(This is a rewrite of the previous post, which was a draft of the introduction to my memoir.)
When I was twenty-eight, I was in the third semester of my undergraduate career. I was carrying my typical huge credit load, but it was the first semester I can recall where one class stood out as a hands down favorite. That class for me was Advanced Expository Writing. In laymen’s terms, it was a class in the art of writing creative non-fiction. Writing about myself was not an activity I had done heavily; however, like most fiction writers, a lot of my fiction has a basis in truth.
In this class, we wrote a myriad of different things on different topics, but every single one of my works pertained to my life. One of the main focuses of the class was to get a legitimate workshop experience; each of the sixteen students in the class would submit two things for workshop over the course of the semester. The other students were expected to read, mark up, and constructively critique each piece and then return it to the author in class, at which point a discussion of the piece would ensue. I sat on my couch at the beginning of April, downloading and printing things off of our discussion board. I didn’t read them, I just printed one after the other after the other. I took them off of the printer, stapled each piece together, and settled in for a night of reading. But the first piece was about rape, with some (at least to me) graphic pictures of women interspersed throughout the text.
I set the piece down without going past the first page. I stared at the dog. She stared back at me. It was a full minute before I remembered that I was supposed to be breathing. I picked the piece back up, ripped it into tiny pieces, and threw them all in the garbage can. Immediately after, I emailed the professor and asked if it would hurt my grade to take a zero on the workshop. I was willing to go and sit through said workshop, but if it got to be too much to deal with, I was going to have to leave. And I would not be able to actually read the piece. She replied that I had to do what I had to do. So that’s exactly what I did.
I went to class the next day sans a critique for the author in question, but with my steely mental armor on. It was my goal to not make a scene. But I had forgotten that the author would be reading a portion of the piece out loud, and hearing the word was like nails in a coffin. Rape. God. It brought everything back; it made it fresh. In my head, I instructed myself to remain in my seat, to not get up, to not cause a stir. Even though I had made previous arrangements, even though it was perfectly okay for me to leave, I grounded myself in my chair. At least until the conversation began to disintegrate. The class listened to the start of her paper, and then some idiot made the connection between rape as an act and rape as an herb. The class started cracking jokes. And they laughed. I listened for as long as I could, until I couldn’t breathe. And then I got up and walked out. The door slammed shut behind me.
I wanted to scream; I could hear their laughter from all the way down the hall. I didn’t know if I would be able to go back inside. I wandered down to the store and bought apple juice, and then came back up and leaned against the window in the hallway outside our classroom. They were right, at least partially. Rape is an herb. The word rape, in botany, belongs to the mustard family; it’s the same group that covers the cabbage, the mustard plant, and the turnip. It’s used for lubrication, cooking, illumination, and making soup. To plunder, to pillage. To seize, to carry off by force. Abusive improper treatment, a violation.
The crime of forcing another person to submit to sex acts.
And they laughed. They made jokes. I couldn’t wrap my brain around it.
Every two minutes, someone in the United States is raped. Each year, there are about 207,754 victims. 44 percent of rape victims are under the age of 18. 80 percent are under the age of 30. 54 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to police. 97 percent of rapists don’t even spend ONE day in jail. Two-thirds of assaults are committed by someone the victim has met previously. 38 percent are committed by a friend, acquaintance, or spouse. It’s this on one hand, this horrible indescribable act; it’s a yellow plant on the other.
I suddenly hated college.
I pressed my forward against the grass and started to cry. I knew then that what had happened to me would never go away.
This is what it means to be in recovery. Sometimes, it just hits you like a ton of bricks, that moment when you have to admit that “yes, this happened to me, yes, this is a part of me.” It can be something small and insignificant that sets you off; it isn’t necessarily a flashing neon sign. Something as small as a word can remind you of this awful thing that has happened to you, something you would never dare tell anyone. Something of which you are greatly ashamed.
The word recovery has different meanings depending upon the context in which it is used. But no matter what the situation, it’s an indication that someone is getting past something(s). It doesn’t mean forgetting, nor does it mean dismissing the experience(s). It simply means moving on, and accepting that one can still be a person despite the things that have happened to them. That person will not necessarily be the same as who they were before, who they were when they started out. But they are still a person, and they still have value. We all have value; recovery is when we start to remember that.
For me, recovery includes copious amounts of writing. Every day. I grounded myself in the telling of this story; it was literally how I found my way back. I believe that recovery comes from finding even the tiniest scrap of meaning in what has happened; I believe that our experiences should be used to help others. But I have a hard time grappling with my experiences. That is what writing this story is about for me—letting people in and caring more about the message than what they might think. My dedication to writing gives me strength, even when I don’t think I have any left to draw from. For me, there is always writing. Sharing my story is about losing my fear, about accepting all of my past experiences as part of myself, and about realizing that I am still a person. Writing is taking care of myself, forcing myself to a point of moving past things. But it’s also a beacon for other people that I hope will lead them to their own path of acceptance and healing.
Cheryl Strayed writes “I make my own stories public for the sake of art. A painful experience is not art, but art can be made from painful experiences. Writers are truth tellers…Often that means we need to write about the darkness within.” Writing about myself is a fairly new adventure. I think of it as a purging experience, a shedding of the bad feelings that allows me to incorporate my real self back into a life devoid of choice and feeling. I have had a lot of darkness in my life; I have had a lot of experiences. That darkness is still deep; I lost a son, I lost a marriage, and I had my identity completely stripped away. I lost my place, but my writing has remained a steady placeholder. Some things are too awful to ever fully put into perspective, but writing lends a small edge to the task. Even when there are things I have trouble talking about, I can write about them. I’ve found a method in which I can discuss things, even when I can’t physically talk about them. The how and the why and the where don’t matter; what matters is that I have found a way to “speak.” And through writing, I am teaching myself how to literally speak again. Writing is helping me to take my voice back. Perhaps reading it will help you gain the courage to find yours. I’m not a girl; I’m not a woman; I’m not a victim. I’m a survivor. And I’m a writer, confront the demons that have taken up residence inside of my head. I am here; I am alive. And that is more than good enough. I’m writing, and with that writing, I am giving one hundred percent commitment to my recovery.
Recovery is different for everyone; everyone is recovering from something at some point, and everyone is different. Some, like me, are not good at talking about things. But I hope that everyone can find some way to accept their experiences, and to begin moving on. If reading my story can touch one person, that it has done the job I only hoped it could do.
This story is not always pretty. It isn’t unicorns and rainbows, it isn’t flowers and chocolate. But it’s mine, from start to finish.
These essays are the story of my journey, and the pathway to my recovery.