Tag Archives: healing

StayHomeWriMo, Day 6!!!

Writing prompt: Write a ghost story.

When the F train to Brooklyn pulls up after a long day of dog walking, I wait by the last car where I am most likely to get a seat. I slip inside and drop onto the middle of a bench, take my bag off my shoulder, and rest it in my lap. At the very last second before the doors slip shut, a man so tall his head almost hits the top of the door opening, forces his way inside. His dreads drape in a long, knotted mess against his stained white shirt and low hanging jeans. He leans against the doors on the opposite side of the car, and as we start moving he starts muttering. I can’t make out a lot of the words, but as he gradually increases his volume to scream territory, phrases like white privilege and bloody racists come through. Another day in Manhattan, another person going crazy on the train; whatever good or valid points he may have made are lost in his screams. I reach into my bag to pull out my headphones without looking at him, and plug them into my cell phone before popping the buds into my ears.

When I look up again, the man is flying across the train car. He grabs my wrist and yanks my phone out of my hand so abruptly that the headphone cord comes out of the jack. My phone goes flying into the window on the opposite side of the car, right between two bystanders’ heads. The crazy is screaming at me, calling me a racist bitch, and then the man next to me stands up and punches him in the face so hard that the crazy goes spinning back into the pole in the middle of the aisle and crumples to the floor. 

Someone hands me my poor cracked phone as the train pulls into the next station. I pull the earbuds out of my ears and shove them into my purse as I explode out the door the instant it opens. I am not afraid of the crazy; I see crazies every day, though not usually to this extent. I am afraid of what the crazy reminds me of, of the path my brain will take. 

That’s what PTSD is. The human brain is made up of tons of different neural networks. We strengthen the connections between neurons when we learn to do something. When a person is learning how to ride a bike, a neural pathway forms that strengthens every time a person correctly completes the action of bicycling. If the person never has the desire to ride a bike, that neural pathway is not formed because the neurons never receive direction to connect. And if a person who rode a bike as a child doesn’t ride a bike for many years, the neural pathway they made when riding will slowly fade away. But neural pathways don’t form just for happy things like childhood bike riding. They also form from unhappy things. A psychologist named Martin Seligman coined the term “learned helplessness” after his experimentation on dogs. He locked dogs in kennels with no way out and shocked them again and again. The dogs would try to escape, throwing themselves against the sides of the kennel and biting at the metal. But once they figured out there was no escape, the dogs would simply lie down and take the shocks. Even after Seligman opened the kennel so they could walk out, the dogs continued to take the shocks. The neural pathways formed by the repeated electrocution taught the dogs there was no way out. There are chemicals formed inside the neurons during adverse experiences that aren’t formed during happy ones; these chemicals are what make the negative memories last longer. The neural pathways formed by negative memories are stronger and harder to break. 

Post traumatic stress disorder is a name for the formation of a negative neural pathway (or pathways) caused by exposure to something from the past. For instance, there are certain things that trigger the feeling like someone or something is squeezing the inside of the chest. My chest. It’s difficult for me to explain PTSD to people outside of it. Really, it’s my brain being scared. My neural pathways sending me into fight or flight that generally transports me to somewhere other than where the “fight” occurred. I think of my brain as a bit of a firecracker. There is only so long that my fuse can burn before it blows up. Over time, I have grown good at recognizing the signs of an impending blow-up in enough time to escape the situation.

As a result, I have a lot of good days. 

On this day in Brooklyn, however, the bench is cold. I’m wearing blue jeans, and my work hoodie, and my pink sneakers, and my hair is red. These are the things I know, but there is a lot I don’t know. For instance, how long I’ve been here, on the bench. I don’t know that. My arms are covered in goosebumps, and I’m shivering, my teeth clattering and my hands shaking. I am not sitting in the sun. I don’t know why. 

The wind makes my tears sting. I’m crying. When did I start crying? It’s cold. My brain hurts, and I’m scared I’m losing my mind. It doesn’t hurt that I’m scared; it hurts more that I’m not sure why, that I can’t pinpoint whether I am just afraid or if I will always be that way or if it is because there was a man on the F train that I thought might kill me. 

Today is not a good day. 

There are two men throwing a frisbee in the park across the street from where I sit. Brooklyn Bridge Park. I’m in DUMBO. When B and I first got married, we played disc golf together back in Wisconsin. I drove my car; his was at the mechanic. We parked and played through the course, only to come back and find I’d left the lights on in the car. I got in so much trouble for that one.

I’m not afraid today in Brooklyn because of the crazy man on the F train. I’m afraid because of what he represents, because of the things he made me remember, because of the time that I lost walking away from the train. I tell myself not to be scared. 

There is something to be said about surviving. About recovery. It’s never easy. When you’ve told everyone that you’re okay but you still wear your heart on your sleeve, it crushes way too easily under the crazies on the subway. When you think things are going well, when you get to that point where there is a year worth of okay days, the one that is not okay is devastating. I want to be the strong woman, the one that is okay, the one people are proud of. The one that isn’t a disappointment. 

I cry. I cry because I am done with all of this. I am finished with being hurt and I am finished with being scared and I am finished with all of it. I can never get back what was taken from me and I will never again be who I was. But I am in New York City. I am on a bench that is cold, wearing blue jeans and my work sweatshirt and my sadly hopeful pink sneakers and my hair is red. 

