I was in elementary school. I won the MVP award and my family always wondered why because I was terrible at basketball. It took me over 10 years to explain why I was given that award. Not just to my family, but to myself.

It’s so confusing when you are young — to differentiate love and abuse, protection and power. I didn’t identify my sexual abuse of over a year as abuse back then. He would say statements like, “You are the best player and that’s why I only do this with you,” or “I am not your coach, I am your best friend,” followed by the abuse.

For over 10 years, I lived in fear. I lived in a world of self hatred, anger, and insecurities.

When I was 18, he messaged me on Facebook. Over, and over, and over, and over again. I never responded. Just watched the messages come in, every single day for over a month until I had the courage to block him. I began making myself vomit, started cutting myself — my arms and my legs, drinking heavily and sleeping with any man that would let me.

“This isn’t me,” I thought to myself.

It was during this month that I was able to fully realize what had happened, where all the pain had been coming from. I left school, I left my friends, I saved my money, packed my bags and got on a plane to Africa: the farthest place I could be from him. When I arrived in Tanzania, I started hearing and seeing children going through exactly what I did, listening to women’s stories about their abuse.

For the first time, I realized I wasn’t alone. I am not alone. My story isn’t something to hide, something to be pushed so deeply down inside, something to be ashamed of, something to blame myself for. There are people out there, all over the world (unfortunately), going through or having gone through the same thing and are the strongest, most inspirational people I have ever met.

From that point on, I decided to identify my abuse as abuse. I began the healing process. I started talking about it, writing about it. Taking care of myself. And now, I can proudly say that I am not my abuse. At all. That it is something that happened to me, that I am healing from, but it is not who I am. That I am a strong, intelligent, creative, caring woman. Not the worthless one I let one person try to define me as.

I now work with women and kids in Tanzania and am grateful for the “bottom” that I hit that got me here. I am grateful for my healing. I am more proud of myself than ever and I hope to serve as an inspiration to other women here — to prove that there is always hope. That healing is possible. That your abuse doesn’t define you. Reporting hasn’t been the right choice for me yet, a part of me hopes I will find the courage to do so one day. But today, I am right where I need to be.

I feel strong. I feel worthy. I am in a healthy, happy relationship with a man who loves me unconditionally. I feel like me, again. I let love come in and I send it out freely. And that is all I could ever ask for in this moment. I am free.

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