How many times do I tell the same story?
How many times can I write about the twenty-something protagonist running from her past, only to end up at the beach after a string of seemingly endless misguided attempts to ease her sourceless pain? Recently I met with a professor to discuss this very story. One of my goals with the untitled piece we referred to simply as “Kennedy’s Story,” was to show the more anonymous aspects of trauma. Although by the end of the story, it should be quite clear to the reader that Kennedy was raped before the narrative begins, the word “rape,” appears nowhere in the piece. Kennedy, the narrator, will refer to “what happened that night,” or “when everything happened with him,” but never says anything more specific, and the character she’s referring to appears nowhere in the present tense sections of the story. I wanted readers to be confused because trauma and the ensuing fallout is confusing.
In all likelihood, my professor could see how much of “Kennedy’s Story” was based on my personal experience: a young woman attending Twelve Step program meetings searching for meaning and closure in the aftermath of trauma. Although that’s rather uncomfortable to admit to a professor who has power over things such as my grades in her class, it was also quite obvious that she didn’t want to ask what had happened to Kennedy because that would have been the same as asking what happened to me, and that would have been crossing a line. Instead, she suggested a few titles I should look to for inspiration and said the story “moved around too much.” At the end of our (painfully awkward) Zoom meeting, she asked, “Why isn’t this a novel?” and I nearly fell out of my chair. “This is just Kennedy,” I sputtered. “It’s just… just a little story.”
“Okay. Well. Think about it,” said my professor. The meeting ended and I watched my camera turn itself off.
When I started dabbling in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), my therapist had me fill out a “behavior chain analysis,” which I found extremely helpful and therefore never touched again.
I am definitely not a psychiatric professional, but if I were going to sum up DBT for someone who had never heard of it, I would say its basic message is “Stop doing things that don’t work.” When it’s broken down for me like that, I am infinitely more likely to at least contemplate using positive coping skills instead of resorting to the same old things that just make me feel worse, for example, the behavior chain.
When I say “things that don’t work,” “negative coping skills,” and other vague terms, I’m referring to self-harm. It is probably obvious to anyone who has known me for a significant amount of time, who has ever seen me at the beach, or looked closely at my tattoos that I’ve battled self-harm for over a decade now. It is more than a vice, more than a bad habit. Over the past several years, it has become my way of dealing with nearly any kind of stress or conflict, and still, when I ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” I can’t come up with an answer.
The behavior chain is supposed to help people understand how things like self-harm begin and how they perpetuate themselves. Once you understand the chain, you can break the links in it and change the outcome. Before I wrote out my first chain, if I made any attempt to stop myself from self-harming, it would be mere moments before I began. I’d think, “You don’t have to do this,” immediately followed by, “I don’t care.” It was then, when I hit “I don’t care,” that I knew I couldn’t fight any longer. I’d do what I felt I had to do, go to sleep, wake up and deal with the consequences, feel like shit, and be surprised that I felt so bad. The first time I did the chain, I realized that it started far before I actually made the decision to break the skin. I was stressed out about midterms, I was extremely lonely and not doing much to alleviate that loneliness, and while I couldn’t pinpoint a single “prompting event,” just flicking through the pages of my journal at the time showed that I was putting myself under huge amounts of pressure for things that either worked out fine in the end, or were simply byproducts of being a person. By the time I was telling myself, “I don’t care,” I’d allowed a perfect storm to come to fruition without even realizing.
Recently, while my boyfriend and I were cuddling on the couch, he ran his finger over the marks on my legs. “You’re ruining a perfect body when you do that,” he informed me.
I looked away. “Yeah,” I grunted. “I wish I could stop.”
“I know you hate it when I bring it up,” he said. I didn’t correct him. I don’t hate it at all, I just wish I had something better to say than I’m sorry, though half the time I feel as though I should be apologizing to myself too. “But you can definitely stop,” he said it so offhandedly that I almost laughed.
Two days later, I emailed my therapist from my phone while on lunch at work. About the SH. I gotta stop. For real. I’m beginning to realize how fucking crazy this must look to other people. I need you to ask me bc I’m never gonna bring it up otherwise.
Earlier in the week, my boyfriend and I had taken a day trip to a state park where we walked around and I took photos of the flowers and other plants. As we walked through a buggy, overgrown trail, I talked to him about my fears surrounding letting him see the parts of me that I feel are “crazier,” than what most people see.
Throughout the conversation, I realized a few things. One of them was that just because someone doesn’t ask, doesn’t mean they don’t care. These are tough topics to broach; just as my professor didn’t want to ask what happened to Kennedy, my boyfriend (who hasn’t had nearly as much experience with mental illness as I have) explained that of course he wants to be there for me and be supportive, he just doesn’t always know how.
