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I Am the Master of My Fate
Things rarely go as planned for me. I’m in my third year of a two-year program at my college. I’m not even at the college I intended to go to. I’ve lost an astounding amount of friends in the past year, and Jon, my best friend from summer camp, lives an ocean away, and I haven’t seen him since high school, despite our haphazard efforts at arranging a reunion. Meanwhile, my body has ballooned instead of shrinking like I always wanted. I don’t grab a couple of drinks at Hamburger Mary’s with a couple of gal-pals like I always thought I would before I turned twenty-one.
These could all be construed as negatives, but it’s really just a matter of perception. Spending more time at Daytona State instead of a traditional college has given me more time to make sure my major is right for me. The main reason I am so far behind my peers in my education is because I was hospitalized almost every semester for mental health reasons. A community college like DSC gives me the flexibility to retake classes, withdraw late from courses I won’t be able to finish, and establish a rapport with my instructors so I can let them know what’s going on with me.
As for losing friends, well, I’ve drifted apart from the clubs I was once involved with at school, partly because of other commitments like work and synagogue (It seems like EVERY event is on a Friday night!), and partly because I’ve grown and changed a lot, and I just don’t vibe with some of the people who used to be my friends. It’s important for me to explore various types of friendships with a multitude of people so that I can determine what does and doesn’t work. Am I a little lonely at school? Yeah, sure. But this pushes me to get outside of my comfort zone, talk to the people in my classes, and it challenges me to be my authentic self, regardless of whether or not people like that.
Jon and I will always be best friends. He stood by me through anorexia hell, multiple rounds of treatment, and even the time I got unhealthily obsessed with a crush for a solid six months and drove him nuts asking questions about the mystery of the male mind. We email each other all the time, just to share anecdotes about our lives and our plans for the future. Jon is one of those special friends who will always be in my life. He’ll be in my wedding, either as the groom or as my maid of honor. He’ll look so pretty in a dress!
My body? Forget weighing 98 pounds. I’d rather be able to keep up with my kindergarteners, walk across campus, and eat some freaking fries when I want to!
And as far as not going out for drinks with friends on the weekends? That’s my choice. I can decide to start drinking whenever I want to. I don’t know what would happen if I did, and that’s why I choose not to drink.
I went back to school towards the end of March, and I’m taking a very easy class called Managing Your Success. The intention of the class is to teach students how to thrive in college, how to manage time and money, etc. It’s really basic stuff, but sometimes it’s good to get back to basics. My professor recently included the quote, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul,” in one of his slides. Curious, I Googled the quote, and found the poem “Invictus” by William Earnest Henley.
I realized I’d heard the poem before and scoffed at it, but my take on it was different this time. One of the key lessons I learned when I was in treatment at Magnolia Creek was that no one can “make” you feel anything; rather, your reactions are a choice.
I had trouble with this concept at first. I thought it was normal and natural to feel bad about being abused, for example. I thought that “bad” things happened to me, and I had a right to feel ashamed, dirty, depressed, and helpless. In short, I was being a victim. I wanted to feel that way. I thought my abuse “didn’t count” unless I tortured myself emotionally over it.
It’s not my job to decide if the things that happen to me are “good” or “bad.” I can perceive them however I want, but I am only human, thus I have a finite perception of the events and course of my life. Labeling things that happen to me is another example of the myriad ways I try to play God in my life. I’m pretty sure God has this whole “running the universe” thing covered. I don’t think He needs my help with that. I am probably not the literal “master of my fate.” I think that probably falls under God’s jurisdiction. However, I do believe that I have a choice when it comes to how I feel and what I do. No, it’s not my fault that I have anorexia. However, every time I engage in an eating disordered behavior, I’m making a conscious choice to act on that impulse, just as when I overcome a relapse or an ED thought, I’m taking charge of my own mind. If we are responsible for our successes in recovery, we are also responsible for our failures. I certainly don’t want to admit that it’s my fault when I weave an elaborate web of lies about why there are bloodstains on my sleeves and razors hidden in the bathroom. I don’t want to take responsibility when my breath smells like vomit after meals and I’m losing weight. However, I want all the credit when I pick up another milestone chip at AA, when I listen to my hunger cues and eat a snack even though it’s against anorexia’s rules, or when I end an unhealthy relationship.
