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Melissa Gittelman 2017-12-27T15:34:19+00:00

Project Description

About Melissa

A little bit about me: I’m 29 years old and I work at a nonprofit food relief organization full time as a Volunteer and Development Coordinator. I have a Master’s degree in Applied Anthropology and have traveled to 25 different countries in my lifetime. I love travel more than anything. I would quit my job tomorrow, if I could make a living off of traveling and writing. Writing is my 2nd passion next to travel. I especially love writing about travel and have published a book and write a blog. In my book, Sisters, Sunsets, and Self Discovery, I found the courage to talk about and tell the world about the sexual assault that I experienced.

My Story

As I said, I love traveling. When I was 12 I took my first trip abroad with a group to the UK and Ireland. I studied abroad in my sophomore year of college in the Netherlands and backpacked around Europe on the train. When I graduated from college, I returned to Europe alone and backpacked for four months from Ireland to the Netherlands without incident. So, when I decided to go to Ecuador alone to conduct my thesis research in the middle of my first and second year of Graduate school at Oregon State University, I didn’t bat an eye. My third week there, I traveled up to the Cloud Forest to stay with a family and work on ecotourism and conservation.

The family seemed kind enough, but I felt a bit awkward being the only person there with this local Ecuadorian family taking care of me. I lived in a cabin on their land and had my meals in their house, cooked by the wife. I played with the kids and the oldest son developed a crush on me, but he was only 16 and I was 22. One day I was out with the son for a hike and then the father showed up and shooed his son away, so he could talk to me. That was the first time he tried to touch me and tell me that he wanted me. I brushed him off and ran after the son. He caught up to me and forced me to ride back on his motorbike, except he didn’t take me to his home. He took me to another property, which he owned and he tried to corner me in the house and pulled down his pants in front of me. I screamed and fought him off. This went on for a week. One night he came into my cabin after I had headed there from dinner. He held me down on the bed and raped me, while I cried silently, praying that it would end.

I didn’t fight him off that time, because no one would hear my screams in the forest and I had no way to leave this property until the next week. Luckily, the following day another volunteer arrived. He was from Germany, and I confided in him that I didn’t feel comfortable around the husband, so he stayed in my cabin and protected me each night until I could safely leave the village on a bus to Quito.

My trip continued for another three months and I wish I could say this was the only time an Ecuadorian man or boy raped or attempted to rape me on this trip. I finally left Ecuador that September and headed back to school to finish my last year of my program and write my thesis. I didn’t tell anyone what happened until three years later. I still haven’t told my advisor.

My Healing Journey

It took me a long time to come to terms with what happened to me in Ecuador. I always felt so strong and independent. I didn’t want to scare my mom, so she never let me travel again. I felt like he stole away my strength and love for myself. I blamed myself for getting into that situation and for not fighting my way out of it. I first told a close friend what happened a year later. It was the first time I even acknowledged that it did happen. I started to be self-destructive, dating guys that I knew were only using me for sex because I thought that was all my body was worth. I didn’t tell my mom until two years later. I really buried this in the back of my mind, until it oozed its way like poison through everything I did.

Finally, a friend of mine called me out on being so desperate to find a man and having very low self-esteem. It was my best friend, and she was able to see through everything I was doing and asked me why I was so desperate to meet someone and not thinking I was good enough to find someone. I dug deep inside and realized it was this trauma that was affecting my actions. I decided to reach out to SARC (sexual assault resource center) for counseling, but they had a 10 month waiting list. I called around to counselors, but they all charged too much and wouldn’t take my insurance. I hit a wall and gave up.

Then, I decided to travel again, but this time with my sister. We ran into a tough situation working in the outback of Australia for some abusive employers. I went through an emotional rollercoaster on this trip and finally realized how much all of this was affecting me. The last month of our trip, we lived on a Buddhist Monastery in Thailand. It was there that I found some perspective on my life. I meditated every day and became very introspective and told myself it wasn’t my fault. I confessed my issues to the complete strangers living there. I started the journey towards self-healing and forgiveness.

I returned home inspired to write about my journey within myself. I published my story in my book for the world to read about what I went through as a woman on my journey to overcoming trauma. This inspired me to seek further help. I finally started seeing a counselor as well as taking self-defense class and kick boxing. I felt more empowered and I was also able to grieve and let this experience turn into my own source for strength. Meditation helped me work through a lot of my internal issues. My therapist was extremely helpful in pushing me to open up about what happened, but also to grieve and accept that it wasn’t my fault.

Now, it has been 6 years since the incident and after a long road of self-healing, I feel very accomplished and happy. I have met the love of my life and we are getting married in July. We plan to travel to South America and Central America for 6- 9 months together.

” In the end, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and you my dear will become a Warrior.”

To My Younger Self

I know that you feel hurt and lost right now, but this too shall pass, as your mom always says. Life is full of trials and tribulations and this experience chose you, because it knew that you had the strength to survive it. I wish this never happened to you, but you need to know that you are so strong and you are a survivor. You will get back on your feet and regain that independence and strength he stole from you. He cannot hurt you anymore. You will find a deep love for yourself and the love of your life. Talk to those who love you, because they want to help. Don’t shut people out or ignore this experience. It is better to open up to others than to let it poison you slowly. You are surrounded by loving people who care. Seek help, you are not alone. In the end, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and you, my dear, will become a Warrior.

2 Comments

  1. Lindy Ariff September 4, 2017 at 7:59 am - Reply

    What I deeply admire about you is that you continue to embrace your adventurous spirit, and that you have not allowed this experience to change your love of traveling to faraway places. Thank you for sharing your story with us!! Safe travels, my friend!

  2. Brit September 6, 2017 at 3:21 pm - Reply

    I ended up leaving the peace corps early because I was working in a small town in Central America and several nights in a row drunk men tried to break into my room and I can only imagine what would happen if they had succeeded…I was scared and flew home the next day. I’ve heard similar experiences from other women… I am sad that happened to you and I think it’s really brave of you to talk about it.

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