Reclaim Project

Reclaim Project: Claudia

My naïvety got the best of me
When I found myself
Beneath the sheets
With a man I knew nothing about.
I only knew his first name.

At this time, I was a wreck.
My head was full of poison,
So I’d empty my stomach
And run until I couldn’t.
I’d fill the emptiness with men.

 

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Until I found myself in a hotel bed,
Miles from home, with a stranger.
And there was a knock on the door.
That was the moment my life changed.

Evil manifested itself in the form of 5 men
Who weighed me down and took from me.
Venom flew from their lips,
Word like “bitch” slapped me in the face
While my innocence was taken from me.
Again, and again,
And again.

 


I left that hotel room as a crushed coke can,
Bone dry, crumpled, tossed aside.
I made it to my vehicle,
Threw it in drive,
And cried. Oh, how I cried.

The heavens heard me that day.
I was not forsaken.
But I was a long way
From healing.

Fast forward to today, 4 years later.
I am no longer enslaved by my eating disorders and I laugh in the face of danger.
I’ve already been to hell.
But I feel lucky
To have survived.

Many women in my position
May have been killed or trafficked
And I thank my lucky stars that
All those bastards wanted was an easy fuck.

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So here I am. I believe that if you live to tell the tale, you must tell it.
And so I will speak against injustice, say what’s on my mind,
Love without abandon, and never give up.

I will let my trauma be a part of my story, but not define me.  I’m no longer a victim.
I’m a survivor.
We are survivors. We are strong.
I will celebrate this life and let my joy be seen.
It’s one of the few things
Those men couldn’t steal from me.

Reclaim Project: Emily

Reclaim Project: Emily

Every day I work to connect back to the me I know I am, a me that was suppressed for so long, a me that still lives inside and finally has the courage to push and be present. The courage to exist. I work to be my best self not in spite of these happenings, but because of them and within them. Sexual violence does not define me but I am a person that lives within the context of sexual violence.  Some days are hard, some days are very hard, but some days are easier when I recognize where I’ve come from. I am me and I am here and I am worthwhile.

Reclaim Project: Saraya

 The Reclaim Project is an initiative to help sexual violence survivors to feel comfortable in their skin again. We're partnering up with photographers to provide these photo sessions in the hopes that we can help to portray female bodies as belonging to actual human beings, instead of objects. We'll be sharing lots of these sessions over time, each one paired with a statement from the survivor about how their experiences have shaped their body image, mental health, and view of their sexuality. Click here if you're a survivor interested in setting up a session, or here if you're a photographer who'd like to participate!

 

content warning:  rape, sexual assault

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"2/14/12 , a man on match.com asked me if I had plans for Valentine's Day. I did not. This is when one of the worst events of my life happens. 

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He had no idea I was getting a divorce. He knew nothing about me, other than what my profile revealed. He said we would go out. Lie. He said we could watch the movie I brought. Lie. After I didn't want to kiss him, he held a bucket of compliments over my head and started pouring.

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 'You're so beautiful.' Kiss.

'Your body is so sexy.' Grab.

Yes, my body is sexy. But it was not his to have. There are so many interesting things about me he could have taken the time to learn. He will never know them now. My body is the least sexy part of me.

As soon as he grabbed my head and forced me upon him, I felt my ears come in to save me. Do you know the feeling of being underwater, where you are unable to hear the things that are going on above it? This is what happens to me when I start to panic. I closed my eyes and it felt like I was sinking. He didn't know that I would be drowning for what seemed like forever. 

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Drowning in thoughts.

 

Drowning in secrets.

 

Drowning in medications from my doctor, sometimes hoping I could just take all of them at once and end everything.

 

Drowning in other men, just to get the goddamn smell of him from my nose and the taste of him from my mouth.

 

Drowning in showers and baths, because no matter how many I took, I still would feel dirty.

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He's lucky there was someone nearby with a life preserver.

 

I spent a few years as a bottom dweller, and then I started swimming. At first, I think I was more lost than before, using my hands to feel around in the darkness. It only takes one peek of the light to know which way is up, though. After so much swimming, I was able to find my way to the surface. That boy will never know how sweet the air tastes after being underwater for so long."