After a traumatic event as recent as December, I resorted to purging to deal with my feelings of shame and depression. It was symbolic for me; kneeling in front of the toilet represented apologizing to God, the universe, or the person who hurt me for whatever I’d done to “deserve” what happened, while the act of vomiting represented “purging” the painful memories out of my mind. At first, I told myself I’d “just purge once.” Then it became purging once a day. Pretty soon, I was purging as often as I could and eating as little as possible in the meantime. I knew something was wrong when I found myself in the employee bathroom at work while I was supposed to be taking out the trash, heaving up whatever low-calorie morsels I’d had for dinner on my break. Mid-barf, I was being paged over the intercom because the front had gotten busy and my supervisor needed an extra cashier. I had no choice but to finish vomiting, clean myself up as quickly as I could, and drag my shaky, pale, embarrassed self to a register.
It’s not my fault that this is how my brain taught itself to deal with stress. It’s not my fault that I was the victim of a crime prior to this and it caused a great deal of stress in my life. However, it was my responsibility to be good to myself (and to fulfill a duty to my employer), to make healthy choices, and to my best to resist these self-destructive impulses. The ex-boyfriend who violated me was neither directly nor indirectly responsible for what I did that night. Yes, his actions were inappropriate and wrong, but so were the ways I chose to react to them. He wasn’t “making” me purge. I was doing it to myself.
These days, I have faith in a God that has granted me an “unconquerable soul.” I will never say I am grateful for the abuse I went through. Many people, even a few therapists have told me that I should be grateful to be a victim of childhood sexual abuse, dating violence, and rape because it’s made me so much stronger, and I will be able to use these experiences to help other people going through the same thing. While I am grateful for the outcomes of the traumatic events I’ve experienced, I am not grateful for the road I had to take to get here. However, I am the captain of my soul, and I choose not to dwell on what brought me to this place. Rather, I will look forward and see what the future holds.
I Demand Freedom: A Dream in 3 Parts
Part 1: The Dream
A complicated house. People everywhere, an open bar that I’m desperately trying to avoid, chaos, nudity. I just want to be alone. I am lost. (I have variations of this dream frequently. I’m always trying to get to my room so I can be alone. I’m lost, always lost. The dream ends every time before I ever achieve my goal.) I make it to the top floor of the house. It’s a single room, large and round, littered with junk and trash. There is a jacuzzi tub that’s on, but not being used. And T is there. The ex-boyfriend. The meth addict. The rapist. My rapist. I am terrified. I am frozen. I am angry–until I see that he is holding a hairbrush. (I always used to tell him that I wanted to brush his hair. He has beautiful hair. It’s down to his waist, curly, and blond at the ends. It’s always in his face, and he runs his hands through it constantly, but to no avail. It was messy and wild, just like him, just like “us.” It would have been beautiful if he’d let me brush it with a bristle brush and give it body and volume. My hair is too short to brush, so I have no idea where my old bristle brush is. I haven’t used it since I was in high school. I never did get to brush his hair.) So in the dream, I soften. I love him in the dream. We are together again, we are at peace, we are a couple, we are in love. I take the brush from him and begin to brush his hair. I cannot see his face. I cannot make eye contact. His hair comes out in chunks in my hands.
In the days after the rape, I was achy. I carried myself around like a shattered doll, afraid to go anywhere, afraid to stop functioning. My life was already falling apart. Failing classes, missing work, and the emptiness in my heart after breaking up with my ex-girlfriend. (God, she was happy. What was I? Surely not broken beyond belief. Surely…)
At the AA clubhouse, I alluded to the crime that had been committed against my body. I cried on the porch a lot. “Nick” told me I should pray for my rapist, and I bristled. He said I would feel better. I told him that was bullshit. Maybe I just wasn’t willing to “go to any lengths.” Maybe I wasn’t ready.
Part 2: The Dream (con’t)
[Nick seems like he must stand about eight feet high. He has a voice like Morgan Freeman, and dreadlocks that are probably longer than I am tall. He always describes himself as, “A grateful alcoholic,” He has an “attitude of gratitude.”
