Sandra Gonzalez is a proud mom, a member of the Latinx community, and a survivor of sexual violence. When Sandra was in high school, she was raped by her neighbor whom she had trusted and considered a family friend. During the assault she felt paralyzed and was unable to move, and felt that she was no longer in her body but was watching the assault happen to her.
“It was like I was looking at myself from the outside. I had never experienced anything like that.”
Sandra told a few close friends of hers that something had happened but didn’t share any details. She didn’t report the assault because she feared that no one would believe her, that she would be blamed, and that calling out the perpetrator would ruin the relationship between their families. Most of all, Sandra felt ashamed and embarrassed, and didn’t report because she didn’t want anyone to know what had happened to her. She was raised in a community that emphasized virginity before marriage, which caused Sandra to feel an additional layer of shame about what had happened to her.
“It was really hard. There were days when I was OK and other days when I would be extremely depressed. I just bottled it all up. I would explode at people but they wouldn’t know why.”
In the years after the assault, Sandra experienced depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, PTSD, and flashbacks. “My story replayed in my mind over and over again. Sometimes I’d have flashbacks and it was like I was there in that room going through it all over again.”
As a coping mechanism for what she was going through, Sandra started to do self-harming behaviors, such as cutting, practicing unsafe sex, and abuse of drugs and alcohol. “I didn’t care about my body. I didn’t care about anything. One day I looked in the mirror and just started crying and I didn’t recognize who I had become. This wasn’t me at all.”
Years later, when Sandra had her son, she felt that she had to get help not only for herself, but for his sake. “For many years, I didn’t want to be here—I didn’t want to live. He changed my life. He is my reason for being here, and I’m so grateful for that.”
Twenty years after the assault, Sandra started talking about what happened. “I reconnected with my high school boyfriend and we started dating again. He asked me about what had happened, so I told him. It was the first time I ever shared the details of my story. It was like reliving it. But it opened the door to start my healing process.”
Sandra’s boyfriend encouraged her to continue sharing her story. She started by writing down what happened in her own words. “I first wrote it down a year ago. I was nervous and scared. But the more I talked about it the easier it got. I feel grateful and good about it. That’s why I’m comfortable sharing my story now.”
Sandra still regrets that she didn’t report the sexual assault, though she understands why at the time she didn’t feel comfortable reporting and understands the reasons why other survivors may choose not to report. “I didn’t say anything back then—I was quiet and scared. I wish I could say that I’d reported it. That’s my main reason for telling my story now.”
Sandra practices self care often to help cope with anxiety, panic attacks, and depression. Journaling in particular has been helpful in her healing. “I write in my journal about whatever’s bothering me that day and it usually makes me feel better. It releases a lot of tension.” She finds exercise, baths, and meditation to be relaxing and centering for her. She has also benefited from therapy. She says that keeping herself busy has been an important aspect of her healing process.
She has also contacted chatted online with a staffer on RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline countless times, which has helped her as an alternative behavior when she starts considering self-harm. “I’d be lying in bed at two or three in the morning and I’d go on there. It was either that or doing something stupid to myself. It has helped me keep away from cutting so many times. Talking with whoever was on the other side of the computer saved me countless times. There are people out there who will truly listen.”
Sandra doesn’t feel that her identity as a Latinx survivor has affected her healing process, though she does continue to grapple with what it means to be a bisexual survivor. She is grateful to her boyfriend for the love and support he has provided through her healing journey.
Sandra’s advice to survivors is to trust themselves. “Go with your gut feeling. I used to ignore my gut feeling but I trust it more now, I know that if it’s telling me there’s something wrong, it probably is.”
“When I read another survivor’s story, I’m amazed by how strong they seem. When I recognize that I went through similar things they did, it makes me feel strong too. If my story can help one other person, it will be worth it.”
Note: Merriam-Webster defines “Latinx” as “a gender-neutral word for people of Latin American descent.”