Bullying, can it have a lasting affect? According to the National Bullying Prevention Center, “One out of every five students reports being bullied. Students who experience bullying are at increased risk for poor school adjustment, sleep difficulties, anxiety, and depression.” Bullying can also lead suicidal thoughts, drug usage, eating disorders and sexual abuse as self-esteem levels are at an all time low. This was the case with SHERO Ashley Bendiksen who overcame it all. Here’s what she had to say in her interview and the message she wants you all to know.
Me: What was life like Ashley, growing up as a child?
Ashley: I grew up in a very small town, my parents were married, my Mom was a stay at home Mom and my Dad was an attorney. I had a pretty good early childhood life. I was involved in school activities and big into dance. I had a really good up bringing and my Mom was very supportive. From the outside looking in, my parents had a good relationship. I grew up in Fairhaven, Massachusetts.
Me: Where did life start to take a turn?
Ashley: When I went into middle school I experienced bullying. I wore a lot of hand me down clothes from cousins, I had glasses and I wore braces so I got picked on a lot. I started to compare myself to the pretty girls and it brought myself esteem down from 12 years onwards. When I went into High School, I had a small allowance I bought new clothes and got rid of the braces and glasses, that’s when a boy started showing interest in me.
Me: How did the bullying make you feel violated?
Ashley: One of my lowest moments in Middle School is when this boy who I had a crush on found out, his friends started laughing in the cafeteria and saying, “Oh gross, rotting Ashley, he would never date a girl like you.” I felt worthless and I was only 13. I went home and was crying in my bed, I felt like I had no value in this world. But the worst of the bullying came in High School.
Me: Ok so then you segway into High School, you are a freshman now, what’s taking place?
Ashley: I thought life was going to get easier, but I had a target on my back. The girls from Middle School started spreading rumors a few weeks into school that I was a slut and that I slept around. I remember being really bothered by that because I had never even kissed a guy. So I thought, “I’ve been bullied before I’m not going to let them get to me, I’ll just ignore them.” I started getting positive attention from boys, I went to my high school dance, one of the boys who was on the sports team who was older asked me for my phone number and he became my first boyfriend. I wasn’t allowed to date so we hung out after school and spoke on the phone. After several months, I felt like I could trust him so we arranged to go our on our first date, I lied to my parents about where I was going. Everything was going fine on the date until he reached over and started putting his hand down my pants. I was really nervous, inexperienced and didn’t no what was going on. I started to squirm and say, “NO” but he pressured me and said, “Don’t worry about it, it’s fine. Relax, do you trust me?” So he forced me to do some things that day that I didn’t want to do. We were at the movies, I was 14 and he was 15. I remember going home that night and feeling very confused and thought, “maybe this is what dating is like.” I later realized that was a quick snap shot of what his behavior was like over time. His behavior became much more forceful and he ended up repeatedly sexually abusing me for 2 straight years in high school. I was forced to perform oral sex on him when I had tears in my eyes saying, “Please NO!” One time he came over with a few of his friends, he pinned me down and put his fingers inside of me right in front of them. He would spread rumors around the school about things he was allegedly doing with me sexually. He would come over with foreign objects and ask if he could put it inside of me. That went on nonstop for almost 2 years. I felt worthless, confused, and I didn’t know I was a victim of sexual abuse. As a result I started drinking and smoking at a very young age and developed eating disorders. I had self-esteem issues and was cutting my wrists. I was depressed and had a lot of suicidal thoughts. Due to all the rumors he was spreading there were writings on the bathroom walls, the girls were calling me a butt slut and saying I had slept with 10 guys on a Saturday night, they called me skank as I walked down the hall and needless to say High School became a nightmare, I just never saw all of this coming. I was embarrassed and kept everything all bottled up, my grades plummeted I would cry in the nurses office and it was difficult to get through each day.
Me: Why in the world did you stay with this guy when he was treating you so poorly and why would you invite him to your home and in your space?
Ashley: He always seemed to know the right words and pick the right timing to come over. He would say “Just real quick, 5 minutes.” He would force me to do something around the corner in the shadow of my house like give him a blow job because my father would reprimand me if he saw my boyfriend outside. I was always trying to talk him down and he was always smooth yet forceful in his persuasion. I did what it took to keep him quiet so my parents didn’t find out. He would force my head down on him and position my hands in a direction I didn’t care to go in. Fear caused me to proceed. I loved him one minute but he was hurting me the next. I always hoped he would see that was hurting me and that he would change. I justified his behavior.
