Tag Archives: PTSD

Consent

“Can you look me in the eye and honestly tell me you think it’s your fault?”

On the side of the brown filing cabinet was a newspaper article I had read at least 17 times–bringing awareness of sexual assault to the masses, one campus group at a time–but I read it again anyway because what else was I going to do but tell her the words that she wanted to hear and I didn’t want to say?

“Seriously.” M had a way of leaning in her office chair that made it look she was sitting in front of the television at home and watching Netflix. Her arms draped over the armrests of the chair as she fiddled with her glasses, cleaning them on the weave of her sweater. 

“No.” I had a dream that saying what she wanted me to say would get me out of her office a few minutes sooner. No such luck.

“I don’t believe you. Tell me why.”

M knew me too well. “Tell me why not,” I retorted, drawing the hood of my sweatshirt up over my head and shoving a freshly unwrapped Hershey Kiss from the candy bowl into my mouth so that I wouldn’t have to say anything else for at least the next sixty seconds.

“Did you ask for it?”

“Did I say no?”

*

A year or so ago, I met this great girl named Fern. Greenish yellow eyes that seemed to change when I looked into them, reddish orange fur, a great pink nose, a beautiful wagging tail. Yes, a dog. The first thing you see when you come to Fern’s house is how low to the ground she gets as she wiggles up excitedly to get pets. You don’t notice her ears that are cropped ridiculously short in an attempted effort to make her look ferocious, because you’re too busy watching as her army-crawling front end struggles to keep up with her bouncy butt. And then you sit on the couch, and Fern sits on you, and as you pet her (because let’s face it, you have no choice in the manner) you realize that she’s a pit bull and that that doesn’t matter in the slightest, because she defies all your preconceived expectations of her breed.

Fern’s beginnings don’t lend themselves to the dog she is now. She started out in a junkyard in Pennsylvania and came to the animal rescue with a fear of men and the world and a collar embedded in her neck. She was scared of everything even after she was freed and with a loving family. The Fourth of July came in her new home, and she was scared of the loud noises and the fireworks and wanted nothing more than to stay inside.

*

“Did you say no?” M parroted back.

“Do you always have to answer every question I ask with a question?”

M stayed silent then, waiting me out.

“No,” I finally caved, “I didn’t.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t have an answer to that question.” And I didn’t, not really. It seemed inappropriate to ask her if she would have said no if she thought she was going to die. “I didn’t say yes. But I didn’t say no.”

“Well, you’re the English major. So you tell me. Does the absence of the word no signify consent?”

*

See, to look at Fern now, it’s quite apparent that she didn’t ask for her past. She didn’t say “chop off my ears and chain me in a yard all alone and do whatever abuse you want to try and make me ferocious and mean.” Fern did not say yes, but Fern did not say no either, because Fern is a dog–and dogs do not say no because dogs don’t speak. 

I probably know less about Fern’s former life than many, but no one knows precisely what she went through. I can make some guesses, based on the opposites of my positivity training. If you want a dog to be well mannered and friendly, you treat them in a loving and respectful manner. But if you want them to be scary and angry and hate people, I assume it would be the opposite. Dogs respond to the way they’re treated. And in that vein, I can make the following leaps–Fern was previously owned by a man. He probably yelled a lot. Maybe banged things to scare her to where he wanted her in the yard or to keep her from approaching him or just plain banged things around the junkyard (and really, that’s all the same, because who wants to listen to loud banging sounds while confined to a chain 24/7?). He may have hit her, kicked her, in an attempt to teach her that humans suck so that she’d go after any trespassers. 

Again, I don’t know these things. I don’t want to think about these things. But if the secret to reversing her skittishness of people was her loving home, then isn’t the opposite true?

Fern did not ask for the things that happened to her, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. 

*

I shook my head so that my hood slid back down my then-lengthy hair and unwrapped another chocolate. I sat chewing it for so long, letting the chocolate melt in my mouth, that the ticking of the desk clock started echoing in my head. I hated the silence. “Do you think…” My voice trailed off, and I went to finish the thought with yet another chocolate and found the bowl empty. 

“Yes?”

“Maybe…we do what we need to do to survive.”

“Did you ask him to do what he did?”

“I didn’t say no.” The words were starting to sound lamely flat the more that I said them. 

