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.