16 years ago, on this day, I was a virgin and 16 years ago on this same day, I was raped.
I'm the daughter of two very conservative and religious Chinese immigrants. My grandpa is a well-known pastor and I grew up with a religious father who spoke at church almost every week.
In high school, I was known as the "girl who played the violin." In "real life", I was a girl who was trying desperately hard to fit in. I'd fake inhale cigarettes and would pretend I knew what all my friends were talking about when discussing all the bases. I wore JNCO jeans - otherwise known as "skater" jeans - without ever having learned how to skate.
My parents were in the middle of a divorce, so I never wanted to be home. My mother would stay at the house I grew up at every other week to take care of my brother and I, so I knew that this particular week, the house she moved into was going to be empty. It was finally my break; it was my time to have a high-school party. When my mother wasn't looking, I went ahead and stole the keys to her house and said I was going out for the night. Little to her knowledge, I was planning on throwing a party at her house. I told a bunch of my friends earlier that day. A lot of the cool kids were going to come, even some of the most popular high-school senior football players.
I lost my virginity under the roof of my mother's house to one of those senior football players. He kept pulling me into different rooms of the house and each time this occurred, I'd find an excuse to get away from him.
It's funny what you remember during these times, like the little cracks in the off-white ceiling. It was so difficult to go back there for years without vivid memories flooding back. These ceilings symbolized my disgust, shame, guilt, and my failure as a daughter and as a female young adult. My mother didn't know what happened. I was scared. Would people believe me? Did I give the wrong signs? Would my Christian family disown me?
No one believed me at school. They would say things like, "Why wouldn't Melissa want to lose her virginity to the most popular guy on the football team?". I snuck out of school by myself to go to the closest Planned Parenthood I could find, which was in Hempstead, which was known to be an unsafe neighborhood at the time. I wore a skirt because I wasn't very comfortable with my body and I didn't want to take off my clothes.
I still remember what the lady at Planned Parenthood said to me, "Well it doesn't surprise me that this happened to you when you're walking around wearing skirts like this."
I hitched a ride back from a complete stranger, who I approached as she was throwing chicken wing bones out of her window. I've never felt so lonely and ashamed in my life.
I remember the next morning like it was yesterday. I couldn't get out of my bed. I didn't want to look into the eyes of anyone I knew, especially my mom. I had no motivation, no hope, and lost my sense of self. I remember thinking to myself, this feeling is going to last forever. I'm not worthy. No one is going to love me now. My mom found out about the party from her neighbors and grounded me. I had no one.
A couple of months later, I was no longer the #1 subject of town gossip, things started to feel normal again. I hung out with friends and I even started to laugh again. My experience no longer owned my mind and better yet, it no longer defined me. What I didn't know at the time was that I gained something very valuable from this experience: a strong sense of empathy and a strengthened ability to connect with others in rapid speed.
Two years later, I went to college, and ironically was the target of sexist, racist, verbal harassment. This time was different. I fought back.
I've learned a lot in the past 16 years and this is what I would have told my16-year old self.
Dear 16-year old Melissa,
- What happened was not your fault. Something happened to you that you didn't want to happen—and that's not okay. But it was not your fault.
- The loneliness you feel is going to show you what fulfillment feels like later in life. Some people won't believe you – they don't matter. Those people that you tell who don't believe you, didn't deserve to be in your life in the first place. When you get caught for having that party, you will go quickly from a social butterfly to feeling very lonely. Only two friends will still reach out to you during that time. These two friends will still be your friends in your adult life. You will learn that this was a blessing. It's a natural life sift that helps you determine who should be and who shouldn't be in your life. 16-year old Melissa, you will be OK. You will know very early what real friends are made of and end up with an overabundance of love by family, friends, and colleagues.
- Forgiveness is a gift. To yourself. You will be given a supernatural power of radical forgiveness. Ironically, forgiving is not "succumbing" at all. It's about "overcoming". Overcoming is a choice. To forgive means to be free. You will learn that you have the power to unleash that freedom. And you will have this freedom for the rest of your life.
- Trust is the foundation of any relationship. It is up to you to not give your power away to the perpetrators. Do not allow this experience to prevent you from being in the loving, trusting, healthy relationship you always deserved. But just so you know, you will learn to trust men again. This man will understand your past because you've told him about it. You'll trust him. Because without trust, there is no relationship. He will support you and stand behind your desire to help women for the rest of your career. You will end up marrying this man.
- There is strength in your voice – Brought up in an Asian family, you were taught that girls should be quiet, succumb and respect elders, to not answer unless spoken to, and to serve and provide for others. You're not going to tell your mom what happened for another 4 years and she's not going to respond in the way you desire. She will be in denial. She's not going to know what to do with the information or how to process it. You won't understand why. Then years later you will find out that she and her 3 little sisters were molested by the same elder at church. When they told grandma, grandma also didn't listen and hid these family secrets under a carpet. You will be the one that finds out that your grandma was molested by the same elder that her daughters were. From all these experiences, you will learn that denial is a strong thing. And that even if they don't show it, people are impacted and react to situations in different ways. You were learn the power of empathy. It took 3 generations for a woman in your family to finally speak out. Now, they continue to speak out. But you will be the first woman to speak. By owning your voice, you will help them find theirs.
