Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Art of Butterflies

Butterflies are a symbol of rebirth and renewal.  A caterpillar, this weird looking bug, goes through a magnificent transformation, shedding everything that happened in its previous life, to become this delicate, graceful and truly stunning creature we call butterflies.  
I love butterflies and all that they symbolize.  I have a few butterfly tattoos on my back, with each representing something or someone important in my life. My fourth one is in the works as a tribute to my dad.  I love butterfly art too. Before we had a house fire, I had paper mache butterflies hanging from the ceiling in my bedroom.  
When I was in my sophomore year of college I hit the roommate lottery!  I lived in a suite with two of the greatest suite mates imaginable, Melissa and Carolyn.  We had were nothing alike at first.  I was the girl who was more comfortable in pajamas than anything else.  I liked WWE Wrestling, loud music and cursed like a sailor.  My ability to string profanities together in a coherent sentence was matched only by my sarcasm and twisted humor.  Carolyn was studying fine art.  She was, and still is, incredibly talented  Melissa was a music major, studying singing, and then switched her major to theatre.  She had, and still has, one of the most beautiful voices I have ever heard.  Melissa's idea of cursing was saying words like "sugar" and "sugar honey iced tea" if she was really upset.  The more we got to know each other the more we saw our similarities.  No matter what kind of day either of us had, we could always come back to the suite and talk, laugh, dance, sing or cry it out over a pizza (green pepper pizza from the Owl's Nest was always the quickest way to make Melissa smile) or Belgian waffles in the cafeteria.  We had fantastic adventures together, like driving to Chestertown, Maryland to see Melissa's boyfriend at his college, and getting back to North Philadelphia at 3 or 4 a.m.  We weathered Hurricane Floyd together, and my suite mates laughed their asses off as I tried to make it across the street, in torrential rain and hurricane force winds, to the McDonald's to get us food since the cafeteria was closed due to the storm.  Until that day I never realized how difficult opening a door really was. Together we learned the physics involved in shaking a bottle of Jamaican Hell Fire hot sauce, the trajectory of said hot sauce as it leaves the bottle that was not sealed as tightly as Melissa thought it was, and the arc pattern said hot sauce left on Melissa's pants and shirt.  I have a huge smile on my face just thinking about that slow motion moment in the cafeteria.  We were all laughing so hard we had tears pouring down our faces. The year I lived with Melissa and Carolyn was probably one of the best of my life. They helped me through some of the tough times, like when I was diagnosed with PTSD and attempted suicide.  They rallied around me and made sure I was safe, cared for and loved.  They stood with me when I spoke about being sexually abused as a child at my first Take Back the Night rally.  
Melissa is still in the Philadelphia area with her husband - the very same guy we took our late night road trips to go see in Chestertown - and their two children...and #3 on the way.  Carolyn is now an art teacher living in Florida with her wonderful husband.  Carolyn has a store on Etsy to sell her beautiful art.  I don't do this often, but if you are a fan of gorgeous butterfly art, I ask that you visit her Etsy store WiloTreePress via this link.  Carolyn is so talented! I just want everyone to be able to see and share in her beautiful gift.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Back to November

I started this blog as a tool for healing and as a means of helping people who have gone through or are going through similar things that I am.  No one going through trauma should feel they are alone.  I said there would be 100% honesty on my part.  I would talk about the good days and the bad days openly.  I have done that, with one exception.  It is something that only my mom and a few very close friends have known about, until now.
In November 2012, I had a miscarriage.  I was about 4-5 weeks into the pregnancy.  It was not planned by any means, and came about because the guy I was dating was an asshole who didn't use the condom I gave him to use.  I didn't know he didn't use the condom until after the fact.  I am a firm believer in practicing safe sex and I take the birth control pill religiously, but I was on an antibiotic that made it ineffective.   Needless to say I was not a happy camper and I have not spoken to him since.  He was not the person he presented himself to be and it ended very badly…then I found out I was pregnant. 
I fully intended on keeping the baby.  I am in my early 30s, I have a good job, a great education and I have wanted to be a mom.  The circumstances wouldn't have been ideal, but I would have made it work.  After the initial panic wore off, and I realized that I would be able to do this, I was so happy.  I wanted this baby.  This would be my son or daughter.
When the cramping and bleeding started my heart shattered right along with it.  I went to the doctor and the miscarriage was confirmed.  Being staunchly pro-choice, at first I felt ridiculous for being so sad about something that was literally just a collection of cells.  But as the days went on and the depression got worse, I had a more difficult time being able to deny that I was mourning a lost pregnancy, my lost child.  Trying to rationalize it just made everything worse.  There is no way to rationalize such a loss, no matter how far along you are.  I learned that one the hard way.
My heart was broken and my belly ached. I have mourned the loss of what would have been my first child.  I have a lot of friends who are pregnant now (five in my office alone!), or just had babies, and while I am overjoyed for them, and this new amazing journey that they are on, my heart hurts for what I lost.
Mother’s Day (May 12, 2013 – in the United States) hit me harder than I thought it would.  It would have technically been my first Mother’s Day.  I feel silly about it in a way.  I was pregnant for about 4-5 weeks - not long enough to feel it move, not long enough for it to even have a heartbeat.  It was just beginning.  But, as my mom and Bonita told me, it is still a loss that demands to be grieved.   And I have grieved, and still do from time to time.  I have trouble walking through the baby department of stores.  I see my pregnant friends and in them I see what my belly would be like now. 
It is a strange feeling being around so many pregnant friends and friends with babies.  I have this immense joy for my friends and unbelievable aching sadness for what I lost all at the same time.  It is like my emotions are at war with each other.  It is draining.  It is maddening.  It is all consuming at times.  For me, it is this feeling of ultimate failure in which I know that, for whatever the reason, I couldn't keep the fetus inside of me safe.  I couldn't make the cells that were forming into my child safe.  I know that there is nothing I did to cause the miscarriage.  I know there is nothing I could have done to prevent it.  My doctor has assured me of that.  I just wish that having that assurance would make it hurt less.
It has gotten better over the months.  I don’t think about it all day every day anymore, but when it comes up there is an overwhelming sense of sadness and loss inside of me.  I am sad for what could have been.  I am sad for the loss of the child I would have had. 
I know that the sadness will continue to fade, but I don’t know that the memory will. I don’t know that I would really want it to.  I think that knowing this sense of loss will help me when I do become a mom.  I think it will help me not to sweat the small stuff and to enjoy each moment a bit more.  If the outcome of this is that I will be able to be more present when I have children, then I can definitely handle that. 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Reflections from the Walk