“Did you say here I am, come get me?” M put her glasses down gently and pushed them away from the edge of the desk. 

“Excuse me?”

“Here I am, come get me? Is that what you said that night?”

I fumbled under the sofa bench I was on for my purse. “I’m going to go,” I said, standing up. 

She grabbed my wrist, gently, but she grabbed it. She had never touched me before. I sat back down, but she didn’t let go. “The fact of the matter is, you didn’t. You didn’t say that. You wouldn’t say that, because you didn’t want it. The absence of consent is not consent. You did not say yes. He had no right to take what he did from you.”

*

Fern’s a great dog. She always was, but her first owner clearly never saw that because he wanted her to be something she wasn’t. Now she’s one of the best trained dogs I’ve ever met (love and respect will do that, I promise, try it and you’ll see). She’s a little skittish at night sometimes, but it’s understandable. I’d love to actually study PTSD in dogs, because I really do believe it’s a thing. Give me a few weeks of uninterrupted time and see what will happen. But Fern works as a therapy dog and visits people in nursing homes to bring them comfort when they’re feeling lost and lonely. I imagine that Fern understands somewhere inside that she too was once lost and lonely, and that no one should have to feel that way. I believe she fills the world with as much joy as she can because that way, the two plus years where she had no joy are way in the world past where they belong.

*

“I think,” M continued, “that until you accept that none of the fault for the rape is on you, you’re not going to go anywhere.”

My brow creased as I looked at her. I had asked her never to use that word. I never used that word. 

She read my expression instantly. “The absence of the word doesn’t mean the word does not exist.”

When I didn’t see it coming, when I should have seen it coming, when I should have done something, when I did nothing, when I did not ask for it in the first place so none of the fault was on me. 

“The absence of the word doesn’t mean the word does not exist,” I echoed. 

*

Dogs like Fern are the perfect example of my therapist’s law of consent. Like I said, dogs can’t speak. But spend five minutes with Fern. Heck. Spend one minute with Fern. Did she ask for her sour beginning in life? Did she ask for what happened to her? No. But she absolutely did not say yes. 

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There is No Normal

I’m not a huge believer in attending social functions. People frequently get annoyed with me because I don’t go out when there are large groups; often I SAY I will go and then find a reason to back out at the last minute. Large groups make me focus on all of the ways that I’m different rather than the ways I fit in or the things I have in common with the people around me. I don’t know how to be a person when I don’t have a predesignated topic of conversation. As a shining example, any time I do anything that has to do with dogs, I am confident. I know dogs. I know their behaviors and their motivations. I’m learning their fears. I know how to discuss them in a way that people can understand, though, quite frankly, I would rather spend time just me and the dog. I can also play well as a teacher, a manager, a friend. But groups are hard. I don’t know how to be a person sometimes; it’s a skill that was taken from me that I’ve never quite gotten back, the ability to not be judged. There’s this wall between me and the world that I’m not sure how to negotiate in a crowd; I don’t think I can be more than one thing at once. I don’t think I can let go. Not completely.

*

Pedro is such a handsome boy. He’s gorgeous—tall and black with little specks of white—but spends most of his time with his tail tucked, his majestic head stiff and his eyes alert. Watching. Pedro is one of the few dogs I’m not completely comfortable walking. Not because I can’t control him; I can. More because I understand too well what other people refer to as his unpredictable nature. I don’t find him to be unpredictable at all. Pedro just doesn’t know he’s a dog. To Pedro, dogs on the street are all big and scary, while, to most other dogs, dogs on the street are all potential friends. Each week, Pedro finds a new things to be scared of. Man in a white van? RUN!!! Woman with a rolling grocery cart? BARK!!! A LOT!!! Tiny chihuahua off leash? BE FEROCIOUS WITH ALL SIXTY POUNDS OF MIGHT!!! Pedro’s mission is to scare the world away before it can scare him.

