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I still remember one of the first serious conversations I had with the man who  would become my fiance. I asked him to describe how he saw me. He smiled sadly and said, “Damaged Goods.”

It shattered me. He went on to say what he loved about me, different aspects of my personality he adored, but I scarcely heard him. My mind kept replaying his initial statement over and over in an endless loop; along with the horrifying knowledge that when he looked at me, he saw somebody broken.

Even worse, it was a fair assessment.

When we first met, I was suffering from PTSD. I’d just returned from a solo backpacking tour of Europe, and for the most part, I’d had a great time…but towards the end of the trip, a guy grabbed me off the night train landing platform in Munich, bashed my head against a wall, and dragged me to student housing where he locked me in a room and tried to rape me for six hours. On top of that, I’d been physically assaulted for years, with sexual assault mixed in. I couldn’t be near a male without feeling on edge, I flinched away from human contact–and if a guy put his hands on me or tried to kiss me, I felt like I needed to scour myself with Lysol. When I slept, memories and nightmare combined, & I’d still be fighting off attackers in my dreams. It was dangerous to touch me while I was unconscious–I’d kick and punch and flail & bite, all without waking up, trapped in a hell of my own memories.

Despite that, I’d never considered myself a victim. I was a survivor. It wasn’t that I didn’t acknowledge my abuse, or that what was done to me was wrong–I did, but I refused to admit how much it hurt. I refused to see how much of my behavior was linked to the open wound of my past–I was a fighter, a survivor, not a victim. Even my kidnapper and would-be rapist in Germany hadn’t succeeded; I’d fought my way free, escaped, then brought the police back to arrest him. My abusers hadn’t beaten me–I’d lived, I’d survived, I’d won. End of story.

When I looked at myself, I saw someone strong–someone who would never give up, someone who wouldn’t back down. I’d lived through horrors and hardships, and remained un-cowed. It took his quiet statement for me to realize that survival was a very different thing from living. I was behaving like I was in a war-zone, anticipating enemies and bracing myself for attack instinctively, reflexively…I’d survived my past, but each day I acted as though I was its prisoner.

I was walking wounded, and he’d seen beyond the face I presented to the world  to the hell within. He’d seen the cracks in my armor, and when he learned what I’d endured, he accepted me for who I’d been, who I was, and helped me on the journey to who I would become. The road to recovery isn’t easy, and it’s a path we’re still on, but it’s one that I’ll happily continue.  Now, I love hugs, I love the simple joy of being touched, held, and cared for. I love knowing, really knowing, that there are good guys out there, and that I have one of my very own. I love knowing that the feelings I read and write about in romance are REAL.  I love the way that he taught me the difference between existing and being alive.

There are millions of women out there dealing with the aftermath of abuse.  My story is neither unique, nor even particularly dreadful. The US Justice Department estimates that 1 in 5 women will experience rape or attempted rape just during their college years–not to mention the years before or after. An even greater number will be beaten, assaulted, and/or dealing with emotional and psychological abuse. You cannot drive to work, go to a movie, a restaurant, a shopping center–ANYWHERE–without passing or seeing a woman who has been (or is currently) abused. Survivors, victims, or even co-dependent participants in toxic relationships, there is a flood of human misery flowing just beneath the surface of society…and you can help end it by reaching out. You can even look into ways to help in your community by contacting the following organizations:

If you are currently in an abusive relationship, or looking for a way to help cope with the memories of the abuse you’ve endured, please call the following hotlines. Please seek help. There is more to life than survival, more to life than fear, pain, humilation, degradation, or the memories of it. You deserve to know the joy of a life lived fully, you deserve happiness, and you deserve the chance to make it happen. The first step starts with picking up the phone.