I Was Sexually Assaulted in College. This Is How I Started Healing, and What I Do to Cope With Triggers in Today's News Cycle
At 19, Jacqueline Reilly was sexually assaulted on campus—and she has life-changing advice for other survivors.
My sophomore year at Syracuse University was about to begin, and I was so excited to see my friends and get back to class. I'd returned to campus early for peer adviser training, and few students were around. One night, some girlfriends and I decided to go out, since we didn't have classes yet and we didn't need to be anywhere until later the next day.
We went drinking with a group of guys I vaguely knew. In a room, I remember one of the men handing me a Styrofoam cup filled with alcohol, but I didn't see him pour it. The last thing I remember from that night was the bottom of that cup.
I woke up nine hours later naked. The guy who handed me the cup was hovering over me fully clothed. I felt really funny; my lower body hurt, and I saw a condom on the floor. That's when I realized something horrible had happened to me, something that wasn't consensual. I left right away. When I got home and glanced in the mirror, I saw that black bruises the size of fingerprints covered my neck. My heart dropped.
That same day, I went to the hospital, only to be told that I had accidentally destroyed much of the evidence of my sexual assault because I showered. The hospital didn't administer a drug detection test, so I never found out what was poured into my drink. But when I recounted the incident to nurses and doctors, they told me it sounded "like a classic date rape case." I didn't want to go to court, but I did file a no contact agreement at my university, which prevented my assailant from contacting me or having another person do so on his behalf.
The semester began and I returned to normal life, but it no longer felt normal at all. Friends saw the bruises on my neck and joked, "oh, who did you hook up with last night?" Walking around campus, I felt like people could see the word "victim" on me. When it came to schoolwork, I couldn't focus. I would stare at my computer screen for long stretches of time. Some days, I felt numb and emotionless. Other days, I felt pure anger. I was angry at my attacker, but it wasn't just him. No one told me that one in four college women would be victims of sexual assault before they got their diploma.
Healing was a struggle, but over time I noticed more and more little wins. I started seeing a therapist, which helped immensely with my post-traumatic stress and depression. But still, I wasn't 100% myself. I'd go to social events and notice students who were drunk and needed someone to walk them home, yet no one was helping them. I mentioned this to my sorority sister, and we decided to start a campaign called the Girl Code Movement. Our mission was to create a pact among women so that no matter the situation, we would be there for one another.
In December of my sophomore year, we filmed a news segment on local television about the Girl Code Movement. After I told my story, I was thrust into the public eye. On one hand, the activism aspect of the group provided me with the justice I couldn't get through a court of law. As an advocate for sexual assault survivors, I was saying "Hey, this is wrong" and opening the dialogue for other survivors. That helped me heal. At the same time, being so open about my assault left me constantly triggered. I would have flashbacks or would feel depressed. There were bouts of pure sadness.
Now I'm a 23-year-old college graduate living in Austin, Texas, where I work as a visual designer. I'm no longer part of the Girl Code Movement. But with sexual assault dominating the headlines these days and so many survivors recounting their experiences, I'm reminded once again of what I went through—and it can be quite triggering. Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey; it doesn't matter the name. Hearing survivor stories brings up the same emotions in me every time.
As more stories come to light, I feel two things. First, I am grateful that we are moving to a place where survivors can speak their truth and feel empowered to come forward. At the same time, I feel sadness, because I know what that victim is going through. It reminds me of the aftermath of my assault, especially because I was in the public eye too. People say horrible things, judge your story immediately without having ever met you, and blame the victim.
To deal with being triggered, I have some new coping mechanisms that mostly center around fitness and nutrition. When I feel my PTSD symptoms coming on, I use exercise to boost my mood. On a good week, I'll work out five or six days. I do yoga and strength training, and currently, I'm training for a marathon. Seeing my muscles grow and nourishing myself with healthy food reminds me that I'm in control of my own body—a feeling I lost the night my attacker assaulted me.
Lately I haven't been as mentally sharp as I normally like to be. But I think it's important to remind myself that having bad days is okay. As I continue my own healing journey, I use my health and wellness blog, The Clementhyme, to help other sexual assault survivors find empowerment through food and fitness.
It's hard for me to articulate, but I believe helping other sexual assault survivors is part of my life's mission. I know I wouldn’t be where I am now without support, so if I can provide that support to anyone else, that's a win in my book.