{Content warning: vulnerability, rape}

Everyone who struggles with visibility has experienced something that has disempowered them. This is mine.

I remember parts of that day so clearly. It was a beautiful spring Saturday in San Mateo—bright blue skies and a gentle breeze. While I was excited because tomorrow was my 17th birthday, I was not particularly excited to be collecting for my paper route.

I loved delivering papers. Every day, I’d load my bike bags with more than 100 papers for my route. With these bags full of papers balanced on the handlebars of my ten-speed bike, I’m sure I was a sight to see; I was around 108 pounds at the time, pedaling away under the weight of all those papers, but I loved throwing them onto the porches and hitting the mark. And I loved the freedom of riding my bike through the neighborhoods.

The part I didn’t like was having to collect money from all the customers every month for the paper subscription. Each carrier went doorstep to doorstep on their own to ask for money. I had a good route with very nice customers, but so many times people didn’t have the cash or wanted me to come back another day. Sometimes they’d complain about how expensive it was: “What’s it up to now? $3.25! That’s ridiculous!” It would take days to get everyone’s fees, but that was part of my job.

So on my last day of being 16, I was collecting for my paper at a big apartment house on my route. One nice-looking man opened an apartment door. He invited me in while he got his money. I wish I hadn’t taken him up on his offer.

It was around 11:00 in the morning. I noticed open vodka bottles in the living room and thought it seemed early for drinking. He handed me the $3.25 for his subscription, and then his arm went across the doorway and he wouldn’t let me leave.

I couldn’t find my voice. It disappeared. He kissed me, guided me to his bedroom, and raped me. I didn’t even register what was happening because it went so quickly, and prior to this, I’d never had sex.

It wasn’t until as recent as a few months ago I remembered walking down the apartment hall after it was over and feeling relief wash over me. ‘I survived! I didn’t die!’ I thought. I believe in that moment, way back when, my subconscious determined that I would live if I’d stayed quiet. If I didn’t speak out, I’d be okay. And the whole ordeal was more confirmation that if I stood up for myself, I wouldn’t be safe.

What had been an enjoyable, freeing day turned miserable. I had been shining. I was full of joy at riding around on my bike on a spring day, and that man took my joy away.

I went home immediately. My dad was in the kitchen. I wanted him to look at me and see that I was different now—that something about me had changed. But he didn’t see it. I couldn’t tell him. I didn’t tell anyone, not my mom or my dad. No one knew except my best friend, Zoe, who I told later that night.

I justified the experience—the rape—in my head. “Well, at least I’m not a virgin any longer.” And I didn’t even think of it as rape until I was around 36 years old. I never returned to collect at his apartment, so for the last few months I had my route, he got free paper service. Not long after that, I quit.

I was ashamed. I was scared. My heart was hurt. I hid. It was more ammunition for my story that it wasn’t safe for me to be visible.

Experiences like mine are the primary reason for why I do what I do.

I never want a woman to feel that she can’t speak her truth and be heard. I want women to feel safe when they are visible.

When a woman steps into her power and is fully seen, when she remembers who she is and can see it fully represented in a visual way—that is true power! When she has an anchor, a touchstone, that visually reminds her of who she is and what she is becoming—that is true power.

Helping women discover their true power is why I do what I do.

I can be the Muse and provide the inspiration you need to be visible, because I know what it’s like to hide, to feel disempowered, and to lose my voice.

I’ve been there and I am never going back.

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unsplash-logoMatteo Vistocco