He doesn’t understand.]
As I brush T’s hair in my dream, the hairbrush seems to weigh a hundred pounds. I persevere. His hair continues to fall out in my hands, and it obscures his face. As I try to sweep it out of his eyes, he darkens; his hair thickens in my hands, and I am face to face with Nick. He is eye-level with me in the dream, his massive height gone, leaving him all hound dog eyes and somber face. I bring a single dreadlock around from his back and arrange it so that it rests on his chest. No words are exchanged, but some of the knots in my stomach come undone and are as smooth and straight as the dreadlock that rests in my hand.
Part 3: Mi Sheberach (A Prayer for Healing)
“May the source of strength–”
Please, God, give me strength to go on. Give me strength to say this prayer. Please, God, soften my heart. Take away this anger. Please, God, make me less prickly. I ask You to make me the soft hair of my dream, not the spiky brush itself. Help me to walk in love.
“Who blessed the ones before us–”
Dear God, thank You for my family. Please bless my father and mother. Thank You for my brother and his hidden kindnesses. For as much as they get under my skin, I need them there in my veins, raging through the body and keeping me tethered.
“Help us find the courage–”
Please, God, give me strength to pray this prayer. For, I don’t want to say it. I am afraid. I am selfish. I am small. I am imperfect. I am Yours. Is it okay to acknowledge these thoughts? Did some man break me all that time ago? Did You create me to be broken–or to be pushed to the breaking point and to rise as surely as the fertile moon? (Someday, my belly will be as swollen as the moon hanging low in the night sky. Someday, my body will wax and wane with a greater purpose. Someday, someday, someday…) God, grant me the serenity to accept this thing I wish I could change, to make peace with the crime scene that is the body You left in my care. Have I failed in some way, or have You failed me? I am sorry, God. I am so, so sorry.
“To make our lives a blessing–”
God, please let it be Your will that T may recover from his addiction. Please mend his body, his mind, and his soul. Please grant him a r’fuach shleimach, a complete healing. Please let him find peace.
“And let us say: Amen.”
The Sea of Jake
This is the story of how Jake pulled me out of the water in the middle of the night, as though I was baby Moses floating helplessly down the River Nile and he was Pharaoh’s daughter, young, beautiful, and seemingly willing to take care of me. But my dreamy, midnight perceptions are never accurate. If it wasn’t for Jake, I might have drowned, or I might have been forced to find my own way out of the water.
I met Jake on move-in day at Eckerd College, and we became friends almost out of necessity. We sat next to each other at Eckerd’s Ceremony of Lights, during which the figurative “lamp of learning” was lit, and everyone wondered who smelled like pot in the back of the auditorium. Jake told me I had a pretty singing voice, and I asked him if he was high. He said no, but I had my doubts. We parted ways after the ceremony, but kept bumping into each other around campus. Eventually, we exchanged phone numbers, and that was that– we were friends. We started spending more time together, and eventually we started to talk less, kiss more, and smoke as much pot and as many cigarettes as our bodies could handle.
I came to like Jake with the same sort of terrified compulsion I had felt for Zach the previous year. But Jake wasn’t at all like Zach. He was funny (in a perma-stoned sort of way), he was nice (whatever that meant), and he had great music taste. Jake played the guitar. He chain-smoked Camels while I burned my way through pack after pack of Marlboros. He always had pot. Logically, it made sense for me to like him, but I found myself wishing he were a Jane, not a Jake, and willing myself to be “normal.” I’m still learning that love and logic do not exactly go hand-in-hand (although I do not claim to love Jake). I have a habit of convincing myself I like someone. A second date wouldn’t be so bad, right? I guess he’s kind of cute, in a way. Sure, all his jokes were totally sexist, but they would have been funny if I weren’t so uptight. No, it’s not weird that he brought a knife on a date. And the most prevalent of all: He’s probably as good as it gets for someone as fucked up as I am. I should consider myself lucky.
I was lucky to have Jake. He introduced me to his friends, and we became a homogeneous group. We were on the campus radio station together. We traversed campus, our pockets stuffed with cigarettes and the white Bic mini lighter we shared, and together we found the only two ashtrays on campus. When he kissed me, I pretended I was somewhere else. He said I tasted like cigarettes. I was lucky to have Jake.
