A Lot to be Thankful For

As my family sits around me at the kitchen table, watching the Macy’s Day Parade and drinking coffee, I begin to tear up. While everyone is generally thankful for their family, I can’t help but remember on this day how much I have because of those close to me—namely, my life.

 

Five years ago, almost to the day, I broke up with my abusive ex boyfriend. From that moment on, my family became my source of life—my breath, my motivation, my safety. They picked me up when I couldn’t stand, they gave me what I needed even if they didn’t understand why, and, most importantly, they believed me when nobody else would.

 

In no scenario would I have survived the abuse without the help of my family. To them I owe my health, my well-being, and my survivorship. To them, I can never say thank you enough. To them, I will give my love eternally and unconditionally. They deserve nothing less.

 

When someone becomes a victim to abuse, violence, or manipulation, it is no longer up to them to save themselves. It is up to those around that person to help, because not a soul on this earth can survive something like this alone.  It is no longer the responsibility of the fifteen-year-old girl to save herself because she is simply incapable—no fifteen-year-old should be capable of surviving horrific circumstances alone. Support from family and close loved ones is the driving force behind the transition from broke to healed, from victim to survivor. My family fulfilled what I was too powerless to accomplish, and for that I am eternally thankful.

 

To my father: I thank you for pushing past the fear and helping me anyways. I thank you for giving without questioning, and giving much, much more than you yourself ever had in the first place. I thank you for never losing hope that I would survive.

 

To my mother: I thank you for understanding that it’s okay to not understand. I thank you for reminding me what it meant to be unconditionally loved. I thank you for grieving with me, and healing with me, too.

 

To my sister: I thank you for unapologetically becoming a survivor, too, and showing me what it meant to be a true survivor. I thank you for always reminding me to exhale, to laugh, and to smile. I thank you for being the reason I never gave up.

 

And to all the survivors out there: I thank you for not letting the bad guy win. I thank you for encouraging me to believe that there is a way out. I thank you for surviving, and for paving the way for other survivors to do the same.

#Demand2BHeard: Why This Is So Important

The Sunflower Project has just launched its latest project: #Demand2BHeard. This project is aimed at getting survivor stories out there in any form possible. That means writing, dancing, music, videos, fine art or visual art, or whatever the survivor deems fit to tell their story.

The point of this project is two fold.

The first part of this project is to give survivors a safe space to share their stories. In this time that we live in, the world is hostile towards anyone who wants to share a story of abuse, assault, or violence. It has become increasingly difficult to come across a space where people are there telling you it’s okay to be who you are, to be honest with the rest of the world, to own your past. It has additionally become increasingly rare to come across a person who tells you I want to hear your story. That is exactly what I intend to do. I am telling survivors that I want to hear their stories. We must not live under the farce that “no one wants to hear these stories”. They must be heard. They demand to be heard.

When I decided that my story demanded to be heard, and created Untold with my father, I was terrified. Sure, I thought my story deserved to be heard, but what if other people didn’t? What if I was booed off stage? What if no one believed me? What if this just made everything worse? However, I found the courage to share my story anyways, despite these very real, very scary doubts. And what I found was all but unbelievable.

I was received with open arms and warm hugs—metaphorically and literally! People cheered for me. They told me I was brave. They said they were proud of me. And I was proud of myself.

You see, the reason we find it so scary to share our story is because hardly anyone does it. A select few tell us we don’t deserve to be heard and that nobody wants to hear our story, but really, it’s just those few that don’t want to hear it. Unfortunately, those few people can ruin our perception of what the public actually wants, because hearing “your story isn’t important” from just one person can be the scariest thing we ever experience.

We can NOT let those select few change our minds—our story demands to be heard! I want every survivor to have the experience of a warm embrace like I did. I want every survivor to be told by a complete stranger that their story is valid, it’s powerful, and it’s important. This has become a huge part of my healing process, and I want it to be a part of other’s as well.