It has taken a week of reflection to gather my thoughts from the Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event.  I have been on a bit of an emotional roller coaster since the event.  It took a few days for it all to even fully sink in.  Now that it has, I can honestly say that I am in awe of the people I had the honor of meeting there and still amazed that so many men willingly put on high heels just to stand up and walk with us. 
I was nervous about speaking about my rape in public.  I know that I tell my story here, but it is different when you see the faces of those you are writing to and getting an immediate reaction from those faces.  I was grateful to my mom for being there with me, supporting me, like she always has.  She has been my rock through all of this.  One of the people I had the honor of meeting was a 16 year old girl, named Kaitlyn, who was also there to tell her story.  Kaitlyn was sexually assaulted when she was 15.  She had the courage to press charges against her attackers. We decided to stand together at the microphone in order to support each other as the other spoke.  Kaitlyn told her story with poise and strength that is uncommon for most 16 year olds to possess.  I was so proud to stand by her side, meet her family and to now be counted among her friends.  
When it was my turn to speak, I told my story and the reaction I got was not something I even remotely expected.  People in the audience came up to me, thanked me, and said how brave I was for coming forward and telling my story.  Others came up and told me their stories.  I met women who have lived through hell and were still able to smile and be thankful for the life they had.  One woman, Tina, came up to me and thanked.  She told me that she had been raped 29 years ago by her then husband, while she was pregnant with her oldest child.  Her husband beat her and then tried to cut the baby out of her belly.  What she told me next still brings tears to my eyes.  Tina had never really talked about it before.  She said she felt silly even telling me about it because it happened so long ago, but after hearing my story she was ready to talk about and deal with what happened to her.  She said she was inspired by my strength.  Tina, if you are reading this, it is I who is inspired by your strength.  I am in awe of you and your spirit. You are a beautiful soul.  If you are reading this, please get in touch with me.
Over this last week, I have had trouble coming to terms with the praise people were giving me for my speech.  I don't think I did anything brave.  If I was really brave I would have pressed charges 13 years ago.  The brave ones are those who decided to take a stand, like Tina and Kaitlyn.  The brave ones are those who refused to remain silent.  Don't get me wrong, I recognize that I had the strength to  stand up and tell my story at the Walk, but I do not count myself among the truly brave.  I am happy that my story impacted so many people.  I hope that the college students who were there will take our stories back with them and tell their friends the true impact that rape and gender violence has on women. I hope they left with an understanding of the devastation it has on the lives of the victims.  I hope they left with an understanding that rape is not a sport. It is a violent, horrific act that is the worst violation imaginable.  I hope they left with a crystal clear understanding that no does indeed mean no.  If they took that away with them after the walk, then I would feel I deserved a little of the praise that was so generously bestowed upon me by those in attendance.
I want to thank the amazing women who organized the walk and the wonderful people who run Laurel House. Preston and Steve from 93.3 WMMR in Philadelphia, thank you for being the Mcee of the event and participating in the walk. You gave great publicity to the cause.  Thank you for that. You are all heroes in my eyes.

Monday, May 6, 2013

My Speech from the Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event on May 4, 2013.

I was truly humbled by the amazingly brave women, and the men who were there to walk a mile in high heel shoes for them, that I met at the event.
Here is the transcript of the speech I gave at this event.