*

The first time I went out, after, and I went to a bar with some friends. Two friends? Manageable. All of the other people in the bar who wanted to touch and talk to me? Less so. I wanted to be the little woman hiding in a box as we came in. She had a reason to be there, a cash box in her lap, a special hand stamp in one hand and a light in the other. I identified more with her than the friends I was with in that moment. I wanted nothing more than to hide in that little black room. Give me the cash box, give me a job, give me anything but having to be the person that I was. Anything to keep from thinking those words. Instead I kept quiet, observed the room around me. The people dancing in gray metal cages, the multicolored lights that crisscrossed the stage and bled up the curtains. If it hadn’t happened, I thought, that could be me out there. Taking shots. Dancing. I leaned against the counter. But it happened. He raped me. He took everything. I spent the night holding up the counter.

*

I’m a fan of redirection commands for dogs over negative reinforcement. Pedro is not the type of dog who will ever find the world to be not scary. However, he can learn to associate the scary with food. “Pedro, look!” TREAT! “Pedro, let’s walk!” MORE TREATS!!! Dog walks down the sidewalk? ALL THE TREATS EVER!!! The scary things are still scary, but there are good things that come with them that make the scary easier to deal with.

*

I let my friends get my drinks for me so I wouldn’t have to converse with the bartender. I didn’t want to answer any questions about myself. I wanted to be anonymous. People were dancing, flamboyantly waving their arms in the air as they shoved themselves against each other, an act which had never been my thing. I was never free enough to dance before. I was certainly not free enough after. Two men circled the edges of the crowd, and I named them Green Shirt and Gray Shirt. Green Shirt was a grinder; he kept coming up behind women and rubbing himself against them, but none of them seemed to mind. Gray Shirt was different. He hopped over the counter and wandered behind me, towards the DJ booth. My friends were off, dancing, as his hand found my back and slid down, down, down…I elbowed him and fled to the bathroom, far away. My friends didn’t notice I had left. I sat in the stall and I wondered if I had imagined him, if he had touched me at all, or if I was remembering the hands of someone else. Of Him.

*

If I could be inside Pedro’s head, I imagine it would be something like this: “Another day. More time spent in the shelter. At least I have my bed. Oh, wait. I hear something. Keys?!? It’s my friend! My friend is here! She’ll play with me. Oh, wait…I have to go outside. I don’t want to go outside. Don’t make me go outside. But, wait…I have to go to the bathroom. I have to go outside. I can do it! Here we go! IS THAT A DOG?!? Wait, she said look! I should look at her! I’m looking at her! I’m doing it, I’m doing it, I’m doing it! Dog? What dog? My friend is smiling. I’m doing this right! I’m gonna do it again!” And he does. His new training program is working amazingly well. Two minute walks became ten minute walks became thirty minute walks. Storming the shelter window barking when a dog walks by is now grabbing a squeaky toy and running to get in bed. Baby steps for Pedro. Small doses. Being in the world to learn how to be in the world.

*

I don’t often admit the real reason why more than one on one or two on one is hard for me. It’s that I don’t know who I am yet, that I might never know, that I don’t always know how not to be afraid. How many people are there? Can I see the exit? Can I get to it? Do I need to? Who is that person behind me? Has he had too much to drink? Have I?

Does it matter?

Sometimes, I’m lost. More often than not lately, though, I’m not lost at all. I’ve been going out more, in small doses. One on ones. Two on ones. Building relationships for group situations. Giving myself “rewards” for milestones. Working up to staying 45 minutes. An hour. Two. Being in the world to learn about being in the world. I may never be “normal,” but there is no normal, really. And if I don’t work with what I have, I will never have anything more. It’s not enough to simply survive, to say “I survived,” if I’m not any better for it. 

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Pedro (On Wrestling With Our Ghosts)

As part of the more boring managerial aspect of my job, I commute in to the doggy daycare a few days a week with my laptop to do my staffing work in the presence of fluffy canines and people who don’t really give a crap what I do as long as things get done. I bought a laptop bag solely for this purpose, a sixty dollar messenger bag laptop carrying wonder that rests across my body and tucks under my armpit for safety. As an added bonus, it has a small zipper pocket on the outside of the front panel that’s just the right size for my transit card. I made an offhanded joke to my roommates when we started working out of the daycare that I needed this close-fit messenger bag so my laptop wouldn’t get stolen.

I didn’t actually think it would.

Fast forward less than two months to a Monday on the F train. (It’s always the F train. Don’t ride the F train). I was sitting in my seat and NOT playing on my phone for once, which is unusual for me, when the man came up and stood in front of me. I didn’t look up. I assumed he was looking at the subway map on the wall behind me. He wasn’t. He told me to give him the bag.

