Figuring out what matters most
My name is Kaia, I’m 22, I’m a sagittarius, and I’m a two time survivor of sexual assault.
That’s not something I say often, in fact most of the people who have known me for several years have never heard me say it. For a long time it felt like it was branded on me, right on my forehead for everyone to see. Like cishet men could just smell the rot on me sometimes, and maybe that’s why it was always me. It was always me being grabbed a little too hard or too low. It was always me being followed, harassed, degraded, dehumanized. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that this was it for me. My sole reason for existing was to be a playground for cis men. Something they could touch when they wanted, scream at, throw around. And it was simply my job to take it because what else have I known? I carried around a physical body that was overwhelmed by trauma. Being hugged certain ways made me stiffen up. I couldn’t stand walking past certain parts of my own campus because the memories would instantly come back. And I became so used to feeling so heavy that I operated as if all of it was normal. I adjusted my routine at school so that I’d never even have to approach at least a fourth of my campus. I continued to remain in the same friend group as my abuser to keep things as normal and as low profile as I could. Nothing about this was okay or helpful, but at the time I was not looking to heal, I just wanted to survive. I wanted to pretend as if none of it had absolutely any control over me or my life even if that clearly was not true.
Even when I tried to get it together and get help and really try to, if not win the war, at least one battle, I would fail. Eventually I hit a wall. Apparently doing the same ineffective thing in a circle over and over was not the best way to cope with my trauma. I would force myself back into the community where I was harmed because it was the only place I could think of to start over. Imagine trying to get a degree and being terrified of the place you have to go to learn. I stopped feeling at home in my own body. I was dealing with too many parts of myself at once. While attempting to avoid my trauma at all costs I was also trying to work out my growing relationship with gender. I couldn’t feel sexy or pretty getting dressed up as easily as my friends could because not only was I dealing with physical trauma, I was also dealing with intense body dysphoria for the first time. I was having constant panic attacks getting dressed because I didn’t want to wear anything too revealing and put myself in danger, and if I did wear something feminine I would be intensely anxious about being seen as a woman. If I wore something more masculine leaning I was afraid of either not being taken seriously or once again, experiencing violence from other homo/transphobic people (mostly cishet men). Nothing about me felt special or worthy and no matter how many times I dusted myself off and rejoined the fight, I failed.
I had, of course, over the years heard all about what it meant to be a survivor from my mother, Tarana Burke, founder of the ‘me too.’ Movement. I had learned that everyone had a path to healing and no matter how hard it felt healing was possible. I smiled at the words, and clapped at the speeches. I believed them wholeheartedly.
I believed healing was possible for everyone else, it just didn’t seem possible for me.
I had tried for so long but no therapist, no self help book, not even my own mother and this movement born of empathy and love and understanding could help me. I was damned from the moment I came out of the womb and the doctor declared me girl.
There came a day where I eventually just couldn’t handle it anymore. I was sick of running full speed into a brick wall, so I decided to try something different. I finally recognized that this thing was way too big for me to carry on my own (in fact it was beating my ass, lol). There was a night I went to visit my friends and we went to a party I didn’t know would be at my rapists house until the last minute. At first I was genuinely okay, he stayed away from me from what I can remember. The proper thing would have been to leave but I was determined to prove that I was bigger than this thing, I was not. I ended up somehow drunk in his bathroom throwing up and crying not even because I was drunk but because I was so overwhelmed with anxiety just by being there. I realized I was trying to solve a problem I literally refused to even name so I decided for the first time since everything had happened to finally talk about it. When I was assaulted by one of my close friends, in an attempt to spare his feelings and at my own expense, I downplayed my assault. I told him I was fine, that I didn’t feel assaulted. I pretended I could be in his presence without being physically ill and that him touching me didn’t fill my whole body with disgust. And something about that filled me with more shame than my actual assault. Even if I could get over being violated I could not get over the fact that I let him get away with it.
I couldn’t understand how I had it in me to be so much nicer and gentler to him than my own self.
