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When I was 15, I was assaulted by an adult altar server at my church. After the assault, he asked me to be his girlfriend. From the beginning, he asked me sexual questions, and I wasn’t comfortable with that. Sometimes I responded in a sexual way because I was worried about his reaction if I did otherwise. He also tried to escalate the relationship without getting to know me better or telling me about himself (examples: telling me he loved me really early, asking me if I wanted to move in with him once I got into college, etc.). I think he knew I wanted something long term, so he tried to say the “right” things in order to eventually have sex with me.

In reality, it was too much too soon.

Every time he asked to meet up, I made excuses to avoid meeting him. On a subconscious level, I probably knew he would try to go further than I wanted and I was trying to protect myself. I knew this would crash and burn, but I wasn’t sure how to get out of it. After a few weeks of this, my parents found out and helped me break things off. The overwhelming relief I felt from getting out of that told me a lot about what he was doing.

It’s been almost four years since this occurred, and I’ve had to see him at church almost every week. I learned it was assault about nine months after it happened, and I overanalyzed every detail. My legs would shake out of fear that he would walk into a room without my knowledge and that I would be defenseless if he did something. I blamed myself for the longest time. The sadness, anger, pain, and paranoia enclosed me into a shell.

As of now, stress settles into my shoulders during each service. I continuously scan my surroundings and I stay as far away from him as I can possibly get. Realizing that he manipulated me, dealing with the fact that he’s an altar server, wondering why I still have to see him, and dealing with my parents’ conflicting reactions has led me to face more anger than I’ve ever been comfortable with. My energy is almost always depleted after each service. I’m more guarded. I struggle with the fact that this happened in a church, which is supposed to be viewed as a safe place.

Yet in these past four years, I’ve made a lot of progress. I’ve learned how to validate my feelings and work on positive self talk. I’m more self aware, and I’m figuring out how to work on my weaknesses as well as recognize my strengths. I’ve realized that what happened wasn’t my fault and that I have enough inner strength to make it through. I’ve learned about the importance of empathy and being a good listener. I’m selective when it comes to friendships. This progress is due in part to the ways in which I take care of myself.

These are the things I have been doing to care for myself throughout this process:

  • I take a nap after each service.
    Due to the exhaustion I feel from being in that environment, I take some time to relax, and I typically wake up feeling refreshed.
  • I write about how I feel.
    Writing has been an incredible outlet for me to figure out why I feel a certain way. I’m able to process what happens to me in an active way. Sometimes what we tell ourselves is so ingrained that we don’t question it. Because of my writing, I’ve been able to figure out what I tell myself. I question and change that self talk when necessary. I’ll let myself feel what I need to, then I’ll write a list of possible solutions to any problems I’m facing. If it’s out of my control, I’ll figure out what I need to do to emotionally cope with the problem. I’ve learned to find the silver lining without invalidating my feelings, and I’m better at practicing self kindness. I do this by telling myself that my feelings are valid and understandable, and I remind myself of my successes (including the fact that I got out of that relationship).
  • I talk to my best friend about what happened and how I’m coping with it.
    This helps me get an outside perspective and stops me from bottling my feelings. She’s kind and supportive, and she treats the situation with sensitivity.
  • I have a few acquaintances in church.
    We’re able to talk about our lives and support each other. Having them in my life has helped so much.
  • I spend time with family.
    For me, laughing and sharing stories with my extended family is a bonding experience. This also prevents me from thinking about what happened in church too much. Rumination can lead to more stress and negative emotions.
  • If I’m feeling too overwhelmed I’ll leave the room and take a break. Sometimes when I’m in the same room as him, this helps me collect my thoughts and breathe.
  • I volunteer for – and share my story with – AVFTI.
    I’ve been volunteering for AVFTI for almost one year. It’s such a wonderful experience, and I have learned so much. I’m so glad that I get to help and comfort people who are dealing with the effects of sexual violence. Validating the storytellers’ feelings has helped me validate the feelings of the people in my life as well as my own feelings. As for sharing my story, I don’t regret it at all. It’s freeing, and the responses are so supportive and insightful. AVFTI is truly an understanding community.
  • I take breaks from schoolwork and everything else in my life in order to relax.
    Taking that time to decompress can help me whenever I feel burned out.
  • I try to manage stressful events throughout the week.
    I do this by giving myself enough time to work on assignments, getting enough sleep, talking with friends, and being self compassionate. Stress can be a trigger, and it can make seeing an assailant worse.
  • I surround myself with positive books, videos, music, etc.
    What we consume can make a difference when it comes to our mood and well being.

If you are currently in a situation in which you see your assailant, please know you’re not alone. It can be difficult, and how you’re feeling is valid. If you need anyone to talk to, please feel free to share your story on AVFTI if you’re comfortable. We’ll be here to help and to listen to you. If you can’t get away from the situation, I would recommend figuring out what works for you when it comes to caring for yourself. This list is not exhaustive, and everyone cares for themselves in different ways.

You are strong, and you can make it through this.

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