Since I was 11 sporting ebony pigtails and Maybelline lip gloss, I have looked forward to being 18. The fruition of adulthood was saturated in an awe so tangible I could visualize it. I remember writing in my diary musing about who my soulmate might be and how I would go to all these awesome parties. (Spoiler: I didn’t.) But, my first few weeks of eighteen were just how my younger self imagined it: (finally) not having acne, flirting with boys, being able to enter the university library without my teacher. I sometimes reflect over those days, and wonder if becoming an adult could have been a magical experience, rather than a frightening one. For my seventeenth birthday, my best friend gave me a certificate stating that I, Isabella Neblett, had survived long enough to turn 17. Her gift was sweet, yet I didn’t fully comprehend the notion of survival until now.
Being 18 was one of the most difficult times of my life not because I became an adult, but because I was sexually assaulted. I still remember it like it happened yesterday. It was a few weeks after my 18th birthday, and a close family friend had invited me for dinner. I had stayed with him and his wife the prior summer, and since then, we had gone to dinner once a month to catch up.
He told me I was like a niece to him and at first, he was like an uncle to me. However, my father was distant because I decided to live full time with my mom because my stepmother abused me, so my dad was not around much. For all intents and purposes, this man was a second father to me, and I cared for him deeply.
When he told me he forgot my birthday present at his hotel room, I didn’t overthink it. I knew this man, and he had let me into his home. I idolized his wife because she was everything I wanted to be: strong, independent, kind, intelligent, with a family she loves who loves her. It wasn’t until he bought me an alcoholic drink that I started to feel off. I abstain from all drugs and alcohol, and he knew this.
“I feel uneasy going back to your hotel room,” I said.
“Don’t you trust me?” he asked.
This question would stay with me, because despite my own uneasiness, I did trust him, so I said yes. By the time we were in his hotel room, I felt uncomfortable. He asked me if I wanted a drink multiple times, insisting on it even after I said no. I changed the topic and asked him what the gift was. He told me that it was a trust exercise where you stare into someone’s eyes for 5 minutes without speaking. He asked me if we could sit on the bed but I told him I would feel more comfortable on the couch. Once again, he asked me if I trust him, and I said I did. He told me he didn’t feel like I trusted him and if I really did trust him, I would sit on the bed with him.
I felt guilty, so I sat on the edge of the bed and grabbed a pillow, holding it against my chest. He then told me the pillow was a barrier and asked me to remove it. He set the timer for five minutes, and then, he was staring at me. This smile stretched across his face as he stared into my eyes. He moved his head closer to me and I backed away. I wanted to say something, but the five minutes weren’t up, so I couldn’t. He grew closer until I had no more room to back up and then he grinned. When the timer went off, he asked me how I feel.
“I felt vulnerable,” I said, quietly.
“You look so beautiful,” he said and I froze.
“I wrote some poems,” I blurted out, desperate for a distraction. I read him one about my breakup two months prior and how the memory of my ex-boyfriend haunted me. He was quiet, mouth in a straight line.
“I want to tell you something,” he said, suddenly pulling me against his chest.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I feel this urge to protect you and be your parent but I also feel this strong urge to make love to you and be your lover.”
In that moment, I froze. I began to analyze my options, each one blurring across my mind as I deduced his expected reactions and tried to calculate the actions I needed to take to keep myself safe. It was at this moment that my therapist says I should have told him, no, but I don’t think that would have left me in a position to be able to write this article today. You see, he keeps a knife in his left pocket at all times. His right thigh was against the bed, so he had his knife in easy reach. Knowing him, his temper was not an idle thing. He had a rage in him so smoothly suppressed that I doubted he knew I could see it, so I decided to say no subtly.
“I think that’s wrong,” I said.
“You’re right. It is. I’m a bad person.”
“I think the action is bad, but I don’t think one action is indicative of the moral status of an entire person.”
“You’re too kind,” he said and then, his body crashed into mine, his tongue forcing its way through my lips.
Everyone asks me why I didn’t fight, and here’s the thing. Even if I had decided to fight, I don’t think I could have because I froze. I went into shock. My whole body felt as though my tendons were stitched to icicles, my tongue a dead weight. It was like I was no longer in my body. Nothing felt real except for this hollow feeling in my chest. I imagine it felt as though he was kissing a corpse in those moments.
And then, he wrapped my legs around his chest, grinding against me, and everything changed. Suddenly, my body began to ache. I felt myself get wet and I couldn’t take it. I began to tremble as I lay there, terrified yet aching. He said he loved me. I couldn’t move. I tried, but everything felt so heavy. He started to get angry and told me to say it back, so I did, my voice a faint whisper.
I don’t know how long it went on like this. I just remember feeling his hand slide down my jeans and not being able to breathe as he slid beneath my underwear, feeling me. My desire for him grew as he touched me yet I didn’t want him. With my mind, I didn’t want him but my body did. When he stopped, I couldn’t feel anything. I felt numb. I felt like someone had killed me but for some reason, I was still alive. I needed to pee so I asked him if I could use the bathroom, and he said I could.
When I went to the bathroom, I looked at my reflection and I saw tears. I hadn’t realized I was crying. I reached for my cheek, hesitantly, touching each tear. I wiped them off so he wouldn’t be angry and peed. I checked my back pocket for my phone to see if I could call someone but he must have taken it before. My hands began to tremble as I tried to think of a way to escape. The elevator only worked if you had a key card and we were at least ten floors up. I realized that the only thing that was going to get me out of this situation intact was if he wanted me to, and that meant not angering him.
