How one sexual assault survivor took back her life, one step at a time
Nicola Dakers is in a better place today, continuing to heal as she pursues her dream of becoming a teacher.
By BEV BETKOWSKI
Nicola Dakers was just two years old when she was first assaulted, but it left her with trauma that turned into self-loathing and sent her into a tailspin of depression, eating disorders, alcoholism and suicide attempts that haunted her for more than 20 years. When she was assaulted again in adulthood, it was a staggering blow.
It would be easy for her to just stay silent. The University of Alberta student is close to completing an after-degree in education to fulfil a lifelong dream of becoming a teacher. She’s finally happy and healthy. So why risk the stigma—unfair as it is—of revealing a past marred by sexual assault?
“The more I heal, the more I feel I have to talk about it,” Dakers says now. “I hope my story can help others who are struggling to see that they deserve to have a life with meaning, as well. I also hope it shows them that they’re a lot braver than they think. That was a lesson I’ve learned the last few years that has helped me move forward.”
Dakers, 37, has travelled a long road to get to the place she’s in today.
‘Overwhelming sense of everything going wrong’
Her ordeal began at the hands of an older boy at daycare, who’d force her into a deserted corner and assault her.
“It felt so ill and wrong. I lacked the language skills or the knowledge to speak out. We didn’t talk about good touch, bad touch back then, or no means no. I had this overwhelming sense of everything going wrong,” she said.
Dakers would lash out at her tormentor, then get punished because no one knew what was happening. It went on for three years before her mother realized something was amiss with her increasingly angry daughter. “I remember acting out. When someone did something I thought wronged me, I would over-escalate, scream and throw things.”
Need help? The U of A Sexual Assault Centre is there for you
There are three ways to reach out to the University of Alberta Sexual Assault Centre, and no matter how survivors make contact, their comfort is the priority.
“We provide support for whatever form of sexual violence someone has experienced and meet them where they’re at emotionally,” said Paige Cahill, volunteer program co-ordinator and a support worker at the centre. “People can talk about whatever is on their mind.”
Whether someone needs a listening ear or some information, the centre can do either, Cahill said. Clients are offered information on options for their recovery, including medical or psychological support in a safe, confidential space, and the centre’s services are free.
A family doctor said the little girl was just going through a normal growth phase. Because she didn’t like being a “bad kid,” Dakers found herself tamping down her feelings. “I’d internalize it and keep it to myself.”
After her mother figured out the boy was the cause of the problem, he was moved to another room and the attacks stopped. But there was no help given to either child.
“At that time in the early ‘80s, people weren’t aware that if this happened to a young child, it could have a lingering effect,” she said.
The boy who first assaulted her was only a few years older than she was, and Dakers now wonders what drove him to it. “Something had to have happened there, and I’m always wondering what was going on in his world.”
Her fallout was amplified by physical abuse at the hands of a father who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, Dakers remembers.
“I didn’t feel like I had any value. If I had a bad day at school, I felt I literally wanted to die. Down at the base of me, I thought I was terrible, everything I did was wrong, everything I did was bad.”
She was eight years old when she started thinking about death—“I had really internalized a sense of worthlessness by the time I finished kindergarten”—and her first suicide attempt was at age 12.
“I was going to hang myself in my closet, but then I heard someone calling my name and coming up the stairs.”
As a teen, she tried again every few months with alcohol and pills, but was always interrupted before she could harm herself. “The pain I felt emotionally was so profound, I just wanted to stop it. I needed it to stop.”
She’s glad, now, that fate intervened.
“Every single time, I don‘t know what incredible grace it was that interrupted me, but I never had a chance to fulfil one attempt … and I think I’m one of the lucky few who would have been in my situation and was stopped. I really do.”
At school, Dakers was an eager, award-winning student.
“I loved learning. I remember even as a kid I was always playing teacher, devising lesson plans.” But bullying and more unwanted touching by boys threw her into a depression. “My brain shut off, I was not there, so I began struggling emotionally and socially.” By 14, she’d turned to alcohol to manage her feelings.
“I’d find a place to drink—somebody’s basement—and I drank what I could get my hands on. Suddenly I was having fun and nothing else mattered.”
Ironically, it was eating disorders and a pair of running shoes that helped her cope enough with her turmoil to get marks that saw her graduate high school and even start university.
“I’d just get out and run. It was a sense of accomplishment to work hard physically and to push myself. And I’d be extremely strict with my eating; I’d hardly eat or I’d binge. It made me feel I had a sense of control in life.”
After two years at the U of A studying for a bachelor’s degree in arts, though, Dakers dropped out, unable to sustain her stamina. After a year, she took a few courses, then stopped again. It was a wistful yearning for something better, despite her inner demons, that got her to try a final time.
“I went back to school full-tilt. I told myself, I have to be responsible, I am going to do this. I don’t want to work minimum-wage jobs, I want an education.”