I wanted to talk about it but I haven’t had the best experiences trying to in the past. I had been talking to both of my partners at the time about it since it was bothering me so much, and both were either pretty emotional or just unsure how to help. So I turned to my mother because if no one else knows how to fix it she always does. I remember every emotion I could catch in my mother’s face when I felt bold enough to look her in the eye. The sadness, the hurt, the fear, the helplessness. I could see her searching for something to give back to me, for just the right thing that would erase the 2 years worth of pain she didn’t even know I was carrying. I watched her reach for something that didn’t come from a speech or curriculum but from her own heart as a mother. She talked to me about making peace, and journaling, and pulled out an entire list of things I had never considered options for myself. And from there I found somewhere to start.
I thought about what I wanted more than anything and what the biggest roadblock had been for me. I hated more than anything that I never told him how much he had hurt me. It was unfair that he didn’t have to carry the burden of being a rapist but I had to carry the burden of being raped. So I called him up fully planning to let him have it, and when I heard his voice I froze. I felt like I was right back in that moment. I could feel his sweaty hands on me, and my skin felt hot. I remembered his voice in my ear and my body trembled. I almost hung up the phone. It felt like everything in that moment was too hard and too much and I just couldn’t do it. But more than I felt fear – I wanted justice. This should not be mine to carry alone. So I told him everything, and for the first time I actually held him accountable for causing me harm. I wasn’t met with resistance. He didn’t deny anything and he let me be angry, he let me be confused and he let me cry. I don’t remember much about that night. Like most folks with trauma my brain immediately pushed the details of that day right out of my mind. I remember it being late and I was staying in this hotel. I had to step out so I wouldn’t get too loud because I came with the intention of letting him have it. I remember hearing him over the phone talking to me and trying to process what I was saying. I’ll say no matter how many workshops you attend on community healing and restorative justice, no matter what books you read or whatever, nothing prepares you for confronting your rapist at 2 am alone in a hotel hallway. Nothing prepares you for having to leave a public event to go in a private room and tell your rapist that they are in fact your rapist, and that y’all most certainly need to talk about it because you are suffering. But after we hung up I realized I had no idea what to do next. I still had trouble feeling at home in my body, I didn’t understand what to do with myself after that. So I spent the next few weeks trying anything I could to feel like my body was mine. I tried having sex with different people to try to become more in tune with my needs and desires, and to get rid of some of the anxiety I had around intimacy. I thought that sex would be the logical answer to that since a sexual encounter was the thing that caused these feelings anyway. But I jumped in the deep end and scared myself so I had to go back to the drawing board. Since that was a little much for me I wanted to try other ways of claiming agency over my body until I felt I was ready to be intimate in a real way again.
It’s been well over a year, almost two now, and that’s where I still am. I’m experimenting and trying to figure out what feels right to me, and what makes me feel like my body is mine again. I took up pole dancing, I was lucky enough to find a great therapist, and I am no longer pushing but excited to see what the next chapter of healing is for me. Mostly because
what I realized was most important wasn’t getting to the end of the road but having the courage to just take the first step. I had spent most of my time thinking I had no real claim to the word survivor because I was barely surviving.
I had let myself become obsessed with this perfect end goal instead of being proud of myself for even being on the journey. I can’t confidently say what the next step is. I’m absolutely no expert when it comes to things like this. After all, I’ve been winging it this whole time but that doesnt matter. I’m proud of myself regardless. I did something that I thought was impossible for years and that’s what matters. If I could pass anything on to anyone else I’d say the journey isn’t as scary as it looks. Deciding that your health and your sanity matters is one of the most important choices you can make.
About the Author
Kaia Naadira is filmmaker and photographer originally from the historic city of Selma, Alabama. Kaia’s work is inspired by and almost exclusively centers stories from the black, queer community, often with an experimental twist. Believing in centering truth in all their work, many of their projects are informed by real moments in their own life to remind people that they are not alone. Kaia attended Howard University for film but is largely self-taught finding the biggest lessons have come from making connections, building community, co-developing projects, and using their experiences to learn and grow as an artist. Their work has been screened at the BlackStar Film festival in Philadelphia where they won an Audience Award for best short in their age group as well as the Black Trans Media film festival and Revolve Film Festival. Their photography can also be seen internationally in magazines like Les Inrock and Glamour. They currently reside in Washington, DC and are looking forward to the next adventure.