Trigger Warning. This post contains descriptions of sexual assault. Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
Through the journey of learning to love myself and accepting all the raw, broken, beautiful, and messy versions of me I’ve found self-acceptance, self-love, and healing.
Lately, I’ve been talking about sexual health and wellness on Instagram, causing raised eyebrows and inspiring some novel conversations. I don’t share to provoke but instead to invite others in as I reclaim my sexuality in my mid-30s. While this shift may surprise some, discussing these topics publicly is of vital importance to me. The purpose of this post is to help you understand the source of my passion and how it connects to my journey of self-acceptance and self-love.
Failing to fit the traditional Filipino mold
I wanted to feel connected to and understood by my family and accepted for my free-spirited ways of thinking and believing but they wanted me to grow up Catholic and to follow the traditional ways of Filipino culture. They wanted me get married, have kids, and become a nurse —and fulfill their lost dreams!
From the outside looking in, my teenage years weren’t that unique. I was an angsty teenage kid who was trying to find her place in the world — a first generation Filipino-American girl looking to belong while trying to discover my own identity. My parents are traditional Filipino, so their beliefs and ways of parenting are of a generation and culture that I did not connect with. There were constant disagreements between my parents and me. I wanted to feel connected to and understood by my family and accepted for my free-spirited ways of thinking and believing but they wanted me to grow up Catholic and to follow the traditional ways of Filipino culture. They wanted me get married, have kids, and become a nurse —and fulfill their lost dreams! Although I felt like I understood them and how they got to be that way, I never felt understood. But I don’t blame them — they weren’t taught to be mindful to the emotional or mental wellbeing of their children. It was never modeled to them nor did they experience it in their own traditional Filipino upbringing.
Still, I longed to be understood by my parents and siblings but as I developed my own independent perspective, our disagreements grew uglier and the disconnection between me and my family deepened. Verbal discipline turned into spanking, and spanking turned into physical violence. My brother and sister are 8 and 10 years older than me, and they joined in on the abuse. It was like I had two sets of parents ganging up on me instead of siblings I could retreat to. This made me feel even more isolated, alone, and unloved. What I needed most from my family was connection and instead I felt abused and abandoned.
Running away towards connection from another
Considering the pain of my home life, I decided to look online and met a boy. We connected over the course of several months through online messaging and phone calls. He is also Filipino-American and not that much older, so I felt safe sharing my ups and downs. I could share how I felt disconnected from my family and how I didn’t feel like I fit into the rest of the world. He seemed to just get me. I finally felt seen.
He lived over two hours away but would occasionally come visit me. When you met someone online and they told you they liked you and then made that effort to see you, it was easy to convince yourself — being so young and naive — that they must really like you… hell, maybe it was love!
Then one day things escalated at home. I got into this terrible fight with my parents and decided I’d finally had enough. I was sick and tired of my parents allowing my brother and sister to play the disciplinarians in my life. I could no longer stand feeling so lonely in my own family and like any lovestruck teenager might, decided to run away to be with my boyfriend — even though he lived further away than I’d ever traveled on my own. I packed my bags, and since I didn't have my license and couldn’t drive, called friends to bum a ride, and when I finally found one, took off.
When I arrived later that evening, I was confronted with a reality I hadn’t anticipated: he was hosting a house party. I had hoped to meet him alone — to find a comfort to collapse into away from my family — to find a refuge. He came out to greet me, gave me a kiss on the cheek, and said, "I'm sorry. I know I said we'd be alone, but my friends wanted to pass through." Inside I was distraught. What could I say? "NO, this is not okay with me! I just got into a huge fight with my parents, ran away, and I need someone to comfort me, to hold me, and to tell me that things will be ok — and and you didn’t even consider that I might not want to deal with a bunch of strangers?”
But that’s not what I said. Disheartened, I shrugged, "Yeah, it’s cool. It’s your house."
Everyone was drinking and I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable. Alcohol was not yet something I had experimented with. As the night wore on, things got crazier in the house. The music got louder and people became more intoxicated. We sat in the backyard on some chairs and he had his arm around my shoulders. He adjusted himself and I could feel his body begin to lean heavier on me. It was getting late — by now around 2AM. I’d never been up that late before. I remember looking up at the moon and thinking, "Fuck, I shouldn't be here. What have I done?" I went from feeling bold and brave for standing up to my parents to feeling small, insecure, and lacking self-worth.
