"You couldn't even meet my eyes."

written by Cara

There was never a time that I thought rape was a subject I would be close to. When I moved to university last August, I ensured I would take every precaution; I sat through endless safety talks with my dad, I never went out too drunk or alone, and I did not accept any drugs being pushed at parties. Rape was not a thing that could happen to me. It was a dramatic movie scene in a dark alley. It was a faceless stranger with no good in them. It wasn’t a part of my life.

The sad reality is that campus rape doesn’t have to occur in a dark alley late at night. A rapist doesn’t need to be a stranger. It can happen in a first year dorm room, with friends drinking and laughing just meters away down the hall. A rapist can be a trusted friend, a friend capable of great betrayal. A friend, and the last person I would ever expect to violate my body, mind, and future.

You and I had been drinking with our separate friend groups on a Friday night. We were celebrating the end of a week packed with studying for and taking our first university midterms. I was starting to sober up when we convened in a floor lounge, but it was clear that you were far from being at my level. Your words were slurred, movements sloppy, and eyes glassy and unfocused.

You and I slipped away from the group after a little while and sat in your room. Still slurring your words, you asked if I wanted to have sex with you. I said yes.

But the genuine consent I gave was eradicated the second your hand struck my face. That night my body became a collage of swollen skin, multi-coloured bruises, scratches, and teeth marks.

Even though the few I told were supportive and concerned, many asked me why I allowed it all to continue. “Why didn’t you get up and walk out?”

I didn’t walk out because I was scared. If someone as drunk as you could harm my body so forcefully when things were going your way, how much worse could it become when things were not?

I feigned consent to save myself from the potential of worse injury. I held in my tears, whispered fake encouragement to you, and waited for the moment that you would tire and leave me.

Your eyes were too glassy to make eye contact. You were only vaguely aware of your hand hitting my jaw and your teeth biting into me, making me bleed. You would later admit to me that you didn’t remember much of the night’s events; you didn’t know you were stripping my dignity away piece by piece, leaving behind a shadow of the girl underneath you.

The second you left the room, I crumpled into a ball on the floor. Naked, crying, shaking, I lay there trying to make sense of it all. After a few minutes I found my belongings and fled.

You couldn’t even meet my eyes.

I was told that I handled myself well during the days that passed. My best friend praised me for approaching the situation practically and without emotion. But the truth was that the screaming apathy that enveloped me signaled that I was nowhere near being okay. I’ve always been a highly emotional time bomb, waiting for the smallest tip of the balance to react. Something that could shut down any and all feeling inside me was not just an indicator that something was off. It was a toxin, and I was praised for allowing it to poison me.

The worst part of it all was the phone call home. Hearing my mother sobbing, my father screaming vulgarities, I knew their worst fears of parenting had come true. It broke my heart. The commentary between my family members and I was no longer innocent. They were hurting more than I was, because they couldn’t save me or take away the pain. The emotional pain caused by rape does not solely affect the victim; it takes many more prisoners.

I criticized myself over and over again for consenting, but more than that I criticized my accusation. How could I accuse my friend, who had had too much to drink one night, of raping me when I didn’t retract my consent the second I felt uncomfortable? I told myself day after day that it wasn’t rape, and that I was horrible to make such a claim.

But sex, consensual sex, should not leave you naked on the floor, nursing your swollen face and sobbing into the carpet. It shouldn’t cause your focus to stray from your obligations, like your schoolwork and your social groups. It shouldn’t make you sleep to forget. Consensual sex shouldn’t leave your mind or body damaged.

This was not consensual sex.

This was rape.

You couldn’t even meet my eyes.

When we met to discuss what happened, you were unprepared for what I was about to tell you. You expected to discuss how your quick departure that night might have hurt my feelings; you were shocked when I said you had raped me. You genuinely didn’t remember much of the evening, but why would you? You had been plastered. You didn’t see me after, curled in a ball, gasping for breath and trying to get ahold of an imminent panic attack. You didn’t see the bruises, all different shades, that began to develop on my breasts and between my legs mere hours after the assault. You saw none of it. You didn’t need to. You were ashamed.

Maybe I was lenient because I could see the remorse on your face and the tears in your eyes as you came to terms with what you did to me, your classmate, your friend. Maybe it was because I had known you for a few months, enough time to determine that you were respectful, funny, and kind, and I didn’t want to see you as anything other than that. I had already decided not to press charges against you—you weren’t a criminal in my eyes, and I wasn’t mentally prepared to face the police.

I asked you to watch your drinking in the future. You swore you would. I should’ve left it at that. Instead, for the next five months, I tried to mend the fences, initiating conversation and finding excuses to see you. I thought you were hurting as much as I was, that your cautious behaviours towards me were not calculated to prevent me from the hostility or grief that I inevitably felt every time I saw you, but rather were borne of your genuine caring for me. I knew the incident had not been kind to your psyche. I felt as though you deserved some comfort. You didn’t.

You deserved my hatred. You deserved to be exposed to the girl you were seeing, the friends who thought you could do no wrong. You didn’t deserve my friendship or attention. You deserved nothing less than the feeling of shame and my actions following that night wrongly indicated that all was forgiven.

