Shame is on the Other Side: The 10 Stages of “Coming Out” as an Abuse Survivor
After the Stanford rape survivor released her powerful and detailed victim impact statement, I was inspired to write my own open letter in which I discussed my experiences with sexual and partner violence. In the months since my “coming out” as a survivor — a decision that I did not make or take lightly — I’ve been actively reflecting on my myriad emotions and identifying distinct stages to the process. As with the five stages of grief, this isn’t a linear evolution; I found myself cycling through some of these stages multiple times before the emotion passed. Here’s what to expect:
Like a traditional “coming out,” publicly identifying oneself as a rape or domestic violence survivor first comes with an all-encompassing, whole-body, megadose experience of fear. Fear of being judged. Fear of repercussions. Fear of being trolled. Fear of being doubted. In many ways, it’s the same root fear that kept us silent all those years. This kind of fear must be vanquished, put through with a sword, chewed up and spat out. So that’s what I did; I pictured myself as the love child of Brienne of Tarth, Xena the Warrior Princess and the Goddess Kali as I did it.
Remember in The Fifth Element when LeeLoo is in the growing chamber before she has developed skin? I felt like that for days, my entire body stripped of dermis like one of Ramsay Bolton’s flayed men, waiting for the new, stronger layer to come in. Completely exposed, completely vulnerable, never so laid bare in my life. This was definitely one of the most challenging and painful stages of the process. But, like a serpent shedding a layer of skin, a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, a phoenix from the ashes of silence, my new outside is shiny and chrome, and impenetrable in a way it never was before. It’s beautiful and glowy to boot, sparkling with the crystallized tears of exorcised demons.
Did I do the right thing? Should I have been so detailed? Should I have shared even more? What kind of scrutiny have I opened myself up to? Who did I benefit by doing this? And if it was the right thing to do, why am I still in so much pain?
The doubt stage is the one I cycled back to the most, and every time I returned to it, I reached out to people I trust, all of whom assured me I’d done the right thing — even when I asked them once, or twice or a dozen times. I eventually took that doubt and buried it out back. It doesn’t come knocking anymore.
In the wake of my own “coming out,” I received dozens of messages from friends and strangers telling me of their own stories of rape and assault, stories that they weren’t comfortable sharing publicly. These stories made me furious, as did the many comments about how few others knew about what happened to them. I also felt rage at my own story, what had been done to me, including my own foundations of violence from a traumatic childhood that primed me to be an abuser’s target. Of my friends who knew me when the majority of abuse was going on, all but one said they had no idea it was even happening. The one who claimed to have suspected something apologized for doing nothing, and I found myself consoling her over her own guilt.
The new questions occupying my mind were, “Why had nobody recognized the signs? Why didn’t anybody help me?” I rode out waves and waves of anger by watching Mad Max: Fury Road and listening to death metal until I finally came to terms with the fact that I’m not just a victim. I’m a survivor. And a badass one at that. Maybe I wasn’t saved back then, but I sure as hell am saved now. I did it my goddamn self by writing a letter. Take that.
After I published my open letter, I got a horrible sore throat. Like, tonsillitis bad. I cycled back to the doubt stage, wondering if I’d done the right thing — I had imagined the experience would have immediately made me feel better. Poof! Like a Hogwarts charm. I’d spoken of my silence surrounding the sexual violence I’d experienced as a lump in my throat. When my throat swelled up after I told my story, I worried I’d made everything worse.
It took me a week to realize that the lump of silence I’d lived with for decades was like a tumor. When you excise a tumor, the site takes time to heal — sometimes days, sometimes weeks, and I needed to give myself time for the healing I’d begun to finish properly. I also began to understand that this was the first time I’ve ever been allowed to openly grieve about surviving so much. Until now, these events were dark secrets, tucked away and only spoken of in whispers. My grief was physically manifesting in my throat, so I made a point to take extra gentle care of myself. And this, too, passed — with gallons of chicken soup lovingly made by my husband and an epic three-hour open-air concert by The Cure. A cure indeed.