*

I have a new dog friend, Pedro. He’s five or so, a pit/lab mix with a secret passion for brightly colored toys that squeak and sticks he can destroy, but also with an intense burning hatred for dogs. He doesn’t just bark when dogs pass—he squats and lunges, jumps up in the air and spins around as if the passing dog means the end of the world as he knows it. When we pass a place where he saw a dog before, he reacts as if the dog is still there, reacts to the ghost of the dog.

Do dogs get PTSD? Certainly seems that way. I wish I could reach back into the past and see what he’s seen, be where he’s been. I wish I could bend down and tell him that I have PTSD too and that it’s cool because we can figure it out together. But I can’t, because those words aren’t words that a dog would understand. I don’t even understand myself the way my brain works, the way a single stupid moment can take me back to another stupid moment and another and another until they all blend together.

I lead Pedro away from his ghosts.

*

Give me the bag.

I hold on to words more than I hold on to anything else. But I also hold on to places, actions. My brain works in such a way that a thing happens and I latch on to the smallest of details. It’s not a thing I’m proud of. It’s an unpleasant aftereffect of being assaulted, of being abused, of life. Once a thing is marked for me, I don’t do it anymore. Headphones. Seatbelts. Shopping carts. Brooms. Knives. A purple stain in fabric. Backseats. The smell of garlic. The words I love you.

I love you.

iloveyougivemethebagiloveyouifyoutellanyoneillkillyou

newcarsmellandtheseatbeltinmybackandthesmellofgarlicandthepurplestainontheseatasidiginmyfingersandihateyouandfuckyouandgivemethebaggivemethebag

Give me the bag.

*

I am good at what I do because I see the inside of the dog’s brain inside my head, because I feel the pain that they feel from their pasts even when I don’t know what those pasts are. Pedro didn’t really care about me at first. He had a lot of dog sad—he was rescued four years ago by the great organization that I volunteer for. Sick, confused, and scared, his skin was mottled with malnutrition and scars from whatever had happened to him before his rescue. His diet and nutrition were easily fixed, but his spirits weren’t. Then, somehow, a special woman came along and adopted him. Three years later, she got very sick and he was returned to the organization. And now here we were, Pedro and I. Me in the hallway of the cat shelter where he has to live because even the sight of another dog sends him into hysterics, him inside the closet where he lives now because he has no home. Eye to eye. He challenged me to understand him before laying back in his bed in defeat. You don’t understand my sad, he told me. No one does.

I laid down on the floor of the cat shelter where everything smelled deeply of cats. I waited for him to come back out, to circle me and sniff me and get all up in my business. I waited there, completely still, until he laid down next to me and shoved his face into my armpit. You might understand, he said, so you can pet me. And I did.

*

My entire life is on my laptop. This is not to say I don’t back it up. Of course I back it up. But that’s beside the point. My left hand tightened on the strap; my right hand crawled its way into my pocket. There is no electronic device in the world worth dying for, but my laptop is the closest I’d come to it. His hand grazed my chest as he latched on to the strap; I sprayed him in the face with my pepper spray. I got lucky. He ran away crying like a starving baby and I was pretty damn proud of my accomplishment.

I’ve already forgotten what he looked like, which is unusual for me. This happened three days ago, and I didn’t write it down, so he’s gone. He was white, dirty. That’s all I know. And it doesn’t matter, because he’s just a small insignificant thing in the grand scheme of my life and I’m already past it. But I won’t sit in that spot on the train again. I will stay away from the doors.

*

Week two with Pedro, I had some extra time and took him to the small backyard of the cat shelter a volunteer had cleaned up for him. I sat on the porch and he sat at the foot of a tree on the end of his ten foot leash, staring off into the distance. On a hunch, I bent over and picked up a stick tapping it on the porch. “Hey, Pedro.” Tap tap. His ears flickered. “Wanna play?” He turned around slightly, his big head resting on his shoulder as he eyed the stick and hesitated for just that one moment. And then he pounced like a cat. I threw the stick across the yard and he brought it back again and again and again. I was instantly good people in the eyes of Pedro. I didn’t get it, or him, totally, but I was trying and he liked that. Connecting to Pedro is about finding the sparks that aren’t ghosts, about not wrestling because he’s not there yet. Connecting to Pedro is about being with him. 

