Overcoming Obstacles

Olivia Venuto, Creative & Marketing Director, The Army of Survivors

I am a survivor. One year ago, these words would have felt foreign, but today I wear them proudly.

My story is all too familiar to the hundreds of other women and girls that were abused by former doctor Larry Nassar.

I started training in Ballet when I was three years old. Many weekends and nights after school throughout my childhood and teenage years were spent in studios and on stages. When I was 12, I injured my lower back and was referred to Nassar’s office at the Michigan State University Sports Medicine Clinic. He was always accommodating, scheduling last minute appointments so I could get back on the dance floor. One particular time, he treated a knee injury the night before I left on a 6 week performance tour in Germany and France.

Often, my mom or dad would accompany me to my appointments and became close with Nassar throughout the years. We even saw him and his family every Sunday in church.

Why would someone I thought was making my health a priority be abusing me? Why would someone abuse me with my parents in the room? Why didn’t I say something when I was uncomfortable? Why didn’t I know I was being abused? These are questions I would repeatedly ask myself years later.

Unfortunately since my back was never properly treated, I was forced to retire from ballet at the age of 16. My new normal was constant pain, often impacting my day-to-day life.

I continued to regularly see Nassar until my last appointment in 2013, during my sophomore year at Michigan State. I remember my freshman year walking over to his office because it was so close to my dorm. These appointments were different because my parents did not go with me. Often I look back and feel shame because I willingly drove myself to appointments alone, not fully understanding that I was exposing myself to abuse.

When I read Rachael Denhollander’s story in the IndyStar, it felt like everything I had known crashed to the ground. After a couple of months of deep depression, anxiety, and anger I filed a police report with Michigan State Police. I was forced to tell my story over and over and over again, each time I would uncover memories that had been long suppressed. With every question I was asked, another piece of my world grew dark.

I had to explain every detail, every conversation, what he made me wear, and the inappropriate comments he made that I ignored. Where and how he touched me, if he was wearing gloves or if another medical professional was in the room, what exam room he would take me to, what pictures hung on the walls, what direction the exam table was facing, where Nassar would position himself. Each time I was interviewed I relived my abuse.

After reporting, I slowly began to put the pieces of my life back together. Every morning it became more difficult to get out of bed. Not only was I dealing with my abuse, my mom was also battling breast cancer. I was having the hardest year of my life but had to put on a happy face as I served as Maid of Honor in four weddings. I didn’t want to be a burden on my friends and put a cloud over their happiness so I kept my feelings inside.

The more I suppressed my emotions, the more my depression and anxiety took over. I reached a breaking point when Nassar’s sentencing began. Each day, seeing more survivors come forward, knowing they were going through everything I was going through made me feel a little less alone, but also made my pain more intense. I hurt so much for each woman that stood to read her impact statement. I watched every day of sentencing, listened to every impact statement, and read every article about our case that I could find.

I had originally intended not to submit an impact statement. I didn’t want to relive my abuse again but I was inspired by the strength of the other survivors. My impact statement was read on my behalf in the courtroom and was the first time I was publicly identified. I started going to therapy after the sentencing and was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Each day since then, I have slowly started to heal both physically and mentally.

Support has been so critical in my healing. Often my partner would get home from work to find me crying on the kitchen floor. He’s had to calm me during the countless nights filled with nightmares and he’s helped me find my sense of self-worth when I didn’t feel like I was worth the effort. The support I was given saved my life. I was broken, but now I am strong.

The sisters I gained through this traumatic experience have been incredibly impactful in my life. With them by my side, I am able to see that good can come out of something so horrible.

Through much of my experience, I have felt betrayed by MSU. I was disappointed in the lack of action against Nassar when he was protected over believing survivors. But recently, I have decided I am not letting anyone have power over me anymore. MSU to me is football games and tailgates, it’s the College of Communication Arts and Sciences where I studied advertising and design, it’s the classroom where I met the love of my life, the place I earned my degree and began my career. I am choosing to let the good memories speak louder than the bad. The individuals responsible for so much pain and suffering will have to live with their decisions for the rest of their lives. But I can move on with mine without regret.

One year ago, I thought so little of myself. I was ashamed and devastated. The doctor I had trusted abused me. The school I loved enabled a monster. Now, I am proud of the progress I’ve made and I’m proud of every survivor that comes forward to tell their story. I’m proud of my sisters for standing together and taking our abuser down.

I have channeled my energy toward making change. I have become an advocate for survivors of sexual assault and abuse — helping others who stand where I once stood. Since I was publicly identified, many people have come to me asking for help, or to simply share their stories. My goal was that if I made one survivor feel less alone, it would all have been worth it.

Now, with The Army of Survivors, we will continue to fight for all survivors. We will provide them with support and guidance as they begin to heal.

My life is forever changed, but I hold the power now. No longer will I feel shame or devastation. No longer will I be angry at my younger self for not seeing the warning signs. I want to be an example for others, I want to show that everyone should deeply value their mental health and should never doubt themselves. We can’t let our experience fade away because there are so many others standing where we have been. This conversation needs to continue.

Our future is bright and we’re just getting started.

The Army of Survivors