Nothing was forgiven.

No person, man, woman or otherwise, asks for rape. There is no outfit that indicates that a woman is open to being taken advantage of. No amount of drunkenness, on the part of the rapist or the victim, makes rape admissible.

There is absolutely, positively, no excuse for rape.

Not even if you initially consented, like I did.

Consent does not have to be permanent.

I told myself that it didn’t matter what had happened. It didn’t matter that, deep down, I felt betrayed by you, my friend, and that I was regretful that I hadn’t swallowed my tears and hadn’t pretended to like it. But it did matter.

I stopped going to class, and started sleeping as frequently and for as long as I could without my friends or roommate becoming suspicious. I told my parents I was trying my hardest, that I didn’t know why my grades were so terrible; but of course I knew why. I just couldn’t tell them the reason without deepening the emotional wound they were trying to nurse.

I blamed these academic failings on my laziness, and, to an extent, it was accurately placed. As my self-esteem and sense of purpose as a university student dwindled away bit by bit, I became incredibly lazy. I convinced myself that there was no point in going to class or social functions because it would mean facing the implications of that night—admitting to myself that something in me had changed, that you were capable of inflicting more harm than even you had known, and that I was now considered a victim of rape—no longer myself. No longer familiar. I wished I hadn’t told my RA, my friends, and especially not you. If it had been perceived by all as a clumsy, drunken one night stand, then no one would know the truth of what had happened and all my problems would disappear.

I tried to date someone, and my life was blissful as long as I focused solely on him and nothing else. I stopped sleeping in my room because it reminded me of the sleeplessness of that night, and instead began to spend each night clinging to this new boy who swore he’d never hurt me like you did. If there were no thoughts about my crippling school performance, my rapid weight gain, or my slow but steady isolation away from my floor mates and friends, then there were no problems. If I pretended like things were normal between you and I, ignoring the fact that you were still seeing someone who was totally unaware of your disturbing capabilities, then there were no problems. If I told myself over and over again that you had not damaged the deepest level of my heart, where my self-love and extroversion used to live, then there were no problems. I lived in this superficial mindset for the last months of the term, telling myself that I was in love with someone new, that it was all in the past, that there was no need to think about that night ever again. On multiple occasions I almost convinced myself I was telling the truth, but an uncertain feeling that had been residing in my gut since October kept preventing me from believing the words I fed to myself.

I soon had to face those problems, however, over winter break when my final grades for first term were returned. I had failed three important courses that I needed to remain enrolled as a university student. I didn’t care. I wanted to forget forever that term that made me feel so small and stupid and weak. I was tired of feeling so controlled by my emotions that I couldn't even pass my exams.

Being home with my family was the most therapeutic experience I had felt in a long time. I found myself feeling self-medicated with love and food. I felt fulfilled, but hollow, as though I was only a shade of myself. By the time I was due back at school, I felt recharged. Not whole, not me, but rested.

I immediately put effort into my mental health. I met with counselors, ate vegetables, put more effort into speaking with my neighbours, and read each week’s assigned passages before they were due. There were many days in which I felt productive and excited for the future. I’d sit on the edge of my new boy’s bed for an hour or two, chattering on and on excitedly about the day’s events and the promise of tomorrow. But it was like putting a Band-aid on a broken bone; it did nothing but make it look like I was trying. But deep down I felt removed. It wasn’t me succeeding. Something inside me was still gnawing at my insides, telling me it was time to confront the assault. Something still wasn’t sitting right. Something still isn’t sitting right.

Being a victim of rape hurts. Feeling like a stranger in my own body is the most obscure feeling. Seeing myself naked for the first time after the assault, I saw my imperfections where I used to see beauty. I didn’t notice the smoothness of my skin anymore, but rather its eye-catching swelling and discolouration. It has taken a long time to find beauty in myself since then, and it is still a work in progress. I found that, in terms of returning to my body, it was okay to feel removed and unfamiliar for awhile. It was okay to change how I looked, or to stay the exact same. What wasn’t okay was that I allowed myself to accept that you had claimed ownership of my body by degrading and using me. I tried and failed over and over again to remind myself that I am beautifully flawed and unique in body and mind, and that my body was my own to repair and worship for its resiliency and healing powers.

If I could change one thing about my recovery, it would be my processing of emotions. The morning after the assault, after crying to my parents and lying in bed feeling so bare and raw, I got dressed and got into the car with my best friend. We bought coffee and drove to a shopping district to walk and talk. My face was expressionless, the tone of my voice was matter-of-fact, and I told my friend that I just wanted to find a solution and move on from it entirely.

Where was the time I needed to accept what had happened? Where were my emotions? I disallowed myself to express the pain I felt, and subsequently slowed down my recovery, clouding my head and allowing myself to self-destruct later on down the road. I wish I had cried. I wish I had asked for more help than I did. I wish I had acknowledged that I was broken and needed to be fixed. And now, six months later, I’m finding myself doing just this.