Since I’m being honest, I do have to admit that the r-word was an intense post-“coming out” emotion. I debated asking Wear Your Voice to take my letter down and returning the payment I received. I regretted exposing myself in the way that I did. Unlike the Stanford rape survivor, I didn’t publish anonymously, and my story is now part of my online presence forever. Since regrets breed more regrets, I started to go down a long list of things that had nothing even to do with my letter, but so many things I wished I’d done differently.
In the end, I had to remember that I didn’t do this just for me, just as the Stanford survivor didn’t share her victim impact statement just for herself. I did it because I want to be a part of the burgeoning discussion; I want to contribute to the changing paradigm on how we talk about rape, sexual violence and intimate partner violence. I did this because every survivor who speaks out gives permission for others to do the same, whether they do so publicly or privately. Thankfully, this stage only lasted five minutes — less time than it took to write two paragraphs about it.
“Shame withers in sunlight” was what my dear friend, performer and director Jessica Lefkow, said to me when I first started quietly talking about being a domestic violence survivor. Jessica’s phrase was what inspired my complete coming-out to begin with, and knowing she and others had my back gave me the strength to move forward.
When people kept telling me how brave I was, I shook my head and said, “No, I’m shaking too much over here to ever be brave. Brave would have been reporting my rapists to the police. Brave would have been speaking sooner. Brave would have been not getting into that situation in the first place.” In response to my bravery-denial, another dear friend, author Nayomi Munaweera, said, “Bravery is shaking in your boots and speaking anyway.” I stopped denying my bravery.
My husband, the kitchen wizard, made me more gallons of magical chicken soup, and with that broth’s help the excised lump of silence in my throat finally started to heal. Of course, an ugly scar will always be there between my soul and my vocal cords, but as Dr. Hannibal Lecter says: “Our scars have the power to remind us that the past was real.” And so it was, and so it is over now, and so I can move on.
They say a soul weighs 27 grams. My secret weighed five pounds, and it fell off almost overnight after I shared my story. It wasn’t just a weight off my shoulders, it was a lightening in my throat, where that invisible-to-others but heavy-as-fuck watermelon-sized goiter of silence had lived for almost two decades. I also hadn’t realized how tense and clenched my midsection had “naturally” been until everything relaxed when the tumorous silence lodged in my throat was gone.
Sharing my story brought me great hope for the future and the paradigm shift we need in how we talk about rape and sexual violence. Hope that the younger generation ideally won’t have to go through what so many women in my generation went through by suffering in silence. Hope that young men will understand the importance of consent and eschew the dynamic of power, entitlement and opportunity that are the hallmarks of every rape. And if we can’t stop rape — because, well, patriarchy is entrenched — then at least we can have hope that the people who do go through it already know that it wasn’t their fault and it is safe to come forward — to the police, to their families, to their friends, to society.
Since sharing my story I have felt a ferocity in myself that must have been lying dormant all this time. Where I was a passionate defender of women’s rights before, I am now ready to drive a War Rig if it means helping more people. A strength has risen in me that I don’t remember ever feeling until after I shared my secret, and by far it is the best part of “coming out” as a rape and domestic violence survivor. I am every powerful woman who has come before me, and I walk in their footsteps with pride. I am an Imperator here to smash the patriarchy one word at a time.
Do you notice what is not on this list? Shame. The minute people start hearing your story, you begin stepping into the light of freedom. The shame almost immediately turns to dust. You are unburdened. There is great empowerment and liberation in not carrying such huge and ugly secrets anymore. For most of us, it’s the only justice we will ever see. It’s not a pain-free unburdening, but it is worth it in the long run. We have to make it so in order for the next generation of survivors not to live in these shadows as we felt forced to.
The first way to start changing the paradigm of how we discuss rape, sexual violence and domestic violence is by talking about it, sharing our stories, listening and believing other people’s stories. If every survivor came forward, discovered they would be believed and supported, the entire silencing dynamic shifts from protecting the abusers to helping the survivors.
So let’s start talking.
P.S. The lyric “Shame is on the other side” comes from “Heroes,” courtesy of The Goblin King, I mean David Bowie. R.I.P.