Me: Would you say the bullying in Middle School shaped the shame cycle and caused longing for you to be loved and belonged?
Ashley: Yes I was afraid of being alone. People that are abusers are manipulators, they know how to brain wash you and shower you with affection one minute and hurt you the next. This cycle confused my mind. I wanted to feel accepted.
Me: Did you tell anyone what was happening?
Ashley: Only my best friend.
Me: What were you smoking? Was it marijuana or cigarettes?
Ashley: It was marijuana. I also acquired an eating disorder; I would eat on and off so anorexia and bulimia became the norm although I was never diagnosed because I didn’t see anyone about it. I became very conscious of my body. I would drink alcohol in the morning before I went to school so I could cope and then it diminished to just a drink because I acquired the taste. I was a regular user of marijuana and was hanging around that type of crowd.
Me: Was the rest of high school as disastrous as the freshman and sophomore year?
Ashley: My Junior year and into my senior year I had a healthy relationship with a boy but my life later took a turn in a different direction when I entered college. I clearly hadn’t learned what a healthy relationship looked like so I became involved in another bad relationship. I was covering up my disorders but didn’t realize how they were severely impacting me. My second year of college I was waitressing on summer break; he was 3 years older than me. We worked together at the same restaurant. He checked all the boxes of the healthy qualities; he was kind, compassionate, well liked with the other people we worked with. He didn’t force me into things; we both shared a traumatic past so we bonded on a really deep level. I felt I went through all of my past pain so I could meet him and that finally everything was working out in my life. But I later learned, the first phase of an abusive relationship starts with the charmer stage.
Me: How long were you together before those bad qualities came out?
Ashley: At least 4 months. There were never any indications of him being violent. He was happy, outgoing and fun loving. One night out of the blue he got very upset, he went quiet and withdrawn. I asked him, “Is there something I did wrong?” He lost it on me, he started screaming, “You are a Fu**ing whore, you are going to leave me like any other Bitch that I’ve dated. F**k you, you don’t care about me!” It was a crazy out burst out of nowhere. I was scared and didn’t know how to calm him down. It was one of those arguments that went on for 2 hours. Once it ended he said, “I’m so sorry, you are the best thing that ever happened to me. I am so afraid to lose you. You will never see that side of me again.” I understood where he was coming from because I didn’t want to lose him either. I empathized with him to the point of justifying his behavior. I forgave him but from that point forward I was always walking on eggshells. I was afraid he would get upset again at the drop of a dime. Over time his insecurities escalated and so did the abuse. I stayed because I bought into his story.
Me: How did things escalate to the point where you kept buying into his story?
Ashley: He would say things like, “Oh I thought we could hang out tonight, I went out and bought groceries and I could cook us dinner. Oh you are hanging out with Melissa, I thought we were hanging out, why don’t we hang out as a group?” He wanted to keep me to himself. Everything escalates downward pretty fast once abuse starts. I became isolated from friends and family. When it was time for me to move back into college he followed me and caused a scene. He said, “You don’t care about me if you did you wouldn’t have gotten back in your car and driven back to school!” He ended up spending the entire year with me at college and figuring out the security staff schedule so he could come in and out without getting questioned. He would even sit by my side while I was studying. My life revolved around him and this went on for almost 2 straight years.
Me: What made you stay and tolerate this after what you had been through in High School?
Ashley: There are many reasons why I stayed. I had no idea what domestic violence was, he was not sexually abusive towards me, and I think I got caught in the cycle of justifying his behavior. I didn’t think of myself as a victim, to me I felt victims were weak and I saw myself as a strong person. Part of me felt I was so strong that I could help him that I could show him not everyone will abandon him the way others have. I just needed to prove to him that there were good people out there and that I loved him, then he would change. In an abusive relationship there are good cycles so you hold on thinking they will become more the norm then the bad cycles. I was always hoping things would get better and I justified staying because he never hit me.
Me: I can relate to what you are saying. So what was the final straw that ended the 2-year relationship?
