This Is Survival
By Aly Raisman
December 7, 2017
Everyone is a survivor of something.
Everyone is battling something
Everyone goes through ups and downs in their lives. The hard parts are scary and uncomfortable to talk about, but they are part of the fabric of our lives. The tough times make us stronger and make us who we are.
I’ve chosen to open up about my experience because I want change. It is very hard and uncomfortable to talk about. I have learned that everyone copes differently. There’s no map that shows you the path to healing. Some days I feel happy and protected for sharing my story. Other days I have bad anxiety and either feel traumatized from Larry Nassar’s abuse or I fear something else will happen in the future. When I have these scary thoughts, I try my best to find things to help me manage my fears. I go for a walk outside. I read a book. I meditate and practice my breathing exercises. I take a hot bath. I draw. I hang out with family and friends. And I remind myself I am in control and that I will be O.K.
I also want people to understand that abuse is never O.K. One person is too many and one time is too often. We must protect the survivors and people who are suffering in silence. We must support those who come forward, whether it is today, tomorrow, in three months, one year from now, 10 years from now. Whenever it is, everyone must show support. Victim shaming must stop. There are those who ask tough questions. Why didn’t you speak up? Why are you just speaking now? Are you nervous this will define you? To them I ask that they consider how complicated it is to deal with abuse. Abusers are often master manipulators and make their survivors feel confused and guilty for thinking badly of their abusers. And the abusers also often make everyone around them stand up for them, leaving the survivor afraid that no one will believe them. That needs to stop. Those who look the other way must stop and help protect those being hurt. Abusers must never be protected.
The power needs to shift to the survivors.
Sexual abuse isn’t just in the moment. It is forever. Healing is forever.
|Photo By Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images|
Soon after Larry pleaded guilty to federal child pornography charges, I was informed that I could submit a Victim Impact Statement to the court for sentencing consideration. If I wanted, I could also request to read the statement in court on the day of sentencing. Deciding to write the letter was a relatively easy decision. Deciding to read it in court, in front of Larry, was not easy. After some internal back and forth, I decided I wanted to go to the sentencing and read the letter. I submitted my statement and waited.
It is up to the judge to decide if victims can read statements. I assumed the judge would allow myself — and the other five survivors who made the same request — to speak. I felt the judge would agree to have Larry listen to these survivors, to hear their stories about the harm he inflicted … not just in the moment but in their everyday lives. I wanted to be present to not only show him I was strong, but also to explain how his abuse still impacts me today.
As the date of the sentencing approached, there was still no word from the judge. Not knowing caused me anxiety. I needed to mentally prepare myself for speaking in front of this monster. I knew the court had my letter, and I knew the judge was taking my statement under consideration when determining Larry’s sentence. Around this time, Larry pleaded guilty to a number of criminal sexual assault charges. After Larry entered a plea, he was allowed to speak. This is what he said:
“For all those involved, [I’m] so horribly sorry. This was like a match that turned into a forest fire, out of control. And I pray the rosary everyday for forgiveness. I want them to heal. I want this community to heal. I have no animosity. I just want healing. It’s time.”
He abused so many over the span of decades and he’s sorry that things got out of control? And he holds no animosity? Does he think he is the victim?
I began to doubt if speaking in front of Larry would offer me any comfort. Seeing him would be scary and extremely traumatizing. One week before his sentencing, I was told the upsetting news that the judge had denied Larry’s survivors an opportunity to speak. I was also disappointed that the other survivors wouldn’t be given the choice to speak because they may have found it healing in some way.
Today, Larry Nassar was sentenced to 60 years in federal prison on child pornography charges.
|Photo By Morry Gash/Ap Images|
I am not a victim. I am a survivor. The abuse does not define me, or anyone else who has been abused. This does not define the millions of those who’ve suffered sexual abuse. They are not victims, either. They are survivors. They are strong, they are brave, they are changing things so the next generation never has to go through what they did. There have been so many people who’ve come forward in the last few months. They have inspired me, and I hope, together, we inspire countless more. Surviving means that you’re strong. You’re strong because you came out on the other side, and that makes you brave and courageous.
Now, we need to change the cycle of abuse. We need to change the systems that embolden sexual abusers. We must look at the organizations that protected Nassar for years and years: USA Gymnastics, the U.S. Olympic committee and Michigan State University. Until we understand the flaws in their systems, we can’t be sure something like this won’t happen again. This problem is bigger than Larry Nassar. Those who looked the other way need to be held accountable too. I fear that there are still people working at these organizations who put money, medals and reputation above the safety of athletes. And we need to change how we support those who’ve been abused. I want to change the way we talk about sexual abuse and I want to change the way we support survivors of any kind of abuse.