Part two of #Demand2BHeard is to create a force—a strength in numbers, so to speak. My goal is to have 100 survivors submit to #Demand2BHeard by the end of the year.

There are scary people out there—people who abuse and violate, manipulate and scar. Those people only do these things because they think they can get away with it. Why else would they commit these disgusting acts? But, if you knew for a fact that you would get caught, would you still do it?

The reason these people think they can get away with being abusive and violent is because they know that the chances of their victim speaking out about it is slim to none. That has to change.

By sheer force, #Demand2BHeard will bring together 100 survivors or more onto one platform, thus proving these abusers horribly wrong. Let’s stand up and say NO! We WILL fight back! We WILL speak out! We WILL demand to be heard!

If we can convince the world that they can no longer get away with pushing us down and stepping all over us, we have come that much closer to ending this sort of violence.

 The reason I am opening up this platform to any sort of expression is because I often found that words did not suffice, and art had to take its place. If you feel comfortable singing about abuse, taking photos about manipulation, or dancing about rape, then you are valid in making that choice of expression. I will not hold anybody to any standards of communication—however your story manifests is exactly how it was meant to be told.

To submit to #Demand2BHeard, go to www.towardsthesun.org and click the “Submit” button on the #Demand2BHeard page. You can also email me at leah@towardsthesun.org.

To all the survivors out there: Let’s show people our true selves. Let’s end the assumption that we will not speak out. Let’s DEMAND TO BE HEARD!!!

How Do You Expect Me to Be Normal: Dating (as) a Survivor

Navigating the world of dating is one of the trickiest things anyone can attempt: especially if you’re a survivor.

It’s been almost three years since I broke up with my abusive ex boyfriend. Since then, I was in a very restorative relationship that lasted two years. Sadly, that had to come to an end, and for the past year now I have been trying to figure out how to get myself to care about someone enough for them to care about me.

Granted, one year is not a long time—I admit I’m still relatively new to this thing called “dating” and even more so, again relatively, am I still considered new to this thing called “Earth”. However, sometimes the newbies have the best insights. And sometimes we are foolish and don’t know what we are talking about—you decide.

Regardless of my new-ness to dating, I am no stranger to navigating the world as a survivor. So here’s what I have to say about the intersection of singledom and survivorship:

If you don’t treat me like I’m normal, how can you expect me to be normal?

There’s a very fine, almost invisible line here we are trying to teeter on: the line between totally forgetting I am a survivor and treating me like anybody else would like to be treated, and never letting my survivorship leave your mind and acting as though I am easily breakable or, even worse, already broken. As extreme as these two dilemmas seem to be, I have found it to be remarkably difficult for people to find a happy medium.

In some cases, those I’m dating seem to be uncomfortable by my survivorship and therefore pretend like I didn’t actually tell them anything of importance. This is not helpful—that’s like you telling me your grandpa died and five minutes later me asking how your grandparents are. Do not pretend like, just because you don’t know how to react to something, it doesn’t exist. This mentality has produced so much hate and ignorance, which, in extreme cases, has led to anger and violence. Often, when people don’t know how to react to something, they somehow manage to revert to reacting in the most offensive ways possible. It can be fascinating, but ultimately that wears off and all you’re left with is the struggle of figuring out how to leave the awkward date you are on as efficiently as possible.

In other cases, those I’m dating, who are also uncomfortable by my survivorship and don’t know how to react, decide to react like I am a not actually a person but something designed to trick you into thinking I am one while actually being made out of the most flammable and breakable material known to man. These people seem to never be able to say or do anything in regards to me without reminding themselves, and subsequently me, of my survivorship. In no way does this help, either. They won’t touch me—literally and metaphorically. And, once again, I’m left with devising an escape route out of the restaurant through the vents in the women’s restroom.