Ashley: As the abuse went on he became more physically aggressive. He would restrain me, throw objects, drive erratically, break furniture and I became very scared. One night I arrived to our apartment after work 15 minutes late and he was so angry and accused me of being with someone else. He punched the glass of the front door and it shattered into my face, my face was bleeding. I remember thinking I was finally at a point were it was more dangerous to stay than it was to leave. So I found the strength to break up with him and I said, “You continually hurt me, you say it won’t happen again and it does.” He apologized and said, “OK.” He left so I thought I could finally move on. Two weeks later his friend called me and gave me heads up that he had been drinking, he was upset and he was going to find me. One hour later there was a knock at more door, he was intoxicated, I opened the door slightly thinking I could talk to him and politely ask him to leave. When I opened the door he barged in, lunged at me, grabbed my shoulder and scream in my face, “You are a Fu**ing whore you ruined my life!” He started slamming me into walls and dragging me down the hallway. Meanwhile I had already dialed 911 and was screaming my address hoping they would help. He dragged me to the ground, sat across my chest, put his hands around my throat and he strangled me. I started to see spots as I was lying there kicking but he was stronger than me. At that moment he got off me, started kicking me, he walked off and I came to. I ran out of my apartment and up the street to a pay phone and called the police. He was arrested that night and charged. I obtained a restraining order through the court system, that’s the only way I was truly able to leave him. I found a new apartment and I hid. He never served time, it was 12 years ago, victims didn’t serve the same time as they do today in the court system. They dropped all assault charges and he was given probation for resisting arrest.
Me: WOW! So 12 years ago you were 20, you are 32 today and after you went into hiding you were able to get on with your life. What happened after that with your relationships?
Ashley: I was jaded. I was on an independent kick and didn’t date for many years, I focused on me, and the light bulb went off the day I left the courthouse. I remember looking at the seat next to me it was empty, it was a profound moment and I realized how free I felt. I knew I had to build up all the broken pieces; put money back in my bank account, go back to college because I had dropped out, rebuild a relationship with my family and friends. I started journaling and found healing in my alone time. I didn’t have a car for a while so I walked to work and tapped into that moment of silence. I learned to become my own best friend and person to rely on. There was a lot of reflecting and I knew I wanted to help other abused women. So I volunteered at a local women’s shelter, after being there a while they asked me to share my story at their candle light vigil, I was terrified but wrote my story and read it out loud. It was the first time I publicly shared my story and I saw the positive impact that it made on others. It caused others to open up with their story so I felt empowered and healed. It put me on the whole trajectory of women’s empowerment, violence prevention and survivor advocacy. I volunteered at more places and competed in a pageant, I won and dedicated my winning to abuse survivors. I went back to school for Criminal Justice and graduated Valedictorian of my class. I was so determined to win!
Me: That’s awesome! How are you using all of that today to powerfully impact the world?
Ashley: I speak full-time for different groups and I offer training for first responders on survivor empowerment and how we can support the transition from victim to survivor. My number one focus is speaking to young people since that’s where it all starts for most of us.
Me: In closing for any reader who is at rock bottom going through your story right now what are some final words you would like to leave them with?
Ashley: The worst thing that came out of all those experiences was hopelessness and losing a sense of myself. Once I shifted my thinking and realized that I could become something more my whole life changed, I became someone I never thought I could be. So don’t let your abuser get in your head, you are more than you think you are. The truth is what you knew in your heart before you were jaded! You have been born for greatness!
Today Ashley is thriving! By regaining her power she has become a National Speaker and Award-Winning Activist. She has made her pain her platform and today she uses her experience to transform the world. Way to go SHERO Ashley!
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The #SHEROproject will include stories of SHEROS from around the world throughout the next 11 months. In an effort to support our thriving SHEROS, there is a panel that will be selecting the most inspirational story for the 2019 SHERO of the year award, which will be announced on 12/1/2019. The SHERO of the year award winner will receive a 4-day/3-night retreat at 1440 Multiversity. An opportunity to explore their potential in an environment like no other; get away for rejuvenating downtime and immersion learning on their state-of-the-art campus in the redwoods of Scotts Valley, CA and experience the perfect blend of learning, vacation, and space for reflection.
1440 Multiversity is a place to experience time differently—exploring what matters, while surrounding yourself with fresh air, delicious food, many ways to unwind, and opportunities to connect with yourself and others. SHERO, during your stay, you can look forward to daily 1440 specialty classes such as yoga, meditation, qi gong and Pilates. Or enjoy hiking in the 75 acres of redwood forest surrounding the campus and finish off your day with a soak in their signature infinity tub.
The creation of 1440 Multiversity stemmed from a desire to establish a beautiful and nurturing physical location where people of all walks of life could come together in community—to explore, learn, reflect, connect, and reenergize. (www.1440.org)