One year to the day after I was raped, I stood alone, smashed between groups of giggling girls and their friends. The line to meet Demi Lovato before that evening’s concert twisted endlessly through Bankers Life Fieldhouse. I concentrated on keeping my back facing away from the people around me, pleading with my mind and body not give in to the flashbacks that had been increasingly plaguing me lately.
Surviving and recovering from sexual assault is a roller coaster of emotions. More often than not, you’re in a darker place than you ever imagined and every movement of every day feels like it’s done with weights tied to your body. For many, the anniversary — especially the first anniversary — is one of the hardest things to get through. It’s a daylong reminder of where you were one year ago and how far you’ve come, or how far you still have to go. So, with a little bit of lucky timing, I took my anniversary into my own hands and chose to spend it as close to one of my inspirations as I would ever get.
Demi Lovato’s music had carried me through the first year as a victim, never failing to be by my side when I was alone and felt like giving up. “Warrior,” a song on her album Demi, called to me the most, as it hinted at Demi’s own experience with some form of sexual abuse. The lyrics, “All the pain and the truth/I wear like a battle wound/so ashamed, so confused/I was broken and bruised,” never failed to bring tears to my eyes.
A girl standing too close to my side brushed my hand and I winced. The skin on the back of both of my hands was ragged, littered with countless red crescents my fingernails had cut into them the night before. My hands ached, the skin tender and inflamed from the damage, and I prayed that Demi wouldn’t notice when she saw me. That no one would.
The night before the concert, I’d been spending time with my girlfriend, Laura. She was the first person I’d dated since the assault, and I was getting pretty good at pretending to be okay and acting like a normal human being. Or so I thought. We hadn’t been dating very long, just a few months, and I usually felt safe with her. Lately, though, no matter what I did, the flashbacks and anxiety attacks had been getting gradually worse.
Laura and I sat on the couch watching some random show on Netflix when she went to put her arm around me. She scooted closer to me, and my body sprung into fight or flight mode. I scrambled off the couch, trying to act nonchalant, and went into the kitchen for some water. My hands shook as I held the glass to my lips and I had to set it back down for fear of dropping it.
“Hey, are you okay?” Laura asked, stepping into the kitchen to check on me. Genuine concern showed in her soft blue eyes, and I felt guilt pile onto the already overwhelming stack of emotions I was balancing.
“Of course, babe, I’m fine,” I lied. She didn’t deserve to be with someone like me, someone broken that freaked out for no reason because of something that happened a year ago. She knew about the assault, of course. I’d been upfront with her from the beginning, and she’d never been anything but patient and loving in dealing with my frequent aversion to affection and physical contact. Regardless, I felt awful, like I was cheating her somehow by not being the whole person she deserved. I dug my nails into the back of my hands as she walked towards me. I tried to channel my urge to run, scream, and sob, into a physical pain that would keep me still while she tried to comfort me.
My hands bled. I hid them from her.
“I should go to bed,” I said. “Big day tomorrow and all that.”
“No problem, feel better and I’ll talk to you tomorrow. I love you.” She hugged me and I held my breath, praying I wouldn’t scream at her touch and faked a smile as she left.
I’d never been a big hugger before the assault, but afterwards, my discomfort was magnified. I panicked in grocery lines when someone, especially a man, stood too close behind me. Several times, I’d run out of a store holding back tears because a person with no understanding of personal space in line had triggered a flashback. Worse still, my skin would crawl when anyone touched me, even my own mother.
The line moved quickly and I went over my (super short) list of things I wanted to tell Demi. She had always been open about her own story and ongoing recovery, so it wasn’t exactly news that she had helped so many of her fans with their own struggles. Still, I needed her to know that she was helping me learn that I was worth saving and that, because of her, I knew there was no shame in seeking help.
When I stepped behind the curtain and finally stood face to face with her, I couldn’t get the words out. Not because I was starstruck or anything, but because we were so pressed for time I didn’t have more than a second to say hello before her bodyguard ushered me into position next to her and the camera flashed. Looking back and hearing other people’s experiences, I’m sure if I’d spoken up, I may have gotten more than a word in, but I was still in the mindset at the time that I barely deserved to take up space, let alone take up her time. Regardless, I wasn’t disappointed by the experience. I’d been standing next to Demi, however briefly, and there was still the concert to look forward to.
When it comes to putting on a show, Demi does not disappoint. I’ve seen a lot of big names on stage, mostly because listening to music and going to concerts is a big part of my self-care, but no one delivers like Demi. She is alive and present when she’s on stage, a force to be reckoned with. The whole time I kept thinking that if she could go through everything she had, and end up living out her dreams on stage, then there was hope for me.
As she sang her heart out and pulled pranks on the opening acts, I found myself smiling and laughing more than I had in the past year combined. My heart was light, my throat was wonderfully hoarse, and I could breathe.
When she hit the opening note for “Warrior,” I didn’t try to stop the tears. It didn’t matter that there were hundreds of people surrounding me because, in that moment, she was all I could see. For the first time in exactly one year since my life had changed, I knew I wasn’t alone. I thought back to the year behind me, of the not-quite-helpful therapy attempts, the depression, the shame, and the mess that I had become. I looked down at the broken skin on my hands from the night before and knew that I had a long way to go before I could heal from what happened to me. But in that moment, I knew I would heal, one day, and it gave me the strength I needed to keep going just a little bit longer.
Top photo: “Warrior” music video
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