Life Inside the Trees: Running the Path to Hope in the Wake of My Sexual Assault
Fast forward to my early twenties and I found myself in the safety of the trees once more, finding a path to hope in the wake of my sexual assault.
I was in grad school, living for the first time on my own and still a long way from home. It was a year and a half since being date-raped the semester I studied abroad. Long ago were the innocent childhood days of singing to the trees. Now there were just these hard words that shaped the world instead: rape; sexual assault; violence.
When I began grad school, I also began therapy.
Not generally speaking as I had seen a therapist when I was in high school and off-and-on-again through college. In grad school, however, I started specifically seeing a therapist so I could come to terms with the sexual assault. There were few who knew about my trauma at the time. Those who knew, I had told in abrupt, blurted ways, unplanned way, illustrating I was providing an FYI, but the topic was not open for dialogue. In short, I repressed and buried it. At least from others. For me, it coiled inside like a snake waiting to strike. I knew it would paralyze me if I let it sink its teeth in, releasing its venom, and I would be left lifeless on my back once more. So I went to therapy.
My therapist suggested I needed an outlet for my feelings, a way to exorcise them.
Just as I had found myself working through my feelings in the gym the weeks post-rape, I again found that physical exercise was the way to expel the demons. I began walking on a trail at the nearest metro park to my apartment. The trail mostly weaved itself through trees- alongside a stream, around a pond, over a footbridge, but always under the canopy of trees. And the canopy of trees felt familiar and comforting. There was only one straight stretch about a quarter of a mile long that was not enclosed by limbs and leaves overhead.
Mornings were my time to go. I liked the calm and solitude of the park in the morning, the day not yet waken, the earth not yet stirred. It was unnerving at first to walk the enclosed path in those early hours, everything so still and quiet. I had this anxiety that there was no one around to hear me scream should I need to. Though the very panicked thought always left me feeling self-loathing as no scream, no audible words came out the night I was raped. Only whispered and mouthed ‘nos.’ My body stiff and unmoving. Like it had fallen asleep while my brain, my eyes were alert.
I learned later that in addition to the fight or flight response, there is also freeze. I was a freezer.
Regardless of this fact, I thought the possibility would be if I were attacked again, I would this time fight back, including using my vocal capability. And, yes, I thought there was a possibility. Something else I learned later was that victims of sexual assault had higher percentages of being revictimized. At the time, I hadn’t considered prior romantic relationships of mine to include non-consensual sexual acts. So in my twenties, after this acquaintance assault, I feared being assaulted again for a second time.
Seeing as that person was familiar to me and the trauma was unexpected, it meant: anyone could be a perpetrator. Anyone could have the power to victimize you. No place was safe. Something as simple as using someone’s bathroom could be the opportunity they were looking for.
When my mind started to wander to the idea of being on the path inside the trees alone in the morning hours, panic always rose inside my chest. Panic followed by fury. My pace quickened. Walking along the path at a slow and steady pace made me feel like a sitting duck with a wolf hiding in the bushes nearby. It wasn’t many weeks of walking before I started to do intervals of walking and jogging. The jogging felt better. The faster movement made me feel like I had more of a chance. Eventually, I was jogging the whole path without stopping.
As my weeks at the park continued, so did the way I armed myself. Soon I had a whistle around my neck, a blade that cleverly looked like a pen that I stuck inside my armband near my iPod, and a running belt where I could keep my phone and keys, allowing my hands to be free. Free with the exception of the key chain that looked like a cat. You held it with your fingers through the eyes so that its ears jutted out from your knuckles, prepared to strike. Thank you Rose Guardian for your cleverly designed self-defense weaponry.
These things gave me some sense of control and power, both taken from me. Both things I had taken for granted in my life before the assault.
Eventually, I was running so frequently that I had the path memorized. Even as the path would weave in ways where you couldn’t entirely see what was around the next bend, I knew what was coming because I had run it often enough to know what to expect. I knew how a particular tree would look just around the corner. The way a branch bent over the stream. Even exposed roots along the ground were known to me. On parts of the path, I knew that if I ran straight through the brush I would eventually come to the field across from the parking lot. Come to the footbridge I could tell you which board was loose. And I knew the sound of dirt and gravel when someone was coming up behind me or was going to appear heading from the opposite direction.
This memorization was my own internal survival mode. If someone was going to try to snatch me, I would know the path. My exits, my surroundings. Even if my eyes were closed or I was blindfolded.
The path became something of a character; a friend really. The trees surrounding it more like a part of its body. It’s skin and hair. When I stepped onto the path it was like being welcomed into loving arms, both cradling me and protecting me, but also urging me to find my own way, to grow strong, to push ahead. The wind became its whispers, its quiet cheering, its gentle reassurance that better days were ahead.
What I loved most was its predictability. The trees would not pretend to be anything they weren’t; the path would not all of a sudden take off in another direction. When I showed up to the run, there wasn’t a question as to whether or not the park could be trusted. The people in it, certainly. But, the earth? No. I could place my faith and trust in the dirt, bark, leaves, wind, that surrounded me when I ran. If I could find faith and trust in anything again, there was hope.
And so I grew stronger running this path, feeling at home within its woods. Some part of myself that existed before the sexual assault was recovered. The part of me that had always believed in hope and good in the world. The part of me that believed that no one had the power to cut you down unless you let them.
Inside the trees, there was still a chance to live.