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Reclaim Project: Raina

The Reclaim Project is an initiative to help sexual violence survivors to feel comfortable in their skin again. We're partnering up with photographers to provide these photo sessions in the hopes that we can help to portray female bodies as belonging to actual human beings, instead of objects. We'll be sharing lots of these sessions over time, each one paired with a statement from the survivor about how their experiences have shaped their body image, mental health, and view of their sexuality. Click here if you're a survivor interested in setting up a session, or here if you're a photographer who'd like to participate!

Content warning: rape, sexual assault

You don’t need to hear the story of all the guys who have hurt me. Yet you do need to know how it changed me.

One day I woke up and the reality of the past year hit me. When combing through the memories of the last year I found a propensity to push away anything lasting. The line between my sadness and me, and truth and fiction blurred. What did I do to deserve this? Did I deserve it? Have I always had bad luck and not noticed it, or had my spring semester of sophomore year started a chain reaction, like falling dominos?

I lied. Rather, I did not realize until now that in order to understand the change in me, you must see the dominos falling. From there to here.

CATALYST

Often the start to a problem doesn’t have an exact moment in which it began. High pressure converges on low, forming a storm, in which lighting strikes, splitting a tree in two. This analogy works perfectly to explain the month in which it all began.

Fresh out of a difficult breakup, somehow, I had the false impression I was ready for a fresh start. A freshman in college, with exciting ideas bouncing around in both my head and heart, I didn’t stop to ask myself how I really felt. Yet this excitement and enthusiasm to meet new people and explore new academic avenues is not any excuse for what happened.

To the First,

I will be brief because the encounter was exactly that. Brief yet devastating. An innocent get together. Did my smile tell you I wanted something more? My hospitality? Or was it a glint in my eye that only you could see? I may never know the thoughts that led you to your actions, but no excuse will ever validate that evening. Kissing suddenly got to a place I was not expecting, or prepared for. I pushed your hands away, too scared to say no. It was as if my vocal cords froze. Afterwards you immediately left.

For a long time, I did not consider it rape. I didn't actually vocalize "No," so I blamed myself. My body felt dirty. Used. Seeing you in class was a reminder of my "mistake" everyday.

To the One Who Left,

“What if…” scenarios ran through my head daily. If I hadn’t pushed you away, forcing you to leave, would I have gone down this path? I constantly blamed myself for leaving the safety of your embrace. Was this karma telling me I shouldn’t have left someone who loved me so deeply?

SLOW MOTION

From that moment on my life seemed to move in a way that cannot be described by words. It was almost as if I was downing. Failing to catch on to anything, or anyone, for support.

During the descent, I did not realize I was falling. I had lied to myself enough that I did not consider it rape. Telling myself that I was happy, and did not feel pain made it bearable but was not a lasting solution.

I met new people, fell too hard, and hurt myself even more. My body felt used, no longer sacred. I was in search of someone to hold me and fix my problems but no relationships lasted. I either felt something lasting and pushed them away or they left because they weren’t in it for a relationship.

To the Many,

Was it your fault it didn’t work out? Was it mine? Although it is human nature to assign blame, it was neither your fault or mine. I was not ready to share the pain that I held inside me. I wanted someone to hold me in such a way that one day I would wake up and the pain would be gone without any words uttered about my past. Although I should have shared, pity shouldn’t be necessary to treat someone correctly. I did not want pity. I wanted someone to love me for all of me, inside and out, before they saw my broken side.

THE CRASH

To the One,

Only months after I came to terms that I was raped, I hit the ground hard. And you are to blame. I considered you a friend but you crossed many personal boundaries in just a matter of 10 minutes. Sexual assault is not any less devastating than rape. The way your hands grabbed me, I felt defenseless. You kept asking, “Is this okay?” and “Do you want this?”. I was quite clear in my responses saying, “No” numerous times, yet you persisted. Although I pushed your hands away and no clothing came off, inappropriate places were still groped. The most unsettling aspect of the ordeal was that if you had been more persistent, I would not have been physically unable to defend myself. Just asking for consent is not enough. Consent is a verbal and willfully given yes. I only succeeded in getting you to leave my apartment by agreeing to send a nude snapchat, which I never sent.  Days later you apologized. Crying in public, I replied. I said that I will no longer be able to talk or hang out. Which prompted "I would appreciate an explanation". If you needed an explanation for your actions, I wonder how many other girls you have hurt.

