When I was younger, I was sexually assaulted.

What happened to me set a precedent for the way I experienced intimacy, the way I perceived romantic relationships, and the way I felt about myself. For the longest time, the overarching narrative in my head was that men, even those I came to love, could (and would) hurt me one way or another and that when they did, I deserved it. 

Naturally, the narrative self-perpetuated and I made poor choices involving shitty people.

As far as I was concerned, someone who lied and cheated and claimed to love me was as good as it would get. When I did meet people who seemed genuine and caring, I was afraid of them. I was a master of self-sabotage, lashing out whenever I felt vulnerable.

I always thought that I just needed to grow up and get over it. My craving for intimacy fought hard to break through the mental barriers that were set in place, but they only seemed to reappear every time I convinced myself that I had made progress.

Picture taking down a wall brick by brick, and every time you remove a brick and set it down, you do so in such a way that you just end up building another wall. Only now the wall stands at a slightly different angle, and perhaps you built it to appear a little less haphazard.  

I always thought that I just needed to grow up and get over it.

I knew for a long time that I needed something to break the cycle. I tried meditation. I tried running. I tried to pretend like it never happened. But none of it worked, and I was at a loss, until… I wasn’t. 

I was about five weeks into my post-graduation backpacking trip around Europe. I had spent the last couple of days wandering around the city of Hamburg, drinking hot chocolate and getting stranded at Germany’s largest port. Needless to say, it had been an eventful (and tiring) couple of days. So, I decided to spend this particular evening sitting in a corner of my hostel’s common room and making a dent in the book I was reading. 

In between chapters, I struck up conversations with fellow travelers and made plans to meet this one girl for coffee the next day.

We found ourselves in this little alternative cafe a short walk down the road from where we were staying. I enjoyed a slice of blueberry cheesecake while we made small talk and swapped travel stories. 

She eventually started asking questions about my upbringing: What was it like to grow up in Saudi Arabia? How accurate were the depictions of the Kingdom in the media? 

She was curious about my personal experiences and we delved deeper into my life than I anticipated. But she seemed genuine, and I found myself opening up about my strained relationship with men, and how I felt like the root of it all could be traced back to a few key moments in my life.

I told her about how I was sexually assaulted, more than once, and forced to carry the blame. She just looked at me, nodded, and said: “That must have been really hard for you.” It was oddly grounding, almost as I had never really allowed myself to see it that way.

She just looked at me, nodded, and said, “that must have been really hard for you.” It was oddly grounding.

She took a breath and opened up about her own experience of sexual assault. I just sat there, listening to this beautiful girl talk about the man who hurt her, unable to understand how she seemed so calm, but she had made her peace with what had happened.

She was living a full and beautiful life; he had no hold on her here.

She offered to share a poem she had written during the aftermath. I remember how hard I worked to keep my hand from shaking while I held her phone. I remember still how the room felt when I set it down and looked up to see she was now crying too. I remember just sitting there, holding her hand across the table, feeling my chest grow a little bit lighter.

I was sexually assaulted.

I can say that now or, I guess in this case, I can type it without feeling my entire body tense in the apprehension of an uninvited hand reaching out to wander across my skin. But I didn’t get here alone, so this is an ode to the person who really helped set my healing in motion.

She wasn’t a mental health professional. She wasn’t someone I had known for years. She was just a girl who had experienced something dark, and, through it all, had chosen to live a full and happy life.

What she didn’t know, was that in doing so, she had given me permission to do the same.

  • Shaima Alterkawi

    Shaima is a Saudi/American writer, rocker, and traveler with a BSc from the University of Birmingham, UK. and currently working towards an MSc in Psychology at UCL. Born and raised in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Shaima associates writing with freedom. She is passionate about finding meaning in the mundane and welcomes the opportunity to work with fellow creatives. In her free time, you'll probably find her dancing, attending live music events, drinking hot chocolate, talking to strangers or writing poetry.