Returning to University After My Sexual Assault

You never think it will happen to you. But you still carry your keys between your fingers at night, you check the back seat of your car before you get in, never take drinks from a stranger, never go on a date without telling your friends who you’re with and where you are, and never walk alone. None of these practices, however, prepared me for the thing that would forever change my life.

In mid-October of 2016, my freshman year at the University of Toronto, I was raped.

To dispel a few common myths, let me clarify the specifics of that night: he wasn’t a stranger, but someone I had considered a friend having met a few weeks earlier; he didn’t storm in uninvited, I had told him he could come into the room to hang out with a few other people; I hadn’t been “leading him on” because we weren’t romantically involved in any way (I had even confided in him about my breakup with my girlfriend two weeks prior); and we were both completely sober.

I woke up the next morning disoriented. My legs hurt and my eyes stung but I couldn’t remember why. It wasn’t until I saw him rolling out of my roommate’s bed that I began to recall. She was away for the weekend, and I told him he couldn’t stay with me but he refused to leave because it was “just so late” and he was “just so tired” so I guess he had crashed there. Once he was gone I was left drawing blanks as to what to do. I felt heavy, exhausted and empty. Later that day I texted a friend and my ex about it, but I couldn’t express to them what was going on in my head. To this day, very few of my friends and family know.

Sometimes I have regrets about not reporting it but other days I’m glad I didn’t spend months tangled up in conflict resolution meetings, hashing out the details of restraining orders, and reliving that terrible night in front of lawyers, my parents, and a judge.

These details have slowly been coming back to me over the last two years, and much of that night I still have trouble remembering. As many victims of sexual assault do, I constantly replay the events in my head, searching for something I had done to give him invitation to my body but I can never find a single thing. I know now that trauma, something that I’m still coming to terms with, often pushes events into the back of your mind. Not only does trauma impede your memory of the event, but it can seep into every single crack of your life.

September of 2017 I was living at home, working part-time and commuting to school (everyone knows the rent in Toronto is a nightmare). I had always been a giant nerd my whole life. Throughout elementary and high school I would be so distraught when summer rolled around because it meant no school. An A+, Principal’s Honour Roll student, I had written off my poor 2.3 GPA (that’s a 6 on the 12-point scale) of first year as part of the struggle of transitioning.

Trying to get back into classes in second year, I experienced absolute incompetence like I had never known. I mean, I know many people in university will at some point feel below average, but this was next level. I couldn’t read a syllabus without zoning out, and got so confused I would stumble over simple words, or bursting into tears in class – and this was September. Class couldn’t be easier than during syllabus week. I had gone to Academic Advising countless times, and the Office of the Dean of Students, but nobody seemed to have the answers.

Weeks went on and I stopped going to class and couldn’t even attempt to complete assignments. As far as my part-time job was going... It wasn’t. I called in sick for three of my four shifts a week. And it technically wasn’t a lie. I was having anxiety attacks so intense I would throw up and pass out. When I could muster the will to show up for a shift, most of it was spent in the back or in change rooms crying as quietly as I possibly could. I doubted my intelligence, feeling so stupid, so depressed, and indisputably downward-spiraling.

There was no one I could turn to. All my friends and my girlfriend were away at school (we had gotten back together over the summer), and my parents didn’t understand why I couldn’t just get up every morning and just participate in society. It was the darkest time in my life to date.

I don’t really remember what compelled me to go to The Centre (University of Toronto’s Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre) but I do remember it was a new initiative, established just that August. There, I met a fantastic counsellor: Meg. She wasn’t a therapist or psychiatrist, but a counsellor who had special training in sexual assault. She taught me about trauma, and the effects sexual violence can have that you wouldn’t even think of. Without me even saying anything, she was able to guess that I was flunking out of school, withdrawn from life as I knew it, and, ultimately, suicidal. I only saw her three, maybe four, times but her impact on me was monumental and I’ll never be able to thank her enough. Looking back at it now, in a much better place mentally, it’s very likely she saved my life.

Through careful consideration and discussion with Academic Advising, Meg from The Centre, and my girlfriend, in October of 2017 I told my parents I had quit my job and was dropping out of school. Thankfully my parents are the coolest on earth. They certainly weren’t happy about it, but they had seen my mental health deteriorating rapidly the last two months. They understood this was what I needed to do.

October 2017 to March 2018 was a blur in my life. I didn’t do much: applied for jobs; was depressed; got the job; was depressed; showed up for my first day; was depressed; had a panic attack and ran home; doctor’s appointment for new anti-depressants that didn’t really work; blocked their number and never returned; was depressed. My saving grace was the short visits to Laurier Brantford where I’d stay with my girlfriend. I’d be here for a week, maybe two. I’d go to BF199 with her and be absolutely ASTONISHED by Charles Wells (the Man, the Myth, the Legend). We’d go to NV on Thursdays with her roommates and all slump over to Lonnie’s before cabbing home and passing out. It gave my life some structure and some much needed joy. Through various forms of therapy, medicine, healing and self-reflection, I miraculously had started to feel better.

In the early summer of 2018, I realized it was time to decide whether I wanted to return to university. I had looked at a number of universities and colleges, trades programs and I even considered returning to U of T. But it occurred to me that there was already a school that I was familiar with, where I had friends and where I was happy at.

After submitting a lengthy letter to Admissions (that summarized pretty much what I’ve just told you all) a few reference letters from therapists confirming I wasn’t lying, and my dumpster fire of a U of T transcript, I was, upon the condition of an extenuating circumstance, accepted to Laurier Brantford.

So far, things are good here. I can’t tell if the classes here are easier or I’m just getting better, but regardless, I’m grateful. Grateful for all the counsellors and doctors, my friends who supported me through it all and grateful for Laurier for letting me continue the education I so fervently love receiving. It’s hard not to miss my old school and friends, but I keep in touch with my friends, and as for the school… I think my academics do better off without.

You never think it will happen to you. I’m definitely not the same person I once was because of it. The world is a scary, unsafe place to me now. There are months of my life that I spent curled up in bed crying over how shitty I felt, months that I will never get back. As I’m writing this, I have a lump in my throat because it’ll never feel over. For a long time, I blamed myself and every once in a while I still do. I don’t fully understand what happened to me. I’m still learning about how trauma affects me in my day-to-day life. This story doesn’t have an ending. There’s no resolution in my near future, but I’m okay with that because every day I learn another way to move forward.

The world continues to be a scary place for people like me – just look at the news. Disclosing you’ve been sexually assaulted doesn’t feel good. It takes so much vulnerability and strength, and it can be embarrassing and shameful for no apparent reason. It’s horrific to come to terms with how you’ll forever be changed in ways you wouldn’t wish upon anyone. Chances are you know a survivor of sexual assault, if you’re not one yourself. Please, I implore you: believe survivors. Listen to us. Be there for us. I can say for a fact, no dose of love or support is too little. Healing takes place every day. You change with everyone you meet. You take steps forwards and backwards. I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t have friends, loved ones, and even admissions officers there for me, allowing me to give myself a second chance.