‘Your aunt’s house burned to the ground last night. Andrew didn’t make it out.’ For the first time in my life, I felt free.’: Sexual abuse survivor shares healing journey through sobriety and motherhood

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Disclaimer: This story contains details of sexual abuse, drug use, and alcoholism which may be upsetting to some.

“It was just before 7 a.m. on Tuesday, August 9, 2016, and I woke up to my phone ringing on my nightstand. It was my mom and she’d called twice already. Something had to be wrong. I snuck out of bed and went into the guest bedroom to answer the phone. My mother was crying; my stomach felt sick. She told me my aunt’s house had burned to the ground last night. Then she paused and told me, ‘Andrew didn’t make it out,’ and this is all I remember from our call. I went into the bathroom and promptly threw up. I went back into my bedroom to wake up my husband and by then, I was in the midst of a full-blown body panic attack. I remember telling him my bad cousin died. I hadn’t spoken to my aunt or cousins in fourteen years, but this phone call changed the entire course of my life. For the first time in my life, I felt like I could breathe. I felt free, and I was terrified.

The first time it happened, I was six years old. I was drawing upstairs in my childhood bedroom, working on a beanie baby design I was going to enter in a contest at our local bookstore. He came into my room to hang out with me while I colored; the grownups were downstairs. It wasn’t unusual, he was only two years older than me and was my built-in buddy. He got closer as I was drawing, and he asked me if I wanted to play a game. He told me it was really fun and it was called ‘Truth or Dare.’ I agreed to play, and at first, it was fun and silly—until it wasn’t. The question he was asking me for my Truth didn’t feel like a question my friend should be asking me. I changed my mind and wanted a Dare instead. Big mistake. The Dare was much worse. After the game was over, he went back downstairs without me. I lay on my bedroom floor, looking outside. I knew something was wrong, but my throat felt closed up.

Young blond girl with ponytail survivor of sexual abuse
Courtesy of Lauren Koshak

After what felt like forever, I went downstairs too. Nothing was different, except everything was different. This went on for eight more years until I was fourteen years old. Nearly every time I saw Andrew it involved a game of ‘Truth or Dare.’ It didn’t matter where we were—my house, his house, or our grandparents’ house. It was always in the middle of the night. He would wait until everyone was asleep and wake me up by either climbing into my bed or by having me come back with him to his bedroom. I hated nighttime and by the time I was nine years old, I was having nightmares and trouble falling and staying asleep. The only place I felt safe was at my best friend’s house. This was one spot he never went to. Her farm and family quickly became my safe haven.

childhood bestfriend wearing striped long-sleeve shirt and denim button-up shirt at a farm
Courtesy of Lauren Koshak

The Last Time was when I was fourteen and he was seventeen. This time was different. He was mean, violent, aggressive, and for the first time, he threatened my life. I had been able to survive it all those years by convincing myself he cared about me. But when he shattered this illusion, the gravity of everything hit me. I hid in the bathroom and locked the door all night until sunrise. I didn’t sleep a wink; I was terrified he was going to hurt me. At sunrise, I went into my bedroom because I knew he wouldn’t dare go in there during daylight and risk being seen. I was right, and I finally got some sleep until my mom woke me up for a family breakfast.

As I approached the table, I saw my usual seat empty, and Andrew in the chair directly to my left. I sat down and my Grandpa started to say grace. Andrew picked my left hand up and squeezed it as hard as I think he could. He was pissed; I had f–ked up. He was silently confirming my fears last night were very much real, and in this moment, while he was squeezing my hand, I decided I was done. I wasn’t sure how, but I knew something had to change. ‘Amen,’ I heard everyone say. Andrew dropped my hand and I kept looking at my lap, my eyes burning with rage. Amen, I thought. You have no damn idea!

About a week after The Last Time, I finally told my mother. But before I did, I logged on to AOL instant messenger and I sent him an IM saying, ‘I’m telling my mom right now.’ I logged off before I could change my mind and went to my mom and told her about The Last Time. When she asked if there had been other times, I lied and said no. I wasn’t ready to share about the last eight years and my mom didn’t look ready to hear it. Andrew never said anything about it, either. No one ever thought to ask me a second time, so I never wanted to bring it up. I honestly don’t remember much from this time. Mainly, I remember a LOT of angry phone calls. My mom, my aunt, and my grandpa all fighting with each other. Everyone had an opinion about what we should do. In the end, my parents took me to the police and made a report, despite the rest of my family begging them not to.

