When I think of college, I don’t think of football games or week-long tailgates. I don’t think of frat parties or epic road trips. I don’t think of silly dorm pranks, hurricane chair races, or nights of endless laughter. My college experience was filled with memories like those, but they’re not what come to mind first. I had to work hard to dig those up. The fun, crazy, hilarious memories were buried deep beneath the most haunting memory I have.
No, when I think of college I remember one night. One excruciating, unforgettable night.
When I think of college, I think of rape.
And I’m not the only one. I’m not the only girl who walked into college expecting freedom but walked out a prisoner of her own mind. I’m not the only girl who walked in expecting to find herself but walked out frantically searching for the pieces she lost. I’m not the only girl who walked in expecting to be awakened to a new sense of purpose and direction in life, but instead walked out broken, shattered, and desperate for an escape.
College was supposed to be fun.
People were supposed to be good.
The world was supposed to be safe.
It’s been twelve-and-a-half years since I awoke to blood on my sheets and vivid flashes a man slamming me up against my wooden dresser. Twelve years since I spent an entire day in the fetal position on my bathroom floor. I can still smell the lemon fresh scent of the ceramic tile. It’s been 12 years since I sat alone on a cold table anxiously waiting for the doctor to enter. Twelve years since I built up the courage to tell my best friend what had happened, only for her not to believe me. It’s been 12 years since I picked up a bottle of vodka and vowed to never feel again.
If you had asked me back then what I took away from college, I would have said anger, resentment, bitterness, and a whole lot of hate. I would have told you that college made me a fighter. College made me mean and vengeful. College taught me to hide.
But if you ask me that same question now, I would say that college gave me an experience that, as painful as it was, taught me one of life’s greatest lessons.
I learned to forgive. And not just surface-level forgiveness, but real forgiveness. The kind of forgiveness that breathes life back into a rotting soul. The kind of forgiveness that allowed me to look the world in the eye again. The kind of forgiveness that set me free.
Forgiveness didn’t come right away, though. I stayed silent about the rape for four years. The reality of what happened was too hard to face, so I ran — hard and fast. I buried myself deep beneath a sea of drugs, alcohol, anorexia, and self-harm. I didn’t want to feel the pain; I was too scared to feel anything other than numb.
After I finally told somebody about the rape, It took another three years of processing the emotional, physical, and psychological scars before I was even capable of starting my journey toward forgiveness.
Through my journey, I learned that forgiveness was not only possible, it was the only way I would have a chance at life. Forgiving him had nothing to do with him and everything to do with me. Holding onto anger, regardless of how well it was justified, was killing me. My addiction to drugs and alcohol was fueled by incessant rage and until I let go of my resentment toward this man, I was unable to maintain anything close to sobriety.
It was hard work learning to let go, but somewhere in the midst of all the pain, I began to feel compassion instead of anger. I learned to separate myself from the events of that hellacious night and through doing so, was able to see him as a fallible human being who was also sick and suffering. I grasped onto the idea that people who are hurting hurt others and in order to commit such a heinous crime, he must have been so deeply wounded.
Most importantly, I learned that hiding my pain does not make it go away. Strength doesn’t come from pushing past it, it comes from sharing it. Through sharing, I am continually reassured that I am never alone, despite how lonely I may feel. Whatever I’m going through, however painful the path may be, there is always someone who has walked before me. There are always people walking beside me. I learned to let them in instead of shutting the world out.
So yes, when I think of college, I think of my rape. I remember that night. I smell the cologne he was wearing. I feel the wood dresser beating against my chest. But when I think of college, I also think of the profound healing that has happened in me because I chose forgiveness.
College was still fun.
People are still good.
The world is still safe.