Still in shock, I did not cancel my plans for later that same day with another male friend. We had plans to walk at the arboretum which I decided would calm my whirlwind of thoughts. During the walk, I cautiously mentioned the sexual assault earlier that day, simply stating a friend had touched me inappropriately. The words were absorbed by trees around me but not by the ears of my company. The arboretum was a wonderful choice but events afterwards were not.

To the Next,

I had study plans that evening across campus but needed to shower before I left. I planned on showering off the disgusting feeling of his hands touching me. You offered to wait while I showered and give me a ride to my evening plans. A free ride, why not? As I showered I heard you come into the bathroom and my heart dropped. “Why me?”, instantly flew through my mind. You asked if you could join and I replied with, “I would prefer if you stayed out there”. When does “I would prefer if you stayed out there” mean it’s okay to get naked, and join me in the shower, your eyes raking over my naked body. Especially after I had shared my encounter earlier and clearly seeing I wasn’t okay. That aside, when is it EVER okay to directly defy the wishes of a girl? How did my silence and tears slowly running down my face did not tip you off. How? I was broken and instead of leaving me alone you decided to remind me of how disgusting I felt. Seeing you naked reminded me of all the times I have had men treat me without respect. Now I see you at work and it flashes back to me every single day. Seeing your hands takes me back to when they touched me when I did not want them to. Hearing your voice makes me shake, become nauseous. You are an everyday reminder of memories I wish to forget.

MEN

To everyone in the past year, you have all played a role that has resulted in who I am today. From the One Who Left, to the First, to the Many, to the One, to the Next, and to the Best.

I do not need to explain to you what you did wrong and the role you played in my fall, but I do hope this post reaches people who are unaware how their actions can harm someone.

THE STAND

The first step in recovery for me was admitting I could not handle it all myself. The instant I decided to tell someone, I started my steps toward recovery. So, this is to the Best; the one who stands next to me while I find strength to stand on my own. Your companionship is more important to me than I you realize.

When I originally signed up for this project I wanted to share my experience but having signed up only days after my sexual assault, I did not feel confident enough to reveal my identity. I feared, and still do, how people will react. However, I have found that every fear I face, the stronger I become. I want to show both men and women who have gone through any type of sexual assault, rape, domestic violence, or anything that broke them into a million pieces that we can stand stronger when we stand together.

I still struggle. I have body image issues. I struggle to see my body as something that hasn’t been ruined by men who have used it for their gratification. I doubt myself, constantly asking “what if?” Meeting men still scares me. I say yes to a date, but then terrify myself and back out. Yet, I have discovered ways to cope. I have found peace in nature. The smell of plants, the fresh spring air, and rustle of leaves in the breeze calms my soul. Without nature, and close friends, I would not be where I am today.

Should have. Would have. Could have. None of those will change the past. Neither will they validate the actions of the inflictor of your pain.

Everyday, I remind myself: Judging myself on my actions will not change the past. Silence does not mean yes. Just because mine wasn't as "bad" as others does not invalidate my experience, my feelings, my body, me.

Do not worry about the number of times you fell, rather focus on the number of times you’ve stood up.

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Reclaim Project: Gia

The Reclaim Project is an initiative to help sexual violence survivors to feel comfortable in their skin again. We're partnering up with photographers to provide these photo sessions in the hopes that we can help to portray female bodies as belonging to actual human beings, instead of objects. We'll be sharing lots of these sessions over time, each one paired with a statement from the survivor about how their experiences have shaped their body image, mental health, and view of their sexuality. Click here if you're a survivor interested in setting up a session, or here if you're a photographer who'd like to participate!

Dear Me,

I’m writing you this letter because it has come to my attention that we’ve had more non-consensual interactions with men than we have had loving ones. From a young age you were subjected to the male gaze. A grownup in your family who you trusted violated your innocent view of the world. This violation would scar you so deeply that you would go on to sleeping in your mother’s bed until you were seven and moved to a new state altogether. You had no idea of the hyperawareness you developed over bodies and how much went into yours. In some ways, you thought this meant you could control it - how much or how little you ate. It was something you could say no to and not feel bad about it. It was the twisted version of an imaginary friend that always stayed by your side. Time would pass and you would forget this event for a while. You would create new memories, all the while still being anxious about men and overly controlling about food.