It still wasn’t easy. Her low self-esteem overshadowed everything. Good grades seemed unacceptable. “Anything under a B-plus or an A-minus and I would crash.”
‘I was so afraid … I’d be judged or not believed’
She’d just started her final semester when, during a routine medical checkup, she was assaulted by the doctor.
“I remember being out of my body completely, and afterward I was so confused and shaken, I was like a zombie, I was detached. I was already so used to being depressed and angry that it was just another layer.”
She reported the incident to another doctor, but not to the police.
“I was so afraid to have my past life used against me, that I’d be judged or not believed. I felt so damaged and low, I didn’t want the next step. I only had so much energy and I didn’t have a lot of outside support in my life at that time, so it was too much.”
After the attack, her depression and anorexia deepened.
“I couldn’t eat unless I was too weak to run. Then I’d start eating again.” She trusted no one, so she kept to herself, a habit developed in childhood. “I had acquaintances, but no deep relationships. My mom and stepdad tried, but no way was I going to let them get close to me. I didn’t gravitate towards people I could trust.”
The spectre of suicide returned. Dakers planned to jump from Edmonton’s High Level Bridge, but once again fate stepped in. “I’d get a phone call from my mom, saying she loved me.”
She carried on, holding herself together so she could finish and graduate with her arts degree in 2007. But it was two more years of grey existence before life began to take a turn for the better.
Asking for help
It was, in fact, the shock of a skateboard accident, coupled with that undercurrent of steadfast support from her mother, that helped Dakers finally decide to seek professional help.
“I woke up in the hospital with a concussion. I was depressed and still felt suicidal. But at the same time, I also felt thankful to be OK. And again, I had my mom telling me she loves me. Even when we fought she’d tell me that, and it pushed me to try that one last thing, and the one last thing was the sexual assault centre. I was tired of being sad and feeling like my life was failing.”
It took several tries before she let her phone call go through to the Edmonton Sexual Assault Centre.
“I felt a lot of shame in opening up. I was worried that I’d start to tell my story and that they’d say to me the things I heard in my head were not that bad. But they told me right there that I was brave. I’d never heard that in my life. Never. I thought, if I’m brave, I can do this.”
During the following months of counselling, Dakers realized she had a right to be free of her misery, that what had happened to her was not her fault.
“It was this steady trajectory upward in my life. They were very affirming, talking about how survivors feel, the experiences they go through, how they can see themselves in a new light. I learned I have choices and when people hurt me, I get to say no. I don’t have to play the victim role. Now I take care of myself, I believe in myself.
“It took awhile for things to be more natural, but within a year of contacting the sexual assault centre, I was really on my feet: my eating disorders were under control, I was sleeping better at night and I was doing a better job at just being myself. Every few days was another step forward.”
As the cobwebs cleared, Dakers began to think about one of her lifelong loves: teaching.
“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. My favourite gift as a child was a chalkboard—I adored it.” She also realized she was good with children, especially those grappling with some kind of trauma. “I know what it feels like. I feel I can view students through a very compassionate lens.”
Dakers came back to the U of A in 2016 to take an after-degree program in teaching and expects to finish in 2018. Because her classroom work still poses stressful challenges, she makes a point of getting the support she needs on campus, through the University of Alberta Sexual Assault Centre.
“More things are coming up that need to be processed, so it’s healthier than me turning to previous behaviours,” she said.
Now, instead of shutting down, Dakers has enough faith in herself to step up in her personal life.
“I talk a lot now, I communicate, I try things that would otherwise scare me; they still scare me but I do them anyway. Now I run in public races, I organized a race for the United Way, I can speak at events. I feel I have the power to do well in life and I don’t give up as easily anymore.”
Where there was once self-imposed isolation, Dakers now has “a fantastic social circle. I’m really grateful. I have people I can turn to when the darkness gets inside me. It doesn’t happen a lot, but it’s nice knowing there are people willing to be there for me.”
You’re not alone
By sharing her experience, Dakers hopes other survivors can think about seeking the help they deserve.
“Even when you know on a rational level it’s not your fault that someone assaulted you, there’s still an emotional tear that darkens how survivors see themselves and how they manage day-to-day life. I hope those who haven’t felt safe enough to reach out see that they’re not alone and that it’s good to reach out. The feeling they may have now of being worthless, broken, unlovable, helpless and hopeless—that’s not who they really are,” she said.
Daker sees the #MeToo movement as a big step forward.
“It’s sad to see so many women have been affected by sexual assault and harassment, but it’s helpful to know I’m not alone, that people see it as unacceptable and are promising to make a change. Knowing that this movement is actually holding people accountable is a positive for me.”
Speaking up is crucial to fixing what needs to be fixed in society, as long as it doesn’t turn toxic, she added.
“It can’t turn into a movement of hate; it has to be a step towards changing cultural norms that allow predators to continue to harm people without consequence.”