Kalie Wilkerson delivered this speech at the 2017 Champions for Change Gala & Auction. It has been edited for length. Content note: sexual violence.
When I was 19 years old, I fell in love for the first time. I was also 19 the first time I was raped. Unfortunately both of those firsts were with the same person.
When we met, he was charming. He was brilliant, and silly, and made me laugh every single day. I felt special and wanted. I was happy.
It was about six months after we started dating when I said “no” for the first time. And that was also the first time he didn’t listen.
I continued to thrive academically, socially, and at my job. Nobody knew that I was holding on by a thread, trying desperately not to break.
For almost three years, I buried the pain as deep as I could.
It wasn’t until months after we broke up that I first realized there was something very wrong.
I had already been seeing a therapist and, by some cosmic miracle, I had an appointment with her the next day. As soon as I sat down, I told her about the first time I said no years earlier. I asked her if that counted as rape. Even though he was my boyfriend. Even though I hadn’t broken up with him. Even though I had once loved him.
She confirmed what, deep down, I already knew. It was the best and worst moment of my life.
No one tells you how isolating being raped is. My friends and family tried to talk to me. My partner sat with me through the worst of it. He helped me shoulder the weight of my grief and healing as best as anyone could. Often their love and listening was enough. But sometimes I would try so hard to connect with them, and, despite their best efforts, they couldn’t give me what I needed.
I asked my therapist about support groups, and she found BARCC. When I heard they were starting a new group shortly, I got in touch right away. When I got the call that I was going to be part of the group, I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt so excited. We were all just normal, average people, trying to connect and heal and then go home to keep living our normal, average lives.
As the weeks went by, I realized I hadn’t felt so at ease with other people since I first acknowledged my rape. In our shared hurt, the group took steps forward together. There was understanding in all of their eyes. We could tell our truths and know for sure that there was someone listening who understood. For the first time in a long time, I felt truly heard.
"We could tell our truths and know for sure that there was someone listening who understood. For the first time in a long time, I felt truly heard."
Things I had been told a hundred times before by my friends, by my family, by my partner—things like, “this isn’t your fault” and “you didn’t deserve this”—those words found footing when another survivor spoke them to me. Every time I had heard them before, I had always thought, “How would you know?” But there was something undeniable about telling another survivor it wasn’t their fault and realizing that if it was true for her, it also had to be true for me.
When I finally admitted what had happened to me, I was so afraid that the strong, passionate woman I had been growing into was gone. Finding out I was wrong, that she was still in here, was one of the greatest gift anyone could have ever given me. And that was only possible because of BARCC. BARCC brought me to these women who helped me find myself again.
Every person I met at BARCC was another light in this dark part of myself I was terrified of. Every revelation, no matter how painful, was a step back to living my life again. I’ve done three groups with BARCC in the past 3 years. Each one has let me put down a little more of my grief and find a stronger voice. Inch by inch, I have reclaimed myself.
"Every person I met at BARCC was another light in this dark part of myself I was terrified of."
It’s been almost five years to the day since I left that abusive relationship. In that time, I have had to come to terms with another truth: I will never be done healing. It will be a lifelong journey. Now my healing comes from telling my story. That’s why I volunteer with BARCC’s Survivor Speakers Bureau, talking to people about the impact of sexual violence and how we can support survivors.
I can’t change what happened to me. But I can be the voice that tells other survivors they aren’t alone, that this violence is not everything we are, and that there is life after the hurt.
BARCC offers free and confidential services to survivors of sexual violence and their loved ones. Learn more about our services or call our 24-hour hotline at 800-841-8371.