Trigger warning: This story is the first-person story of a woman who survived sexual assault.
It was 50 years ago that I survived childhood sexual assault. I was 14 at the time. Two men assaulted me throughout the night, leaving me half naked in a cornfield at 4am.
I had to tell the sheriff what happened. Yes, I could identify their house. Yes, I could describe them. Yes, they were caught.
In the 1960s, we didn’t have victim services. No one knew what to say, so no one said anything at all.
After my suicide attempt, my parents sent me to a state mental hospital, which is where the psychiatrist said I would be safer than if left alone. I didn’t meet with any health care professional during my two years there, where I paced the halls and cried. But I survived. I eventually left. I finished school, worked, traveled, grew up.
My life has had all the ups and downs every life has. Then it (or I) became decidedly richer. I met the love of my life, had five amazing children, continued to travel, was awarded a fellowship to return to school after the children, and received a midwifery license in 1989. I became an author, a grandma, and an artist all at the same time. I am blessed and deeply grateful. I have tried to forget what happened 50 years ago. I stuffed all the rage and shame and fear down so deep I hardly knew it was there. But every time I looked at the white slash mark scars on my arm, I was reminded. I hated my arm. I wore long-sleeved shirts. I didn’t want anyone to see my past carved out so clearly.
While at a doula workshop, during our lunch break, I was wandering around, visiting the vendors. I happened upon Victoria and her henna booth. She invited me to receive a henna tattoo — they were so beautiful and magical. After I settled in, she gently reached out to take my arm. I quickly drew back.
“Not that one. It’s ugly. Do the other one,” I said.
I could see a shift in her eyes as she carefully continued to pull my left arm onto the little table by the chair. As she took in the 12 inches of my own handiwork, she said, “Let’s make it beautiful.”
I was stunned. I dIdn’t say anythIng. I let her paInt. In the end, she not only completely covered the scars, but created somethIng on my arm that was elegant and beautIful.
After that day, I bought tubes of henna and learned the art by drawing over Victoria’s patterns as they began to fade. I began to wear short-sleeved shirts. I no longer saw horrified looks when I had my blood pressure checked.In my 65th year, as I was being weaned off a mild anti.depressant, I was temporarily prescribed Trazadone. I reacted poorly and by the fifth day on that medication, I was in a full-blown psychotic episode. For two weeks I was in a psych ward as the effects of the drug left my system.
The miracle, however, is that I had the opportunity for the first time in my life to talk about the past. Having finally been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, I was invited to join a 10-week workshop/group therapy program with five other survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
I had never heard another woman’s story of abuse. Each time I shared mine, I remembered more details and was able to work through more pain. It was amazing.
I also stumbled on a website for women who had survived mastectomies and chose to cover the scars with tattoos, rather than have reconstruction and breast augmentation surgery. I was awestruck. What a revelation! I could permanently cover my scars with something beautiful.
So, I got my first tattoo. I found an artist to help me transform myself yet again.
I love it. I even love my arm, after 50 years. I thank all the amazing women who have blessed me this past year. I am grateful.
Stephanie Sorenson is author of “Ma Doula: A Story Tour of Birth.” It was a finalist in the 12-state Midwest Book Awards.