The Survivors Project: Susan DiPronio


In its Nov. 14, 2012, print edition, Philadelphia Weekly ran an excerpt of its first book, The Survivors Project: Telling the Truth About Life After Sexual Abuse. The issue featured just eight of the 57 first-person stories we published. Here is another.

Editor’s note: Please take great care in reading this story, as it may contain graphic descriptions and other passages that may trigger strong emotional responses.

Name: Susan DiPronio
Gender: Female
Age abuse occurred: 18, 20, 21
Race/Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Gay
Location: Philadelphia
Occupation: Food broker

Writing this is the most difficult thing I have ever done. There were nauseating hours of trying to figure out the sequence, remember what happened. Twisting, blurring memories. Confessing to myself that it was me. As words hit the page, forming a sentence, I panic and feel sick and drained and shaking and have to walk away to catch myself, wondering if it’s real. My hope is that this sheds some light on the constant emotional pain endured by a victim of rape. It’s not a one-time horror—it’s a lifetime of night terrors. It damages not only a body, but it steals a life. Yet, like a pair of old worn shoes, this dark place is a comfort, self-punishment for “letting it happen.” I don’t expect anyone to understand it. Holding the emotional memories, but not the actual ones.

I can’t say the words in relation to me: sexual assault. My brain does not accept them. It spits them out. After years of not remembering, a convenient denial devised by the brain to save my sanity, a bit of trauma leaks out and rationally I know it was me. A cement door blocks that part of my life. When the door is triggered open, hell rushes in and crushes me into pieces. Then, I rebuild and come back. Living with trauma is like the movie Groundhog Day, in which you relive it over and over. Except there is no happy ending. It takes work to keep from vomiting the memories at inappropriate times.

An essay about healing from sexual assault? There is no immediate healing. Being a victim is a chronic disease. You’re in constant crisis. Stuck, like a buoy, thrashing on a turbulent sea. Not going anywhere. Trauma leaks out of your psyche and you go from fearless to fearful in an instant. It’s toxic to hold it close. Sexual assault is a sterile, academic name for being brutally and repeatedly raped, sodomized,  kidnapped, tortured, beaten and left for dead. Not once in my life – three times: The assaults were horrific, but the fact is that every single time, there were people near or watching it happen who never tried to help. I can’t think of any excuse that would justify their inaction. Sometimes, I still feel that somehow it was my fault, but realize that what matters is that I save myself now and resolve the guilt I’ve held on to for so many years. I am a victim and I have to stop blaming myself. The world is doing enough “victim blaming.”

The first time happened when I was around 18. I was walking down the street in daylight going home from a new job and was probably followed from the bus stop. Unsure of the neighborhood, I got turned around. He grabbed me from behind, his hand covering my mouth, a sharp point at my back, saying he had a knife and I’d better do what he said. He forced me into an empty building where he raped me, and choked me until I passed out. I remember a dirty mattress or something and coming to with a sore throat, my clothes ripped and scattered around. I don’t remember how I got home, but I never told anyone. I felt stupid and dirty and ashamed. Maybe I looked like I wanted it? Asked for it? I deserve this. They will blame me. It’s my fault. A few days or so later, I was at the same bus stop, and a lot of people were around me waiting. I was detached, leaning against a large store window and there he was there, AGAIN. He grabbed me, picked me up and started slamming me into the window. People just WATCHED and did nothing. I vividly remember a woman cleaning her glasses. Somehow, I fought and broke free and ran down the street and never went back to that town, or that job.

A short while after, I began a meditation practice and was then lured into a cultish Buddhist sect. Meditation helped me to function without recycling the crime in my mind. The Buddhists gave me community, but they were controlling. So, the rape was still there like a cancer growing, a twisting ball of barbed wire inside me. I buried it deep and then started on a road of self-medication: alcohol, drugs and running away from everyone, everything. I totally shut down emotionally, went to San Francisco and became a Hari Krishna devotee for a minute. Then lived on the streets for years. At one point, having dropped too much acid, I ended up in a psychiatric hospital somewhere in Northern California. They released me with a bucket of pills. I guess they figured it was the acid, not me. I don’t know how long I was there or how I got there. I guess I hitchhiked back to San Francisco.

Trying to clean up my life led me to move in with a group of supportive women. Although I never told them what had happened to me, they knew something was wrong and persuaded me to get into therapy. I would have severe panic attacks and get lost, not knowing where or who I was for hours, sometimes days. The talk therapy had stirred up the horrible feelings, escalated the terror. I couldn’t deal with it and left them all.

The second time I was sexually assaulted was a couple years later in a different city. I had accepted a ride home from a co-worker’s boyfriend, but instead he took me to his apartment saying he had to pick up something before he could take me home. He kept saying, “Why don’t you come in for a minute?” I started to get a bad feeling and said no. He got out of the car and came around to my door, pulling a gun out of his pocket. I still refused to go in, but was too frozen to run or fight. He grabbed me and pushed the gun into my back and forced me into his place. I don’t know why I didn’t fight or scream, but still feel guilty, like it was my fault. A girl was coming down the steps and looked right at us. She did nothing. I know she knew and really thought she would call the police and I would be saved, but she didn’t. He shoved me into his apartment. He raped, beat and brutally sodomized me. Devoured by a wild animal. Shredded. He dragged, pushed, shoved me back to his car and drove me somewhere, I don’t remember where, and threw me out on the street—like trash. I never told anyone, not even the co-worker. She had bragged so much about him being this great new guy in her life. I said the bruises were a fall. I could barely walk or eat for a long time. Every part of my body hurt to touch, and the shutting down went deeper. I still feel guilty for not telling the co-worker. I was ashamed and afraid that maybe she would think that I wanted it, had come on to him. I quit the job and moved on again.

