The Way Through

On my second night of college, I was raped

Photograph of a woman
Cover of Girl in the Woods by Aspen Matis

On my second night of college, before I’d removed my yellow and blue construction paper name tag from my dorm room door, I was raped. To escape from the bed I still needed to sleep in, I ate too much, gaining weight to try to fill myself. I drank until I blacked out. Then I dropped out. I was utterly lost; I didn’t want to stay at that school. I didn’t want to work. I’d just left my hometown, I didn’t want to swiftly move back. Desolate, I left my school’s small campus—and fled to the Mexican border. I walked alone into the Mojave Desert in southern California. I began hiking north.

I didn’t rest. I couldn’t stop walking. Across white desert, into icy mountains, and through woods, I carried myself 4,265 kilometres—all the way to snowy Canada. I took seven million steps, five uninterrupted months, searching. Striding through desert and mountain wildernesses, tired, camping, shivering through freezing nights and sweating under desert sun, I became the hero of my own story. I had walked the height of America. I had reclaimed my body and healed myself.

This is what my long walk taught me, what I wish I’d known when I was raped at college. This is everything I learned.

1. I took action.

After I was raped, I waited two weeks to tell anyone, and by then no physical evidence existed. Eventually I told the school, but there had been no witnesses and so I had no proof, and he was allowed to remain at school, on campus. I continued to see him on the quad, in the lunch line, in my own dormitory—all over our small, green campus. I continued to feel helpless, submerged and frantic, alone.

At school, I was a raped girl. I was broken into a spread of shards, sure I was not reconstructible. I dismissed my value. I was lost.

Until I planned my hike. I threw myself into it, the imagining, the dream of someplace better and safer, more beautiful and happier.

Then I executed. I left. I stepped onto the 4,265-kilometre Pacific Crest Trail. I walked north, a marathon each day. I met rattlesnakes and bears, forded frigid and remote rivers as deep as I am tall, felt terror and the gratitude that followed the realization that I’d survived rape. I was not forever lost. I met myself, my future self, learned who I was and what I needed and wanted, earned massive respect for myself and my strength. I showed myself how goddamn strong I was. I became the hero of my own story. In the absence of what I thought I needed, I found that I was enough.

The Lesson: Don’t wallow or stagnate. Don’t keep sitting in a dark bedroom, home, crying. Execute a plan. Making a plan occupies your mind, fills the place that had been filled by pain. Upon the moment of commitment, the universe conspires to assist you.

2. I unplugged

Alone in wilderness for five months, I had nothing to distract me from my pain. I faced the hurt head on.

The Lesson: Take a break from the technology you’re addicted to, that you use to distract and occupy yourself when you don’t want to feel your sadness and believe you can’t face your pain. Feel your sadness; you’ll work through it. But you have to sit in it for some time without white noise.

3. I removed myself and literally moved

I left Colorado, where my college rape was, walked north towards it; past it. Moved on. The literal route of my long journey felt symbolic: walking toward the pain, into it—facing it, feeling it hotly—and passing through it. Walking thirty to sixty kilometres a day I became fit, shed my ruined body. As I cared for myself, my body carried me.

My body had to convince me of its strength. Even when my mind felt broken and weak, my body was strong, fit, capable of carrying me through, to the safety of self-love. My body was a hero’s body, and it could carry me, and as I kept going it only got stronger. I took my desecrated body and made it beautiful, stronger. Physical exertion produces endorphins—the most wonderful natural, intense, and healthy high, with no comedown. I felt slim and high. Soon I loved my body again. The final town along the Pacific Crest Trail is Stehekin, Washington, which means, simply, “the way through.”

The Lesson: Take a walk, a run, a bike ride. Use your body every day. Don’t neglect it. You might want to, but you can’t forget it. Use it, and it will become beautiful and strong, and you will love it again.

4. I got clean

Alone in the room he’d raped me in, I ate and ate. I quickly gained twelve pounds. I did this to spite myself. My body embarrassed me. I drank to forget it was mine.

