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An inside look at the struggles of a sexual assault survivor

Sierra’s abuser wasn’t a stranger, he was her best friend since birth.

Their parents were close friends, and the two grew up together in New Jersey. After Sierra and her family moved to Texas, he and his family came to visit and spent the night in her home.

That night is now etched in Sierra’s memory.

The adults were having dinner downstairs, and I was in my room, sleeping with his younger sister. He was in the room across from me, and he came in and tried to molest me and touch me in inappropriate places. He thought I was asleep because I thought it was like a parent coming to yell at me to go sleep because we had school the next day. So naturally, I acted like I was asleep.

But then, I was terrified.

He left and came back a second time. He did the same thing again, and Sierra said she pretended she was waking up again.

The third time he came back, he tried to rape me.

This time, Sierra got up, pretending to fully wake, and her abuser fled the room. He didn’t know at the time that she was fully conscious and aware of everything that happened that night, Sierra said.

I was terrified.

She was 13 years old, he was about 15.

The night of October 7, 2013 changed the rest of her life.

The next day, Sierra tried to avoid him but was forced to sit next to him during a car ride. He took her hand and rubbed his genitals with it. She didn’t know what to do.

Although she felt alone, Sierra became part of an enormous population of sexual assault victims. Millions of people in the U.S. alone experience sexual violence each year, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. On average, 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking in the U.S.

Many victims are scared to speak up about their abuse for a variety of reasons, said Chelsea Poe, Relationship Violence and Sexual Assault Prevention peer educator. Many worry that speaking up will cause them additional harm, and some victims blame themselves for their abuser’s actions. Others lack familial support at home and worry that they’ll be judged or shunned for speaking up.

Sierra experienced a combination of those scenarios.

She could never talk to her family about the situation. Initially, she felt ashamed and horrible. Even later on, when she was able to open up about her abuse, she said her family would never have accepted her testimony. As part of the Bengali community, sexual matters simply aren’t discussed.

“[Bengali] families are very conservative, and they don’t like to talk about these things,” Sierra said. “It’s considered taboo, kind of.”

If she had told her parents, they would have found a way to make it her fault or put the blame on her, she said. Now almost 20 years old, she still hasn’t told them.

Soon after her assault, her parents sent her to a school in Bangladesh to protect her from potential negative American influences. There, her experience worsened.

Sierra said she opened up about her trauma to her abuser’s cousin, who she looked up to as an older brother. At first he was understanding, but he eventually attempted to pursue a romantic relationship with her. Sierra, who had always looked up to him as a sibling, rejected his attempt.

Spurned, he circulated fake nudes of Sierra around their Bengali school, which clearly condemned any sexual content. She was harassed and blackmailed about the fake nudes for the next three and a half years of her high school experience.

That broke me down even more.

All the while, the assault lingered in her consciousness, and her self esteem was marred.

“I was violated,” she said. “For the longest time, every time I looked in the mirror, I just saw myself in my most vulnerable being. I hated it, it made me so insecure. I just hated looking at my body, I hated how it looked. I hated going out in public.”

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Last year, her abuser returned. He had a job interview in Dallas and stayed at her parents’ house.

That was absolutely nerve-wracking. It was terrifying because I had to be in the same house as him.

Despite attempts to stay at a friend’s house for the night, her parents made her stay and visit with the “family guest and close friend.” They didn’t understand, so Sierra couldn’t do anything about it.

She said she felt the need to push back her fear and trauma to protect her younger sister from another potential sexual assault. That night, she stayed home and confronted him, pouring out her emotions of anger, self-hate and trauma.

He tried to apologize and say it was an accident. He said he was in a “dark place” when he assaulted her, which caused Sierra to doubt her original convictions. Should she feel sorry because he was also struggling with his own trials? No.

You can’t harass, you can’t molest or rape someone accidentally.

“He hurt me in a way that I can’t change. Ever,” she said. “What happened happened, and that’s something that scarred me for the rest of my life.”