Good morning!  I would like to thank the Philly WAM Girls for their work and dedication to this cause.  I am honored to be a part of it. 
We are all here for a common purpose.  We are here to stand up for victims of sexual assault and gender violence.  
My name is Valerie Ricapito and I am a rape survivor.  I am here today to stand up for myself and for those like me.  I am standing up here today because I will no longer be silent.  I am here today to tell you my story. 
I was raped 13 years ago and for 10 of those years I remained silent, never pressing charges, just hoping it would be like a bad dream and eventually fade off into the distance.   I was filled with shame, guilt, anger and embarrassment over what happened.  You see, at the time of my rape, I was a peer educator at my university.  I was a part of a group that taught students how to stay safe from sexual violence.  I knew all of the right things to do.  I knew how to protect myself and I educated students how to do the same.  I was street smart and book smart. This was something that would never happen to me…until the morning that it did.
I went to sleep one night next to my boyfriend, a man who professed his love for me every day.  I woke up the next morning to that same man holding me down and raping me.  I said “No.”  I tried to fight back, but how do you fight back against someone who is bigger than you, strong than you, and is using that strength to do the unspeakable?  The harder I fought the more force he used.  And just like that, I became a statistic.  I went from the girl who, by all accounts, had a great life and a great boyfriend, to a girl whose life was shattered by that “great boyfriend.”
Over the next 10 years I pretended that it never happened. I locked it so deep in my psyche that it never came to the surface.  It was replaced by anger, fear, shame and a general distrust of men, with the exception of close friends and family.  I saw every man as a potential rapist.  I lived my life in fear without even letting myself fully accept the reasoning behind it.  I became a home body, avoiding social situations as much as I could unless I was with a group.  When I did go out alone, I developed a tough, “stay the hell away from me,” exterior that kept attention away from me.  Overtime I became a shell of the person I used to be.  I felt dead inside.
The truth has a way of coming to the surface, often at the most random and unexpected times.  My truth came out to my mom while we were watching a movie.  A character in the movie was raped the same way I was and before I could stop myself I said, “If anyone ever did that to me again I would kill them with my bare hands.”   I prayed that she didn’t hear that one word – again.  As it turns out, that was the only word she heard.  And just like that, my secret was no longer a secret. 
As I have started to come to an acceptance of being raped, I decided to make my journey to healing public.  I made this decision in the hopes that others will be helped by my journey and realize that they are not alone.  In July, I started writing a blog to document my experiences – the good days and the bad – as I go through counseling, and start to get back to the person I was before the rape.  Through this, I have found a community of friends, sisters and supporters who have helped me through tough days and cheered me on through good days.  I now have the strength and courage to speak out, stand up, and help bring an end to the shame that comes along with being raped.  
While I wish every single day that this never happened to me, I am proud to stand here today as I reclaim my voice to say to the world that I survived.  

Thursday, May 2, 2013

One Step Forward and Two Steps Back

With every healing and recovery process there are bound to be some setbacks.  Monday was a setback for me, but it was also a step forward.
Over the years I have developed coping skills to deal with triggers when they occur.  Unfortunately, without going into much detail, the triggers on Monday snowballed and none of my coping skills worked.  I know that I am already on high alert because of the work Bonita and I are doing. As Bonita has told me, we are starting to stir up my subconscious and things are bound to come to the surface and get a bit angry.  She said that when things become too overwhelming the best thing to do is care for myself in whatever way I see as best, so long as it is not self-destructive.   Back in my teens and early 20s, my way of coping was by cutting.  Those few minutes of external pain would give me a chance to breathe and momentarily escape the internal torture I was experiencing.  I justified it by thinking that I never cut deep and I always made sure to hide it.  I know now, and I can’t say this emphatically enough, THIS IS NOT A WAY TO COPE.  It is destructive, dangerous, and it doesn’t work.  It gives the illusion of momentary relief.  It is neither helpful nor healthy.  (If you are a cutter, I beg you to speak to someone you trust about it and get help.  You are not alone and it will get better.)  It took me a long time to realize that.
I am very thankful that I have an amazing boss and work family.  My boss understood what was happening and let me take a half day and the members of my work family who knew what happened checked in on me.  I was able to go home talk to my housemate/mom (who I am so grateful to have as the anchor of my support system), sleep and recharge my system.  It took everything I had to get out of bed after sleeping for a few hours though.   I woke up sad from the events of the morning, but thankful that I was able to do what I needed to do to care for myself.   
Monday was also a step forward for me.  It was the first time in a very long time that I trusted and let someone in, other than my mom or very close friends, to help me with this and see me at my most fragile.  I was terrified to do it, but I took a chance and I am happy that I did.  The reaction was one of gentle caring, just wanting to make sure I was ok, and later helped to cheer me up.  You know who you are…I am so grateful for you in my life and I thank you for being your wonderful self.  
Today, I am still a bit rattled by the earlier portion of my week, but I am taking things on hour at a time. I am taking care of myself and finishing up my remarks for the Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event on Saturday.
My heart broke yesterday when I heard that a precious 4 year old girl in India died as a result of being raped and beaten.   My heart and prayers go out to her family.  I hope there is swift justice for the monster who is responsible.  I am comforted to know that this angel is now in good company, watching over us all with Jyoti Singh Pandey and the other girls and women, whose names we don’t know, that we have lost to sexual violence in India.  Those girls and women deserve better.  We all deserve better.