As a senior in high school, Alessandra should have been looking forward to graduating and starting a new chapter in her life. Instead, she was grappling with the trauma of sexual assault, an experience that led her to attempt taking her own life. This is the story of how she found healing and wholeness.
I was 18 — a month away from my high school graduation — and instead of preparing to celebrate my first real milestone, I was barely hanging on after the year I had endured. I went to a tattoo parlor and had the words, “Only Trusting Jesus” imprinted on my ankle in the shape of a cross. The words didn’t have much to do with faith, though — it was actually a statement that I didn’t trust anyone else because I had been deeply wounded.
During my junior year of high school, I’d started dating someone a year older and the relationship quickly turned toxic and abusive. We spent months breaking up, making up, then breaking up again.
By the time summer rolled around, my confidence and self-esteem had diminished. I decided I wanted to just enjoy a break from school and my ex-boyfriend, so my best friend and I were hired as coaches at a summer program to lead all-day basketball camps for kids. I was assigned to a different camp location every week. It was fun and uncomplicated — I would work and socialize with the other student coaches.
I became acquainted with a young man who had moved from St. Louis to San Jose. He stood out — both because he towered over everyone else, standing well over six feet tall, and because of his muscular physique. I learned he had a college scholarship to play basketball in the fall, and he was obviously much more skilled than me or any of the other coaches. Though he’d made flirtatious advances toward me on multiple occasions throughout the summer, I rebuffed them and made it clear I wasn’t interested in anything more than friendship.
When the basketball camp and summer ended, school resumed, and I was excited for my last year of high school. After a few weeks, this former co-worker with the basketball scholarship reached out to me and asked if I wanted to hang out at his dorm room, as he was new to the local university and didn’t have many friends yet. I agreed and visited him at his dorm.
What I didn’t know at the time was that my decision would change the course of my life. The visit ended with my “friend” sexually assaulting me.
When word of the assault spread among peers at my high school, many of the people whom I considered close friends turned their backs on me. After the abusive relationship I had been in, they questioned if I just wanted drama in my life, if I had somehow invited the assault. I internalized the criticism and blamed myself for what happened: Why had I gone to his dorm room? I should have known better. I must have led him on to believe I wanted more than friendship.
With both the inner turmoil and exterior hostility from peers, I had no escape from my pain. I clung to God and tried to find comfort in faith, but part of me blamed God for what had happened: Where was He during the assault? Why did He allow it to happen?
The situation only grew worse months later when I had to face the perpetrator in court when testifying at the criminal trial. After he was found guilty, I tried to move on and bury the pain deep within.
I didn’t want therapy or antidepressants, but without any help, I turned to unhealthy behaviors to try to cope, which made me feel worse about myself and distanced me further from God. I moved away from home my freshman year of college to find a fresh start.
On the outside, I made new friends and enjoyed college life. But I was plagued by nightmares and PTSD. I remember searching for answers at Mass, but after the service ended and people filed out, I would sit in the pew and just cry. Nothing I did made my pain, shame, and hurt go away. Just wanting the agony to go away, a week before Easter, I attempted suicide.
By God’s grace, a friend helped me and called an ambulance. I was rushed to the hospital, and my parents were notified. Being so close to death, I realized I didn’t want to die — I only wanted an escape from my pain. Having a second chance at life convinced me that I needed therapeutic intervention because I couldn’t get well on my own.
At the end of the school year, I transferred to a college close to home and attended intensive therapy sessions to come to terms with the assault. Therapy helped me work through the traumatic experience, but it took two more decades for me to experience a deeper inner healing.
Though therapy helped me come to terms with the assault, it was still an untouchable part of my life. I didn’t talk about it, I tried not to think about it, and I’d become triggered easily — like it was a bruise I tried to forget about but was still tender when touched. I realized that I was hiding my pain, not healing from it.
I turned to a small group process connected to my parish that helped us learn how to pray. The conversations that unfolded showed me how our whole life is a story leading us closer to God. I was unable to partition my pain any longer — the prayer process and conversation showed me the places where my heart was wounded, and I could not hide it any longer. I wanted healing, and realized I had to bring this traumatic experience into the light.
I found the courage to speak with a spiritual director and mentor. When we met, I was able to hear that the sexual assault wasn’t my fault, that I needed to let go of my guilt for placing myself in the situation in the first place. Though I had heard this refrain from therapists over the years, it was prayer and a supportive community that allowed me to accept it in my heart and spirit and forgive myself.
This process taught me that the path toward wholeness and healing runs through the darkest parts of our lives. Painful experiences can act as a wall blocking us from finding peace, but forgiveness and compassion act as a gate that opens us to experience healing and God’s love. By allowing God into the dark crevices of trauma and other difficult situations I’ve experienced, He’s been able to shine a healing light that has allowed me to live more fully.
Though I don’t regret the tattoo I got when I was 18, I have come to learn that trusting the people Jesus puts in our lives is important, too. Especially when we’ve experienced trauma, it’s crucial to seek and accept help from trained professionals and spiritual mentors in order to experience true healing and peace.