I went into therapy, but because the focus was on The Last Time, not all of the times, I only went so deep into therapy. I spent my sophomore year of high school getting subpoenas in the mail. Thankfully I never had to go to court. I was able to write a victim impact statement and they were able to use my testimony.  Andrew ended up spending time in jail, and while it should have felt like a win, it didn’t. I felt sad. Our close-knit family was over as I’d known it. I couldn’t help but feel responsible. If I had just kept my mouth shut things might still be normal. Except I had to remember a few things: I hadn’t chosen any of this. Nothing had actually been normal for many, many years, and as awful as this felt, I wasn’t wrong. What was wrong though, was the way I had felt inside for so long.

By the time I was in middle school, I was picking my scalp and hair until it would bleed. I had such bad anxiety I was diagnosed with chronic inflammation of my stomach lining by age nine. I had insomnia and nightmares. I had the hardest time staying asleep once I could get to sleep. In turn, I was exhausted and my mental health began to decline by the time I was in middle school. I was depressed, anxious, and angry. I began to self-medicate in the eighth grade, only a couple of years before I told people about the abuse that was happening. I got really drunk after school one day with my best friend and as soon as the rum hit my system, I understood drinking. Suddenly, nothing seemed awful anymore. Nothing mattered anymore and for the very first time in my life, I felt untouchable and maybe I could make it through this.

After the first drink, it was game on for me. I would sneak Mike’s Hard Lemonades from my parents’ basement fridge, glasses of wine from the boxes my dad bought, and shots of liquor into my juice cup from the top kitchen cabinet, which was special for when we had out of town guests over. I say none of this for shock factor—It just was. I was never able to regulate myself, though. I didn’t see the point of drinking unless I was going to get blackout drunk. I wanted to forget all of it and this was the only way I knew how.

By the time I was in high school, I was getting blackout most weekends with my ‘best friends’ and boyfriend at the time. We would raid our parents’ liquor cabinets and take the dustiest looking bottle—it didn’t matter what it was, we were going to drink it. Nothing changed for me between high school and college. The only difference was getting blackout drunk on weekends (and let’s be real, weekdays too) was considered socially acceptable as a college-aged young woman.

shaky picture of college girl intoxicated with alcohol
Courtesy of Lauren Koshak

My college boyfriend was the president of his fraternity, which just further fueled my self excuses. I joined a sorority where I self-identified as a Hot Mess Express. I could, and would, drink a whole 1.5-liter bottle of pinot grigio before going to a house party where I would drink vodka with diet cranberry juice. I wouldn’t eat the entire day before going out just to be sure I could get as drunk as I wanted, and feel the effects fast. I wanted zero time wasted on my missions. College was a blur of Greek-Life mixers, house parties and bars, but somehow I managed to graduate college with a GPA over 3.0. I felt like as long as I was getting my work done, I was okay and no one would notice or question me. My favorite part of getting this drunk was I would just pass out—I didn’t have to lay in bed waiting for sleep to come and I didn’t have horrible dreams all night long. So on I went.

college couple at a St. Patrick's themed party wearing all green outfits and drinking alcohol
Courtesy of Lauren Koshak

Somewhere in there, my oldest brother overdosed. I wish this was the part of my story where I hit rock bottom and woke up before I hurt myself or anyone else, but it’s not. We buried him shortly after Christmas, just before his 35th birthday. I continued to drink, but this time I started adding in smoking marijuana and taking Adderall my boyfriend got for me from a fraternity brother.