It’s not until you are 22 and a virgin being raped by someone you’ve barely spoken to that your life will spiral out of control. It’s not until you put your trust in people you thought had your best interest at heart that you remember being sexually abused in early childhood. The doctors will turn out all the lights and force you to retell them everything you’ve learned up to this point, waiting for you to change your mind. You’ll learn what rape culture is from when they point blankly ask you “were you drinking? Are you sure it was rape? What were you wearing? Who was around you that day, can we give you a rape kit?” This is when you will become even more familiar with what it means to be a statistic in the eyes of everyone around you.

You will feel damaged and everyone’s reactions to your trauma and how you cope will make you feel worse than the rape itself. You will try to drink, take drugs, and self-harm the trauma away. You will jump into a sexual relationship with a boy you loved because you will want to have a do-over at your first time. He will promise you that this time he won’t run and you can be officially together - all the while you still will not know if his intentions with you were honest or self-serving. You think this is the one time to rewrite what had just happened. Your abortion you have a month later will tear you both up in ways that you will never speak in detail about to anyone or each other. You will try to sweep it under the rug, but you’ll both know what happened and how it changed you.

Your best friend and roommate will look at you with a blank stare. She will promise you that she loves you and wouldn’t dream of hurting you. She will go on to kiss the boy you were seeing, one week after you were raped. She will not apologize for it, instead she will do anything in her power to drive you two further apart. She will tell him that she has everyone’s best interest at heart because she is his “best friend” and is the one who is hurting. She will gaslight your experiences, your first love, your pregnancy, your first time, and everything about who you are as a person in order to make her own actions seem pure. She will tell you that your trauma and the way you are coping with it is “too much” for her and that you’re causing her extreme anxiety by talking about your experiences. She will go on to label the day you were raped as the worst day of her life with no personal regard of what that day has done to you. She will use being drunk and self-hatred as excuse for some of her actions. She will confess to you and a few others that she was intentionally harming you because she was not happy and did not want you to be happy. That was not a friendship, that was abuse. You get through it somehow, with people who show you what friendship actually is.

You will be shamed. You will be called crazy, manipulative, and selfish. People will stare you down and laugh at you while you try to eat lunch on campus in peace. You will think you are crazy because they told you so. You will feel like a small helpless child for asking too much of people to care for you, and to sleep by you at night. You will be called too emotional for expressing any pain at all. It will not be until you start therapy, a recovery program, and support groups that you meet others like you and you realize you were normal - you were responding to trauma and retraumatization from the abuse.

You will meet a woman in the same situation as you in group. She will teach you what it means to have a female best friend. Just like the friends who helped you get out of that mess and into treatment alive. You will learn this person was also assaulted on the same day as you, and this was the universe’s sick try at destiny. You will cry, laugh, burn things, and find some form of recovery. You will start going to parties again, trusting yourself to meet new people. You will get assaulted one night and then abused by a serial predator within the same three-month time frame as before.

But I am writing you this story, our story, to tell you that you are not the problem. You have come across varying extremes of trauma, and people. You made some mistakes in recovery, and taken responsibility where it was necessary and when it was necessary. But you are not crazy, this was not your fault, and you did not deserve this to happen to you. From the age of 5 onward - it was not your fault. You are brave for trusting your surroundings - everyone is entitled to trusting their surroundings. What other people did to you is shameful. They are the ones who are problematic, and should feel awful for their actions. You responded the best you could with what was happening to you and your body. You are a result of repeated sexual trauma since childhood.

People who do not understand what that means will let you down. They will shame you, and they will silence you. Some people will do really fucked up things to harm you even more, even knowing all that I’ve written. Some will even stop talking to you because they don’t know how to handle more than one rape, they won’t understand why you can’t be communicative and just get better. Pity them - for they have no self-awareness of their actions and the lasting effect it can have on other people. They have no idea what it is like to be raped, abused, and betrayed.

You will come to terms with all of this and despite it all, you will graduate, you will live on your own, you will find some weird form of closure. I cannot promise you that your future will forever be free of sexual harm, but I can tell you how hopeful I am to one day be loved, understood, and safe in a relationship. I can write to you and remind you of all that you will and have experienced so you can remember it. You can keep it and look back at where you have come from, and you can cry for the old you. But you can also smile because you know that it won’t break you, it’ll just reshape you into a stronger empathetic person.