I didn’t get to read my letter in court. But I don’t want it to go unread. I’ve shared it with you below. This was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Every time I share my story, it feels like the first time. I relive years of trauma. But this is part of my truth and part of my healing.
This is survival.
Below is the statement that I was prepared to read at the sentencing hearing.
Realizing that you are a victim of sexual abuse is a horrible feeling. Words cannot adequately capture the level of disgust I feel when I think about how this happened. Larry abused his power and the trust I and so many others placed in him, and I am not sure I will ever come to terms with how horribly he manipulated and violated me.
Larry was the USA Gymnastics national team doctor and the U.S. Olympic Team doctor. He was trusted by so many and took advantage of countless athletes, and their families. The effects of his actions are far-reaching, since abuse goes way beyond the moment, often haunting survivors for the rest of their lives, making it difficult for them to trust others, and impacting their relationships. It is all the more devastating when such abuse comes at the hand of such a highly respected doctor, since it leaves victims questioning the organizations — and even the medical profession itself — upon which so many rely.
I am writing this letter to share some of my story, in hopes that it will help others understand the profound impact Larry’s abuse has had on me, how his betrayal of trust has changed me and how his actions years ago continue to affect my daily life.
From the age of eight, all I wanted to do was go to the Olympics. I loved gymnastics with all my heart, and worked as hard as I could. Larry, you knew how badly I wanted to be the best I could be, you knew how hard I worked, and that I would do absolutely anything to be on the team. You were my doctor, and like most people, I was taught to trust doctors. I believed that you had my best interests at heart, and you made sure that message was reinforced, insisting your inappropriate touch was for medical reasons and that your care would help me get to the Olympic Games. You promised me that you would heal my injuries. You gave me gifts to make me think you were a good person, to make me believe you were my friend. You were nice so that we would trust you, to make it easier for you to take advantage of so many people, including me. But you lied to me. You lied to all of us.
And because of you, I now have a hard time trusting other people. When I go to the doctor, especially a male doctor, I am scared and uncomfortable. Even if that doctor is recommended as the best, I am skeptical because I was told you were the best, and you certainly weren’t. I am afraid that another doctor will mistreat me and abuse his power like you did. In turn, I feel guilty that I harbor these doubts and suspicions.
This mistrust and guilt has had a very real impact on both my physical and mental well-being. For example, when I started to realize what Larry had done to me, I avoided certain treatments that gymnasts rely upon, especially during intense Olympic training. I should have gotten massages three times a week or so, but I was too afraid (even if the therapist was a woman). I lost confidence in my recovery, and this uncertainty began to undermine my training. Even today, I find myself scared that something bad will happen to me when I seek any medical treatment.
The stress of training to make an Olympic team and competing in the games is all-consuming, and success demands laser focus. As my training ramped up, my stress about the competition increased. But added to that was the stress that came with trying to come to terms with the abuse, and constantly wondering how such a thing ever could have happened. This added layer of stress was more than I could handle. It was as though I couldn’t begin to let myself believe what had happened to me. It was too much to bear.
I have come to realize that everyone deals with trauma differently. As a gymnast, we train to control our emotions under pressure. We become good at compartmentalizing. I became almost numb to my feelings. It was the only way I could survive the Olympic process. It was exhausting. The stress of constantly keeping certain thoughts in the back of my mind may have allowed me to focus in the moment, but it became more and more painful over time, both physically and emotionally. I knew when I finally allowed myself to feel again, it would be one of the hardest things I ever had to do.
I was right. When I allowed myself to start thinking about what Larry had done, I was overcome by anxiety. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, like someone was pushing on my chest and my throat was closing up. I couldn’t sleep well because I would have terrible nightmares. I never felt rested. The anxiety got so intense that I needed to see a doctor — a female — who prescribed anxiety medication so that I could function, and sleeping medication to help resolve my extreme exhaustion. After adjusting the dosages of some of the medication, I had a bad reaction and lost consciousness. I woke up to my terrified mom calling 911. I was loaded into an ambulance and taken to the hospital, where the doctors realized the issue was a side effect from one of the medications. My doctor has recommended that I try other medications to help me cope, but the trauma of what happened with those medications put me over the edge. It just added to the list of things I was anxious and stressed about.