Woman loses older brother to an overdose
Courtesy of Lauren Koshak

My brother’s death just further compounded the pain I felt inside and I did not have the tools to cope. Instead, I continued to drown it out, thinking I was coping. I just kept telling myself I wasn’t as bad as my brother. I wouldn’t do what he did. I was better at this than he was. I wasn’t doing hard drugs. I was ‘only’ drinking, and I had it under control. Except I didn’t. I got a DUI when I was in my early 20s, but it didn’t even slow my roll. I lied my way through the court-mandated therapies and treatment and kept ongoing. I was so scared to figure out who I was without any of it.

two college girl at a house party alcohol intoxicated showing the middle finger sticking their tongues out
Courtesy of Lauren Koshak

Then my first son was born in 2015. He made me want to be better, and I fell in love with being a Mama. My husband and I tried to add another baby to our family quickly after he was born, but it wasn’t meant to be. We struggled with secondary infertility for years and years, which is a story for another day. But then, when Andrew died in 2016, I felt free for the first time in my life.

Mom kisses newborn son on the cheek
Courtesy of Lauren Koshak

My newfound feeling of freedom was what I had been waiting for without realizing it. For the first time in my life, I spoke freely. I went to therapy because I wasn’t scared anymore. I didn’t realize the hold he had held on me from afar until the chain broke and he left this earth. For the very first time in my whole entire life, I felt safe, and this safety allowed me the room to feel all the feelings I had been running from for forever. However, I didn’t get serious about my sobriety until January of 2020.

Woman on healing journey from childhood sexual abuse dances in the sunshine
Courtesy of Lauren Koshak

Despite the rock bottoms I’d had already – my brother overdosing, my abuser dying, my DUI – the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back was a simple dinner out with friends. I went to dinner with some girlfriends on January 10, 2020, and I got obliterated drunk. No one else did. Then I drove myself home and told my husband I’d only had a couple of drinks, clearly lying. God love him, he just said, ‘OK,’ and sent me to bed. I woke up the next morning with one of the worst hangovers ever. I spent the entire next day in the bathtub sick off my ass. I listened to my husband and our almost five-year-old son have the best winter weekend day ever, all from the bathtub. This is when I had my moment: WHAT WAS I DOING???

couple smiling hanging out in a lake, husband wearing glasses and gray shirt
Courtesy of Lauren Koshak

We worked so hard to make our little family, and here I was missing it because of drinking. I was suddenly so fed up with myself. I downloaded an app to my phone called ‘I am Sober’ and punched the date in. I called my husband upstairs and told him I was done drinking, which I had proclaimed probably fifty times before in the midst of a hellacious hangover. He just said okay and I felt in my bones this was different and I was desperate to show him so. I posted about my decision on my social media pages because I knew I needed the eyes and accountability.

The first weekend was the hardest weekend of my life. I was crawling out of my skin and wanted nothing more than to drink something and get out of my head again. But I didn’t. I sat with the discomfort and the ache for the first time instead of dulling it. And then I did it again, and again, and again. Until suddenly the discomfort and the aching weren’t screaming in my face all the time.

woman recovering from alcohol addiction and battling with mental health crying
Courtesy of Lauren Koshak

I have been reminded of The Ache, but now I know it will pass. I just have to stay close and keep going. Because for every bad, there’s double the good. I haven’t drunk a drop since that dinner. And it was two years ago now. I’ve gotten to know and love myself in this time, and completely face my past in therapy.  I’ve been diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, ADHD, depression, and anxiety. Nothing has changed, but everything has changed. I no longer self-medicate. I haven’t taken an Rx in years. I drink tea and like to go to bed by nine o’clock most nights. I love to read books, journal, and go for hikes. You couldn’t catch me in a bar if you paid me.

Healing from my trauma and my past and learning to cope with myself in healthy ways has been the hardest but most beautiful journey. I would choose it all over again. Because of my healing, my husband and I were rewarded with our long-awaited rainbow baby this past August. Get this—On August 9, 2021. Five years to the day my freedom was granted. I am alive. I am living. I made it. I did it. Here’s to the next two years…and many more.”

pregnant woman with barefoot resting over a tall pine tree holding her belly in the woods
Courtesy of Lauren Koshak
mother holding newborn rainbow baby girl for the first time after childbirth, after battling with infertility.
Courtesy of Lauren Koshak
mom, dad, son, and rainbow baby girl laying on the sand at the beach with the sun reflecting on their faces
Courtesy of Lauren Koshak

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Lauren Koshak. You can follow her journey on Facebook and Instagram. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

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