Books like The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Looking for Alaska shaped my adolescence. Filled with pithy quotes that appeal to angst-ridden teens like I was, they provided an escape from the depression I felt in high school.Read More
December has never been an easy time for me. My days yawn out before me, vast and unstructured. I have blood work appointments, psychiatrist visits, and counseling sessions on the calendar, while all around me, Christmas is in the air.Read More
I’ve been through some shit. If you know me, or have been following this blog for a while, you know the history of my sexual and substance abuse. I group them together this way because they are closely intertwined.
During my senior year of high school, I “dated” a boy, A, who used to hit me, demean me, and force me to do degrading sexual acts for him because I thought this was acceptable, and because I wanted attention. No one knew what was going on, though my parents and therapist might have known he wasn’t good for me, I didn’t tell anyone the extent of how bad things were. We parted ways towards the end of senior year because his other girlfriend, who he doted on, took on expensive dates, and took to the prom, was getting suspicious of me, the side chick, and A valued his relationship with her more than whatever we might’ve had going on.
Throughout this relationship, my eating disorder was at an all-time low. A would call me fat, and compare me to his other anorexic girlfriend, C, and constantly remind me how much thinner and sexier she was, and that she would willingly be sexual with him. He didn’t “have to” force her like he did with me. I was purging multiple times a day, and constantly self-harming. Anything to numb the pain of the dysfunction that had become my life.
After I graduated high school and went away to Eckerd College, A was far from my life, but close in my thoughts. I felt like I deserved all the horrible things he’d done to me. I felt like I must have looked disgusting at my weight because I wasn’t nearly as thin as the skeletal memories of C.
I was anxious about being in a relationship. I met a boy named Jake, who was shorter than I am and always had pot. I had a car and we shared the same taste in music, so it was a match made of convenience. We’d drive to fast food joints, get munchies supplies, and get stoned out of our minds. I soon discovered that being high helped me relax around Jake and other people, and stop thinking about the bad memories from high school.
But Jake wasn’t always around. He had his own issues, and wasn’t sure if he wanted a girlfriend, while I was fairly certain I was a lesbian, and was tired of dating boys with whom I didn’t really click. So, I turned to prescription sedatives. I didn’t know the first thing about drugs. I thought all drugs besides cocaine and IV drugs were like pot: that they weren’t dangerous, and that I could stop anytime I wanted.
Pretty soon, I was taking Xanax “just in case” I got anxious. Still, I was anxious all the time. Eventually, I ran out of Xanax, and I didn’t know how to refill my prescription. I’d had a bad experience on marijuana that resulted in another sexual assault, and had no interest in smoking it anymore, but I didn’t know how to cope without my pills. I threw up a lot, sometimes on purpose, sometimes not. I trembled with anxiety in class, and couldn’t force myself to eat. It was as if A had never left my side.
Finally, my physical body went back to normal, but I had a lot of healing to do on the inside. You all know the story of how I dropped out and went to treatment, and then switched schools. Let’s fast-forward.
At the end of 2016, I was dating Tim, the 40-year-old meth addict who was every parent’s worst nightmare. I was going to AA, but still struggling to stay sober. I’d get blackout drunk once or twice every few months. Tim’s friends tried to turn me onto cocaine, and Tim joked about turning me onto meth, but thank God, I wasn’t that easily swayed.
In December 2016, Tim raped me, and my life fell apart. I went back to drinking and back to treatment, this time for PTSD. I didn’t know how or if I’d ever heal, but I did.
I’ve heard a lot of people at newcomer’s AA meetings say, “If you had the life I do, you’d drink like I do too,” and I used to feel the same way. I used to want to scream at the men who told me to pray for Tim and A and my other abusers, “If you’d been violently raped and hit and choked like I had, you wouldn’t say that. You’d be angry, and you’d drink that anger away, so go #$*^! yourself!”
I never did pray for those men. I am still very, very angry at them for what they did to me and the happiness they stole from me. But at some point, I had to stop using my trauma as a crutch. When I was drinking and drugging over A, I hadn’t seen him in a year or two. He wasn’t buying me beer. He wasn’t forcing the pills down my throat or packing my bowls for me. Tim never handed me a razor and said, “Tear yourself up. You deserve it.” I did all of those things to myself.
