Being a highly sensitive person made the pain more painful, but the lessons much more potent.
If you had asked me when I was 18 if I thought the world was a beautiful place, I would have frowned at you. The world was not beautiful, nobody listened to me, and I had a ginormous elephant on my chest that I didn’t want to talk about.
Being 18 was tough.
I’ll rephrase that. Being 18 is tough. For a lot of people. Right now. At 21, my outlook on life has done a 180-degree flip. But when you’re eyeballs deep in growing up, it can be hard to see past the enormous pressure of being 18.
Add high sensitivity and stir. What you get is part enormous, beautiful potential, part gloppy, unsightly mess.
The Elephant in the Metaphorical Room
I was sexually assaulted by my first boyfriend at the age of 16.
If you ask them, most people won’t believe that high school students are capable of such an emotionally complex crime. Most of the attention goes to college campuses; they are required by the Clery Act to report violence on campus. High schools are under no such obligation, and the reality of sexual violence among teens might make you think twice.
A 2017 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that nearly seven percent of dating teens were forced to engage in sexual activity by romantic partners. Let that sink in. I’m one of them.
It took three months and much coaxing from a good friend to finally spill the beans to my parents, who, of course, had zero idea what to do with the sack of bricks they’d just been hit by.
I don’t blame them.
I’ve always been a pretty happy kid. My childhood was fantastic, my parents are awesome (thanks, guys), and before the age of 16, I’d never had any substantial reason to spiral out of control.
Now I had a reason. As a highly sensitive person (HSP), the emotions were so intense — more so than usual — that I did not know what to do with them. I was bursting with sadness, shame, anger, and anxiety; I tore my hair out, engaged in self-harm, and cried every single day.
Crowded high school hallways became intense war zones where every tall teenage boy was a threat who could take my power and my dignity away all over again. Bathrooms were the only safe havens for when everything seemed to spin.
Over time, I learned to hide the many emotions I was feeling. Not one to volunteer for therapy, and unwilling to talk about something so painful, it became a taboo subject in my house. Eventually, my parents believed that I left it behind.
Balancing My Sensitivity and Sexual Assault Experience
Two years later, college became my latest nightmare. I failed a class, stopped going to club meetings, and flew off the handle at my parents at least twice a week.
Crowded high school hallways were traded for crowded campus sidewalks at Penn State University. Every beer-chugging, party-going, football-loving college boy was a threat, and the target of an anger so extreme that my body couldn’t hold it all in.
If I were somebody different, I might have dropped out of college. But as an HSP, a black-and-white solution wasn’t the way out. Instead, for the sake of self-care, I hit the pause button. I took a leave of absence. I needed a gap year.
Even at the ages of 18 and 19, I had begun to see through the black cloud to an end goal: I had to find a reason and an outlet for this pain. Meanwhile, it was a three-headed hound without a leash, and I had zero control.
But what was the purpose of all that suffering if I didn’t do something with it or learn something from it?
Over the course of my gap year, I lived and worked in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, meeting people from across the country. I also lived and worked in the woods of New Jersey. From March 7 to August 7, 2020, I completed an end-to-end hike of the Appalachian Trail.
I met a lot of people in whom I saw a little bit of myself. I met young women who’d graduated from college and who’d also been sexually assaulted. In many ways, they had put it behind them, but also carried it with them. They used it as a springboard to inform how they lived their lives. They learned from it. I wanted to, as well.
I met people my age who left school and had no intention of going back. I met other HSPs for whom the deluge of high college expectations, tuition, and charged social atmosphere were not worth the overstimulation.
With new role models, I started to learn from my own sexual assault. It became a tool.
My own jarring experience — combined with my high sensitivity — allowed me to relate to people from all walks of life, young and old. I quickly perceived that when you bear your scars to someone, they often bear theirs to you.
I learned that feeling deeply — either deeply joyful or deeply sad — is a valuable experience. Because it is so painful, many survivors of sexual assault or trauma will insist that their incident doesn’t define them.
I beg to differ.
There are many things that define me, and sexual assault survivor is one of them because I allow it to be. I refuse to pretend that it did not happen, because that is what encourages silence.
Frankly, sexual assault victims do not need more silence.
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Trying to Accept My Trauma
Before I left to hike the Appalachian Trail, I painted a small river stone on both sides. On one side, I painted a teal ribbon, which symbolizes that I’m a survivor of sexual violence. On the other side, I painted two Latin words that come from the ancient philosophy of Stoicism:
Amor Fati. In other words, “A love of fate.”
Living by the principle of Amor Fati demands that we don’t simply accept everything that happens to us, but learn to embrace it and be thankful for it. I carried this stone all the way to Mt. Katahdin, Maine, where I left it below the iconic sign for the Appalachian Trail’s northern terminus. I did this in the hopes that a long, long walk would teach me to accept my sexual assault, and then, perhaps, to be grateful for the things I’ve learned from it.
I learned that being highly sensitive and saying “no” are not mutually exclusive. “No” is my close friend and my secret weapon. I also learned to be my own best friend, because when luck and friends run out, I’m all that’s left.
Most people do not make friends with their trauma. Acceptance and relative peace with a traumatic experience is enough of a challenge.
But I’m an HSP. Face value is not enough. So I did what I do best, and I dug as deep as I could into that discomfort. I pondered every grey area within my trauma in the many hours that I walked alone, battling guilt and slaying the dragons of blame. I used those crazy strong feelings to write, to sing, to create something beautiful out of pain. And it’s paid off.
Today, I use the memory of that adversity to connect with others who have had similar experiences. Nothing bonds human beings together like the sharing of pain.
Using Lived Experience
Where only a handful of years ago I couldn’t look a boy in the face without intense waves of fear and a tight chest, now I can write about my assault and break the ice on an intensely isolating experience.
My hope is that this makes other sexual assault survivors rethink what their assault means in the context of their lives.
“You’re not alone” has become enough of a cliché statement that few people know how to believe it anymore. Instead, I learned to reframe, to reuse, to recycle. An experience, even a bad one, may only happen once. That doesn’t mean you get to throw it out.
If you’re a survivor of any kind of trauma and an HSP, know that you’ve got an insanely powerful combination. Far from ruining your life, I challenge you to find a use for it. Whether you find that it fuels strong writing, the deep conversations that us HSP’s crave, or a breakthrough in thinking, give yourself that time to figure it out.
Take the alone time that you need — but don’t keep your million deep thoughts to yourself. Another stoic-like idea attributed to the Dalai Lama helps us out here:
“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”
The secret that almost nobody will let you in on is that pain can be useful. There is no way to learn this but the hard way. Being a highly sensitive person has made the pain more painful, but the lesson much more potent.
I’m not a doctor or a therapist. I am a college student. I don’t have any fancy credentials or degrees up on my wall. I still have “half the eggshell on my ass,” as my dad likes to say.
Sometimes the most real, useful advice doesn’t come from the fancy credentials or PhD’s framed on the wall, though. Sometimes, it comes from a fellow HSP, and for a fellow HSP, the best advice is often profound, lived experience.
What will you do with yours?
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