After a serious trauma, some survivors find comfort and empowerment by creating a new identity.
By Alaina Leary
Content Note: Rape, Sexual Assault
This story originally appeared on Narratively, a digital publication and creative studio focused on ordinary people with extraordinary stories — get thee to more amazing tales on the new face of adoptive parents, a series on paperless people, and clandestine love.
A s I heard my bank’s customer service representative repeat my first name over and over while trying to help me solve my minor issue, I hated the way the two syllables sounded. It almost hurt my ears.
“I’m going to put you on hold for a minute, okay, Lisa?” the representative asked me in a cheerful voice, hoping to reassure me that they were handling the situation. “I’m just going to speak to my supervisor and see what we can do about resolving this for you Lisa.”
“Yes, okay,” I said through gritted teeth, holding my cell away from my face and turning on the speaker function so I could grab a glass of milk and breathe a few times before she returned, hopefully with news that she could waive the newly implemented monthly checking fee. I wanted to call through the phone, “Can you stop using my name, please?”
People generally love having their first name used when they’re in a conversation, but I flinched when mine came up. When I hung up the phone, I opened up a Facebook tab and changed my first name from “Lisa” to “Alaina,” a name I’d recently joked to my girlfriend about taking as my own.
Once the change was finalized, I panicked. No one would understand what I’d done. How would they find me? Should I think about this first? Facebook’s policy wouldn’t allow me to change my name back to the old one, so I was stuck writing an explanatory post letting everyone in my life know that I’d be socially and legally changing my first name.
This wasn’t the first time I’d considered changing my name. I brought it up to my mom when I was around seven years old, and I explained to her that I didn’t like my first name and I wanted her to let me change it. I never ended up doing that. It wasn’t until I was a freshman in college, when I survived a rape at an on-campus college party, that the change felt necessary. It was no longer about feeling like my name didn’t fit or not liking the sound of its pronunciation — this was about survival.It was no longer about feeling like my name didn’t fit or not liking the sound of its pronunciation — this was about survival. Click To Tweet
Even though I was only semi-conscious during the assault, I remembered distinct parts of being raped: My rapist’s hands around my throat, looking up at the ceiling above her twin XL bed, the sound of “Save Tonight” by Eagle-Eye Cherry playing faintly in the background, the empty bottles of UV Blue and Captain Morgan on my rapist’s dresser, and her voice as she repeated my name in a low rumble, almost like she was trying to lull me into complacency.
After the rape, my name felt like a reminder of the assault, particularly when it was used in romantic and sexual contexts. Even professors calling on me in class and customer service representatives verifying my information sometimes made me dissociate; it felt almost like I’d left my own body and was watching myself through a camera lens or from underwater or in a hazy dream. I was never officially diagnosed, but my therapist in college and I talked about the possibility that I have PTSD from the assault. I had a panic attack at the first college house party I went to after it happened, because seeing my female friends drunk off cheap liquor in red cups with guys touching their butts without asking made me wish the world would open up and swallow me whole.
When someone who looked like my rapist, all freckles and red hair, bumped into me on a city bus, I almost started crying. And I’d be in the midst of making love with my partner when the sound of her sensual voice crying out my name would leave me shaking, gripping her back tightly with my nails and trying to pretend I could fight the instinct to hide. We’d always been into role playing in bed, but I requested acting as someone else more times than I can count after my assault just because I didn’t want to hear my name said during sex.
Just over two years after I was raped, changing my name felt like a logical next step in overcoming my trauma. I’d made the conscious decision to work on my reactions to sensory impressions like sounds, noises, and imagery that I associated with the assault, and I could now blast “Save Tonight” in my 1998 dark green Buick Century to drown out the sound of Western Massachusetts potholes scraping my tires without even a brief nod to the March night when I was assaulted.
I could drink UV Blue and Captain Morgan at any college party I went to without hesitation. I still wasn’t exactly comfortable with someone else’s hands on my neck, but that was a trigger I wasn’t eager to break. My name was the final frontier. No matter how much practice I had enjoying consensual romance with my girlfriend, who was respectful and looked to me for guidance, I couldn’t shake the feeling of dread that hearing my name brought.
Rachel Kazez, therapist and founder of All Along — a Chicago-based organization that helps patients find appropriate mental health care — says that a name change, whether legal or social or both, can be a powerful tool for survivors. “During a trauma, someone’s agency is very quickly taken from them. Getting that sense of control back is really important,” she says. “If there’s a trauma that occurs where the perpetrator was using the person’s name, they might want to go by a nickname or use a middle name instead.”