I did not choose to have the traumatic formative experiences that led me to these men in my adolescent and adult life. I did not choose to be abused, hit, screamed at, demeaned, or raped. I did not choose to become an addict or an alcoholic. But I took the first steps towards my own undoing, and I have to own up to that. Long after these men were no longer part of my life, I was still writing them into my story, breathing them in with every cigarette, and inscribing them on my body with every cut of the razor.
If your life sucks because of something that happened to you, but isn’t happening anymore, take a look at your surroundings, your actions, your day-to-day. What are you doing that’s holding you back? In what ways do you still need to heal? Where do you still hurt? Let the pain end, and have some compassion for yourself, but don’t allow your mind to be your own doormat. It took a lot of soul-searching for me to stop saying, “I’m like this because I was raped,” and to start saying, “I’m like this because I refuse to change.”
I’m not saying this cured my eating disorder, allowed me to never self-harm again, and that now every day is sunshine and unicorns. However, this attitude did allow me to start the healing process. When I admitted that “It’s not them,” a common AA saying, and realized the problem was me, my maladaptive coping skills, my drinking, my self-harm, my eating disorder, and my desire to cling to it, I was able to make the necessary changes.
There’s a part in the “How it Works” chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous that describes a director trying to arrange dancers who won’t cooperate. As the director tries harder and harder to bend others to his will, his life gets more and more out of control. Sometimes I just have to let people do their thing. This doesn’t mean that I should tolerate abuse, but if someone is mad at me, if I hate my classes or position at work, if my group partners in a group project aren’t doing their part, I can’t change that. The only thing I can control is my reaction to life. Life is going to keep coming at me–nothing can change that. But I can control how I handle life’s ups and downs.
It took me a long time to learn that my emotions are not facts. In actuality, my feelings are often wildly uninformed. After Tim raped me, I didn’t want to press charges because I felt protective of him. I had no reason to feel that way because he didn’t even protect me from his own desires and violence, but I felt that way nonetheless. I wish I had listened to my mom and done everything I could to ensure that he rotted in prison instead of still seeing him around campus and wanting to disappear into the sidewalk. I wish I hadn’t surrendered what little control I had left in that situation.
It used to be hard for me to swallow my pride and say that my feelings were wrong, or admit that I couldn’t make somebody do something, but these things come easily to me now. I am so grateful that I have a spiritual program to work that helps me deal with my day-to-day life. The Twelve Steps are about so much more than substance abuse recovery. They are a design for living that have allowed me to reclaim my life and love who I am today.
I’m not really too familiar with Rupi Kaur’s poetry aside from the snippets I’ve seen online, but this one has really stood out to me over the past year.
Being raped in December did not end me. Sometimes, I wish it had so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the shame and the misdirected anger I feel as a result of what happened. I still don’t know how to feel. A year isn’t a long time, not really, and even though I put pressure on myself to “get over it” by now, it’s gong to take much more time to heal.
Anger is a hard emotion to deal with. In the immediate aftermath of the rape, I was furious with myself. What was I expecting, if not to get hurt, when I started dating a meth addict who was twice my age who I met at a bus stop? What was I doing?
It’s taken ten months, but I am finally angry at my rapist. What did he think he was doing mistreating an emotionally unstable young woman? Why did a middle-aged man think he had any business inserting himself in the life of a twenty-year-old college student? Who did he think he was that gave him the right to my body?
This man is closer to the forefront of my mind than usual because I ran into him two weeks ago. I decided I wanted to write for my college’s newspaper because my younger brother/role model is the editor-in-chief of The Daily Gamecock, because I like to write, and because I wanted to be like my brother. The only reason I even knew my college has a newspaper is because my rapist used to write for it. I was under the impression that he’d gotten his GED and had moved on to ruin some other girl’s life, so I went to a staff meeting of the paper. About twenty minutes into the meeting, who should walk in, greeted by a roomful of cheerful friends, but the very man who raped me? I bolted out of there, ignoring the people calling after me, ran into the parking lot, and hyperventilated in my car until I calmed down enough to drive to my best friend Colette’s house where I ranted to her about how much I hate that man.
The professor who runs the paper, Dr. Jarvis, emailed me to inquire about my bizarre behavior. I was honest with her and gave her my rapist’s full name and told her a cursory version of what happened. I was afraid she wouldn’t believe me, but she said that she had her suspicions about the man as well, and would let me know if he disappeared from the paper as he had last year.