I went to see him yesterday, and he ran out to greet me with a happy wagging tail. I came back for him; I hadn’t forgotten him. I won’t.

I think I found my calling. Maybe I screw it up sometimes, though I think everyone screws up at some point, but I know that these are the dogs I want to work with. I want to rescue. And, just as importantly, I want to tell their stories.

(If any of you lovelies are interested in sponsoring, fostering, or adopting my special friend Pedro, here’s a link to his information: http://www.mightymutts.org/pedro.html . You can also follow his quest to find his forever home on Instagram: @findpedroahome).

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Dear Man I Almost Just Pepper-Sprayed (Or, Another Day in My Life as a Minority)

Tonight after class, I was walking home from the bus stop. This is about a two block or so stretch along the river. It’s normally not so bad; the view is pretty and there are usually the occasional stragglers around walking dogs. I went to cross from the Hudson side of the road to my side, and heard people yelling. A quick pivot revealed a man a woman arguing on the corner about something in a book they were looking at. I turned back around to hit the button for the traffic signal, and there was a man directly in my face. He grabbed my arm, and told me how attractive I looked. (Trust me, I have worked all day. And then school. I am sweaty, I’m sure my makeup has melted off, and I am in no way attractive at this point in the day.) I had the pepper spray out before he could get out another word. Had he not let go, I would have kneed him. The plan was in my head without me making a conscious decision to create it. I crossed the street outside of the crosswalk, not bothering with the signal button. Walked up my steps after making sure he was not behind me, and then locked myself in the house. All is well and fine.

I’m surprised this hasn’t happened before, quite honestly. One night when I was coming home from work, walking down 6th Avenue, a man jumped out a doorway and tried to “ask me for directions.” I kept walking. Another time, a weird man came up to me when I was in line for the bus, but he walked away when I ignored him. There have been creepy things like that before, but I’ve never been touched, let alone grabbed. And I was, legit, with a few steps of my house.

One of my greatest fears in coming to the city was things like this happening. What surprises me most about it is that I really wasn’t afraid when it did. I don’t remember grabbing my pepper spray, or clicking off the safety. But I did it. PTSD be damned. I’m sitting on my bed now with tea and my cat replaying the entire brief encounter. Part of me wonders if he really did have good intentions, if he just wanted to introduce himself. In the dark. In not fantastic clothes. With crazy eyes. Smart me knows this probably wasn’t the case, though I still wonder if I overreacted. Had I not had pepper spray, would I still be on my bed right now with my cat?

My brain has programmed me to think differently. To be suspicious of the things in the shadows, to bolt when someone approaches me in the dark, especially when they’re unannounced. And for a while there, I forgot that I am naturally suspicious. I forgot that I am a white girl in a neighborhood where NO ONE else is white. (Minus the nice elderly lady next door.) I forgot that I used to be afraid. Of everything. But now I know that I’m not afraid anymore; and I know that there’s a different between fear and preparedness.

I think what I learned tonight is that I am stronger than I give myself credit for, a lesson that needs to be driven home for me again and again and again on repeat. I’m not going to fall apart anymore just because something happened. I, more than anyone, know this could have turned out incredibly differently. My life has prepared me to be on alert in a society that has forced me to be. Fuck this world that tells a man it’s okay to come to a strange woman after dark. Fuck this world that treats women like they are objects that can be touched by anyone. Fuck this culture that tells women we have to be afraid. I’m not going to be afraid. I’m going to kick ass.

I like this me much better.

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Let’s Talk

Today is apparently a high traffic day for me, with a second Freshly Pressed front page nod. Therefore, I find it only fitting that today is the day for this message.

One of the number one problems faced in the after by rape survivors is an inability to talk about it. This isn’t just an internal thing, though that’s a huge part of it. It’s also societally driven.

“Look how low cut that top is.”

“Her skirt is so short.”

“She had too much to drink.”

“She said yes once, so it’s always yes.”

“She led him on.”

“She didn’t say no.”

“It’s her fault.”

It’s not. Her fault. Your fault. My fault. 

