How I Stood Up for Myself

Source: Getty Images

Source: Getty Images

(TRIGGER WARNING: Rape, sexual assault)

Just two days ago, I finally – finally – disclosed my rape

It had been four years.

And in this conversation with my mom, I also disclosed a series of other sexual assaults. And I only just started using the terms rape and assault recently because I didn’t want to acknowledge what had actually happened – or the pattern of giving too many second chances that I kept falling into.

I even covered up the rape, which happened while I was volunteering in Morocco during my first year of college, in my personal journal!

I wrote the entry instead about losing my virginity as though I was a character in a beautiful romance novel. And that’s what I told my closest friends as well.

I wanted to believe that it was an Arabian Nights fantasy, rather than the story of a naïve girl who was lured into a grimy hotel room where she felt pressured, nonetheless said no, and had her panties removed anyway.

I wasn’t held at knifepoint in a dark alley, which is what I used to associate with the word rape. I didn’t scream “no” at the top of my lungs. But I said it. Several times. And then I was frozen, as though I wasn’t even in my own body.

For a while, I questioned whether or not it was actually rape. I asked myself what I could have done differently. Maybe I did lead him on. Maybe I should have screamed and fought.

But to me, it wasn’t that black-and-white at the time. Funny what hindsight can do.

I see now that it was rape.

No means no, no matter what volume it is projected.

I feel so relieved that I have finally started to face the rape and sexual assaults that have been the causes of many sleepless nights over the years. But here’s what I really want you to know about my story.

Globetrotting and Unrequited Love

I have lived abroad for my entire adult life.

After completing high school in Washington State, I went on to study full-time at the University of Wales in the United Kingdom.

Throughout that experience I did a lot of traveling, and upon graduating with a degree in International Relations, I signed up for an epic 27-month-long commitment to an international development organization.

I am now working on small community development projects in Botswana until June 2014, and despite all of the truths that I’m finally facing, I’m sticking this out!

Because there was a last straw – and it happened here in Botswana. But I want to assure you ahead of time that I have decided to flourish from it – and the past.

Being a young traveller, I have often had very little money in my pocket and have had to rely on other people to get from point A to B. I am not one who has ever been comfortable asking for favors, so that has always been a downer.

Combine that lifestyle with a personality that has always struggled to say no and disastrous things can – and have – happened.

If someone does a favor for me, even a favor that I didn’t ask for, I find it very hard not to feel obligated to them. I feel as though I owe them something in return, and then I feel guilty if I don’t keep them in my life – even if they give me the willies!

Fortunately, the men that I have actually dated in the past have been lovely, but I have a series of ex-guy friends who took things too far.

In the movie The Holiday, Kate Winslet’s character, Iris, talks about unrequited love – where a person falls in love with another who cannot or will not love them back.

In the movie, Iris falls for a guy who doesn’t love her back, but in my story, I’m the one who does not love the other – and in this case, the other ended up having a big problem with that.

Red Flags in the Kalahari

Between June and December 2012, I lived in a very remote settlement in the middle of the Kalahari Desert where there was no grocery store, no post office, nowhere to refill my phone minutes, and no public transportation.

It is against my organization’s policy that volunteers drive, so I had no choice but to rely on others to take me to and from the town where I could run my errands – and that town was 65 miles away!

During training, I shadowed the girl who lived there before me. She introduced me to a fairly new friend of hers – a much older South African expatriate – who helped her get around. He was rough around the edges, but seemed nice enough and appeared to have a wealth of knowledge about Botswana and community development.

We became friends and colleagues over the first few months of my stay there, and when I needed help with transportation, I paid for the gas in his truck.

I enjoyed the village life, but it was often very lonely, so it was refreshing to be able to meet up with someone else from a similar culture as mine who also seemed to have similar interests. I considered us friends and grew to trust him, but I was absolutely not interested in anything more than friendship. On that, I was very vocal.

Eventually, he confessed that he had fallen in love with me.

I respected that he told me, but it was an awkward conversation to have – as it always is with someone who has feelings for you who you don’t feel the same way toward.

I was happy remaining his friend regardless, as I believed that we could be mature adults and go on as we were.

He agreed verbally, but over the course of the next few months, his actions suggested otherwise.

He was very skilled at finding excuses for us to be alone together. He was great at guilt-tripping me and tricking me into going places with him where we would be alone.

He’d often try to touch me inappropriately, seemingly out of the blue, and whenever I called him on it, he’d become infuriated and tell me I was overreacting. He actually tried to convince me that cuddling, foot-sucking, and topless photos are normal things for friends to do, despite my not agreeing with that definition of platonic.