How many showers does it take, how hard can I scrub my body with a coarse brush? Until it bleeds. Bathe in perfumed water for hours to get the lingering smell of them off me. Back to heavy self-medicating with alcohol and drugs. Living in a stupor, not sleeping for days, weeks of wandering until passing out somewhere. This time, I was pushed into electro-stimulation therapy (EST) by a former drug dealer of mine who had claimed to be saved by it. Not helpful; controlling and creepy.

The third time that I was assaulted was maybe a year later in a car. I had been living in a place where the buses ran sporadically and would walk the six or so miles to work. But this one morning, I was running late, had already walked halfway and it was pouring rain. It was the beginning of rush hour. I hesitated, and even though something in me said don’t, I put my thumb out and instantly a car stopped.  I got in and he turned the car in the opposite direction. He was exposed and I tried to get out, but he grabbed me by the hair and repeatedly bashed my head and face into the dashboard. He pulled over at the side of an intersection and reached for a gun shoving my face into his crotch with the gun pressed at the back of my head. As he pushed the gun into the back of my head, he came, screaming. In that moment I somehow kicked, fought free and jumped out of the car. I didn’t care if he shot me. He had already told me how he was going to kill me and where he was going to bury my body. I figured I’d rather be killed right there. Where someone would know what happened to me. I felt like there was mud or blood oozing down my body. It was his cum running down my face. I wasn’t sure if I was really shot at. I think that I know it to have happened, but I’m not sure if I heard it, felt it. I think that I was hit in the head as I jumped from the moving car and fell in the mud. In the pouring rain, he tried to run me over. I think the bullet is lodged in there somewhere and no one ever knew it, not even me. I remember banging on people’s car windows, begging for help. Not one person rolled down their window. He kept coming at me over and over. I could hear car wheels spinning in the mud, drowning my screams. Dozens of cars were stopped at the intersection that day. No one tried to help me. Some looked away, others turned up their car radios. (Background music to rape and murder?) It seemed to go on forever. Then, when the light changed, they drove away. They just left me there! Why did they feel that my life was not worth saving? Collapsing into the mud, cum and blood dripping down my face, choking on my own blood, I wanted to die. I don’t know why he gave up and left. Nor do I remember where I went after or how. This was the end for me and I turned off my life. People became unnecessary. Used sporadically, no commitments.

“It” stole a big part of who I was and could have been. My anger is deep, but the sadness is deeper, mourning the death of Me. Never to be the person I was meant to be. Instead, a woman of many boundaries. Living in a maze, darting down its paths, hoping one of them is the way out. I am a ghost in this world, a builder of fantasy places in which to hide. Daring others to try to find me.
I am always watching over my shoulder. When a shadow appears on a sidewalk looming from behind me, getting closer, in that instant, terror engulfs me and I automatically move to the side to let them pass. Breathe, breathe, breathe. I gather myself and continue. Can you imagine being trapped there, forever? In a place where shadows and strangers’ smiles can bring absolute terror, your heart pounding, nausea filling your day? The thoughts recycle, replaying over and over and over until they settle. A window opens and fresh air comes rushing in, but it’s short-lived.

Talk therapy, group therapy, art therapy, meds, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), hypnosis therapy, reiki, mindfulness meditation, guided healing imagery, acupuncture. I have tried it all. Everything helps, but IT lingers in me. I changed after what I didn’t believe would ever be the last attack—for the worse. My emotional numbness took over my physical body, my face sank on the left side. Eventually, I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and referred to a therapist who had experience with PTSD. After more than a year of talk therapy and into a state of high anxiety where I could no longer differentiate between reality—to the point of being terrified of going into a shower—she unsuccessfully tried hypnosis therapy on me. Then, honestly, said she could not help me. She recommended that I go to a psychiatrist and get on meds. I did not and instead with the help of my partner at the time, I found a psychologist who focused on hypnosis therapy. She slowly reintroduced the world to me. Allowing me to remember what I could in small pieces. At the same time, I started meeting with an art therapist, meditating and falling into a hypnotic dream state and upon his cue, awakening to paint on large pages of what I remembered. Ultimately, what has helped me more is writing, every day. The healing power of written words is the key for me. This is the first time I have written about the sexual assaults. It’s been really hard to do, but it may be the most important step yet.

It’s taken decades to be able to go forward, before I could feel a little, before I cried for the first time. Those first tears were so strange; foreign. I wiped my fingers across my face, gathering them to look at in disbelief, and tasted them. And then put them back on my face, proof I was like everyone else, treasuring my entry back, not being sure it would ever happen again.

Tonight I laughed along with other people and then the Muppet song, “The Rainbow Connection,” made me cry. Yeah, sappy, not sure what the trigger is there, but it may be in the lyrics: “It’s something that I’m supposed to be.” Maybe there is a healing journey, a path, that I’m on and for me, it’s just taking longer to save myself.

The Survivors Project: Telling the Truth About Life After Sexual Abuse is available for purchase on Amazon.

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