It’s just not.

There are people out there who judge people—for their clothes, for their actions, for their gender. And it drives me crazy. It’s just simply not okay to blame the victim, whether she had a drink or her skirt is short or she shows a little bit of cleavage. The choice to wear a particular item of clothing is the choice of the person wearing it, and gives no right to anyone else to take action or judgement against that person. A woman’s body is her own (just as a man’s is his own). She can do with it what she wishes. A very wise person commented on a Facebook status of mine a few weeks ago “Men can run down the street half naked and they do not have to fear judgment or worse. Women deserve the same freedom.” I agree. There’s a huge inequality between expectations held for men and those held for women. It’s not right, and it’s not fair. So many women are afraid to talk, afraid to say what happened to them, because they fear they will be judged. Or worse yet, not believed at all. It happens more often than you might think. No means no, no matter the circumstances.

There is a shame that comes with being raped. A stigma. I know it because I’ve felt it. If I wouldn’t have been in that particular place at that particular time. If I would have fought more. Harder. If I would have done something, anything, differently. Never once in the beginning did it occur to me that it was his fault. His choice. I searched for months for what it was that I did to cause this to happen to me. But it wasn’t me at all. 

When I was attacked, I wasn’t wearing anything particularly low-cut. And I was wearing pants. I hadn’t had any alcohol. And it still happened. A person can be as pristine and clean and straight edge as they want to be, but bad things still happen. Rape is the decision of the rapist, and the only way to one hundred percent successfully prevent it is for the rapist to decide not to do it. Wearing turtlenecks and pants and cowering under societal stereotypes is not going to help anybody. As a matter of fact, it’s only going to keep people from talking. 

I got some fresh statistics off of the RAINN website:

44% of victims are under age 18.

80% are under age 30.

Every 2 minutes, another American is sexually assaulted.

Each year, there are about 237, 868 victims of sexual assault.

60% of sexual assaults are not reported to the police.

97% of rapists will never spend a day in jail.

Approximately two thirds of assaults are committed by someone the victim knows.

38% of rapists are a friend of an acquaintance.

This is just the surface, and just the United States. (For more, visit www.rainn.org). 

Why aren’t rapes getting reported? In my opinion, it’s because we aren’t talking about it. Hell, it took me forever to talk about it myself. So maybe, what it takes is one person to light a fire. One person to share their story. Then that story gets read by another person, and inspires them to share their story. Which is read by another, and another. Sharing occurs. A network is formed. And maybe that percentage of unreported rapes drops to 59. 

And, after all. Isn’t that what my memoir is all about?

It’s time to disturb some shit.

So hey, let’s talk. 

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Little Fish, Big Pond

Today, I got an academic award. The keynote speaker said we should brag about it. Be confident in our accomplishments. It wasn’t anything major, just a small recognition for the fact that I am a student who apparently kicks ass. It’s funny, really, that as much of a magnet as I am for other peoples’ feedback, I truly hate being recognized. I didn’t know I would have to go up onstage. I didn’t know they would read a bio of my life. I didn’t know I would have to cross the stage, in heels, and shake hands with all the university big-wigs that I’ve already had dealings with on so many other levels. As I stood up there and listened to the speaker talk about me, I realized I couldn’t look out at the audience. Not because I was afraid of them. But because I didn’t want to meet any of their eyes. Because I knew that they were seeing me. Really seeing. My university is a tiny pond, and I’m a big fish here. If they see that, I will have to admit it. I’m not ready.

The lists of my accomplishments today was quite long: Dean’s Advisory board, magazine editor, teaching assistant, conference presenter, award winner, published writer, three year degree, strong GPA. Accepted to graduate school. More than one graduate school. Going to get my MFA in New York City. NEW. YORK. CITY. These are all facts—things I know, pieces of me. They can’t be argued. They just are. I hear these things, and I go “Wow. I did all that. I am doing that. This is me,” and I know that it’s true. I’m doing overly well academically. I even got my first paid writer’s contract this week. So why is this all so hard for me to hear?

Why don’t I know how to take a compliment? Why don’t I like to hear these things about myself? Easy. I’m afraid of the big pond.

