Overcoming unspeakable adversity. A story of strength forged in fire.

This is not an easy story to read. Not all stories of strength and of overcoming are "feel good" material. Life ain't a Disney movie. This is real shit. This, however, is inspiring to me. This is what strength truly is. The following is the true story of my friend Kaleigh and her journey through hell and back.

I have written and re-written this multiple times. Sometimes it’s shorter avoiding the more difficult topics. Sometimes it’s longer and I think, “no one really cares to read your sob story”. Somewhere there is a woman or a man who is struggling and I’m writing this for them. So they know that you do not have to be “Born This Way” to become who you are meant to become. No more re-writing. Judge me if you like, but know that if you are struggling you are not alone.

Writing my story is as close as I’ve ever come to talking about it. I took this first step last year when a local Maine company many of you know of – Catalyst for Change – hosted their warrior photo shoot. This next step involves a bit more for me. It gets a bit more personal. This isn’t a happy story.

I lived away from home for a number of years after I graduated high school. The last three years before moving back to Maine I lived in California. While I was there I met a man, fell in love, got my first real apartment and thought that this was the beginning of my life. I was going to live in California, marry this man (we’ll call him “A”) and we’d have a lovely life. We were together for the majority of my 3 years out there. His family and friends quickly became my family and friends. Life was good. Life was happy.

One of his best friends (we’ll call him “P”) - a man he thought of as a brother - had a son who went to school walking distance from our apartment complex. We all lived in the same one. “A” and I took turns picking his son up from school on the days when he worked as a favor, because we were all like family. Wednesday was my day off so I picked him up that day. I walked him to his sitter’s house and went home. The teacher often gave us updates so it wasn’t unusual for “P” to check in when he was off of work. On this particular day he just came over to the apartment. Not unusual. Not a big deal. He came inside and sat down on the couch. We started chatting about his kid. Then one of his hands was in my hair, the other was choking me to a near blackout and he spent the next 2 hours raping me. It was very angry and very violent. When it was over all I could think was that he was going to kill me.

My parents raised a very independent, stubborn, confident, strong woman. This excuse for a man killed that woman. And unfortunately, this isn’t the worst part of my experience.

I won’t bother to try and describe my feelings that evening. I honestly don’t remember half of what I felt and to say my mind was chaotic would be a drastic understatement. I told “A” as soon as he came home from work. It broke my heart to tell him because “P” was his best friend.

“A” was there for me as you would expect someone who loves you to be. He was kind, patient, attentive, comforting….for about a week. Then he wasn’t. I never really found out why, but he started to question what I told him and I realized that he didn’t believe me anymore. Now a week after being raped the person who I’ve been turning to so I can feel safe is villainizing me in our home.

This new reality really set in for me on my first morning going back to work. I mentioned “P” lived in the same apartment complex. I had to walk to my car around 4am. It was dark and I was petrified. I asked “A” to walk out there with me because I was scared and he told me that it had been a couple of weeks and it was time to get over it. I developed this cold, empty feeling in the pit of my stomach that didn’t go away for a long time after hearing that. Then I started to question myself. Should I just get over it? What did I do wrong? I found myself constantly apologizing for everything I said, did, thought. Now I know that I didn’t do anything wrong, but that girl was so broken you could have convinced her that anything and everything was her fault and she would believe you. I still struggle with this to this day.

My first week back at work was highlighted by the police coming in to take me to a police station to question me about what happened. I did not reach out to the police (if you have questions as to why a woman wouldn’t report something like this, I’d be happy to discuss it with you). I did reach out to two friends and I am assuming that one of them reported it. “A” met me at the police station at the request of the officers who were questioning me. Yes, questioning me. Two male officers questioning a female rape victim in an interrogation room. They didn’t even pretend to believe me. I am going to add in here that I DO NOT judge all police officers based on this experience. They questioned me for an hour or so asking me to relay the incident multiple times ultimately telling me that they were willing to lie to my boyfriend to cover for me if I cheated on him with his friend. Then they sent me to the hospital for a rape kit and that was that.

I felt so small. I have never felt so worthless in my entire life including the night that started all this shit. In my mind I meant absolutely nothing. Nothing to my boyfriend. Nothing to the police. I was basically a piece of garbage.

Over the next few months I spiraled down a self-destructive path and to this day I don’t know exactly how I lived through it. I drank past the point of excess daily. I just wanted to remember what happy felt like and when drinking didn’t fill that void, I started doing ecstasy. Chemical happiness let me forget what my life had turned into. It was the ultimate escape, and it wasn’t without consequences.

I can’t tell you what changed or why I woke up one day and decided I would move home. Just temporarily. I thought that having some distance between me and my life in California would help to heal some of the pain. I was partially correct. “A” told me before I left that he was sorry for how he had treated me and that he loved me. He told me home would be waiting for me when I got back. That little cold hole in my stomach warmed a bit and I felt a twinge of real happy for the first time in now close to a year.

I went back to California – once - just to pack a few more things. Once I moved back to Maine “A” emailed me to tell me he never wanted to see me again. He also emailed my parents (who had no idea what had transpired in California). He told them about the night I was raped but said that I lied about it. That’s how my mom found out. I was determined to get back to some sort of normal existence. No drugs. No alcohol. I went to work. I went to the gym. I went home.

Keep in mind I never found any support. I know it’s out there for sexual abuse victims, but I didn’t know how to find it. Every time I tried to talk to someone about it they told me I was a liar so I didn’t really have any interest in seeking out more people to talk to. In the midst of that I lived through months of emotional abuse coupled with the substance abuse I admittedly did to myself.

Getting separation from my life in California was the best thing I could have done for myself, but it also gave me time to digest everything that had happened. I’ve given you the short version. I was still up early for work. I transferred my Starbucks job from California to Maine. I had to leave my house around 3:30am to get to my opening shift. Night terrors were keeping me awake and I would cry so hard, sometimes even in my sleep, that I couldn’t put my contacts in the next morning. My mom would wake up with me at 3am and drive me from Raymond to Freeport and then come back and pick me up because I was too fucked up to drive myself.

I need to take a moment and tell you all that my mom, Lori Lambert, is my hero. She is the most selfless women I’ve ever known and I wouldn’t be half of the person I am today without her. If you need an example of perseverance, strength, kindness…look to her.

Time went on. I started to heal. It’s only in the past couple of years that I have looked back at how much I went through and gave myself some credit for coming out the other side. There was a fire in me somewhere that wouldn’t give up. The ghost of the woman my parents raised.

The gym was always a constant for me. I guess it was the only thing resembling strength that I was clinging to. I think I somehow knew in the back of my mind that the mental and physical benefits I was getting from working out were becoming my therapy.

My story isn’t over. I still have nightmares. I apologize constantly. I’m wary of new people, often emotionally closed off and always looking over my shoulder.

The woman that I said was gone…she is. But I have become someone different and I haven’t just accepted that, I’ve embraced it. It’s an absolutely beautiful thing.

I’m a fighter, a warrior. I’m a sailor, a powerlifter. I’m a wife to a man that exemplifies what a loving husband and best friend is. I’m a fucking survivor.

I am becoming this new version of myself, growing everyday and I’m finally proud of the woman I am.

I was not born this way. I was forged in fucking fire.

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