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"
With so many groundbreaking medical advances being revealed to the world every single day, you would imagine there would be some advancement on the plethora of many female-prevalent diseases (think female cancers, Alzheimer's, depression, heart conditions etc.) that women are fighting every single day.
For Anna Villarreal and her team, there frankly wasn't enough being done. In turn, she developed a method that diagnoses these diseases earlier than traditional methods, using a pretty untraditional method in itself: through your menstrual blood.
Getting from point A to point B wasn't so easy though. Villarreal was battling a disease herself and through that experience. “I wondered if there was a way to test menstrual blood for female specific diseases," she says. "Perhaps my situation could have been prevented or at least better managed. This led me to begin researching menstrual blood as a diagnostic source. For reasons the scientific and medical community do not fully understand, certain diseases impact women differently than men. The research shows that clinical trials have a disproportionate focus on male research subjects despite clear evidence that many diseases impact more women than men."
There's also no denying that gap in women's healthcare in clinical research involving female subjects - which is exactly what inspired Villarreal to launch her company, LifeStory Health. She says that, “with my personal experience everything was brought full circle."
“There is a challenge and a need in the medical community for more sex-specific research. I believe the omission of females as research subjects is putting women's health at risk and we need to fuel a conversation that will improve women's healthcare.,"
Her brand new biotech company is committed to changing the women's healthcare market through technology, innovation and vocalization and through extensive research and testing. She is working to develop the first ever, non-invasive, menstrual blood diagnostic and has partnered with a top Boston-area University on research and has won awards from The International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering and Northeastern University's RISE.
How does it work exactly? Proteins are discovered in menstrual blood that can quickly and easily detect, manage and track diseases in women, resulting in diseases that can be earlier detected, treated and even prevented in the first place. The menstrual blood is easy to collect and since it's a relatively unexplored diagnostic it's honestly a really revolutionary concept, too.
So far, the reactions of this innovative research has been nothing but excitement. “The reactions have been incredibly positive." she shares with SWAAY. “Currently, menstrual blood is discarded as bio waste, but it could carry the potential for new breakthroughs in diagnosis. When I educate women on the lack of female subjects used in research and clinical trials, they are surprised and very excited at the prospect that LifeStory Health may provide a solution and the key to early detection."
To give a doctor's input, and a little bit more of an explanation as to why this really works, Dr. Pat Salber, MD, and Founder of The Doctor Weighs In comments: “researchers have been studying stem cells derived from menstrual blood for more than a decade. Stem cells are cells that have the capability of differentiating into different types of tissues. There are two major types of stem cells, embryonic and adult. Adult stem cells have a more limited differentiation potential, but avoid the ethical issues that have surrounded research with embryonic stem cells. Stem cells from menstrual blood are adult stem cells."
These stem cells are so important when it comes to new findings. “Stem cells serve as the backbone of research in the field of regenerative medicine – the focus which is to grow tissues, such as skin, to repair burn and other types of serious skin wounds.
A certain type of stem cell, known as mesenchymal stem cells (MenSCs) derived from menstrual blood has been found to both grow well in the lab and have the capability to differentiate in various cell types, including skin. In addition to being used to grow tissues, their properties can be studied that will elucidate many different aspects of cell function," Dr. Salber explains.
To show the outpour of support for her efforts and this major girl power research, Villarreal remarks, “women are volunteering their samples happily report the arrival of their periods by giving samples to our lab announcing “de-identified sample number XXX arrived today!" It's a far cry from the stereotype of when “it's that time of the month."
How are these collections being done? “Although it might sound odd to collect menstrual blood, plastic cups have been developed to use in the collection process. This is similar to menstrual products, called menstrual cups, that have been on the market for many years," Dr. Salber says.
Equally shocking and innovative, this might be something that becomes more common practice in the future. And according to Dr. Salber, women may be able to not only use the menstrual blood for early detection, but be able to store the stem cells from it to help treat future diseases. “Companies are working to commercialize the use of menstrual blood stem cells. One company, for example, is offering a patented service to store menstrual blood stem cells for use in tissue generation if the need arises."