From when I was between 4 and 6 years old, the family that lived in the apartment below mine sexually abused me.
I don’t remember all the specific details of what they did to me or what they made me do — the events tend to melt and twist around each other until they solidify into a lump of shame in my gut —, but I do remember whenever I was with this family, I did not want to exist.
Sometimes they would only make me take off my clothes and pose, stark naked in my small frame, with their daughter for pictures.
On other, more frightening occasions, the father would take me alone into the bathroom and push his fingers up inside of my suddenly lifeless body.
I was unsure how to respond or how make it stop. When the family had their eyes, cameras or hands on me, I was miserable, anxious and silenced.
As a child, the words “abuse,” “molestation” and “rape” were not yet part of my vocabulary.
Even though on some level, I knew people weren’t supposed to touch children the way my neighbor touched me, his fingers went right up into me and forced out the little bit of voice I had left.
My voiceless pain was so vivid and powerful during those three years of torture that eventually, my mind numbed itself and erased the memories altogether.
Ever since my memories resurfaced and my post-traumatic stress disorder developed as a teenager, my emotional, sexual and physical health have suffered.
My feelings ricochet from wild anger to devastating depression and then back into a state of absolute stillness.
My libido flares and subsides, tossing me back and forth between reckless sexual obsession and complete revulsion.
It even reached a point when the anxiety related to my PTSD was so severe, I developed a condition called vaginismus, which causes any penetration to be extremely painful.
The thought of being touched, even in the most gentle and loving way, sent me into such a state of sickening fear that the walls of my vagina would involuntarily contract.
My therapist cleverly and astutely called it a “vagina in panic.”
And of course it was! Because I was a person in panic; I was a girl whose entire being felt trapped inside the torture of her abuse and the prison of her mental health disorder.
I was locked into a rigid stance of opposition. In the wake of my memories, I felt I had to fight: Fight pleasure, fight trust, fight openness, vulnerability and joy.
And, of course, all that combat — that constant striking back attitude and need to battle — left me perpetually anxious. I was ready for danger at all times, and by being that way, I became my own danger.
For an entire year, I had panic attacks at least once a week. Sometimes they would happen in response to something about violence, but other times they would sneak up on me while I was brushing my teeth or reading a book. There didn’t even need to be a trigger for me to spiral into a dizzying place of pain and fear.
These episodes — or crushing assaults of anxiety — intruded on my life tremendously.
They made me late for class and unable to go to work. They attacked me not only with panic, but also with shame.
I felt shame on a visceral level over my PTSD and its role in my life. I saw myself as the mess who couldn’t make it to class on time because she was too busy being obsessed with her victimhood.
I believed because it had been about 14 years since the last time my neighbors molested me, I should be over it by now.
I saw my PTSD as a mark on me that showed the world just how pathetic and weak I was.
These self-deprecating thoughts made it inevitable for me to define myself as a victim of my abuse. That’s who I thought I was.
I wasn't Megan, the writer, artist, friend, sister or daughter, but Megan, the girl who was raped. And that’s an awful thing to define yourself as.
When I realized about a year ago that I was letting my abusers win by anchoring myself to this experience, something lit up inside of me.
I had always known I didn’t want to think of myself as only a survivor of the assaults, but I had never fully grasped it was possible.
When I discovered how possible it was and how empowering it would be to release myself from that identity, there was a blazing pit of hope in my core.
I started on Lexapro two weeks later and continued to work on myself in therapy. Except, I was doing therapy differently now.
I entered each session with purpose and drive, my eyes fixed on the bright, hot center of hope in my chest.
Here I am now, a year later, and the light keeps shining and growing. I am by no means cured of my PTSD and I still get earth-shattering panic attacks, but not every week and not even every month.
I still often find memories of the abuse hiding in corners of my being, trying to interfere with my intimacy and daily life, but I know it won’t last forever.
I know one day I’ll be able to truthfully say, “I am not a victim, nor a survivor. I am a human being who has lived a life that included much darkness, but also much light.”