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
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.
Last semester, I took a Human Nutrition course that had a big effect on me. It was taught by Professor Zach Cordell, a young, no-nonsense professor who wears his hair long and a bow tie every day. The class opened my eyes to a lot of the lies that the food industry tries to sell people. For instance: is there a difference between fruit snacks and gummy bears? No, not really. But parents give their kids fruit snacks a lot more often than gummy bears because fruit snacks are next to the granola bars and dried cherries in the grocery store, and gummy bears are on aisle four next to the M&M’s.
I was not in a good place with my eating disorder when I took the class. It was actually the second time I’d taken the class because I’d failed it previously due to some severe slacking and one of my signature mental breakdowns, so I knew a lot of the information, and I was familiar with Professor Cordell’s teaching style. However, for someone in eating disorder relapse, a class that heavily emphasizes weight management isn’t necessarily the best idea.
Now, before I go any further, let me tell you a little something about my feelings on dietitians. I hate them. They think they know everything about food; they think they know what I should eat better than I do, and they have the AUDACITY to tell me how and what I should eat. As someone with SERIOUS control issues, this has never sat well with me. When I was in IOP during my senior year of high school, the program required that I see one of their in-house dietitians. I cycled through pretty much all of them before I found myself in the program director’s office, being told that I needed to avoid caloric beverages (???), and finally, I proved myself so ornery that she made an exception for me and said I could continue the program without any dietary instruction.
Luckily for me, this all changed last semester. I was doing the work in therapy, but I needed more support with food and meal planning. I switched to a new therapist about six months ago, and while she has a much more compatible therapy style for me, and a better understanding of the trauma I’ve been through, she doesn’t take my eating disorder as seriously as my old therapist (who specializes in eating disorders) because she is less educated about them, and I don’t “look sick.” I was doing a lot of important healing from trauma with the new therapist, but I was also getting away with a lot of disordered eating.
I asked Professor Cordell if he offered private nutritional counseling, and he said that while he does, he wouldn’t have been a good fit for me, and he passed me along to a wonderful woman named Trish Kellogg.
I was a little leery of Trish at first. She’s overly smiley, extremely positive, kindhearted as can be, and very pretty. Clearly there was a catch. I figured she probably ate puppies for breakfast.
Fortunately for me, puppies are not part of a meal plan, and are only for petting. Working with Trish has helped me so much, and I anticipate rocketing even further into recovery as I continue to work with her. At first, we worked out a basic eating plan that included three meals and one snack. Because I hate the exchange system (a common system of meal planning used among people with eating disorders that avoids measuring food and counting calories), Trish outlined the macronutrients I need to be eating and said I could plug them into any meal and snack I wanted, so long as I got all of them in by the end of the day and didn’t eat all protein at breakfast, all carbs at lunch, etc.
This plan was a little to vague for me, so Trish broke it down further. She said I needed to have a certain number of proteins, grains, fats, dairy, and fruits/vegetables at every meal and snack. Initially, it seemed like a lot of food. It was a struggle to fit it all in during the day, and I wasn’t hungry for most of it. Trish challenged me to push through it, to eat within an hour of waking up, and consistently reminded me that coffee is not a meal–no matter how much cream I put in it.
Once we got past the basics of meal planning, we started working on some of the more difficult aspects of my eating disorder. Trish challenged me to start eating “fear foods,” foods I’m irrationally afraid of eating, either because I’ve had bad experiences with them, or because I’m afraid they’ll cause extreme weight gain. One of these foods is peanut butter. The first time I was in treatment, I was fifteen years old. Since the center was for school-age children and teenagers, the dietitians there had us eat a lot of sandwiches and wraps for lunch–similar to what we would have brought with us to school to eat during the lunch period. One day, the entire room got peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. I didn’t know a whole lot about nutrition at the time; I was afraid of food, I wanted to be skinny, and that was that. But as I watched all of the other patients cry and have meltdowns over having to eat peanut butter on white bread, I felt a wave of panic wash over me, and I felt there was no way I was ever going to eat peanut butter again.
Looking back, I see now that a few people’s anxieties fueled a huge meltdown, but the irrational fear of peanut butter and other similar spreads (cream cheese, other nut butters, jelly, apple butter, regular butter, Nutella… don’t get me started on Nutella…) stayed with me. When I related this to Trish, she said something had to be done.