When I first started college, it was the most terrifying thing I had ever done. So many people, so many things. I didn’t want to get involved, I didn’t want to make friends. I didn’t want to be there anymore than I had to be. But I started getting A’s, and people started taking notice. They were saying good things. For a lot of my life, I’ve heard the bad things. Or rather, I’ve been known for the bad things. The woman whose baby died, the woman whose husband was an asshat, the woman who was raped, the woman who is broken more often than she is whole. It’s easier for me to be her, because I know how to be her. I don’t know how to have good things, to have a life that’s good. To live.

The hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live.

What does it mean to be brave? The concept is becoming different for me now than it used to be. For a while there, brave was simply getting up in the morning. Then it became getting up and doing something with myself. Gradually, it morphed. Starting college. Keeping going. Holding on through all the stress. Again, getting up in the morning. Applying to graduate school. Making friends. Forming relationships. Selecting a graduate school. Pushing through when my brain is hard to live with. 

Now, bravery is moving. Picking up my entire life and shifting it to this new place, this place where I will be a big fish among even bigger fish. Where maybe, just maybe, I will actually be the tiny fish academically, and where I will definitely be the tiny fish socially. New York is huge, and I am so, so small. 

But am I? Or have I made myself that way?

You will note that, for the first time on this blog, I used the word rape paired with myself. Because yes, that’s a part of me. And in avoiding it, in not using the word, in running away when I hear it, I make myself small. I make myself not worth notice. I make what happened to me inconsequential by my silence when it’s anything but. It has impacted me every step of the way, in all of the decisions that I have had to make. By ignoring that, by pushing it to the background, by refusing to say the word, I tell myself that I am not worth the acknowledgement. I make myself a smaller fish, and I don’t want to be that way. Perhaps the solution is in admitting what happened to me so that I can turn it on its head. Conquer it.

I live a life of black and white. Good or bad. But perhaps I can be a fish who just swims with the other fish. One who doesn’t get eaten. One who is tough and strong and gets her things done. Maybe I can make my home in a new pond. I want to make a difference; I want people to read my work and feel something. I want to make it worth something, and I want to live up to the title of “shit disturber.” 

I can’t disturb things if I’m too afraid to get in the pond. Now…to find that bathing suit…

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Only Motion

I see you, often.

I look at myself in the mirror; my heart beats in an effort to escape my chest. I want to escape me too, but I can’t. Breathe in. Out. Rinse. Repeat.

I touch the steering wheel of my car and it feels cold under my slick palms. The sun is up; I have places to be. But I find I can’t move. Some days it is hard just to get in, to admit how close you were. Are. It’s hard to admit a very real struggle, a solid weight that sticks inside of me and refuses to let go. There are more ups than downs on some days, more downs than ups on others. The bad outweighs the good too frequently. I think that it will always suck, that I will never be okay. That I will never be over you. I will always drag this shadow behind me.

It starts with the fingers. Always the fingers. That’s how I know it’s coming, when I feel his fingers. Caressing me. Moving up my arm like a spider. Next the feeling of his mouth on my ear. The feeling of his breath blowing inside. I know that if I don’t do something, it will get worse. I will get lost.

I see you, often. On the stairs, on campus. Down the hall. In the Subway line, ordering a pizza. In the parking lot, getting into a truck. In the grocery store, picking out the perfect carton of eggs.  There is a certain verisimilitude to your form—your face, your hair, the way that you stand. But then when you turn, it isn’t you. You don’t see me. You never did, really. But I see your face, everywhere. On the mailman, on the librarian, on the kid who sits across from me in Arthurian Lit. You are everywhere to me, but I am nowhere to you. Nothing. I imagine where you are now, what you are doing. I wonder if you ever think of what you did.

Remember the plan, I tell myself. Remember what it’s for, why you are still moving forward. The only thing to do is ride it out. Ride it out. Ride it out. Wait for it to stop hurting. Wait to not be scared. Remember that I am safe, that I am real. That though it feels like drowning, it’s not. It’s not.

At night, there is a scepter that haunts me sometimes, the ghost of you. Words and emotions and feelings that have no place and no home. They weave in and out of my blankets, through the pillows, into the nightlight and out into the void. There is a gaping wound somewhere that I can’t see, a wound that tries to heal and then rips open again, and again, and again. Little things. A sound, a touch. I imagine it like a scab, something that hardens and then gets ripped away just when it is about to heal. I imagine that it will never heal, that it will bleed forever. I am afraid to believe in good things I know are within reach.