Both of these reactions are equally frustrating and asking me to pick which is better is asking me to pick my poison—something I refuse to do. I refuse to settle for people who are made so uncomfortable with my survivorship that they cannot seem to treat me like a normal person.

I. AM. NORMAL.

Literally everyone has some sort of twisted past, some sort of confusing present, and some sort of bright future. I am no different, so stop treating me as such.

To all those men out there who will inevitably date survivors (because there are more of us than you think): we are normal human beings. We don’t want you to pretend like we don’t have a past, but we also want you to realize that our past does not define our future, just as yours does not define anything about you, either.

In a recent case, I was dating a man (boy, rather) who, after I brought up something insignificant about my survivorship, said to me, “Can we stop talking about this? It’s making me uncomfortable.”

Yikes.

This might come as a shock to you, but it is not your place to be made uncomfortable by my survivorship. In my opinion, you don’t even have the right to be made uncomfortable by something horrific that happened to me! Needless to say, that date ended shortly thereafter.

While I have spent so much energy in trying to explain how to react to finding out you are dating a survivor, I have not yet addressed the most important part of this experience: the survivor.

I find it very difficult to allow myself to care deeply about anyone these days, even platonic friends. Also, considering the inappropriate responses I’ve had from telling suitors of my survivorship, I also find it very difficult to even be honest about my past with those I am dating. I have always been a very open and transparent person—I don’t like to hide things while dating because that always inevitably leads to playing games, something I detest.

If, indeed, I have told you of my past, be honored—this means I’ve decided you were worth taking the risk of a bad reaction because I actually like you. When a survivor tells you their story, you should always thank them for trusting you with that information. It is no easy task to be open about this, and when we are, we are the putting ourselves in the most vulnerable position possible. Always remember that.

However, vulnerability should not be equated with shame, and we should always be proud of ourselves when we manage to be open about our stories. While this is much, much easier said than done, we must remember that when someone reacts poorly to our survivorship, it does not mean that we are any less of a person.

To all the non-survivors out there: keep in mind that while it may be difficult for you to tread the waters of dating a survivor, it was infinitely more difficult for that person to get to the point in their life where they could safely call themselves a survivor.

And to all the survivors out there: Dating sucks. 

The Myth of Progress: A Reaction to Brock Turner

Rape will not escape you. If you are a survivor, I do not need to tell you this—you’ve already figured it out for yourself. But for the fortunate people who have not had to experience it: rape will not escape you. It is a stamp, a brand, and you cannot wash it off, cannot will it to fade, and will not ever be able to forget it. No matter how hard you try.

 

In my experience, the only way I am able to turn my past into something I can manage is by creating art out of it. Some survivors share this with me, others have found their own way of coping. However, regardless of the image of healing we present to the world, we will never be rid of that wretched brand on our backs.

 

What angers me the most about the Brock Turner case is the idea that even though he only got six months in jail, the reaction of social media shaming him and his family is somehow proof of “progress” of which we all need to be aware and appreciative. This is disheartening, to say the least. That is like saying even though 50 people were killed in a gay bar in Orlando, the fact that the whole online world is mourning for them shows “progress” in the fight against homophobia. It most obviously does not, and neither does the reaction to the Brock Turner case. Real progress is not revealed through reactions to tragic events. Real progress is shown through the absence of these events ever happening in the first place.

 

Real progress would look like education in schools, talking to both boys and girls about consent and the difference between sex and rape. Real progress would look like the words “rape” and “sexual assault” not being taboo but a topic we are all able to discuss with our children in the same manner we would drug abuse or drinking. Real progress would look like a mandatory course in all colleges with curriculum surrounding what a healthy relationship looks like, what consent really is, and what to do when you see something that shouldn’t be going on. Real progress would be Brock Turner never doing what he did, because he was taught to be better than that.