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Now at UTA, Sierra said she built a new support system to replace what her parents weren’t able to give her. She joined EXCEL Campus Activities and formed new friendships.

Nevertheless, her mental health suffers setbacks.

Anything on the internet can trigger a flashback or an episode of depression or anxiety, Sierra said. Seeing others talk about sexual assault causes her to recall her own. She was diagnosed with depression and anxiety and put on medications.

Casie Wofford, Relationship Violence and Sexual Assault Prevention confidential advocate, said sexual violence affects each victim differently, but mental health issues are common. Depression, anxiety, PTSD.

With those side effects come various coping behaviors, she said. Without proper help or support, many victims will turn to substance abuse or attempt to harm themselves in other ways.

Last semester, Sierra attempted suicide by overdosing on her medication. Luckily she had told one of her friends about her plans beforehand, and they were able to call the police before it was too late. Sierra was hospitalized for three days and then sent to a behavioral health hospital.

Her family, meanwhile, didn’t want to talk about mental health. They believe it’s a figment of the mind, Sierra said — if you tell yourself to be happy, then you will be.

Although she said she doesn’t think she’ll ever fully recover from her assault, her trauma motivates her.

“I believe that it’s made me stronger, and it’s a part of who I am now,” Sierra said. “It’s a part of my story.”

It taught her to guard herself against opening up to others. Now she approaches relationships with a stronger skepticism.

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Although that night still haunts her, Sierra’s beginning to come to terms with it and find ways to help herself.

In January, she moved to on-campus living and freed herself from the toxicity of her family. Things began looking up.

With the current COVID-19 situation though, Sierra said her mental health has started to slide again. It’s a back and forth situation of remaining on campus and visiting her family in Mansfield, and her family doesn’t want her on campus.

Although Counseling and Psychological Services was a useful resource for a bit, Sierra said Relationship Violence and Sexual Assault Prevention helped her understand the various resources UTA offers and outlined plans to aid her in the future.

Wofford said the Relationship Violence and Sexual Assault Prevention program is open to students facing any type of relationship violence. The program is there to provide support, and Wofford’s role is 100% confidential. The program can help provide academic accommodations, link students to both on- and off-campus counseling and help with seeking medical care, legal orders and emergency housing.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing measures, the number of abuse victims may be increasing, with many people isolated at home with their abusers, Poe said. Still, the majority of cases go unreported.

Because of COVID-19, many Relationship Violence and Sexual Assault Prevention resources have been moved to a virtual format, Wofford said, but none of its resources have changed or been eliminated.

The first step to recovery is talking about your trauma, Sierra said. There’s resources for victims, but the victim has to initiate the process.

“It’s important to talk about it and let it out and face it,” she said. “It’s really difficult, and terrifying and hard to face what happened, but it’s a crucial part of getting past it.”

For other abuse victims, Sierra said she wishes that society could be more open to talking about sexual and domestic violence and that different cultures could learn how to discuss the atrocity of it.

Many people think that abuse victims are weak, Sierra said. People think that since they’ve been through trauma, victims need to be treated differently, more sensitively. Sierra wants the exact opposite, though.

“We’re just trying to get past it and live a normal life. We don’t want you guys to see us as victims, we want you guys to see us as someone who made it through what happened to us," she said. "We’re not someone you look down upon.”

Every day, Sierra pushes herself to that sense of normalcy, growing stronger emotionally. Every day is a struggle, but she’s learned to rely on herself and her friends. She survived her sexual abuse, she survived her suicide attempt, and she will continue to persevere.

MAVS Talk 24 Hour Crisis Line is available for students at 817-272-8255.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, you are not alone. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

If you or someone you know is affected by domestic or sexual abuse, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. If you’re unable to speak safely, you can log onto thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 22522. You are not alone.

@CecilLenzen

features-editor.shorthorn@uta.edu

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