The Invincible Vow
How I’m defeating the shame of sexual assault and becoming the sun to illuminate all.
by Sophia Frankenfield
When I was little, I felt invincible. I would do flips off of the furniture and climb everything I could. My mother enrolled me in gymnastics to channel my energy, and I loved it. I was good at it, too. By the age of 10, I was competing year-round and training 40 hours a week.
To improve my chances of receiving scholarships, my parents moved the family from Baltimore to rural Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
My new gym was only five minutes from home, but I cried every day, begging my mother to move us back to Baltimore. I found it hard to fit in at a school that lacked cultural diversity, and gymnastics was becoming more challenging as I began competing both nationally and internationally. Ultimately, I forgot about my Buddhist practice and became easily swayed by my surroundings.
I stopped caring about many things, and, as I became more careless, I attracted peers with the same attitude and outlook on life. I was weak and depressed, which led me to sneak out, party, neglect my studies and engage in unhealthy relationships. One night, while at a party, I was drugged and raped by a group of men twice my age. I was 15.
I hid the assault from my parents, feeling ashamed of myself. All feelings of invincibility—all my hopes and dreams—were gone.
My depression worsened, and I quit gymnastics. From there, I nosedived: using drugs, committing crimes and contracting a sexually transmitted disease that compounded my shame. I even attempted to take my life on several occasions.
I just wanted to be normal and in control of my life; I wanted to be OK. I also wanted my parents’ support, but I felt too ashamed to turn to them, even though I knew they could see how deeply I was suffering.
In 2011, as a high school senior, I started to reconnect to my Buddhist practice and improve my behavior, but one day, I slipped up and was arrested for a petty crime. I knew then that I had to change on a more fundamental level. At the time, I read these words from SGI President Ikeda:
If you have no hope,
If the world around you is dark,
be the sun that illuminates all.
(Aug. 15, 2016, World Tribune, p. 3)
After six months of probation and getting clean, I started to move forward. I enrolled in community college and became more consistent in my Buddhist practice.
Then, in 2012, I was sexually assaulted again. My earlier trauma came rushing back, but this time, my Buddhist practice helped me to address my pain and shame more than before.
President Ikeda writes: “Nothing, no matter what happens, can change your inherent worth. Please have courage. Please tell yourself that you are not going to let this ordeal defeat you.
“Those who have suffered the most, those who have experienced the greatest sadness, have a right to become the happiest of all. What would the purpose of our Buddhist practice be if the most miserable could not become happy? The tears you shed cleanse your life and make it shine” (Discussions on Youth, new edition, p. 410).
As much as my life was changing, I was still suppressing my shame just to remain functional. I’ll never forget the support of my young women’s leader who never gave up on me even though I ignored her calls and texts.
I began to share my struggles with others as a way to break through my internal suffering. The more I did so, the more I noticed that so many young women were struggling like me. I also began introducing more people to Buddhism, with the newfound awareness that I could use my struggles to inspire others to transform their own destiny. This was my way of changing my painful karma into a profound mission for peace.
During this time, I made a vow to never ever give up on my life and to always recognize the Buddha nature that exists in my life and in others through fighting to protect the SGI and advance kosen-rufu together with my mentor, President Ikeda.
Propelled by my Buddhist practice, in 2014, I graduated from Pennsylvania State University with my bachelor’s of science in psychology-neuroscience. I landed an amazing job in the mental health field, providing behavioral interventions and support for youth with mental health diagnoses.
I returned to Lancaster to advance kosen-rufu in my local organization, where members often travel more than one hour to attend their district and kosen-rufu gongyo meetings. We like to say we’re racking up “frequent fortune miles”!
Whereas my sister and I were the only youth attending local activities when we moved here, today more youth have emerged and are challenging themselves to be champions at their workplaces and in their families.
By supporting other young women in faith, I have also opened new paths to my own healing. Earlier this year, I found an amazing therapist, who helped me realize and decide to have an honest dialogue with my parents about the trauma I experienced at 15. I chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to summon my courage. When we finally talked, it opened many doors of honesty. Today, I can definitely say that I am close with my parents.
My life has blossomed so much, and I am excited to keep growing and supporting others. To this day, I’ve helped eight friends receive the Gohonzon!
While I still struggle with the emotional and physical trauma of sexual assault, I no longer lie to myself, and I understand my mission to use my experiences to encourage others and show them the power of this practice to transform any suffering.
Toward the 50,000 Lions of Justice Festival on Sept. 23, I’m determined to bring 500 young women lions from Pennsylvania Zone—women who will fight on the frontlines of kosen-rufu to usher in an era of hope and respect for humanity.
Personally, I plan to return to school with the goal of one day opening a mental health facility for children and families based on the compassion of Soka. Toward this end, I will build more incredible friendships that encourage me to grow, continue to challenge my karma, and develop and practice compassion by introducing whoever I can to this Buddhism. I will never give up on my happiness!