‘Too bad she’s gay!’ I was just a freak, or ‘the attention seeking weirdo.’: Vet survives abuse, depression, ‘I am not broken’

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“I joined the Navy right out of high school. I knew I wanted to travel, and my dad had been in the Navy, so it had always been a part of my life. When I joined, I was very naïve, very innocent, and still very much a child. I had no idea how to live as an adult. After going through bootcamp, I was living in barracks with other sailors, and going to school to learn how to be an electrician.

I suddenly had a steady source of income, a sense of freedom (as much as you can have, being in the military), and absolutely no guidance. I never went to parties as a teenager. I was homeschooled for a few years. I read books, drew, and had a very small circle of friends. Having that sudden sense of being independent in the world was very overwhelming, and I wasn’t sure how to navigate it.

Courtesy of Dalena Forbes

Pretty early on, you learn there is a sense of sexual tension between men and women in the military. There was a lot of flirting, teasing, catcalling, gossiping, etc. It was worse than being in high school. The men outnumber the women by quite a bit. Up until that point in my life, I quite frankly never had much interest in men. I hadn’t had the time or experience to figure out my sexual identity as bisexual yet, and thought I was gay.

I had a lot of friendships with other male sailors, and it took on a sort of endearing tone, like I was ‘one of the boys.’ There would be a few comments here or there like, ‘If only you were straight,’ or ‘Have you ever tried it with a guy before?’ I would always play along with it and laugh. It seemed funny at the time. Like, ‘Oh darn, too bad she’s gay! Hahaha!’

There was one man I’d been friends with for almost my entire naval career, up to that point. We’ll call him John. We had met at the ‘Orientation’ for school, right out of bootcamp. We’d gone off base together. Always in groups, never alone. He had thrown off odd comments about my sexuality before, but never initiated them. He would always add a comment here or there, once someone else had said something. He struck me as shy and quiet. I never saw him as a threat.

On December 7th, 2013, a large group of us had gone out to downtown Chicago. We went to a pizza place and had dinner. I have two selfies with my pizza from that night, because I thought it was cool I was getting ‘authentic’ Chicago style, deep dish pizza. When we were done, we went to this sort of club which allowed in under 21 people. It was mostly full of sailors. Two of the men from our group had gotten alcohol somewhere and brought it with them to the pizza place. Three other girls and I had a few ‘swigs’ out of this Pepsi bottle with whiskey in it.

By the time we got to the ‘club,’ we were all just sort of buzzed. I wouldn’t say anyone was really drunk. We were dancing and having a ton of fun. I danced with John twice. The second time, I noticed he was getting sort of aggressive with how tight he was holding my hips. I thought we were all just getting caught up in the fun, the music, and the freedom of not being on base. I wasn’t scared of him at that point.

We had a curfew and had to be back on base by a certain time. It took almost an hour to get back to the base from downtown Chicago. We had to take cabs everywhere, because none of us had cars. So when it got close to time to leave, I told my friend I was going outside to call us a cab. I usually had to call like three different companies to see who could get us a cab the fastest, and would be willing to drive us all the way back to the base.

When I got outside, I realized John had followed me out. I hadn’t ridden to the pizza place with him, so I asked if his group had already left and if he wanted to ride with us. He said yes. I called for the cab and was told it would be about 20 minutes. I texted our group chat and told my friends inside how long it would be. As John and I were standing there, he started directing the conversation towards my relationship with another girl. He seemed very curious about us together. I was thinking, ‘Oh God, where is this cab?’

I told him I was going to go inside to get my friends, so the cab wouldn’t have to wait. ‘You don’t need to go get them, you sent them a message.’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s true. I guess they’ll be out here in a minute.’ He kind of looked me up and down and said, ‘It’s always weird to see girls in plain clothes. Your uniforms really hide your bodies.’ I was super creeped out at that point.

I started lackadaisically walking along the side wall of this building, closer to the main road, and acted like I was looking for the cab. I said something about the cab making us late for curfew, and that’s when he side-stepped in front of me and turned me so my back was against the brick wall. He wasn’t rough with me. I could tell he was trying to be sort of ‘romantic’ about it. I turned my head to the side, laughed, and said, ‘I have a girlfriend, remember?’ I had no idea how to reject this guy. I was so worried about hurting his feelings.

He put his hands on my shoulders and pushed me down so fast I literally fell on my knees. It was so surprising; I didn’t even have time to react. I made like a squeaking noise when I fell, and he told me to shut up. I had a pixie cut, so I didn’t really have any hair for him to grab onto. In our struggle, the very top part of the zipper of his pants made a huge scratch across my face. After it was over, he just stood next to me like nothing had even happened. For a second, I thought I had imagined the whole damn thing. It was so weird. I didn’t know what to do or say, I just started standing up and he looked at me and said, ‘Oh f**k.’