I believe in you Gia, and I am sorry for what you have experienced.

Love always,
You.

Photography // a. lentz photography

Reclaim Project: Hannah

The Reclaim Project is an initiative to help sexual violence survivors to feel comfortable in their skin again. We're partnering up with photographers to provide these photo sessions in the hopes that we can help to portray female bodies as belonging to actual human beings, instead of objects. We'll be sharing lots of these sessions over time, each one paired with a statement from the survivor about how their experiences have shaped their body image, mental health, and view of their sexuality. Click here if you're a survivor interested in setting up a session, or here if you're a photographer who'd like to participate!

After assault, the lesson seems to be clear: do not show your body, the public is only there to hurt you, men cannot be trusted, you cannot be trusted. You are stripped of your senses the second you are assaulted, and they don’t return after. After you’re raped, somehow everything smells like the cologne your abuser wore, or everything around you has been drained of its color. Touch will sometimes feel like an imperceptible breeze; sometimes it will feel like a blanket of thorns. People on television or in books will describe a survivor’s relationship to the world after assault as “complicated,” but it’s simple: something inside you has died.

My first assault happened when I was six. He was a part of my family. In a roomful of wolves, I felt we were the only humans, and I felt close to him for that. A child navigates the world like a mountaineer when she is so young-- all exploration and glory. All survival. When I was alone with him, he was meant to be my caretaker. Only a man with demons like coal can produce such horror. My therapists now have referred to him as being “sick,” or “untreated,” as if the mental illness he gave me can somehow be an access point into empathizing with him. He smelled like gasoline and burnt toast and that’s all I can say. I’ll never know what I was like as a young girl, just like how my parents could never afford a video camera to film my brothers and I as children. I lost two years of my memory. At six years old, I was grown because I needed to be in order to live. In order to pull my legs up and place them in front of me, one, then two.

Often I think about what led me to my second assault. It was my first year of college, in the springtime in Vermont, when the tops of snow banks get shiny and crunchy like a candy apple. At this point in my life, I was in love with my brain, as ambitious young women are, imagining their careers, soaking up everything they can, concerned with not leaving anything out. I would daydream about fame in the art world, I dreamt about love and sexuality. I freely touched my own body, with the exception of a small area by my right hipbone, the skin above my appendix. It makes me feel a sharp tickle, an anomaly since childhood, a phenomenon I hadn’t realized was a physical manifestation of my trauma until many years later when I heard the phrase, “the body remembers.”

My second attacker acted like an animal. He respected my wishes to take our encounters slowly, didn’t even kiss me until I let him. He acted like an animal. He waited until I was drunk and then his sweat was everywhere, dripping onto my skin. I couldn’t move and I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to leave, my exhaustion was too draining, I only wanted to be removed from his room, taken into the air like machinery lifts a log in chains-- I wanted to be moved anywhere but there. He acted like an animal, acute and quick, trying so hard to get me to lie silent.

When a woman lives long enough, she dies. When a woman lives long enough, she will encounter the same pain, again and again, wrapped differently, perfumed differently, but the same. I wake up and I ask myself what is it about me that makes men take advantage of me? It’s not naiveté, it’s not gullibility, it’s not my sexual history, it’s not the way I dress, it’s not that my favorite color is yellow-- and I list these things in my head, wracking my brain, trying to figure out what has made me so vulnerable to assault.

And that’s the thing. It’s not one thing, and it’s not anything. It’s not me. I want to say it again: it’s not me that makes men want to take advantage of me. It’s not me. I know what it is, despite the daily self-shaming I put myself through. It’s what makes women strong, and what makes men feel threatened. It’s the way men are taught to value the tenets of masculinity, and it’s the way that this hollows them out, a shell of performativity, obliged to assert toxicity against any non-male. I know that this is what makes men want to take advantage of me. And none of that is my fault.

So how is it that I can know this and still feel shame around what happened to me a third time? (Are you losing count yet?) The last time I saw my third rapist, I was dressed up like a panda for Halloween. He came to the party I was at, no costume, and as I peered at him through a bonfire, I wondered what might be under his skin, what kind of person he was dressed up as. Because I knew he raped me and threatened me, and I couldn’t leave my house for weeks. When I saw him, I screamed at him, “Get the fuck out of my life,” and a friend of mine escorted him out, how lucky, how lucky to feel safe. Safety is a luxury for survivors. Metaphor forced, I’m glad he didn’t put a mask on that night, betraying the truth, my truth.

