I am pleased to present Natasha Alexenko, a woman who epitomizes the concept of taking lemons and making lemonade. She has taken her personal trauma and turned it into a most meaningful endeavor of helping others in similar situations.
Ms. Alexenko is a survivor of sexual assault. A newcomer to New York, she was just 20 years old when she was raped in the stairwell of her Manhattan apartment building.
It took 16 years for her to witness justice being served, when the perpetrator was finally found and jailed.
Her rape kit had sat on a shelf for more than 10 years. Because of this she recently began an organization known as Natasha’s Justice Project, the goal being to help move these rape kits of evidence along faster so they get tested and investigated. Currently, an estimated 180,000 such kits nationwide are sitting on shelves untested. Ms. Alexenko is hoping to remediate this backlog crisis.
This story is featured in a recent HBO documentary called ‘Sex Crimes Unit’.
What personal qualities helped you carry on and move in a positive direction?
I’m grateful to have a network of family and friends supporting me from the beginning and on to today.
The thing that was helpful to me was that I asked for help. I think if you have support system in place, rather than handling it on your own, you should be able to say, ‘I really need help with this; I’m having difficulty.’ You just have to ask. Especially in a case where not everyone knows what you’re going through. They may not be able to approach you for help. You have to find it in yourself to lower your barriers and say, ‘I’m still O.K. if I ask for help; it doesn’t speak to my strength or weakness.’ That’s actually a good quality to have – to be able to recognize when there’s something you cannot handle on your own and know the appropriate people to turn to for help.
I didn’t know anyone in my building and after this occurred I knew everyone in my building and I went to everyone’s house for dinner at some point. Part of it was allowing myself be vulnerable and letting people take care of me.
Did you go through a period of self-pity and if so what helped you come out of it?
Absolutely, I felt sorry for myself for a long time. And then I eventually started to ask myself, ‘what am I thankful for out of this situation?’ I started going through things I was very grateful for – first of all, that I’m alive. That was the first step; what could’ve happened and that didn’t, and then my gratitude in the present tense – the people, my job, my dog. Of course it’s easier to find the negatives than the positives, but to find those positives and hold onto them and through repetition – everyday waking up and saying, ‘I love my family, I love my friends, I love my dog.’ And I’m so grateful to have them there.
Was there a specific moment or epiphany that helped guide you to this better place psychologically? Or did it evolve?
I think it evolved and there were many epiphanies. I remember the first time I laughed; it was a true belly laugh. It made me realize I hadn’t been laughing before.
The first time I wasn’t afraid to go out anymore was big; little triumphs that got me through everything.
What in general are your day-to-day coping skills that keep you afloat?
One is if I’m not O.K., if I’m upset or have a bad day, to allow myself that; no pressure. Tonight it’s O.K. to just watch TV and not worry that there are dishes in the sink. Learning to not be so hard on myself and give myself an opportunity to be sad or bored. You don’t always have to be productive. You’re biggest responsibility is to yourself and making sure you’re O.K. If you are not feeling well emotionally or mentally, you should treat yourself almost like you’re ill. If you had a cold you wouldn’t necessarily mop your floors or do your laundry. You’re allowed to take a moment to smell the roses and not be hard on yourself.
What thoughts propel you forward?
Rewarding myself and allowing myself to be happy. It feels good to go out and have a great time; those sort of normal experiences help heal and they helped me feel like I wasn’t wearing a scarlet letter. Allowing myself to do what feels good and right.
We’re constantly evolving, testing things out and seeing where we are in life. And being inspired by things around us. Allow for this.
It’s very important to forgive. I haven’t forgotten but I have forgiven.
What does it mean to forgive such a crime?
It is the most empowering thing to be able to forgive someone who has done something like this to you. It takes his power away. It makes you like yourself. It’s freeing. Being angry traps you. When you’re able to forgive and move on, it frees you. I had years of therapy and years of feeling angry. Eventually your mind has to go somewhere after that. You can’t stay angry and continue to function. It was almost a survival instinct to forgive, to work through that process. You start to learn to put that energy toward other things; you change the focus.
I couldn’t fight this guy physically; he had a gun. But how I can fight him and win is by continuing on with my life and not let what he did to me affect me. And now I’m going to take what happened to me and help other people. Now I’m fighting even harder. He’s already lost the battle.
What advice would you give to someone?
Everyone has their own schedule of healing.
Recognize you’re not alone.
Talk about it.
Find who you truly are.
An additional resource for help and information is RAINN
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