I was raped and broken. So I picked up my camera

By Rosem Morton

Editor’s note: Rosem Morton is a photographer and nurse based in Baltimore. The views expressed here are hers. Read more opinion on CNN.

After I was raped, the days felt never ending. It felt like I was clawing myself out of a deep pit, choking, starving, dying. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t work. I was existing in a space where panic attacks were frequent and unpredictable. Where is safety? What is safe? I was overwhelmed and terrified. The feeling was too much and I needed to take the edge off. In trying to make sense of my experience, I picked up my camera and started shooting.

I photographed everything from what I was seeing to what was happening to how I was feeling. I felt like every survivor out there. If there was not enough proof, it did not happen. I kept photographing my proof. The proof of my struggle, of my survival. I learned to process through the lens of a camera. The work transformed itself to an expression of my silenced sorrows and pain.

I spent a lot of time behind closed doors and I started to notice the comings and goings of light. Raising my hand to meet the sun, I remind myself that I am still surviving.

When I told my husband I was assaulted, I said, "I will go to therapy for a couple of months and put all of this behind me." By November, I had been seeing my therapist every week for four months. At the end of this session, I broke down in my car and realized the work has only just begun.

“You are safe. You are safe. You are safe.” This was my mantra to calm myself down.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), an American is sexually assaulted every 92 seconds. One out of six American women has been a victim of attempted or completed rape. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention links the trauma of sexual violence with a myriad of short- and long-term consequences, including chronic health problems, diminished ability to work and perhaps worst of all, an increased risk of further sexual or intimate partner violence.

These statistics are alarming, yet a year ago I did not give it much thought. I naively believed that if I followed what I was taught — to avoid dark alleys, to avoid dressing too provocatively and to be wary of strangers — I would be above the fray. Instead, aside from shattering my misconceptions, every part of me was shattered by my assault.

In October, I received a phone call from my assaulter. It was not an admission of fault or an apology. It was a phone call to tell me how he felt his actions were justified. The phone call was so devastating that I crashed my car into the garage and broke my side mirror. A few days later, I looked at myself in broken pieces.

On a torn piece of paper, I wrote down the details of my assault for my husband to read “when you are ready.”

This photo, taken in February, was the first time since the assault that I traveled alone to a place where I knew no one.

I kept moving away and saying “no, no, no.” He did not stop. I remember shaking uncontrollably on that warm summer day. It felt like a void consumed me from the inside out. I was left with nothing. I became nothing.

But I don’t want to focus on the details of my assault. For me, the focus is on the aftermath.

I left my assaulter in a daze and walked an hour home. I told my best friend who did not believe or understand me. We had followed everything we were taught to do. How could it happen? It could and it did. I called my husband and he asked me if I reported it. I didn’t. I froze. It’s funny how our body tricks us in order to help us to survive. At that moment, it felt like a day ago when it really was just hours. It felt too late. I felt too late to matter.

A letter from my husband, Ian, reads: “I knew you were strong but now I can see how truly strong you are. You have been challenged more than anyone should have to endure, but I can see the determination and strength in you that will get you through it all. I knew you were special, but now I know just how amazing you are. I can never explain to you how wonderful you are, or how much you mean to me, or the extent to which you have helped me grow. But please know you are the most amazing person I have ever known. Please know I love you for all you are.”

My dogs, Maia and Akira, sense the changes. They come one after another, licking and encouraging me to go on.

“Your touch grounds me.” Ian and I tangle our legs closer and closer.

These are snippets of my past life, torn down and ready to be rebuilt.

Within a week, I was fortunate enough to find some help. My gynecologist, from whom I sought treatment after the attack, recognized I was in crisis and helped me find the right therapist. I decided to tell more of my friends to garner more support. Instead, I felt more blame and shame.

As I told more people, I endured unsupportive responses. Engaging so early had its cost. It felt like I was bleeding myself dry. I thought I really needed them to believe and support me. All I really needed was to believe and support myself. It was not and is not my fault.

With some of my friends, it seemed like it was easy to ask how I was doing and then easier to ignore me if I gave an honest and uncomfortable answer. The truth is no one is prepared for trauma because no one talks about trauma.

A 20-hour flight is a long time to be in your own head. I am restless and anxious, so I pick up my phone to photograph instead.

The anxiety starts from the core and tries to find its way out.

Later on, I decided to report the rape. People offered their own opinions, most of which were discouraging. They said my life would get turned upside down for a man who would get away with it. They warned me about what court would be like — but not about the trauma of the reporting process. When I told the police officer I was reporting a rape, she took me outside the building and made me state my case in public. She interrupted me and said she could not take my statement.

It was devastating to ask someone to do their job to serve and protect, but it was soul-crushing to have to beg a woman to believe another woman. I spoke to many officers afterward who told me this case was not worth their time. I realize now some of the many reasons why according to 2016 Justice Department numbers, nearly 80% of rapes and sexual assaults go unreported, and RAINN reports that out of 1,000 assaulters, 995 of them will walk free. Too often our culture socializes us to do the easier thing rather than the right thing.

I have always loved wildflowers; I admire their ability to bloom and thrive.

In a high-stress job, I fear that the trauma and the stress would collide. How then can I care for my patients?

I started eating a warm bowl of oatmeal every morning. It helps me feel something besides coldness inside.

I spent my birthday in March driving back and forth in the pouring rain of Baltimore.

Still, I found another police officer for my statement. I told my story but never heard back about any investigation or followup. Although it hurts, I tell myself I still stood up for myself. Sometimes, it helps. For the most part, photography has helped. It has bridged the gap by allowing my voice I thought was forever silenced to be heard. Over time, I discovered what I ultimately crave. I crave a connection to myself that I lost.

As I complete this photo project, I am learning that rape is not just an assault of the mind and body but also of the voice. I always think about how my life could have been different if had I known back then a story like what ended up happening to me. Maybe when I was raped when I was 18, I would have understood what happened to me. I might have gotten help. Maybe, when I was 27, I wouldn’t have been raped. Maybe it wouldn’t have taken that rape to get me into therapy, where I would begin to make sense of the traumas in my life.

I saw my gynecologist for a follow-up visit. He asked how I was doing and really looked at me. I learned that people are rooting for me.

I am relearning my body and what it means to be intimate again.

I told myself I will get wildflowers tattooed on me one day as a testament to what I have endured.

My husband sometimes asks me: Why are you sharing this work now, so early in your experience? Why can’t it wait? I always answer: Because it is important. It feels necessary. Although this turbulent journey is far from over, I am compelled to speak up and share my story. The world may be determined to silence us, but I am even more determined to speak up and share my story. My project is dedicated to the innocent girl I was and to many others who think they are alone. You’re not.

Photo editors: Brett Roegiers and Bernadette Tuazon