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My name is Alison Marie Kowalski. When I was younger I was in a sexually abusive and emotionally manipulative relationship for quite some time. I said those words out loud for the first time a few months ago.

It was around this time last year when I first realized that what happened to me was abuse. Five years after it was over and I finally had a name for it. Five years and I could look it in the eyes, call it by its name and say “I am not afraid of you anymore.”

It took me years of failed and strained relationships with potential partners, friends and family; it took me years of doubt, of hopelessness, years of standing in front of a mirror asking “what is wrong with me?” It took years. It took hard work. It took introspection. It took loneliness. It took loving, wildly persistent friends, for me to get here.

When I did, I realized that I have never had a positive experience regarding sex. When I thought about any of my experiences the only thing I ever felt was shame. So I made a decision. I decided that I deserved positive sexual experiences. I deserved them, and I would start making them for myself. That started here, with this photo shoot. With feeling safe and sexy for the very first time, of my own fruition.

I had always thought that I was just bad at relationships. I used to think that no one could ever love me enough to deal with all of me, good parts and bad. I ran the moment anyone showed even a hint of interest in me. I was afraid of them, afraid of myself. I am still afraid, but now that fear feels more like excitement.

A year ago I couldn’t have imagined being half naked in front of a camera. For me, this year has been filled with so many things. Joy, depression, love, anxiety, risks—but more than anything, this year has been filled with growth. I am so excited to continue challenging myself, scaring myself, discovering myself.