- It is possible to transform the pain of the past into power and strength. You will end up volunteering to become a rape counselor to help others that went through your similar situation in college for 3 years. You will grow an empathy and wisdom beyond your years. And though you didn't end up reporting this incident, you will draw on the strength and experience you learned from this incident to report future sexual abuse and harassment in the workplace. These incidents will give you the fuel behind why you will sit as a chair for various women leadership networks and committees and create programs to help women feel embraced, safe, and empowered.
- You will help survivors transform pain. Into empathy, into understanding, into forgiving, and into as bold as one can say - love. Everyone has experienced pain regardless of different circumstances… but by understanding and embracing it, you will become someone who has the ability to connect with ANYBODY and in lightning speed. You are going to dedicate your life to this: connecting and empowering.
Since February 15th, 2000, you will have counseled numerous rape and sexual assault victims in addition to anyone who has been hurt, scared, confused, and empowered them to figure out how to release the burden of regret, and hatred and watch them transform... into an Army of Pain Transformers. Overcomers. Believers.
16-year old Melissa. You will be thankful for this gift. Enjoy the ride.
Melissa (i.e. your future, happy, bad-ass, fearless self)
If you or anyone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673). You'll be connected to a trained staff member from a local sexual assault service provider in your area. They will direct you to the appropriate local health facility that can care for survivors of sexual assault. Some service providers may be able to send a trained advocate to accompany you.
"This piece originally appeared on DJ Kitty Cash' The I AM WOMAN Project"
Sometimes it takes falling to rock bottom in order to be built back up again. I learned this many years ago when the life I'd carefully built for myself and my family suddenly changed. But in those times, you learn to lean on those who love you – a friend, family member or someone who can relate to what you've been through. I was lucky enough to have two incredible women help me through one of my lowest moments. They taught me to love myself and inspired me to pass on their lessons each day.
In 2010, I was a wife, a mother of 3, and had filtered in and out of jobs depending on what my family needed from me. At different points in my career, I've worked in the corporate world, been a stay-at-home mom, and even started my own daycare center. Fitness has always been a part of my life, but at that point being a mom was my main priority. Then, life threw a curveball. My husband and I separated, leading to a very difficult divorce.
These were difficult times. I lost myself in the uncertainty of my future and the stress that comes with a divorce and found myself battling anorexia. Over a matter of months, I lost 40 lbs. and felt surrounded by darkness. I was no longer participating in my health and all efforts to stay active came to a halt. I didn't want to leave my home, I didn't' want to talk to people, and I really did not want to see men. Seeing my struggles, first my sister and then a friend, approached me and invited me to visit the gym.
After months of avoiding it, my sister started taking me to the gym right before closing when it wasn't too busy. We started slow, on the elliptical or the treadmill. This routine got me out of the house and slowly we worked to regain my strength and my self-esteem. When my sister moved away, my good friend and personal trainer started working out with me one-on-one early in the morning, taking time out of her busy schedule to keep me on track toward living a healthy life once again. Even when I didn't want to leave the house, she would encourage me to push myself and I knew I didn't want to let her down. She helped me every step of the way. My sister and my friend brought fitness back into my everyday routine. They saved my life.
I began to rely on fitness, as well as faith, to help me feel like myself again. My friend has since moved away, but, these two women made me feel loved, confident and strong with their empowerment and commitment to me. They made such an incredible impact on me; I knew I needed to pay it forward. I wanted to have the same impact on women in my community. I started by doing little things, like running with a woman who just had a baby to keep her inspired and let her know she's not alone. I made sure not to skip my regular runs, just in case there was a woman watching who needed the inspiration to keep going. These small steps of paying it forward helped me find purpose and belonging. This gave me a new mentality that put me on a path to the opportunity of a lifetime – opening a women's only kickboxing gym, 30 Minute Hit.
About four years ago, I was officially an empty nester. It was time to get myself out of the house too and find what I was truly passionate about, which is easier said than done. Sitting behind a desk, in a cubicle, simply didn't cut it. It was hard to go from an active and chaotic schedule to a very slow paced, uneventful work week. I felt sluggish. Even when I moved to another company where I got to plan events and travel, it was enjoyable, but not fulfilling. I wanted to be a source of comfort to those struggling, as my sister and dear friend had been to me. I wanted to impact others in a way that couldn't be done from behind a desk.
When I heard about 30 Minute Hit, I was nervous to take the leap. But the more I learned about the concept, the more I knew it was the perfect fit for me. Opening my own gym where women can come to let go of their struggles, rely on one another and meet new people is the best way for me to pass on the lessons I learned during my darkest times.
Kickboxing is empowering in itself. Add to it a high energy, female-only environment, and you have yourself a powerhouse! The 30 Minute Hit concept is franchised all over North America, acting as a source of release for women who are just trying to get through their day. I see women of all ages come into my gym, kick the heck out of a punching bag and leave with a smile on their face, often times alongside a new friend. 30 Minute Hit offers a convenient schedule for all women, from busy moms to working women, to students and senior citizens. A schedule-free model allows members to come in whenever they have a free half hour to dedicate to themselves. Offering certified training in kickboxing and a safe environment to let go, 30 Minute Hit is the place for women empowerment and personal growth.
Through my journey, I have learned that everyone is going through something – everyone is on their own path. My motivating factor is knowing that I can touch people's lives everyday just by creating the space for encouragement and community. It's so easy to show people you care. That's the type of environment my team, clients and myself have worked hard to create at our 30 Minute Hit location.
Fitness saved my life. If it weren't for the empowering women who stepped up and brought fitness back into my life, I wouldn't be standing – in the door of my own business – today. The perfect example of women empowering women – the foundation to invincibility.