And so I did it. When I went back into the room, he told me he was going to use the bathroom, and left. I knew I should look for my phone, find the keycard, anything but suddenly, I just started shaking and I couldn’t stop. I curled into a little ball and felt hot tears run down my face. When I heard the toilet flush, I knew I had to clean myself up or he’d be angry. I wiped my tears away and forced myself to sit up. As he entered the hotel room, I began to rub my arms, pretending that I was cold.
“It’s so cold in here,” I said.
“Really? It’s hot for me.”
He pulled me into his arms and I stood there, frozen, limbs stiff. Finally, he let go and drove me home.
I went up the elevator of my apartment complex to the fourth floor like a robot and when I closed the door, I slid down to the floor and just started sobbing. It came out of me in bursts, and I couldn’t stop. It felt like the pain would never stop. I wanted to stop existing. I crawled into my bed and hugged my pillow, pretending it was a person. My mother came in and asked me what was wrong. I told her he’d touched me and I just started crying. I couldn’t say anything more. I couldn’t face it.
I didn’t really have anyone to go to. My boyfriend and I had broken up a month earlier because he was emotionally abusive, and we’d had the kind of unhealthy relationship where we spent nearly all of our time with each other. He would tell me his happiness was my responsibility. I remember I had a panic attack one time and he got angry with me because he said if I truly loved him, I wouldn’t get anxious. He told me if I just meditated harder, I would be happy. If I was sad, he would get angry and tell me I was a bad person for being sad because I was emotionally splattering on him.
I remember one time I didn’t want to engage in sexual activity and he said he still loved me anyways but that he was disappointed in me. He wouldn’t speak to me until I would engage in sexual activity with him. Due to his ongoing emotional abuse, I believed that I was a bad person if I wasn’t happy, and so I distanced myself from all my friends after I was sexually assaulted because I had situational depression and didn’t want to hurt them.
In truth, I realize now that the friends I had would have willingly supported me through this time had they known, but they didn’t. I told two of my closest friends but I never talked about what happened or how it made me feel. I bottled it up inside. The first few weeks after it happened, I felt completely alone. I felt this desperate urge to get out of my body. I couldn’t touch people without crying. Despite my friend group being unaware of what happened, they cheered me up with our regular get-togethers and funny conversations. It helped and I learned to trust people again.
I started going on dates with Blake* and I enjoyed it but I wasn’t sure what romantic love was supposed to be like. With my ex, I had defined my love by how much pain I felt yet I realized that wasn’t what I wanted love to be for myself so I decided to define romantic love as being neither happy or sad. When Blake asked me to date him, I said yes because I didn’t feel pain with him and he made me smile. I told him I wasn’t ready to be physically intimate and he said that was okay.
About two weeks later, I was sick and he wanted to hang out with me so I told him we could just watch Netflix. We ended up making out and things started to get heated when suddenly, he was inside me. I froze. I started saying no, and I couldn’t stop. He pulled out and looked at me but I couldn’t bear to see his face. A single tear slipped down my cheek, and then there were two, and three, and I couldn’t stop. In that moment, every feeling of happiness I had ever associated with him vanished.
“I trusted you,” I said. He put his head in his hands and said, “I’m sorry, but it was an accident.”
“What?” I said, shocked.
“It was our position at the time. It wouldn’t have happened if you didn’t want it.”
I began to cry harder and said, “No. I told you I wasn’t ready. I didn’t want this to be my first time. I wasn’t ready,” I said, voice breaking as I whispered, “I’m not ready.” When I broke up with him, it didn’t hurt. I felt sad about what he had done to me but I didn’t feel sad about him not being in my life. I realized that I had liked him as a friend, but not romantically.
When I came to Emory, I faced many struggles yet it is here at college that I found healing and self-love. At first, I was scared, because there were so many people and I had come from a high school of seventy people. I began to find friends by starting conversations with random people while eating at the DUC-ling. I found a group of loving and supporting people in Dark Arts, an art collective that aims to destigmatize mental illness and raise awareness about mental wellbeing. I joined Free Thought, another art collective, and I was given the opportunity to perform my poetry all over campus.
These two organizations empowered me and helped me realize how wonderful I am. I fell ill and ended up in the ER for a week and I had to have weekly hospital or doctor visits for the rest of the semester. It was difficult yet my friends supported me and are why I continue to have infinite hope.
I started to heal, day by day. It was hard. It's still hard. I decided to have sex with a friend of mine because I wanted to have sex that wasn’t rape. We didn’t love each other, and we weren’t romantic in any way, but we had a mutual platonic caring, and having sex with him helped me heal. Many people would perceive me as a slut for this, yet I firmly believe those people can fuck off because my life is my own, and they are no one to judge me. People would have crushes on me but I wasn’t ready to be romantic. A childhood acquaintance once posted on Facebook the following quote:
“Be patient with yourself. Nothing in nature blooms all year."
And so I have been patient with myself.
Being 18 has been one of the most difficult experiences of my life yet as my 19th birthday approaches on February 1st, I’m excited for what is to come. Nearly one year after having been sexually assaulted, I have a group of friends who love me and I am doing what I love. I still struggle with having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, also known as PTSD, yet I have made much progress. I can touch people without crying. I enjoy physicality. I am ready to date if the opportunity arises. If not, that’s great too. I’m happy with who I am, and most days, I feel comfortable in my skin. I am still afraid to fall in love, yet I am choosing to trust love. This isn’t to say that being sexually assaulted helped me in any way because it didn’t. It was horrible, and it feels awful. This is to say that I survived, and now that I am turning 19, I’m going to live.
* name changed for confidentiality