I was watching a movie during my first semester away at college when I first recalled an instance of sexual assault I had repressed. Five years later, I still remember exactly how it felt: Bits and pieces of the experience came at me like hailstones, some sharper than others. I was swept up by shock, horror, and a suffocating sense of dirtiness before I recognized what was happening. I wasn’t ready, but no one whose repression suddenly gives out ever is. When I started the movie, I was an 18-year-old in a new city, struggling to adapt to life on her own, but hopeful that there were good things to come; by the time it was over, I was a newly self-discovered victim of sexual abuse struggling to catch her breath.
To a victim, even the smallest gesture saying “I have your back” can mean the world, but that often seems to be too much to ask. As I would soon come to learn, an unfortunate reality for many victims of abuse and assault is that reaching out for help from people you trust can result in being silenced, which happens in a range of reactions. For me, this meant being met with basic denial and being told to take my experiences and shove them back into the deep, dark abyss they came from. It’s cruel, painful, and confusing, and it gives victims a deepened sense of worthlessness, the last thing they need as they contend with their trauma.
In my attempts to navigate live as a survivor, particularly in the wake of having my sexual assault downplayed and being asked to “forget about it” by people I trusted, I’ve spent many hours screaming along to “empowering” songs, like Beyoncé’s fierce dismissals of scrubby exes or a number of other pop anthems of positivity, hoping I could channel some of their power and stamp out the feelings of inadequacy that plagued me, even though I didn’t relate to the subject matter. As hard as I tried to apply each of them to my life, my failure to identify with these displays of boldness and strength only made me feel worse about myself. I felt guilty because I wanted to do a better job of protecting and understanding myself than I was capable of doing. I longed to hear a song that told me that those feelings, while ultimately incorrect, were valid. I was never able to find one that fit the bill, so my band wrote one, a self-reflective track called “I’m Not.”
On its face, “I’m Not” is not necessarily what one might think of as “empowering.” It doesn’t come out swinging at my abuser, ripping him to shreds (as he deserves), or flaunt some notion that the wounds my abuse left me with have totally healed, scar-free. In fact, it does the opposite. It addresses feeling isolated, unimportant, and small, offering the perspective of what it’s like to be crushed underfoot as friends and family rush in to defend your abuser.
Those themes contrast strongly with the connotation of empowerment in music we’ve come to know. Traditionally empowering songs—Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter,” Katy Perry’s “Roar” and David Guetta and Sia’s “Titanium” are few of my personal favorites—imply some sort of distance between the narrator and the subject, each telling its own tale of how the narrator has overcome their obstacles. Aguilera’s “Fighter” rails against a manipulative, lying ex, detailing exactly how much better off she is for having to face the pain they put her through. Perry’s “Roar” explains how she “went from zero to [her] own hero.” On “Titanium,” Sia sings of unfaltering resilience and her impenetrability to an adversary’s attacks. But being strong isn’t equivalent to being healed, and true empowerment isn’t always expressed by a declaration of triumph. My empowerment came from the process of becoming stronger, and “I’m Not” details how hard that process can be.
Writing “I’m Not” helped me verbalize my experiences for the first time in a bigger way than talking through it with my therapist in the safe confines of her office. It made me think about the complex emotions I was feeling and distill them down into simpler, more streamlined ideas that would (hopefully) allow anyone—regardless of their familiarity with abuse and assault—to gain an understanding of how sexual trauma can affect people.
Releasing the song was another step forward. It meant speaking out publicly about my abuse and opening up to the world, something I couldn’t have imagined doing even a year ago. One of our goals in putting “I’m Not” out was to provide that song for others and empower anyone who may have gone through similar circumstances, whatever that might mean for them.
Experiencing the aftermath of the release—having not only friends, but strangers confide in me that they’ve had similar experiences, or tell me I inspired them to open up about something they’d gone through, or say the song had helped them in some way—has been huge. It showed me that, with patience and a lot of bravery, it’s possible to make good things out of the bad, and that there will be a lot more people ready and waiting to catch you than you might think.
I don’t think music itself is what empowers us—it’s watching others come to grips with their experiences and finding the courage to face them, messy as they may be, that encourages us to try to do the same. So while “I’m Not” might not be as victorious as the tracks you’d find on a standard empowerment playlist, I hope that it tells others what I needed to hear: Healing can be difficult and painful—and that’s not only OK, but its own form of boldness and strength.