He started getting very possessive of me and easily agitated over the most insignificant transgressions.

I witnessed him get violently angry on several occasions, for example, if I spent more than a week in my village. And considering that he lived on a private game reserve in the town that was 65 miles away, we really didn’t see one another that often.

If, when we were together, I was reading a book or working on a report, anything that didn’t involve him directly, he’d say that I was deliberately ignoring him and lash out. He even got angry at me once when I accepted an invitation to go traveling with other friends and not with him.

At one point, he pinned me against a counter in his house while he yelled at me for “treating the dogs better than him,” screaming at me, asking why I wouldn’t love him after all he had done for me, telling me that I was the only good thing in his life.

The red flags were increasingly there for months, and I started finding ways to avoid him. The problem was: I was relying on him!

I realized at that point that what had started out as a friendship had turned into an emotionally-abusive relationship that I felt I was obligated to stay in if I were to survive out there in the bush.

Without this guy, how would I get groceries? How would I get my mail? Someone else had gained an element of control over my life that they had no right to.

The last straw came this past November.

Applying Feminism

Because the day finally came when my feminism turned from theory to practice.

I had spent the day in town working on my own projects. He had also spent the day working on his. When we were both finished, it was time to drive back to my village, but he was giving me a clear silent treatment – again.

When we got in the truck to go, my groceries and backpack in the back, my dog with me in the passenger seat, he started shouting at me relentlessly and took off driving through the game reserve like a maniac.

It was the same old yelling, about how I treat him like an animal, except this time he threw in the suicide threats – something that I had read about in articles on emotional abusers.

Swerving through the desert at a high speed, he went on and on about how if I wouldn’t love him, he might as well kill himself because he’d have nothing else to live for.

I demanded that he stop the truck. He did so immediately, crying on the steering wheel.

I knew in my bones that an end of an era had come, so I quickly got out with my dog. But as soon as I went to get the rest of my things, he sternly said no.

He looked up, and his tears instantly dried. His face turned bright purple, and the veins popped out of his forehead. I knew then that he had just lost control. I had just witnessed the transformation of an upset man to an insane man, and my fight or flight instincts kicked in. So I took off running.

I ran for over two miles through the scalding sun while he chased me with his truck.

He would zoom past me so quickly that I thought he would run me over, and I’d have to jump to the side yanking my dog by the collar to get us out of the way.

When he’d pass, he’d cut me off and get out of his truck, trying to get me back in with him.

During the half-mile or so, I made a few more attempts for my things, mainly concerned about my new computer in my backpack, but he’d hold me from it. Whatever I would get my hands on, he’d jerk back from me and put back in the truck. Then he’d try and get me in the truck.

I finally punched him and kicked him several times. Previously, I have never, not once in my life, physically defended myself. But I did, and it felt like I was punching and kicking every other guy in my life who ever thought that they could control me.

I was only disappointed that he didn’t react like I thought he would when I kicked him in the groin. (I thought they were supposed to fall over in writhing pain like they do in the movies. He didn’t.)

When I decided to keep on running, he kept chasing me, cutting me off, trying to get me in the truck. Until we arrived at the main road.

A few locals were closing up the little shop at the entrance to the game reserve, so he began to act normal, giving me my things. Then he zoomed back into the game reserve. One of the women at the shop called a taxi for me, and I went to stay with another volunteer from my organization for the night.

That night, I don’t think I stopped shaking, but somehow, I felt great. Beyond great!

I remember lying in my friend’s guest bed, staring at the ceiling, crying tears of amazement and even laughing – yes, laughing! I must have looked hysterical.

But I did it. I stood up for myself for what felt like the first time in my life.

I defended myself. I put my foot down and made a pact with every punch, every kick, every stride I took through that desert that never again would I compromise my own potential, health, and safety to be obliging to someone who does not deserve me.

Onward and Upward

After that night, I was placed on security hold in the capital for 35 days while a new site was organized for me. I have since been relocated to a town on the opposite side of the country, surrounded by neighbors and equipped with public transportation so I can take care of my basic needs without having to rely on anyone but myself.

I am going to finish my service. At the end of March, I ran my second half-marathon, beating my first time by 34 minutes, and will run my third in July. And when I return to the United States, I’m going to get my Master’s degree and love myself with a passion that only the right guy – when I meet him – will also receive.

It is a new era.


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Chelsea is currently a 23-year-old community development worker in Botswana. She grew up in small town in the Pacific Northwest and got her degree in International Relations from the University of Wales in the UK. Her biggest passions are animals, music, running, and writing.

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