 

Rape is rape, period. I don’t care if you were intoxicated (would we let a murderer off the hook if he was drunk?), and I especially don’t care if you are white and privileged and “educated” (although in my book, he’s about as uneducated as you could possibly get). Rape is rape, and it will never escape that woman, just like it will never escape me. Survivors of rape all have one thing in common: we’ve all received a life sentence. A sentence to mourn, to question ourselves and doubt our worth, to hate our perpetrators and to fight hating ourselves. I’ll tell you one thing for sure, I would much rather go to jail than have been raped. Going to jail would be getting off easy, in comparison. Jail sentences expire. The repercussions of being raped are eternal.

 

 This country has not made progress, at least not to my standard. If anything, the Brock Turner case proves just that—we still have a long, long way to go. I will not be satisfied until the statistics behind rape have diminished almost to the point of of inexistence, and when, in the rare case it does happen, the sentence is much longer and absolutely non negotiable.

 

However, while this case has proven to the world that we are still amateur in our dealings with rape, survivors cannot lose hope. The only way to win this battle is to stick together and fight with all our might until there is no one left to fight because nobody is being raped. Until then, simply hoping is the least we can do.

 

To all the survivors out there: do not ever, ever, lose hope.

Sexual Assault Panel at Doc Your World: Who's Responsibility is it?

May 3rd and 4th, Columbia's Film Row Cinema was buzzing with creative nonfiction art of all kinds. From radio to dance to virtual reality, Doc Your World was a huge success.

I was part of the class that put on Doc Your World, so I had the opportunity to curate an hour and a half block of work shown centered around Sexual Assault Awareness. 

Cassandra Kaczor composed three pieces of music that were performed. Then, Untold was shown. This is the second time Untold has been screened, and let me tell you it doesn't get any easier to watch. This is the first time I was able to watch the film with my father next to me, and man, that was that difficult! I felt like we were filming the piece all over again, which wasn't an easy feeling to swallow. 

Following the performances and screening, we had a panel/q&a session. The panel consisted of myself, my father, Cassandra, and the founder of The Awakenings Foundation, Jean Cozier. This was one of the most difficult panels I've ever been on.

We were asked questions like, "What advice would you give to a young person in an abusive relationship?" "What should a friend do when they try to get their friend out of an abusive relationship but they won't listen to them" and "How can family and friends be supportive of survivors?"

These were really difficult questions to answer. I've been thinking a lot about those questions, and how I and my peers answered them. This thought process took me back to the day I ultimately broke up with my abuser.

During school that day, my friends pulled me aside and told me they were worried about me. I immediately got very angry at them (something a lot of survivors can admit to doing) and dismissed what they said. However, that night I ended up breaking it off with him for good. Something they said must have stuck with me, because that's no coincidence.

But what would have gotten through to me beforehand? What could have stopped it? Jean profoundly pointed out that it's "not the responsibility of the teenage girl to keep herself safe" and I totally agree. There's nothing that could have gotten me to leave him earlier, because once it happens there's no going back. Besides, even if I had ended it earlier, that probably wouldn't have had an effect on the aftermath of the relationship.

So the answer to the first question asked of us is nothing. There's nothing you can do to get that young girl out of that relationship until she decides enough is enough. That's not what I'm here to do--that's not what The Sunflower Project is here to do. We are here to stop it before it starts.

It's the responsibility of the society that grows abusers to keep these possible victims safe. We grow these young people with minds that think it's okay for a significant other to be jealous, to be manipulative, to be controlling and vindictive and possessive. It's the responsibility of parents and teachers to not only be role models but to be advocates for safety and healthy relationships. 

And most importantly, the responsibility falls on us as survivors to keep that young teenager safe. It falls on those of use who have made it out the other side and can look back and have an insight that nobody else on the planet has. The responsibility to shield the vulnerable and naive and young from the manipulative and jealous and abusive is a big one, but one we can and must accept. 

To all the survivors out there: let's take this on together.

"Untold" won the Storytelling Award. Above: Filmmakers Leah and David on the red carpet at #DocYourWorld.