I cannot say my experience has made me stronger. In fact, being raped stripped me apart until I was too weak to stand. I had to learn all over again how to accept my body as it is, how to approach relationships with other men and women, and how to see qualities within me that make me special and loved by those around me. It has made me question all aspects of my life: my sexuality, my purpose in university, and my ability to trust. I made the difficult decision to leave school after this year to heal, causing my entire course of my education and, subsequently, life, to be altered. There are silver linings, though; through my experience I have been given a platform to speak out against the horrendous rape culture that is so ingrained in modern society, especially on university campuses. I understand what it is like to feel lost and scared, and it has given me perspective into coping methods for myself and others who have dealt with similar horrors. I do not feel empowered.  I feel awake.

I’ve also discovered the complexity of consent. I have been belittled or tossed aside for lack of credibility due to my consenting. The concept of consent is one that muddies the waters and disallows the situation to be black and white. How could you know I was uncomfortable if I had said I wanted to have sex with you initially and never protested throughout? But I believe there is a fine line between what has been verbally deemed consensual and what is assumed to be so. Had I known you would become violent, there would have been no consent whatsoever. Consenting to sex is not equivalent to consenting to violation, embarrassment, and injury. In fact, they don't relate whatsoever. I remained in your clutches out of fear, and while I never want to consider what could have happened if I had stood up to you, I was and to some extent still am ashamed that I wasn’t brave enough to do so. I didn’t realize at the time that I chose to protect myself, and that it was not the wrong choice to make. I came out with minor injuries, but if I had protested, it could have been worse. The specific situation will change what is right to do, and in mine I felt it was best to remain passive. It is a choice that victims have, and it cannot be a black and white issue. Consent is forever an option, not an assumption.

Most importantly, my rape story has shown me the genuine kindness that can be found in more people than I thought was possible. I broke that new boy’s heart because I have felt since then that I am incapable of loving correctly. To this day, even after multiple splits, short-lived apologies, and an ever-growing animosity between us, he has remained my best confidante, kindest supporter, and most forgiving friend. I shunned friends who didn’t understand why I was rejecting support. Now, nearly seven months after the assault, those friends have allowed me back into their lives, always patiently accepting that I am not who I was before and ensuring me that that is okay. In a time where I’ve appreciated myself and the world the least, the world has given me more love than I can fathom.

I’m not whole yet, and the process of refilling the torn holes in my personality is excruciatingly slow. As I sort through the parts of myself, old and new, that have been shaped by each experience I have lived through, I’ve realized the distinction between what I’ve been through and what defines me. I refuse to allow your mistake to become a part of me, no matter how long it takes to recover. Only recently have I been able to begin to accept what has happened, and still there are days that I defy reality and tell myself a different story. There are still days that I stay in bed, disregarding the classes I must attend or the homework I must complete; but there are other days doing nothing but studying and preparing for the future of my schooling, which is now more uncertain than before. Some days are spent at the beach, in the rare sunshine, or in the company of friends who never tire of hearing me vent about how you hurt me. Some days are empowering; some days are spent under the covers, crying and feeling helpless. There is no timeline for recovery. Recovery is fluid and oftentimes painful. But so is being a mere shadow of oneself. The start of recovery is choosing which pain to take on.

I won’t let you define me.

To my two friends who immediately responded to my call of distress, my patient and kind roommate, those who supported and comforted me with the utmost discretion and sweetness, and my family, I owe you a great debt. There is nothing more kind than what you did for me, and I respect and appreciate what you have done. The efforts you all made proved that I was not alone, no matter how much I felt as though I was. There is strength in numbers, and your pooled contributions to ensuring my external life remains wholesome and filled with love is something I could not have achieved alone.

I’m sorry to those who I isolated myself from, and those who I couldn’t accurately communicate with. I couldn’t find the words to shape my experience or my mental struggles until now.

Thank you to Rupi Kaur and her book of poetry, Milk and Honey, for putting into words the feelings I couldn’t express and for emphasizing the importance of empowered women and their impacts on the world. Strong, open men and women are a necessity for spurring change and encouraging others to speak out against objectification, sexual assault, and abuse of all kinds, and Rupi’s book eloquently inspires just this.

A direct address to the man who raped me:

There is no need to attack you, belittle you, or turn anyone against you, because you’re already suffering enough: you get to carry a trophy of regret with you for the rest of your life. You’ll always have to remember what you did to me. Only you will understand the weight of the guilt you undoubtedly feel.

I will thank you for your total acceptance and courtesy following that night. You made it difficult to place the blame on you. But I have not written this with the purpose to blame; the purpose is for me to heal. In no way will my healing process involve you. You will never be able to shake the truth of what you’ve done from your shoulders. I hope you do something to help rape victims in the future, though it will never make up for your despicable actions. I hope you’ve seen what a dehumanizing, gut-wrenching journey this has been for your victim, and that it inspires you to live differently. I hope your friends, partners, or future children never go through what you put me through. I hope you realize the damage one night of irresponsibility can cause.

That night wasn’t worth a lifetime of remorse. You can’t even remember most of it anyways. You didn’t mean to rape me, but you did.

You couldn’t even meet my eyes.