Sydney's Story

“Give yourself the space to explore what happened to you. We think we will arrive at a destination of being healed, but it’s a journey. Knowing that I don’t need to be okay all the time is the biggest gift I could give myself.”

Sydney Williams is a hiker, author, public speaker, leader, and survivor of sexual violence.

After a decade of not telling anyone about her experience with sexual violence, Sydney disclosed to her husband. “As funny as it sounds, we were watching The Bachelor and one of the contestants talked about something that had happened to her, and it was clear she had been silent about sexual violence for years. My husband paused the TV and said he couldn’t imagine having to be alone in that secret, and said that if something like that ever happened to me, he wanted me to know that he was there to listen and support me.” A few weeks later, Sydney told her husband about what had happened to her and as promised, he reacted in an extremely supportive way.

“It was scary to tell him, because it made it feel more real. But it was also a huge weight lifted off my shoulders and the true start to my healing. If he hadn’t opened the conversation and made me feel that I could talk about it, my healing would have taken even longer to get started.”

Sydney, like many survivors, didn’t feel she could tell her story because it didn’t fit into the stereotype around sexual violence. “Because I knew the perpetrator, I didn’t think that I was allowed to count what happened as rape. After all, he wasn’t a stranger in a dark alley.” In fact, 8 out of 10 rapes are perpetrated by someone the victim knows.

Sydney’s family reacted in an unsupportive way when she told them what happened. “They said I was selfish. My father said my story was made-up. For a parent to react in this way was crushing.” Sydney says that if she had told him right after the assault and received that reaction, she doubts she would be alive today.

“I didn’t tell my story because I didn’t feel safe to go to the police, the hospital, or my family. I had seen examples over and over again in the media of survivors telling their stories and not being believed, and I knew I couldn’t survive that.” Sydney says that the most accurate portrayal she’s seen of why so many survivors choose not to report was in the series Unbelievable, a Netflix limited series with which RAINN partnered.

“There’s no guidebook on how to be a survivor, and each person’s story is different. It’s up to you whether reporting is the right choice.”

 

 

“For so many years I felt the effects of sexual violence without knowing that that’s what they were. I did such a thorough job of silencing myself as a survivor, I convinced myself that I just wasn’t tough enough.” Sydney found herself using unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as overworking, excessive drinking, and overeating, which led her to develop Type II diabetes. “For years I thought I had to change my body in order to feel comfortable in it, but now I know that I don’t have to wait for anything to start loving my body.”

As Sydney reclaimed other parts of her life, she has rebuilt her confidence. “I don’t feel ashamed and disgusted with myself anymore. This is just part of my story, and I want to be able to tell that story.”

For years, Sydney has lived with panic attacks as a result of the assault. At first, she didn’t know what they were. Now that she understands what will usually cause them and the signs one might be starting, she has found ways to avoid them and ways to deal with them when they do occur.

Sydney was a high-achieving student, on track to go to medical school. But the trauma of the assault distracted her from her studies. “I blamed it on myself. There are so many dreams that go unrealized because in a state of trauma we think we can’t do it. We need to seriously consider the cost of sexual violence in terms of missed potential.”

For the last eight months, Sydney and her husband have been traveling around the country as part of her speaking tour. In 2019, Sydney shared her story with 64 audiences at REI stores, universities, and business groups. She speaks to groups around the nation to share her story and educate people on how individuals and communities can work together to end sexual violence, and how survivors can find healing in the outdoors.

“Of course, I wake up every day and choose to do this work, but it feels more like a calling—like something I have to do. When I was suffering in silence and isolation for a decade, hearing someone share their story would have changed my life for the better. Today, I choose to be that person for other survivors, the one who lets them know they aren’t alone. And every time I get to share my story with one survivor or a room of 100+, I heal a bit, too.”

Sydney’s advice to other survivors is to not compare their trauma. “In sharing our stories, the most important thing is not to compare our experiences. The worst things that happened to us might be different, but they’re still the worst things that we’ve been through. Even while hearing stories that are different from mine, I can still identify the language of what happened to me.”

Hiking and spending time in nature have been important parts of Sydney’s healing — not only as healthy coping mechanisms, but symbolic in her healing journey. “When I was finally alone with my thoughts and the sounds of the forest, my healing truly began. For survivors who feel like they’re just not getting anywhere, turn around and look at how far you’ve come. You survived it, you’re here.”

Sydney shares her healing journey and more advice for survivors in her new book, Hiking My Feelings: Stepping Into the Healing Power of Nature. She will be going on a book tour in 2020 and is hosting nature-based retreats for survivors and those healing from trauma that will particularly focus on communities who haven’t felt safe or represented in the outdoors.

“When I stand on mountains and feel the wind on my face, I can’t help but imagine that it carries my worries away with it. Being out in nature helps me remember my place in this world and allows me to focus on how much beauty there is to experience in life.” 

Note: For 10% off Sydney’s book, enter discount code "RAINN."

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