After this experience, I decided I needed to allow myself to feel what I had been suppressing for so long. I had spent so much time and energy trying to block out all the pain and trauma, and I realized it was just too much for me to contain. It was the most difficult period in my life. I was exhausted, barely able to do things I loved. I had no energy. I felt sad, anxious and confused. I couldn’t understand how someone could be so evil. And, painfully, Larry and his actions made me hate gymnastics for a time. Larry, you made me feel so uncomfortable and sad, and you made me believe the sport had let me down.
I am trying now to take back my control, to remind myself that Larry has no power over me. It is never easy, but I am fighting to believe that the sport — which I do love — is independent of Larry and those who allowed him to do what he did. I’ve decided that I can’t let him take gymnastics away from me.
Despite my best efforts to regain control, I still have my triggers. My work requires frequent travel, and I feel anxious traveling by myself. I find myself constantly looking around, paranoid and afraid to be alone. When I am at a hotel by myself and I order room service, I worry a male will deliver the food. I’ve had to develop strategies and coping mechanisms. If a male knocks on the door, my heart begins to race. I hold the door open as he drops off the food and keep it open until he leaves. I often wonder if I am hurting their feelings by being so obviously distrusting of them. I always used to give people the benefit of the doubt, but if a decorated doctor who served on the national team for over 30 years turned out to be a monster, then how can I trust anybody? Now, I’ll often catch myself being scared that people I meet are like Larry. And I hate that. I hate that Larry took away my trust of others.
One of my best friends is also a victim of Larry — or a survivor, as I prefer to say. I thought we would be friends forever because we had gone through the best and worst moments together. But I think I remind her too much of what Larry did to us, and our friendship has suffered. Abuse isn’t something you can just bring up with anyone, and I often wonder if I ever will find anyone like her who gets me so well and knows just what to say to make me feel better.
This situation has also affected my relationship with my parents, with whom I’ve always been extremely close. Over the last year, so many of my conversations with my parents have been about dealing with the trauma of what happened. I’m so grateful for their love and support, and I know I wouldn’t be able to get through this without them, but I don’t want to talk about him all the time.
Still, there are so many moving parts to figuring out how to process and understand the abuse. While training I was often away from my family. Now that I finally have a more flexible schedule, I try to make up for lost time with my parents and siblings. I hate that Larry’s abuse has affected my relationship with my family, and how we interact. My sisters are in high school; one of them is in her senior year, a very exciting time. A lot of this past year has been about Larry, processing and dealing with his abuse. I try to discuss it with my parents when my sisters aren’t around, but sometimes they walk into a room when we are talking about it and I can’t help but feel bad that they have to worry about this. It is not fair. Abuse impacts the whole family.
I want more than anything to make sure the next generation never goes through something like this. I don’t want anyone to experience the pain, anxiety, fear and other horrible feelings that stem from abuse. Every 98 seconds another person experiences sexual assault, and sexual violence affects hundreds of thousands of Americans each year. That is hundreds of thousands too many. One in four girls and one in six boys will be molested before they turn 18. Too many abusers do horrible things and get away with it. Too many abusers are master manipulators, who somehow make those they abuse feel guilty. And worse, many find a way to convince adults to support and protect them. Larry’s abuse started 30 years ago. At least that is the first reported incident. In those 30 years, many survivors came forward about Larry’s abuse. Adult after adult, many in positions of authority, protected this monster, telling each survivor it was O.K., that Larry was not abusing them. Larry was decorated by USA Gymnastics, by the United States Olympic Committee — he was even named to an advisory board to come up with policies that would protect athletes from this kind of abuse! Knowing this is like being violated all over again. How many hundreds would have been saved if even one adult had listened and acted? It sickens me to know that for years and years, so many put an institution, or an organization, or medals, money and reputation, above the safety and welfare of young, innocent people. We must listen and take proper action. Shame on all those who actively protected Larry and shame on all those who looked the other way. Those who looked the other way are just as guilty. And shame on you, Larry, you are the worst example of humanity.
Maybe by speaking out, by sharing my story and the way my daily life continues to be impacted by Larry’s depraved actions, I can help other survivors feel less alone, less isolated, and encourage them to speak up and to get help.
I ask that you give Larry the strongest possible sentence (which his actions deserve), for by doing so, you will send a message to him and to other abusers that they cannot get away with their horrible crimes, that they will be exposed for the evil they are, and they will be punished to the maximum extent of the law. Maybe knowing that Larry is being held accountable for his abuse will help me and the other survivors feel less alone, like we’re being heard, and open up pathways for healing.
I hope today you impose the maximum sentence the court allows and I hope people begin to talk about how common and insidious abuse is. Every person we hold accountable for abuse makes a difference.