One night a few months after my rape, kept inside in freezing Colorado winter, I did five shots of vodka back-to-back in my dorm room alone. I woke up in an argument with a nurse, lying in a hospital bed. Before that sad night, I’d never drunk more than two glasses of wine in a sitting. Then I joined an Internet dating site and went out with six people in six days and hated them all, and even met one in my room. I almost wished he were also a rapist and a killer and would at last end my seasickness that had no shore.

On my hike I rarely drank, and after the walk I entirely stopped. I crossed a border in the woods and in my mind. I no longer wanted weed or vodka, I was done escaping. I committed to feeling my hurt—to hearing each thought of fear and sadness and shame. Sober, I had no option but to listen. And then, slowly, carefully, stronger, closer to myself, I saw my answers and crafted my rebuttals to my own self-critiques.

The Lesson: Don’t numb yourself with drugs. No amount of food will fill you. Stay sober, feel everything, even piercing pain, regret, shame, locate in yourself your sorrow’s source, listen to it, listen to it. Soon you’ll answer it.

5. I started walking

After I reported my rape to the school and the college’s mediator found our he-said–she-said narrative to be inconclusive, the college moved my rapist out of the other large freshman dorm on the other side of campus and into my dorm. I told campus housing I felt unsafe. I couldn’t live by him. They said okay, that made sense, and moved me, not him, off campus. They moved me into an old, dingy motel-turned-crack-house-turned-alternative-housing-“space.”

There I saw no one. I stopped returning calls. I lay on my back in the narrow bed and would stare for hours at the blank ceiling, the whitewashed cinderblock walls, thinking about how I’d hoped college would be. And thinking about why I was here, why I’d been moved to the CC Inn. It was because I made the school look bad. It was because I was as dirty as this place. It was because I was shameful, horrible, raped. I felt abandoned. I felt alone, entirely powerless.

After tragedy—death, rape, great loss of any sort—we often feel out of control. Your body and what you do with it is one thing you can control. Treat it well, better than you had before. Feed yourself greens and sunshine, make it sweat, make it fit and able to carry you.

After rape, after several stagnant months, I left.

Walking was the one thing I could do. I could make a change. I had to. I took huge risk, trusting my gut, hiking all day, every day, 160 days—trusting that my body could carry me through.

The Lesson: Create a plan. Maybe it’s wild. Follow it through. No matter what, be active every day.

6. I transformed my pain into something good

Alone in the Cinderblock Palace, I dialed the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network’s anonymous hotline and spoke to a nameless woman. She listened, stayed for hours as I spoke and cried. Her presence softened my sharp pangs of pain. She repeated that my rape was not my fault, that I should feel no shame, that—simple as it may sound—I hadn’t caused it. No one causes rape but rapists. No one causes rape but rapists. No one causes rape but rapists. It was true. And it hadn’t been obvious to me. And hearing it from someone else, a professional, someone who should know, helped me believe that soon I would believe it.

It wasn’t my fault. This thought became the mantra of my walk. Soon I could speak about my rape aloud. Soon the word “rape” made me angry, not ashamed.

My walk from Mexico to Canada was for myself, but it was also for RAINN. I wanted to raise $10,000 for the network. In fact I only raised $2,060, about half of which my mother donated, but it still felt good. It felt wonderful knowing I was helping other girls anonymously hear that no one causes rape but rapists. Obvious, but hearing it unburdened me.

The Lesson: Seek care and support from professionals.

7. I shared my story

After I was raped, I asked the boy who did it to please sleep over. After, I felt ashamed. As if my irrational request mitigated the fault of his felony.
There are a thousand similar stories of this misplaced guilt, and the shame. In the past years—since I began writing my story—I’ve heard from girls who wrote their rapists love poetry, or tutored them in chemistry. I’ve heard some stories of other girls who did the exact same thing as I did, asking him to stay.

I want other girls to tell their stories, and be free of them.

The Lesson: Tell your story. It will help someone. Helping other people helps you heal. Silence has the rusty taste of shame.

Aspen Matis
Aspen Matis is the author of Girl in the Woods.

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