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Checkpoints, Not Chapters: Reframing How to Define “Healing”

CW: This piece mentions sexual assault, PTSD, and recurring nightmares. If you’re hesitating to read this, please be gentle with yourself and keep yourself safe! Contact the RAINN hotline at 1-800-656-4673 if you need help, or consider reaching out to your campus support services.

I’ve already tried to write this piece.

Six months ago, I suggested a version of this topic at a Her Campus meeting where it was received with supportive nods and kind hearts. I proposed an idea where I summarize tactics my therapist and I use as I heal from sexual assault—avoiding triggers, reaching out to friends, going on walks. It was going to be a numbered list, all neat and succinct.  My president remarked that it would be a wonderful idea as long as I felt ready to write it.

And I did.

And then I didn’t.

And then I sat at work for hours, staring at a blank word document, experiencing flashback after flashback.

I wasn’t ready.

And that is okay. 

As I wander through this journey of healing from sexual assault, I keep wanting to reach the destination, to call myself “healed”, to close the chapter. I want to be perfectly ready to write this article. I want to be back to my life before remembering the assault.

It does not work that way, unfortunately. As I continue to experience symptoms of PTSD, I am learning more and more that simply wanting to be healed does not mean that I am healed.

In my rational mind, I am safe. Yet, in the rest of my brain I imagine seeing him on every corner. I experience recurring nightmares. I no longer have any contact, but I am unable to escape him in my subconscious.

My therapist tells me this is part of my PTSD. Still, regardless of any nightmares, I am making visible progress in this journey. My sleeping is better than what it was when I processed the assault. Back then, my eyes would snap open at 6AM everyday. I was unable to sleep past that time, maybe 7AM if I was lucky. 

I can sleep in now. Usually. But the scattered mornings I wake my partner up while screaming myself awake from a nightmare sometimes make me wish I couldn’t sleep at all.

But I am getting better. It is a journey. Healing is nonlinear. I know all of this. I am working on accepting that healing is going to take time. I am working on accepting that I am a survivor of sexual assault. Still, my fingers freeze when I go to type out the simple words. My brain shorts when I imagine finding the hashtag and clicking “post”. I want people to know, but I don’t want to tell them. I absolutely don’t want others to speak for me though. I want the words to come from me without having to think about them. Because thinking just hurts too much. 

I wrote something this past summer about all of this. Eloquent, flowing, beautiful. I was so proud of my first draft. I found my voice and yelled from the top of a mountain. The next day, I had a lapse in my agoraphobia and cried in my partner’s arms for three hours. I can only assume these two were connected.

I wrote about how I dream of being healed, dream of organizing all my work towards healing and turning all of my stories into a numbered list. Tabled, organized, laid to rest into the depths of a filing cabinet, held back with a lock and key. 

But that isn’t necessarily healing. Healing can also be applying antiseptic to a wound, feeling it sting, and knowing that the infection will be lessened the more you clean out the wound. Maybe these rambling, stream of consciousness, badly-titled word vomits will be a part of this. Still, taking off the cast early because I think my broken bone is healed is only going to re-injure myself. I do not need to hurt myself by rushing to reach this idyllic place of healing that I dream of. 

I am reminded of one of my literature classes where we discussed William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying: a journey is not about the destination but about the lessons and trials characters experience along the way. Anytime a character sets out to go somewhere or achieve something, the point is not the achievement but what the character goes through along the way.

Is there a destination or achievement that I am searching for? Can I even compile everything into a singular, set goal? I don’t think that I can. My destination of being “fully healed” likely does not exist. My therapist always reminds me that being healed is not the absence of being hurt. I can be healed and still be hurting. Currently, I am trying to reframe this thought process, turning this destination of being “fully healed” into a checkpoint: a reachable goal that signifies the end of a chapter, without it being the end of the book.

My life does not have a destination, at least one that I can see at 20-years-old. I am living, growing, blooming, healing, and evolving into a better version of myself, one whose bones are stronger and whose standards are higher. 

I am the only one who has the right to decide how much weight I want to give “healing from assault” in my long, full journey. I am the only one who can decide how big of a checkpoint it is. Healing is going to take me a long time. Healing is nonlinear. Being “healed” doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt.

All I know for sure is that at this moment is that I am safe, and I am stronger than I ever have been. That’s all I need.

Lauren Smith

Emmanuel '23

Lauren Smith (she/they) is a student at Emmanuel College studying Theater Arts and Writing, Editing, and Publishing. Personality wise, she considers herself a mix of Nancy Drew and Cher Horowitz. In her free time, she's busy making earrings, watching Criminal Minds, and baking banana bread.
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