I touched my face, and my hand came back a little bloody. I wiped my face on my sleeve and started walking back towards the front side of the building. I thought it was just a little scratch. I didn’t realize how bad it looked. He followed me the whole way, like he did nothing wrong. When my friends saw me, they freaked. I automatically just said, ‘I fell down out there. I drank too much.’ To this day, I don’t know why I said that. I really don’t. I hate myself for it. I should have just told someone the truth then.

About two weeks went by. Whenever someone asked me about the scratch, I gave them a different story. I started feeling really angry all the time. I yelled at a few people for staring at me. I had never yelled at anyone in my entire life before that. I didn’t think what happened was bad enough to tell anyone. Or if I did tell someone, I was scared of what would happen afterwards.

Courtesy of Dalena Forbes

I noticed some of my male friends acting weird and coldly towards me. I found out John was telling people I was a tease, and had made up a rumor about being bad in bed. I lost friends because he was gossiping about me, trying to drag my name through the mud. It made me not want to tell anyone even more. The scratch healed, but my mind didn’t. I got angrier as time went by, and more depressed. I stopped trusting people. I drank A LOT. It seemed like I was drunk all the time after that.

Finally, school ended and we got our orders to our first duty station. I got sent to Norfolk, Virginia. I knew John was sent to Norfolk as well. But it was such a huge base, and he was sent to a ship while I was sent to a shore command. So I thought I wouldn’t ever see him again. But I wasn’t doing any better. I was incredibly depressed.

I started self-harming, and I was drunk almost 98% of the time. I never told anyone what happened, but my behavior was getting worse. I was losing friendships and having issues with my family. I was bringing alcohol to work and drinking as much as I could. I lost a bunch of weight, bleached my hair, got tattoos, and tried to become a whole different person. What happened to me wasn’t that bad, right? I hadn’t actually gotten raped. I hadn’t asked anyone for help. So why did I deserve help now?

Courtesy of Dalena Forbes

John got my phone number, somehow. The Navy is a small world, in a way, everyone knows everyone. He started calling me, texting me, and messaging me on social media. He said we had ‘connected’ back in A-School, and we should get together again. This time it would be better. He was a bit drunk last time, and he was sorry. But it shouldn’t ruin a relationship now. I could not believe this guy. I told him to f**k off and blocked him on everything. I thought I was safe. He didn’t have any way of knowing which barracks I lived in, and I hadn’t actually seen him. I was wrong. He knew where I lived. He simply had to ask around. I found out who told him my building and room number afterwards.

I had just gotten to my room that day in September. I was getting changed, because I was meeting my friend at a bowling alley that afternoon. Almost as soon as the door shut behind me, there was a knock on it. I thought, ‘that’s weird’ and turned around to open it again. As soon as I opened the door, he sucker punched the side of my head. Before I even knew it was him, he was on top of me on the kitchen floor. This time it was the ‘real thing.’

That night, after I drove around for a while trying to figure out what to do, I tried to kill myself. I got incredibly drunk and tried to cut my wrists. I spent a few days in the psychiatric ward of the naval hospital. No one ever looked at me the same way once I left there. People knew I tried to kill myself, but they didn’t know why. I was just a freak.’ The attention seeking weirdo.’ My life just went downhill from there.

Courtesy of Dalena Forbes

The Navy medically separated me for all my mental health issues. I was just a liability at that point. Before I got out, I reported him. He didn’t get the punishment he deserved, but people knew what he was after that.

The one thing which saved me was my children. I met my husband, and we now have three little boys. Getting pregnant with my first son was like a reset button on my life. I stopped drinking completely, stopped self-harming, reconnected with my family, and took better care of myself. I started a new chapter in my life. But I haven’t forgotten the past, or even tried to. The way I was treated like such a social outcast after I was hospitalized, left as much of a mark on me as the actual rape did. People acted like my depression and anxiety was a contagious disease.

Courtesy of Dalena Forbes
Courtesy of Dalena Forbes

I’ve sort of made it my personal mission to help stop the stigma of mental health conditions since then.  I have a lot of ‘labels’ now. I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Panic Disorder. But I am not disorderly. I am not broken. I am forever changed, but now I’m more aware of other people’s feelings and struggles. I have greater empathy now, for myself and others.

These days I do a lot of advocating on social media, and I’m a crisis counselor for the Crisis Text Line. I will continue to be open and honest about what I go through daily with PTSD, so neurotypical people are more aware, and other survivors don’t feel so alone.”

Courtesy of Dalena Forbes

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Dalena Forbes of Greenville, South Carolina. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.

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