I pushed his arm off my shoulders, said I was tired, and left for his room to sleep. He followed after me and apologized for not being there for me. I started to open up and he seemed to listen. I started to feel loved again and wanted. He was being gentle and sweet with me but he also smelled foul. His breath was heavy with alcohol and cigarette smoke lingered on his clothes. I asked him to leave until he was in a better state and he so did.
I was in pain — not just physically, but mentally and emotionally too. I felt like I was being torn apart. After moments that seemed to last an eternity, he was done. And so was I.
The party continued and I drifted off. An hour later he was back, but now even more intoxicated and eager. He laid down next to me. He was soft and tender like a teddy bear. But then his energy shifted.
He crept on top of me. He began to kiss me while I laid there, pretending to be asleep. I felt paralyzed, as the feeling in my legs and arms drained away. Before I knew it, I was pinned down, my bottoms ripped off, my resistance muffled, hushed, and taken. The music was so loud, no one could hear my cries. If they did hear me, they probably assumed we were two young lovers enjoying ourselves. Tears streamed silently down the sides of my face. I was in pain — not just physically, but mentally and emotionally too. I felt like I was being torn apart. After moments that seemed to last an eternity, he was done. And so was I.
As the sun began to rise, all I could think was, "Joanne, it’s time to go. You need to leave. Now!" I grabbed my things and what little was left of my dignity and snuck away while everyone slept. I found the closest bus stop and waited for my long, lonely, broken five hour journey home to begin.
It was nearly midnight by the time I got back to my house. I had been gone for just over 48 hours. I remember looking at my house and seeing that the lights were on and thinking that my parents were probably searching for me — calling my friends and cousins — wondering if their baby girl was dead. I couldn't bear to walk through the door, so I went to a classmate’s house and asked if I could sleepover. There I stayed, a few houses down from my own, for one more night.
Next day after school, my classmate told me that my parents had put up missing posters of me all over school. I was gutted with guilt for putting them through the stress but I wasn’t able to summon the courage to return home until that evening. As I began my return, it felt like I was walking down a dark hospital corridor to an inevitable doom. I arrived home, lost and broken.
My sexual trauma molded me, but it didn’t dictate the limits of my growth. Only I could do that, and I chose to write the rest of my story on my terms, despite the hardships that confronted me.
Learning to love myself through the process of healing
I've never shared this story publicly on my blog because I'm not seeking sympathy. And even though I’m a mother and I share my life openly and honestly online, I wanted my daughters to hear my story directly from me first.
The situation described above, combined with other emotional traumas, drove my depression as a teenager and down a road of doubt and self-worth issues. But this moment was paramount to discovering my inner strength: it marked the start of peeling back the layers that would reveal the warrior within. For years, I kept this experience tucked away and pulled power from my pain only when I needed it most.
This moment marked the start of peeling back the layers that would reveal the warrior within.
But turning pain into power isn’t easy. Healing from sexual trauma can take years. Sometimes it resurfaces even when I think I’ve processed it through countless forms of therapy and coping strategies. But my real healing began when I chose to accept that this experience will forever be a part of my life. Accepting this means choosing to either live in the shadow of fear, disappointment, pain, and resentment, or to love myself completely — and I choose the latter. Choosing to love myself means leaning into growth and expanding the love that I have for myself that was never there from others earlier in my life.
I didn’t realize how strong I am until I fell down — hard — and then through years, found the resilience within myself to get back up. Although that experience absorbed so much of my younger years, I didn’t allow it to define who I am or shortchange who I could become. It molded me, but it didn’t dictate the limits of my growth. Only I could do that, and I chose to write the rest of my story on my terms, despite the hardships that confronted me. I chose to find the opportunity in the struggle rather than allowing the struggle to suffocate my light.
One of the things that I have learned throughout the years connecting with women online and in my coaching practice is that we all have stories of pain that we tuck away deep down inside. They can manifest within us and affect the way we live life, go after our dreams, and can affect the relationships we have with other people. We hide these pieces of ourselves because sometimes we believe it’s too much for people. Or maybe they will drive away the ones we love because we’re flawed by dark experiences, thoughts, or emotions. Through the journey of learning to love myself and accepting all the raw, broken, beautiful, and messy versions of me I’ve found self-acceptance, self-love, and healing.
Thank you for holding space for me to share my story, and for joining me as I share my path.
Let’s heal together.