I didn’t think these fear foods were really such a big deal. It’s not like I was afraid of all bread, all meat, or all caloric beverages. I could live without ever eating a nut butter again. But Trish told me that no food should have power over me. It’s safe to eat all foods in moderation, and it’s okay to enjoy them. Pretty soon, I was eating peanut butter, Nutella, and even cream cheese on bagels and sandwiches.
Another huge victory I’ve had is with cooking. I moved out of my parents’ house in December, and have since been learning how to cook by trial and error, the advice of my coworker Barbie who is in charge of cooking the free samples at the grocery store where we work, and of course, my mom who has received many a phone call asking, “Mom, how do I defrost chicken in the microwave?” or “Mom, what do we do when the stove catches fire?” My mom is an excellent, self-taught cook, and if I can be half the cook she is, I’ll be in good shape.
Last night, my girlfriend Rebecca was over, so I cooked dinner for her, my roommate Colette, and myself. One of my favorite things to cook is Asian food, and I’ve been tweaking a recipe for traditional Japanese ramen noodle soup I found on Pinterest. The recipe calls for bok choy, which is not something I’d even recognize in the grocery store, so I substituted some leftover kale I’d cooked the night before in an attempt to bulk Colette and myself up in the vegetables department (an area in which we are both severely lacking), and substituted sweet chili sauce for soy sauce because the soy sauce was on vacation and nowhere to be found in our fridge which looks like an archaeological dig site (minus the actual dirt, of course. Hi, Mom!) It came out delicious, if I do say so myself.
Rebecca, Colette, and I all have very different eating styles. I can only imagine what Colette is going through with her eating, and I don’t have much insight into it, so I won’t guess. I do know that she eats very little, and says she doesn’t like to eat. It’s hard to watch. I don’t want to see my best friend suffer in eating disorder hell–if that IS what’s going on, and I don’t know how to help beyond my Jewish grandmotherly role of “Eat, bubbelah, eat,” which I know from experience is NOT helpful. Rebecca, on the other hand, is an avid dessert eater. She eats what she’s hungry for, and with enthusiasm, which I really admire. It’s very inspiring to me to see someone who wholeheartedly loves food, loves too cook, and loves to eat. When I eat with her, I’m not as conscious of my internal ED voice, and I’m able to enjoy food more. By eating with both of them, I’m learning to focus on my own hunger/fullness cues and enjoying my own food rather than obsessing.
It was this newfound focus that allowed me to break three major eating disorder rules last night. Because the recipe doesn’t yield very much, I’d only taken a small portion to make sure there was enough for everyone. After we were done eating, I was still hungry, and I saw that there was some ramen left, so I decided to have seconds, something my eating disorder NEVER used to allow me to do. After that, Rebecca decided she wanted ice cream and a bagel (her two favorite foods), and I was okay eating the ice cream, even though dessert is typically against the rules.
Every week, Trish gives me a challenge, and this week’s challenge was to get food on my hands. I touch food all the time when I’m eating finger food or cooking, but I hate it. I have an irrational fear that I’m going to absorb calories through my hands, which I KNOW is not possible, but it still freaks me out. It makes me feel gross and messy; it’s overwhelming, and I just! Don’t! Like! It! But I’m not one to shy away from a challenge, so Rebecca and I split the bagel, and I spread Nutella on it with my finger. It was a little unnerving, and I felt stupid for being freaked out over something that seems so trivial to a non-eating disordered person, but I’m also learning not to judge my emotions, so I sat with the discomfort, licked the tasty Nutella off my finger, and moved on.
Just recently, I was speaking to another woman in recovery from an eating disorder about why it’s vital to see a dietitian. She was just beginning her recovery journey, and wanted to be her own dietitian. We were speaking in the context of a therapist-led support group, and the other women shared their resoundingly positive experiences of working with dietitians on their paths to recovery. The biggest reason to work with a dietitian is so that you’ll have someone with more experience and knowledge about food than you do. A dietitian knows exactly what your body needs and how to supply it. Trying to be your own dietitian is a tricky path, even if you don’t have an eating disorder. There is so much misinformation about food and nutrition out there, and EVERYONE is trying to sell you something. Dietitians are unbiased, and on your side–not your eating disorder’s.
I am so grateful to have crossed paths with Trish. I’ve made so much progress in conquering my eating disorder, and gotten a better understanding of the things I still need to work on. I’ve come incredibly far in just a few short months, and I’m learning to value my accomplishments, no matter how small they may seem to an outsider. Today I stand tall. Today I am proud of myself.
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.
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.
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.