Kazez explains that survivors need to remember that a name change or another quick and dramatic change won’t fix the trauma or erase what happened. As long as the survivor is working on healing long-term, however, a name change can be an aspect of that process. “Our name is one of the first things we use to introduce ourselves to people,” she says. “It’s about control, choice, and reclaiming yourself.” Kazez also believes that the drastic shift involved in a name change — suddenly going by a new name — can mirror the suddenness of experiencing trauma, and might be particularly cathartic for some survivors.When I first made the change, part of me hoped that adopting a new name would erase the night I was raped, and the memories associated with my rapist. Click To Tweet
When I first made the change, part of me hoped that adopting a new name would erase the night I was raped, and the memories associated with my rapist. “I think on some level I hoped the perfect name would unlock something for me, open a door away from myself into a safer place,” says Isobel O’Hare, a poet and essayist who changed her full name, first, middle, and last, during the middle of her MFA program after she survived childhood sexual abuse and adult abusive relationships. “I wondered what it would do to me to have this second name, whether I’d simply chosen another form of dissociation rather than dealing head-on with reality. Now I feel differently. I think choosing a name for myself gave me enough distance from the past to heal without becoming untethered. It was me claiming my own space and choosing my creative self over addiction and stagnation.”
Every time I did have to remind someone to call me Alaina, it was like asserting my consent in small daily situations: This is my name, and you’re going to call me by it. When my cousin and her husband visited from Texas, he struggled to get my name right at a family party at my aunt and uncle’s house. The first few times, I made eye contact and gently reminded him, “It’s Alaina.” He’d correct himself, use Alaina, and then a sentence later, make the mistake again. I started to teeter on the edge of panic, like I often did when people dead named me — used my former name without my consent — multiple times in a row.
So I focused on the grandfather clock in the corner of the room and made minimal eye contact, nodding and saying, “Mhm” instead of further the conversation. For the first year or so after the change, I wore a bracelet with my name on it every single day. That was my reminder that, no matter what other people said, my name was my choice. I looked at that bracelet every time he slipped up. I wasn’t rude, but I didn’t give him any open opportunities to use the wrong name.
The next time he saw me, several months later, he started the conversation by calling me Alaina and didn’t make a single mistake.
The first few weeks and months of my social name change were the rockiest. As resolute as I felt — I sent in the required legal paperwork within a week of making the choice — it felt impossible to get people I’d known for years to break their habits. I was exhausted by constantly reminding people, “It’s Alaina now,” and re-introducing myself every time I ran into a former classmate, old friend of the family, or distant relative. My short explanation felt paltry in comparison to the magnitude of this decision: “I guess it’s been awhile since I’ve seen you, but just to let you know, I made the decision to change my name to Alaina in June of this year. I’ve never felt comfortable with my old name, and I would really appreciate it if you can call me Alaina going forward. I’m happy to remind you politely if you’d prefer.”
Sana Chandran, a licensed clinical psychologist in the Bay Area of California, changed her last name after surviving family trauma when her father stole her identity and had an affair outside of his marriage. “I needed to emotionally and legally distance myself,” she says. She took her mother’s maiden name. “Even though it broke my father’s heart, I had to remain true to myself and carry a name that I was most proud of. I feel good about my choice.”
I was lucky that none of my friends or family members objected to my name change. It took my dad a few days to adjust, but after we had a discussion about how hearing my name was difficult for me, he was willing to try his best.
“I was worried that my classmates would think I was pretty self-absorbed to expect them to start calling me something completely different,” O’Hare says. “I was surprised when they not only adopted the new name, but did so with great joy like they were traveling with me on an important voyage.”
One of my best friends, Krista, is a soft-spoken introvert whose life is often defined by habits, such as how she leaves her house at exactly the same time every day in order to be “the right amount of early” to her obligations. “I’ve been practicing your name,” was one of the first things she told me when she saw me after my announcement. “If I slip up, I’m really sorry. I’ve been repeating it to myself for weeks.” She didn’t make a mistake once.
As the years passed, fewer and fewer people referred to me by the wrong name, and when it did happen, it was so occasional that it didn’t ignite a floodgate of panic exploding inside me, it didn’t make me dissociate to escape painful memories of my assault. Watching my friends and family get it right — and seeing them correct others, like when one of my best friends, Desiree, a future attorney who respected my legal decision the moment I announced it, would assertively remind her forgetful Portuguese mother that she can’t call me “Lisa” anymore because that’s not my name — made my heart sing.After a period of adjustment, my name no longer feels like a proclamation of reclaiming my consent or my identity, it just feels like who I am. Click To Tweet
Initially, I worried that my name change wouldn’t change my life, and in many ways, it didn’t. After a period of adjustment, my name no longer feels like a proclamation of reclaiming my consent or my identity, it just feels like who I am. And hearing my former name doesn’t often fill me with dread; instead, I’ll stare blankly and forget to respond because I hear “Lisa,” and think, “Who are they talking to?”
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