Meanwhile, she invited me to interview for a position as editor of the college’s literary magazine. The position comes with a scholarship, and would look really good on a resume or college application should I decide to transfer to a traditional college after I finish my Associate’s degree, but more importantly, it sounds like something I would really enjoy doing. I never would have thought to look into the literary magazine had I not had such a bad experience at the newspaper. If the interview goes well, I think I’ll have found my niche on campus.
Colette related a story her quirky brother told her: A king has only four fingers on one hand, and some picky cannibals decide not to eat him because of this. Perhaps the newspaper is the proverbial finger I lost, only to be passed up by the cannibals and to find a leadership position on the literary magazine instead. The metaphors might be a bit flowery, but I’ll take the blessing–disguised or not.
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.”
It’s great to be home. I missed sleeping in my own bed, my friends and family, Gilligan, and my synagogue, but I am very glad to have done the work I did in treatment. I spent four weeks in a psychiatric hospital in New Orleans on a unit that specializes in treating trauma-related disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and dissociative identity disorder. While I was there, I talked about traumatic instances of abuse that happened to me in childhood, in high school, at my first college, and as recently as December of last year.
When a person is sexually abused, especially at a young age, and especially when it happens over and over, the abuse can lead to a feeling of worthlessness, at least, that’s how I felt. I called myself a “throwaway girl,” meaning that I was disposable, lacking in value, and easily replaced. I felt like all I was good for was sex, but also believed I was too unattractive to be desirable. Most of all, after being abused by four different men at different, unrelated points in my life, I felt that there must be something wrong with me to bring on these incidents. “I should have left the first time he hit me, not stuck around for a year. I shouldn’t have been intoxicated around a stranger. I shouldn’t have been hanging around someone twice my age who probably has a criminal record.” These are the warnings I constantly repeated to myself after it was too late. I was more angry at myself for making mistakes, mistakes every young woman is entitled to make as she finds herself, and mistakes for which no child can be blamed, than I was at the men who took advantage of my vulnerability and treated me like a punching bag or a sex toy.
At the hospital, I heard horrific stories of abuse, violence, and trauma, everything from cults to combat, from people who claimed to be broken but were somehow still vibrant and full of life. These people still made amazing art, told gripping stories, laughed boisterously, and did their best to help the newcomers on the unit. Most of all, they had not been robbed of the capacity to love. When my roommate’s children came to visit her, I was astounded at the warmth that emanated from her as she saw their faces. This came from a woman who had seen horrors and suffered losses no one should have to endure, yet there she was in the bed next to me with her contagious laugh, her soft sketches, loud oil paintings, and a heart full of love for her kids.
As the days wore on and I started to do the work of the program, I began to feel akin to my fellow patients. I, too, had been through some terrible things, but if they weren’t broken, perhaps I wasn’t either. One night, I had a dream that I was married to another woman, and that we were both pregnant. We had our babies at the same time, and we laid in a huge bed with soft, white sheets and nursed them together. We both had daughters; my wife’s was born with no hair and dark skin, while mine was pale with messy blonde curls. I named her Sienna, and as I held her in dreamland, I was overwhelmed with joy. I laughed and cried at the same time, and my wife hugged me while I hugged my baby. When I woke up, I felt serene and optimistic. I felt like I’d been given a gift.
I may be a little young to start dreaming about having babies, but I think the dream was less about reproducing than it was about the capacity to love. As I struggle to make sense of my abuse, I’ve doubted if I am even capable of love. Maybe I was too selfish, too sex-crazed, too analytical, too impulsive to ever love someone else romantically. The dream showed me that I have the ability to be overwhelmed with joy at my connection to another individual, and that, I believe, is God’s presence on earth. After having that dream, I realized that no abuser has broken me so long as I can still love another person. It is only when I become an abuser myself, treating others with complete disregard for their humanity and individuality, that I am broken. There will be no hope for me then, but I will not allow myself to reach that point. This is the chapter of my life where I walk in love, where I strive to make genuine connections with people, not shallow relationships based on sex or any other superficial commodity or desire.
But before I go falling in love with someone else, I need to show that love to myself. Just as misery loves company, unhealthy people attract others who are also in need of healing. I want to radiate positivity, to attract people who value me for my intellect, my creativity, my friendship, and my passion for teaching. My confidence was destroyed by middle school bullies and the voice of anorexia, but neither of those are realities in my life anymore. The only one preventing me from having confidence is me. Today, I stand tall, unbroken, strong, and confident.