He also said that I tend to attribute a lot of things to mental illness that are most likely just byproducts of human nature. My therapist, too, echoed this idea recently. “Don’t you ever just get sad?” she’d asked me. “Not depressed like you need an antidepressant, just sad because things happen?”
One of my other goals with “Kennedy’s Story” was to shed light on the way a person who hates herself thinks. From the very beginning, before readers really get a chance to see who Kennedy is, she’s berating herself for something really minor; basically she checks her phone, thinking its important, and then sees that it’s a Tinder notification and is upset that she let herself think someone might need her. When I went back and read over this story in preparation for the meeting with my professor, it surprised even me to see how needlessly cruel Kennedy was to herself. It probably comes as a surprise to no one that I find the same thing when I flip back through the pages of my journal.
After a pretty good day, a journal entry reads, I have no idea why I am crashing and burning this hard now. [Self-harm urges] are high… it’s making me very angry, like someone has barged into my house and is demanding I hurt myself?! Fuck that! I’m tired, man, I’m so tired. So instead of writing a litany of flimsy reasons why I deserve to be in pain, I wrote an outline for a more lighthearted fiction piece I’m working on and a list of things I’m excited about for the upcoming semester. The next morning’s entry began, I awoke intact and remarkably pleased about that.
I recently finished reading Kate Elizabeth Russell’s novel My Dark Vanessa. Let me just say, this is one of those situations where you should definitely NOT judge this book by its cover. From the title and cover design alone, it looks like teen lit, like a silly paranormal romance or something equally frivolous. Once I got past those (admittedly misguided) assumptions, this book grabbed me and would not let go. It’s been a very long time since I was at work, wondering what was going to happen to a character. I’m not going to give away the ending, but I’ll tell you the basic premise of the novel and why I liked it.
The narrative follows the protagonist, Vanessa, at ages 15 and at 32 in alternating chapters. 15-year-old Vanessa is being groomed by her teacher Mr. Strane, and thinks she is in love with him. A sexual relationship with serious unintended consequences ensues. 32-year-old Vanessa is a mess, working a desk job at a hotel, with little else going on in her life–save for her ongoing relationship with Strane. As more and more facts, accusations, and questions come to light, all of the characters’ lives become increasingly complicated and entangled until they reach a breaking point.
The reason I loved this novel is because it brings up a lot of important questions about the stories we tell ourselves about our own lives. Much of the adult Vanessa timeline in the novel is spent with Vanessa trying to explain why her relationship with Strane was a love affair, not abuse. It struck a chord with me because when I was in intensive outpatient treatment (IOP) at La Amistad, I decided I was going to rewrite my past and call what happened with Tim “bad sex,” instead of what it was: rape.
A later scene in the novel has Vanessa seriously questioning the intentions of a businessman checking into the hotel with a teenage girl. While it would have been too obvious for Russell to spell out that Vanessa sees herself as that teenage girl, she instead depicts Vanessa’s horror at both the situation and her own inability to do anything to save that girl–or the girl she once was.
One thing therapists seem to like asking me is, “What advice would you give to a friend in your situation?” Obviously, the thinking here is that if I had a friend who was in my shoes, I wouldn’t tell her, “You might as well slice yourself up, nobody cares anyway,” and then I should be able to apply that to myself. I really wish it were that easy, that logical.
Recently I noticed a coworker I hadn’t talked to much had a row of faded, but raised lines on the inside of their arm. For a moment, I was lost in my own head, wondering why this person who seemed so kind and seemed to have so much potential could have done that to their own body. “What could have justified it? What makes that okay?” They noticed me staring, and I started talking about something unrelated.
There must be a point where you’re allowed to be defined by something other than what he did to you.–My Dark Vanessa
Tonight, I returned to the behavior chain once more, scrawling in my journal, “I do have things to say, I do deserve to be heard, and my story does matter… I am in control of how it ends… I am in control of how it continues.”
Whatever story I choose to tell myself about the past, the most important thing is that I continue to live in the present. Like Vanessa, I learn (oftentimes the hard way) that no matter how horrible the past may have been, it does not have to contaminate my present or my future. No, throwing off maladaptive coping mechanisms such as self-harm is not easy, not like throwing away a rotten pair of shoes. But simply allowing myself to recognize that I do have other choices, that nothing–not even the despair that makes me feel as though bodily harm would be a relief from how bad I feel emotionally–lasts forever. At some point, I would love to be able to share the secret for how I stopped self-harming for good. Until then, I’m fighting the battle one day at a time.