Nicole's Story

Content Warning: This story contains depictions of sexual violence and sexual assault by multiple perpetrators, which may be triggering or distressing for some readers. Reader discretion is advised.

Nicole's Story


Gang members left her for dead. Now, she helps other survivors of sexual violence find reasons to live. “I have a wonderful life!”

When Nicole Marie and her best friend drove away from their shared apartment, they knew they were never coming back. They’d packed only what would fit in Nicole’s compact Honda Civic—bare necessities, really. Furniture and dishes and clothes could all be replaced. On that cold, February day in 2012, nothing mattered except finding a safe place to start over.

Leaving Pittsburgh was her best friend’s idea. Originally from California, Nicole’s friend and roommate had promised her that, between the East Coast and the West, they would find somewhere to call home.

When a Dream Becomes a Nightmare

“My whole life, I wanted to be a therapist,” said Nicole, and $170,000 in student loans later, she had her dream job. “You know those days when you don’t want to get out of bed and go to work? I never had those.” She smiles. “I absolutely loved my job—loved going every single day.”

In November 2011, Nicole was working with a client who was trying to leave an abusive relationship with a gang member. 

The client warned that the gang had hurt everyone who had ever tried to help her escape in the past, but Nicole was determined. “She really deserved a chance at life. She deserved to be helped,” Nicole insisted. Therapist and client had worked closely for weeks, planning and preparing for the young woman’s escape.

One evening, as Nicole walked to her car after a session, she felt the crunch of glass under her feet. Someone had shattered every window in her car. The only items missing were her GPS and, as she’d discover later, the vehicle registration documents she kept in the glove box.

Nicole filed a police report but didn’t share her suspicion that her client’s boyfriend was behind the break-in. “I wanted to protect my client’s confidentiality,” she explained. “I worked in a relatively high crime area, so I told myself it was probably just a random robbery.” A single female in her twenties, she had taken every safety precaution. “I lived in a secure building. I parked near the door. I carried mace. I thought I was going to be fine.”

She drove home, just like she did every day. She buzzed into her building. She keyed open the double locks on her front door. Everything was as she left it.

Then, she went inside.

Her client’s boyfriend was hidden in her apartment with five other gang members. They’d been waiting for her.

“Right away, someone hit me in the head with a gun,” Nicole said. “Then they tied me to my table and very, very violently tortured and raped me for hours. They carved words into my skin with a knife. I don't actually know how long it lasted, but the whole time this was happening, I thought, I'm not going to have to deal with this because they're going to kill me. It's going to be fine. I'm not going to have to live with this. I just prayed that the police would eventually find my body so my parents wouldn’t think I’d disappeared.”

Nicole’s eyes filled with tears, but her voice was strong and sure as she told her story.

“When they were done with me, one of them put a knife to my throat and asked if I was ready to die. I said, Yes, please kill me. But they laughed at me and used the knife to cut off the ropes they had tied me with. They only wanted to make me wish I was dead, they said.” 

Nicole had lost a significant amount of blood and was fading in and out of consciousness, but she heard the gang members threaten that they had her GPS; they had the addresses of all of her family and friends; they would be watching her. If she called the police or paramedics, they would hurt the people she loved. 

“I was very, very badly injured,” she stated plainly. When her roommate—her best friend—returned home later that night, she found Nicole bleeding, terrified, and unable to move. “She definitely saved my life,” Nicole shared. “She also understood why I couldn't do anything. I couldn't go to the police.”

Nicole’s recovery was slow. Two and a half months passed before she was physically well enough to sit upright and move around unassisted. Her body was recovering, but she lived under the constant threat of the gang members who’d warned that they would be standing post in the park across from her apartment, watching her building—waiting for her to slip up.

That was when her best friend made a pivotal decision: Together, they would leave Pittsburgh and never look back.

Reclaiming Hope 

“I had no idea where I wanted to go,” Nicole said. “I did want warm weather. Somewhere near the ocean.” In the days leading up to their escape, Nicole applied for jobs throughout the U.S. “The one that drew me in the most was working with kids in Texas.” 

So, the two women traveled south and west, driving more than 20 hours until they arrived in San Antonio, Texas, where February days are warm and balmy and the Gulf of Mexico is only a short road trip away.

“She was amazingly supportive that whole time,” Nicole said of her best friend, who was a few months pregnant and preparing to become a single mom. “She didn't push me at all. She let me talk when I needed to. And I think that was probably the biggest thing—not being pushed or forced into saying something I didn't want to say.”

