My story to tell

Content warning: Domestic and sexual violence

Many, if not all, of us have experienced trials and tribulations in our lives prior to our time at UC Berkeley. I know I have. I emerged from a home severely traumatized by domestic violence, only to fall victim to the aftermath of the trauma. The start of my college career, typically considered a positive milestone, was very difficult because of the pervasive impact my trauma had on my ability to function day to day. And while my mother raised me with a heavy emphasis on education — a value that brought me to UC Berkeley — once I was here, I could not bring myself to see its importance. At the time, all I really wanted was to drink. It was the temporary relief I needed.

I understand how alarming that last sentence sounds, but it would be more alarming not to understand the impact of trauma and how it leaves people at an elevated risk for coping mechanisms like substance abuse. Many of us experience trauma during childhood, others do later in life, and a few never have to familiarize themselves with the pain. Nonetheless, trauma can redefine who we are. Drinking was one of many coping mechanisms that I turned to, not surprisingly with many unpleasant complications and consequences.

My trauma was destructive and challenged me to find strength in myself I did not imagine I could possess. I am changed through domestic violence and being raped at the age of 18. I am a composite of the repetitive destructive behaviors I took part in as I learned to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder triggers.

Being a part of UC Berkeley’s campus, one of about 40,000 students walking through it daily, has been an overwhelming experience to say the least. With such a massive student body, I found it difficult to create meaningful relationships. Even joining organizations to form a more close-knit community was challenging. But I did find friendships. I formed some of the strongest bonds with people who I shared a living space with — the same people with whom I shared anxieties about college and who related to many of the experiences I’d had.

But beyond friendships, UC Berkeley has given me something else — empowerment. With its historical role in the Free Speech Movement, it has allowed me to find my ground, to vocalize my identity as a domestic violence survivor. With its emphasis on tolerance across communities, I have learned so much about my peers, their values and their identities. From the campus’s incredible professors, instructors, faculty and staff, I received invaluable mentorship, kindness and knowledge.

An institution dedicated to validating the experiences of all its students, UC Berkeley has allowed me to teach a course on domestic violence — a course that acquainted me with 28 strong individuals with their own stories to tell. And at The Daily Californian — this campus’s long-standing, independent, student-run newspaper — UC Berkeley has allowed me to put my experiences into words.

Every student at UC Berkeley has a story. Wherever you choose to start your story, it is yours to tell. This academically rigorous institution and its remarkably challenging English program have given me the tools and strength to tell mine.

I am still affected by my trauma every day. It influences my emotional, physical and cognitive responses. But the difference between the ways trauma has affected me in the past and how it affects me now is that I am consciously aware of its presence in my life. I am learning to anticipate my triggers as well cope with them in a healthy way — a way that does not involve me repressing experiences that have shaped my character and heavily influenced the career path I hope to embark on as a domestic violence attorney and advocate.

I believe that recovery is achieved not by forgetting the experiences that caused you pain, but by consistently and directly addressing the ways they continue to impact various elements of your life. By understanding my responses, I have gained a sense of control and have learned a lot about the person I am today. And I am grateful for the people who contributed to my path to recovery.

To Kaitlyn Hodge and Elizabeth Neoman — thank you for taking a leap of faith with me by allowing me to write my column this semester. Thank you for listening to me ramble as I tried to find the words to evoke my traumatic experiences. Thank you for helping me communicate these words onto paper. I could not have done this without you two.

To Madi Hurst — thank you for being my in-house therapist. Your insight allowed me to find solace in the things I could not change. You always remind me to be kind to myself, even when it seems that circumstances don’t permit it.

To Erin Parish — thank you for being my confidante and my voice of reason and for believing in me. You knew me without knowing my story, and you pushed me to own my pain. Thank you for helping me find my path.

To Mom — thank you for playing both roles. My columns were a way to work through my trauma while communicating my story to others, but in writing them I learned that your presence in my life has been my greatest strength. Thank you for helping us make it out alive.

Thank you, UC Berkeley, for letting me write my story.

Elizabeth Arutyunyan was the spring 2019 Sex on Tuesday opinion columnist. She is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in public policy.