The white lighter became a point of contention between the two of us. I was always in the cycle of quitting smoking, then starting again, then quitting, only to find myself at the drugstore at 2:00 AM in my pajamas buying three packs of cigarettes. It seemed perverse to throw cigarettes or lighters away, but I knew if I hung onto them, I would start smoking once more. So, I gave them to Jake, who was happy to take them.
Smoking was not as simple as a bad habit for me. I felt a deep sense of shame with every drag, every pack, every butt I kicked under some dirt. I am self-destructive by nature, though I am also cautious. I like to toy with mild addictions. At least I’m not a crackhead, I thought as I puffed away. At least this is helping me lessen self-harm. At least I’m not an alcoholic. At least I’m not a sex addict. I took another drag. At least I have most of my life under control, even if I can’t control this.
My parents, who I look to as examples of how to lead a healthy, successful life, were never smokers, as far as I know. As my dad put it in a stern lecture I received upon my unplanned arrival back home, “There are no positive benefits to cigarettes.” My brother helped me do that math: I was spending 15% of my meager weekly paycheck on cigarettes. Every time I flicked the lighter, the sense that I was nothing but a disappointment flickered in me.
So, as I was boxing up all my clothes, pictures, and books to take back home with me, I gave Jake my white lighter. “Throw it away,” I said. “Use it to light your bowl; I don’t care. I just can’t take it home with me.” I chomped on a piece of Nicorette, spit flying everywhere.
“I’m going to hang onto it. I’ll give it back to you,” he said from his place on my bed where he was staring at his phone.
“I don’t want it.”
“Yeah you do.”
He was probably right.
Eckerd College is on the Tampa Bay and has its own beach and waterfront, complete with paddle boards, kayaks, and sailboats available at no charge to students. Jake and I spent a lot of our time there, soaking in the beauty that is the Sunshine State. “Does the waterfront ever close?” I asked the sophomore working behind the boat-checkout counter.
“No, not really,” he said. “I mean, all the boats have to be back at 8:00, but you can swim whenever.”
“Literally whenever?” Jake asked. “Like anytime? Like, even at night?”
“Yeah, anytime,” the sophomore said, bending down to tie his shoe.
Jake and I walked out of the enclosure, to the picnic tables where we both lit up. “Dude, we should go night swimming,” he said.
I agreed enthusiastically, thinking this was just one of the many advantages of the lack of parental supervision for which college campuses are notorious. It was settled, we would part ways to finish our homework and eat dinner, and we would rendezvous at 11:00 PM by the waterfront. I had passed the swim test. I thought I was prepared.
In the water, fish brushed against our legs, and our feet were entwined. “Was that your foot?” We asked each other over and over. Sometimes the answer was yes, but often, it was no. The water was tepid, and the night air was thick.
I swam away from Jake and contemplated my own private oceans. The water is full of boys who cannot swim, boys who claim to be too broken to do anything other than cling to me for support. They often push my head under the water in an effort to breathe for themselves. I let them. I pretend I can absorb oxygen through osmosis, by clinging to their feet, their hair, their swim trunks. I am wearing swim trunks myself, partly as a nod to my aspirations of androgyny, but mostly to cover up the days-old razor slashes that sting faintly in the salt. In the dark, none of them can see the damage I’ve inflicted on myself. I am the perfect girl: sweet, quiet, sexy, obedient. I’m drowning.
The time comes for Jake and me to leave the water. Because we jumped in, we didn’t realize that there is no ladder in sight. We tried to walk up the algae-covered, rocky slope where the kayaks are tethered, but our feet couldn’t tolerate the sharp pains. We swam back to the ladderless dock and tried to pull ourselves up. Jake was successful, but I was still treading water, imprisoned by my lack of upper-body strength. Laughing, Jake pulled me out of the water, and we laid on our backs trying to catch our breath and looking up at the stars. Dazzled by the myriad constellations, I imagined myself somewhere else, lying next to my perfect Jane, content with her and with myself. Jake stood up and walked to the picnic table where we had left our keys, phones, lighter and cigarettes. Within moments, we were looking at each other through smoke, and it was like I’d never left the water at all.