good girl' and didn't drink, didn't wear a dress, didn't call for a ride, didn't go out. If it wasn't for my old pal shame, I would've reported the incident. I would've called it what it was, rape, a lot sooner. I then would've sought help legally and psychologically. But shame took over and remained in place for years to come. Not too long after, I found out he had gone around and bragged about 'having had me' and I sank even deeper in shame because of it. Fueled with rage from having made to protect my assailant's reputation while he continued telling lies, I made a brief attempt to vindicate myself by going back to the apartment and asking for the security camera footage from that morning. But it would be too late as management deletes recordings every few weeks unless sought by law enforcement. If anyone had told me I would ever share either of these stories with the world, I would have called them crazy. Over the years, I shared it with some friends mainly needing the confirmation my victim identity needed in order to continue existing. Every time I told my stories, I was left with more and more yearning to be validated as a victim because I myself had been unable to validate myself even after living through the experiences . Needless to say it was painful to share because I expected the same judgement I dished out to myself from every human that ever heard me. I'd be left asking repeatedly "does she think I brought it on myself, hence deserving it?, does she think I'm 'bad'? "Even after a great deal of work with different therapists, understanding and support from my loving husband and friends who helped me call it what it was, healing wouldn't come for much, much longer.
So, How did I heal?
Again, I stopped taking it personally. Yes, the pain is personal. But a choice lies between making my story define who I am just because It happened to me. I finally could choose to accept the fact that I have been victimized and reject the identity that is so very alluring to adhere to. Truth has it, neither of these men violated my body because it was mine. I had to convince myself that first. What my uncle did was only a reflection of who he is. The man who didn't deserve my trust and proceeded to follow his animalistic instincts when I was in no way able to consent did so purely out of who he was. A seemingly simple adjustment of paradigm right? But what a relief it was for the child that made the wrong deductions about what happened to her therefore affecting the woman she then grew to become!
So, enough about me, what can you do?
If you are a survivor and have never sought help, please do. Begin by owning your story to yourself first. You can't change it and it didn't happen because you are so and so...Instead because evil happens to exist in the world we live in. We have the power to fight it and the fight starts with acceptance of the past. Then, ask for help. You will be surprised how the universe alters things in your favor when you let your quests be known. Help may come to you in a form of a book, a friend, a therapist, a partner, a quote. Trust it and see where it takes you. It may not be a glorified one-step solution and probably won't but trust me, every attempt will get you closer to your healing, even the setbacks. What if it has never happened it you? Help survivors where they need it most, with their internal dialogues. Don't underestimate the power of shame sexual assault victims live with especially if you handed them a 'hush-hush' family and society at large. If your daughter, sister, niece, friend, wife doesn't enjoy the freedom to talk about everything with you in a judgement free environment, doesn't feel loved and supported unconditionally, can't pose questions and discuss taboo topics, she is most likely to become a sexual assault victim and not tell a soul about it. She may likely be one already. Listen and listen compassionately, not with the intention to judge. Make sure you are surrounded by people who would tell you if they fell prey. But thats' not enough! Take their stories and validate it for them by doing something about it.
See at 10 or so years old, I did gather the strength to tell my sister what my uncle did to me. Although I know she was hurt as well as angry about it, she feared that telling my parents may not go anywhere good, if anywhere at all. She had stories of assault and so did my other sisters and you know what else they had? A good reason to keep it to themselves. They knew the adults in their lives would follow a path of least shame and even lesser discomfort. Trusting divine retribution, they were guaranteed to to suck it up. I know this tendency to be common in many households. Surrounded by people who model how to internalize shame instead of dealing with it, less and less victims will speak out and get the help they need.
As I break a decades-long bondage to share my story and bring you the other stories that encouraged me to own mine, I beg of you to reach out and impact positively any little girl you are in a position to influence. Tell her she matters and nobody should make her feel unsafe or unclean, make sure she knows where boundaries lie and instill in her the fierceness she needs to protect herself. Tell her she has a powerful voice and that you believe her, build for her a rock solid support system that she can always run to. That's how we heal generations worth of trauma and redeem the next ones from repeated patterns of pain.
Written by Tiemert Shimelis: (IG: @unchainingme & www.unchainingme.com)