Untold Premiere at Feminist Film Festival: Why Are We So Scared?

Well, it happened! The film "Untold" has finally become public! It premiered last night, April 21st, 2016, at the first annual Chicago Feminist Film Festival at Columbia College Chicago.

I was extremely nervous for this premiere. Okay, that's an understatement. I was terrified. I was shaking all day and couldn't eat. And that's understandable, right? I mean, this film is so deeply personal and I made myself so vulnerable by showing it to a room full of strangers. Not only was I vulnerable in showing the film, but I did a Q and A (video coming soon) afterwards, and that was even more terrifying!

This made me reflect on how scared we are to share our stories. When I was in high school, my friends didn't believe me when I told them my ex was abusive. They didn't even believe me when I told them he had broken into my house a few times! This began my trend of blaming myself for what happened. Considering my closest friends, who I thought loved me, decided that I deserved what happened to me, I naturally began to believe it. 

So now, three years later, what's to stop me from thinking that the room full of strangers sitting there watching my movie won't react the same way my friends did? I knew this was irrational, but feelings don't always follow logic, do they?

To my extreme relief, the reaction was amazing. I was asked the question, "How did you get the courage to share your film?" It made my heart so full to be considered brave, to the point where I could barely answer the question without starting to cry all over again. People think I'm brave? Maybe I should think that, too.

After the Q and A, ten or so people came up to me individually to congratulate me or ask if they could interview me for their blog or newspaper. One person came up to me and said that watching my film made her realize she needs to rethink her life. She hugged me and I felt as if I had known her my whole life. It's amazing how close we can be with a complete stranger when we have something as powerful as survivorship in common.

The reaction was so supportive I could hardly believe it.

This is a lesson to all survivors: PEOPLE WILL HELP! People will support you and commend you and, more often than not, help you! Why are we so scared to share our stories?! It's ridiculous, really, to be terrified of being ourselves, and owning our past. There are a select few out there who want to tear us down, but the vast majority of people just want to watch us soar.

To all the survivors out there: Let's soar together.

A Letter to Survivors

Dear Survivor,

You are not broken. You are not damaged. You are not a victim.

I felt like I was all of those things; a broken person, damaged goods, a victim of an attack. It didn't help that my "friends" told me it was my fault, and emulated the "blame the victim" complex this country seems to be afflicted with. Later, I learned to surround myself with healers, supporters, and lovers. That was vital in my healing. It will be vital in yours, too.

You are not broken, not damaged, and most definitely not a victim. You are a survivor. SURVIVOR. S-u-r-v-i-v-o-r. Say it out loud. Tell it to yourself over and over. Make it your mantra. 

Do what you need to do to survive. I needed to dance, so I did. And I needed to write, so I did. I also needed to cry, and lie in bed, and eat a lot of cookie dough, and stare at the wall for hours. So I did. Do what you need to do and don't apologize for it. 

Ask for help. You won't be able to do this alone. Ask for help, but choose wisely; like I said earlier, I had some pretty terrible friends. Don't surround yourself with those kinds of people, surround yourself with people who you know will do everything you need them to do in order for you to continue surviving. 

Don't give up. Please. The world needs people like you. This is an impossible task, getting over something like this, that has been placed in front of you. But you can make it possible. You're a valuable person who is needed by the world. The world would be a worse place without you here. I believe in you.

Help others. You'll get to a place one day where you are comfortable with your survivorship, and can share your gift with others. You do have a gift to share; you have experience and knowledge and love to give to another survivor. We are not rare, us survivors, and we must must must stick together. Offer your gifts to others. They will thank you, and you will thank yourself, too.

Love yourself. You are powerful. You are smart and strong. You are better, now. You are unique and you are not alone. You are loved by others. You are loved by me. And you are loved by yourself.

You are not broken. You are not damaged. You are not a victim.

You are a survivor.

Love, 

Leah