I was 19 years old and had just recently moved to the D.C. area. Filled with excitement over the big city and anticipation of all the new adventures, I took a job at a mortgage funding company as a receptionist.
Although already three years into college, I just didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. Getting an MRS degree was really what I wanted – to get married and have three children. Caring for the children, cooking, decorating and party-throwing was my aim in life! However, there were bills to be paid, especially in the Arlington, Virginia rental market where I lived. The job didn’t pay much but it was a start.
The job was one I enjoyed. The people were good to me, and knowing that I was a newbie was easy for the whole building since I had such a lively Southern accent. People welcomed me heartily. I tried my best to do a great job, so I was proud one day when I was invited to a dinner by the head of a department I had helped in a special way. I was going to be rewarded for a job well done.
The people who I thought were also attending didn’t come, so it was just me and the department head. It was one of the very best places in Washington DC, and the small-town girl inside me was still brimming with excitement.
When he told me that I should wash my hands before dinner came, I thought it odd but I complied. He was over 20 years my senior. When I came back to the table and began to eat and drink, I felt sick. I went back to the restroom and threw up. I remember a kind lady in the restroom asking me if I was ok and I told her I was. Returning to the table, he said he would take me home and I could get my car the next day. We didn’t make it home. He had something else planned.
I won’t go into details about the event itself, but I will share how it felt afterward. When I did get home, I began sobbing – loud and guttural. My housemates came to check on me and I shared what happened. Eventually, I was able to sleep and woke up the next morning to call in sick to work. How would I ever go back to that office to work with him again? I needed the money for my bills, and although I knew my parents would help, I was too ashamed to call and ask.
My sister Trish also lived in the area, so I reached out to her. She was compassionate and caring. Her boyfriend was on the DC police force, so she encouraged me to talk with him. I did, and he told me what many others are told: it will be your word against his. Could I endure the emotional toll of pressing charges? All I wanted to do was escape and never think about it again. I did not press charges.
My job would not pay for limitless time off, so I went back in and avoided the department head in all possible ways. Those in his department knew something had gone wrong and they bridged necessary work communications between me and him. During my lunch break, I met with a job search company (called headhunters back then) and shared what had happened. The representative I talked to was compassionate and began searching for jobs I could take despite my limited job experience.
Coworkers outside of his department knew that something had happened. Many of them reached out – one even invited me to go to church with him and his family. Even though they cared about me, I just couldn’t bring myself to tell them what had happened.
I finally found a new job. Before I left, I agreed to meet with the woman vice president of the old company over lunch to share what happened. The complexity of her body language was strong and I couldn’t get a read on whether she believed that this man had intentionally harmed me. It’s never easy to think that someone you work with could cause so much pain in another person’s life. I don’t know how or if she ever followed up with him. All I knew was that I had found a new job and never had to see him again.
One new friend I had made said that if I told people they would just think I deserved it because I was so pretty. What my friend said to me hurt more than the event itself. She was someone I loved and trusted. From that point on, I didn’t want to share what happened with others because I was scared they would hurt me the same way she did.
I am now 57 years old. Even as I am writing this today, an acrid smell fills my senses…the smell of Kool cigarettes which he smoked that night combined with his cologne. Our bodies hold imprints of events like this.
Trauma-informed care helps people cope with the triggers that still remain long after a traumatic event has happened. Almost 40 years have now passed since that moment in time and maybe it has served as a catalyst in my life to help others who’ve suffered under the oppression of another.
As I bring this event to the Light, I know that hope still remains. This isn’t always the case. When I’ve seen the Cosby, Trump, and Weinstein accusations go dismissed by people who don’t believe the accusers, something inside me hurts deeply again. But God’s purpose in my life will be fulfilled regardless of the bad things that happen. My spirit is still alive and well. With God’s help and the help that comes through others, I shall continue to overcome.
My prayer is that no woman has to suffer rape. My actionable prayer for myself is to help women who have suffered know that they’re not alone and that life can be good again. May it be so.
Read about Triumph Over Trauma – a program I began with the Center for Innovation in Health Policy and Practice – to bring support to survivors of trauma.