Help From the RAINN Hotline

Settled in San Antonio, Nicole called the RAINN hotline: 800.656.HOPE. “It was a huge relief,” Nicole revealed. “Everything just flooded out—stuff that I hadn’t said to anyone other than my best friend. I hadn’t felt safe all those months stuck in that apartment, but once I felt safe, talking became a lot easier.”

RAINN also provided Nicole with a resource for therapy, and as winter turned into spring, she finally connected with a therapist of her own. 

Tackling Trauma Through Therapy

“I was very, very angry to be alive,” Nicole acknowledged. She’d expected to die the night of her assault, and being left alive was, perhaps, more traumatizing than the violence she’d endured. “I'm not a religious person at all, but I was angry at… I guess whoever's out there—whatever's out there. But at some point, that shifted and I thought, I can do something with this. I’m glad I’m still here.”  

Supporting Other Survivors

Nicole knew she couldn’t return to her work as a therapist; the triggers were too many and too much. “But I still wanted to be in the social work field where my passion is,” she described. “For several years, I worked as a Hospital Accompaniment Counselor (HAC). I would be on call for a week at a time, and I’d go to the hospital when a survivor showed up for an exam or to treat injuries. I would just sit with them, be with them, provide resources. If they wanted me to be there when the police came to talk, I would do that, too.”

After COVID shut down the HAC program, Nicole found another social work opportunity through the state of Texas, where she also works with RAINN and moderates a survivor support group on social media.

“So many people tell survivors, ‘It's your responsibility to report. If he does this again, you could have stopped it.’ And I always say, absolutely not. The only person responsible is the perpetrator. You are not responsible for anybody else's choices.” She spoke confidently, firmly, like someone who knows—because she does, all too well. “There are a whole host of reasons why people may not want or be able to report an assault, and nobody should ever be forced into that.”

Rebuilding a Life Worth Loving

Today, Nicole lives in Houston with her unconditional best friend—the roommate who, in 2014, became her wife.

“I had only ever dated men when she let me know that she was in love with me,” Nicole said, a huge smile spreading across her face. “I guess it turned into an amazing story in the end because we've been together ever since. We have a beautiful 11-year-old daughter. We're also foster parents, and we have the sweetest little baby with us who we're hoping to adopt this year.” Nicole beams. “There's just so much joy that comes with that, that you're like, well, I wouldn't have seen this. I wouldn't have been here for this.”

In the evenings, Nicole still works part-time for the RAINN hotline. She also manages a program for at-risk youth with severe mental health issues that put them at risk of homelessness.

“We’re very busy,” she admitted with a satisfied grin. “We love being outdoors and going to the beaches.”

Over time, Nicole reconnected with her former colleagues, old friends, and family members in Pennsylvania. “Initially, I did not tell them why I was leaving,” she said. “I literally just disappeared. But since then, I've been able to share with close friends about what happened.”

She even returned to Pittsburgh for the first time, in 2023, when her dad passed away. “I hadn’t been back that whole time,” she explained, “and I went to his funeral. It ended up being a good visit. I was really glad to see everyone.”

The Client, the Crime, the Karma

So, what happened to Nicole’s client—the woman desperate to escape her gang-member boyfriend? 

“She got away!” Nicole shared with amazement. “I don't know how exactly, but we had been planning her escape, so she used the resources we’d arranged and got out of that situation. It makes me really happy.”

Incredibly, the client escaped even after learning what had happened to her therapist. The gang members had recorded their crime against Nicole and shown it to her young client, leveraging the video as a threat to keep her close. Miraculously, their intimidation had lost its hold.

“She knew what had happened,” Nicole said, “and a few months later, she let me know that three of the gang members had been killed in a drug altercation.” She paused, then acknowledged, “I wish it was all six of them. I was certainly not the first person to experience their brutality, and I definitely wasn't going to be the last. These were people who didn't need to be on this earth.”

“I Have a Wonderful Life”

More than 12 years have passed since Nicole experienced sexual violence at the hands of Pittsburgh gang members, and while psychological scars remain, she is stronger and bolder and radiant with hope.

“Sometimes it feels like it was forever ago, and sometimes—especially if I'm in a chat on the RAINN hotline—it feels a lot closer,” she admits. “But in so many of those conversations, people will say, ‘I’m never going to be happy again. I'm never going to move past this. I'm never going to be okay.’ And I want people to read my story and know that, Yes. You can be. I'm super happy. I have a great life despite everything that happened. I have a wonderful life.

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