My third story of what happened to me is the same as before, the redundancy growing exhausting and foul. None of these men deserve my story, they don’t deserve anything from me. Not my story, my pity, my forgiveness, my beautiful heart, my time of day. My work is for me and the people who can feel this in their gut, our collective cringe resonating against the cowardice of those who thought we were weak.

How are we meant to love after rape? How do we allow someone to receive our trust when our boundaries have been breached and our internal organs, like a million glass swans, have shattered against the inside of our skin? Most times I cannot believe I am alive, the devastation relentlessly picking at my depressed body. Is it possible to refrain from putting our trauma aside and using it instead to inform how we learn to open ourselves up to the possibility of finding people who love us? I’m not talking about being accepted as broken and addressing everything around it. I’m talking about using our heart the way we use our mind-- ambitiously and gracefully, with wit and poise, unforgiving in its processes. Let’s use our trauma to address our loneliness, shamefulness, and pain-- and let’s use it to thrive in the company of others who listen to us, and feel our stories in their bones.

I’m not interested in dwelling in the possibility of recovery anymore. That’s not meant to sound cynical or rude-- what I mean is that my life has changed forever, and this is who I am now. I’m too exhausted to entertain the idea that I might go back to the way I was before I was raped. Trees hibernate when it’s too cold for them to continue growing. They lose their leaves to preserve water. When their environment allows them to grow more, they will. So too am I not wistful about previous summertimes. I’m preserving what I have left, getting ready to learn how to give and love and find new passions. It’s normal to expect to return to our lives, like we do after any event. I’m just too tired to worship that belief. So here I am, fresh out of the fire, arms outstretched past the smoke, sunshine on my fingers.

Photography // a. lentz photography

Reclaim Project: Anastasia

The Reclaim Project is an initiative to help sexual violence survivors to feel comfortable in their skin again. We're partnering up with photographers to provide these photo sessions in the hopes that we can help to portray female bodies as belonging to actual human beings, instead of objects. We'll be sharing lots of these sessions over time, each one paired with a statement from the survivor about how their experiences have shaped their body image, mental health, and view of their sexuality. Click here if you're a survivor interested in setting up a session, or here if you're a photographer who'd like to participate!

"I've been waiting years for the words to write my story, but have found the the harder I listen, the less I receive.
I've tried to dig around past years of repressed memories.
I've tried to write it in a way that appeals to a crowd.
In a way that's artistic.
A way that's beautiful.
But nothing would come.

(images from Anastasia's journal)

(images from Anastasia's journal)

I finally found that the best way to write, is congruent with the best way to live your life, honestly.

When I was a little girl, I was sexually abused. It's one of my first memories.
It wasn't artistic.
It didn't appeal to any specific audience.
It most definitely was not beautiful.

It was ugly.
It was wrong.
It affected me. It affects me every day. It will affect me for the rest of my life.
It forced me to carry shame and guilt from much too young an age.
Stole the innocence out of getting to choosing who I would give my body to.
It changed the way I see my body. My earliest self-body shaming memory was at the beach. I was four years old. Over the past few years I've gone to multiple counselors to try to begin the healing process, but I've given up every single time. I always believed that people who didn't know me, didn't deserve to hear my story.

How the times have changed. How my mindset has changed.

The closest I've gotten to beginning my journey towards healing has come from honesty. Learning to share my story. Learning to listen to others stories.
Learning that there is not shame in what happened to me when I was too young to defend myself.
That someone else's ugly choice was not my fault.

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Right now I'm in between.
In between my heaviest and my thinnest.
In between knowing who I am and having no idea where I'm meant to go.
In between hating the temple that carries me through every day and being thankful for every journey it has brought me through.
A temple that I've over indulged to its heaviest, and starved to its thinnest in an effort to have control over what was taken from me.
In between tearing that little girl down the way she was years ago, and building up the beautiful woman she is becoming.

This story is my becoming."

(images from Anastasia's journal)

(images from Anastasia's journal)

Photography // a. lentz photography