And tomorrow is another day.

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The Hardest Thing

I did all the right things after I was raped. I drove myself to the hospital; I had a rape kit done. I tried to file charges. To this day, I don’t know how I did those things. Blind courage? A desperate carnal need to survive? To win, for once? It was not the first time I’d been raped; it was the first time I’d tried to fight back. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done, and I lost.

Two days later, I returned to my regularly scheduled life, already in progress. I spent the day hidden behind a curtain of hair and a ratty gray sweatshirt hood. I thought that everybody knew, that everybody could see me. I didn’t want them to see me. I didn’t want anyone to see me. Yet I wanted to scream it, I wanted one person to hear me, truly hear me, to understand. I wanted to know I wasn’t alone, I wanted someone to tell me it would be okay, that I didn’t have to cut it, cut him, out of me. 

But I screamed nothing. I said nothing. I was nothing. No one would ever understand; no one would ever feel the magnitude of the weight I was carrying.

A friend put a notebook and a pen in my lap. She looked at me, tried unsuccessfully to hide her tears, and told me to write it out.

Write it out.

I had never written much by way of nonfiction before then; I didn’t think it was a craft I could master. I’d written stories, sure, but all fiction. Writing about myself, my real self, was different. I found myself there, again, with that paper and pen. I made a decision to cry my tears and then stuff them inside and not talk about it, but I wrote about it. No one would hear me, but I knew that people would read. For me, writing was talking. In many ways, it still is. But I found it hard to write, to say, rape. It’s such a powerful word. I’d see it and my hands would start to shake. My breath would grow stuttered. My body would grow cold.

But rape is just a word. A noun. I decided to look it up, to take it back. To make it mine, in the only way I could–by writing it down. Webster Dictionary has several definitions for said noun, including:

  1. Unlawful sexual activity and usually sexual intercourse carried out forcibly or under threat of injury against a person’s will
  2. An outrageous violation
  3. An act or instance of robbing or carrying away a person by force

Rape is also a verb.

  1. To commit rape on
  2. To seize and take away by force.

And at its best, an agricultural term:

  1. An Old World herb of the mustard family
  2. A plant related to mustard that is grown for animals to graze on
  3. Rapeseed; bird food
  4. The pomace of grapes left after expression of the juice

That last definition is my favorite; the idea that the use of the word rape as a sexual assault term came from the concept of squeezing a grape so hard that you force the literal guts out of it.

The grape didn’t ask to be raped.

I didn’t either.

Once upon a time, I wrote a story about a coyote and a little woodland creature. A rabbit, maybe? I can’t find it now, but it was your basic fairytale–the rabbit happily ran through the forest with all of its rabbit friends, oblivious of the existence of the coyote. The coyote loved the rabbit, so he followed it everywhere, always careful to stay at a distance. One day, the coyote tried to eat the rabbit. The rabbit got away, survived, but it always remembered what the coyote howled after the rabbit jumped from its gaping maw: Say nothing. Trust no one.

It’s obvious. The coyote is my rapist, and the rabbit is me. But I couldn’t say that then. I can say it now. Because rape? It’s a verb, it’s a noun, it’s a thing that happened to me, but not a thing I asked for. Not a thing I deserved.

I have written so many pages of material on being raped, about rape, about surviving. I will never grow tired of writing about it, because I think that the issue needs to be talked about. The most important thing I’ve learned through my writing is that I need to make myself show up. Not just be physically present, but really show up, let my walls down, present myself, my story, with no apologies, and be there to be with it. To sit with it. To own it. Because that’s the most important part of my experience–not how well I write it, but how well I own it. How well I use it to help others over feeling sorry for myself.

Every time I’ve kept silent, hidden myself, my story, every time I tell myself I’m not worth as much as other people, every time I think about giving up, I am giving my attacker what he wanted all along. I am letting him own me. I am letting him win. It’s important, I think, to own the word and therefore the experience, to draw the map of that violation on our bodies, to write and speak our stories to reach others who share our stories so that we all know that we aren’t alone.

We aren’t alone.

I learned that being abused was normal. I learned that my attacker had the power, that I had none of it. But the word rape belongs to me now, and I own the power over all of these experiences. Someone important to me told me today: “We have to wrap them up and store them and start over. Consider it like moving. When you move from one place to another, you pack up what you need and want to take with you and leave the rummage behind for the pickers. LEAVE IT BEHIND. It is a mental choice to move forward, and it is the hardest thing you will do.”

It took me a long time to find one person who truly understood who I was, what I’d been through. One person who I could be myself with, no apologies. I found that friendship through writing. I kept writing, and suddenly I had two people. Two people who understood. And then more. I don’t know where I’d be without them now, and I wish that everybody could have this. A safe space. People to talk to, that they trust. This week, I stopped using my pen name. I started being myself. I wrote my experience, I owned my experience. I put my name on that experience and I sat with it and proudly said, “Yes, this happened to me. And I survived it.”

I want to create that safe space, here. Together, we write. This is how we speak. And as we speak, we pack things up. We command them, we control them, we bend and shape them to our will, and no one else’s. And then, emotionally, we leave them behind. We write, we move forward. It is a mental choice, to move forward, and it is the hardest thing we will ever do.

 

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