Your words echo and warp, twist in my head and mix with my own words. I’m not worthy. I don’t deserve this, any of this. I should try harder. I should be okay, just be okay, all the time. Never not okay. I should count the good things and be grateful to be alive, but I can’t right now, I can’t see that when I see you. Your fingers. Your eyes.

There is a hawk that glides over the road on my drive home. I don’t see its wings flap, not once, as I drive down the highway. It simply glides over the road, eyes forward, passing over life. That’s how I am—my life passing by beneath while I glide overhead. Unable to touch it. Unable to connect with anything. Unable to voice when I get lost because I am so happy for the moments when I’m not lost that it’s hard to admit the fall. I am in this phase now of moving forward, yet thinking about the past. Because in reality, there is no forward. There is only motion. The past is always with me. You are always with me.

I see you, often.

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Planning

One day when we were sitting in the kitchen of his mother’s house, B handed me a bag of his mother’s rings.  “You should try these on.  See if any of them fit.  My mom doesn’t want them anymore.”

I went through the bag one by one, trying different things on.  There was one, an old leather ring with a peace sign engraved on the top, that I fell in love with.  “I like this one.”  I slipped it on my finger with ease.  He told me to keep it.

I didn’t take it off until he replaced it a little over a week later with a diamond engagement ring.  When I had planned for the time I’d get married, I imagined it would be forever.  I didn’t know how wrong, how stupid, I was.

*

I live my life best when I have plans.  

My favorite thing at the moment are the syllabi I have for my courses this semester; they are like miniature datebooks by which I can plan my entire life.  They are broken down by class period, with the required readings and various other course assignments under their certain days.  For instance, I know that I have two papers coming due.  I also know that I have to write discussion questions every Tuesday for two of my classes, and that I have meetings on Mondays and Tuesdays for the magazine.  Because these things are certain, I can plan for them.  They are always the same.

It freaks me out when I can’t plan for things.  While I approve wholeheartedly of opportunities to incorporate new experiences into my person, I also feel the need to run from them because they are new.  Because they are unknown.  Because I cannot plan.  

*

I clutched my phone in my hand, reading the email that had been forwarded to me:  Maybe you’re thinking that Sara saying she wants to go back to school/college is a sign of progress?  Sara has “said” she was going back to school at least three other times, and this makes the fourth.  She is terrified of going back to school because she is afraid of “failing.”

College acceptance.  Email.  College acceptance.  Email.

I chose to listen to the acceptance letter.  I didn’t feel like my ex OR his mother deserved to have any power over me, but I didn’t know if I could be a person without him.

I went to campus the week before my classes started so that I could find all the rooms.  I made a map in my head so that I could get easily from class to class on time.  And then I started college—and I didn’t fail.

The first big paper that I wrote was a paper on Beowulf.  The day I got it back, I was terrified I had failed.  I couldn’t look up as the professor walked the room passing things back; I focused my gaze on the sneakers of the person across the circle from me.  D slowly made her way around the classroom, handing back the first paper she had assigned, graded and commented upon.  My dissection of Beowulf for this assignment had been a struggle; professors in my other classes had never cared this much about papers.  I could see the F now every time I closed my eyes.  Big, bold, and red.  Something brushed my elbow and I looked down.  My paper.

92.

I had gotten a 92.

My face must have portrayed my shock, because D began to laugh.  “You have the best facial expressions,” she cracked.  “But seriously though, you’re awesome.  And this is good.  You just need to be more confident.  Believe in yourself.”

That was the moment where I first realized I was better than him.

*

In self-defense class, they teach you to aim for the crotch or the eyes when you are grabbed from behind.  But all the training in the world can’t prepare you for a knife against your throat.  I was the top of my class, but when it happened I still felt woefully unprepared.  

I froze.  I hadn’t planned for this experience.  Stupid.

After, I made lists.  Lists for my day; lists that told me the times I would complete all of the activities that I needed to get done.  I hadn’t planned for the before, but I could plan for the after.  I could protect myself.

*

You’ve been accepted to read your Creative non-fiction work at the Sigma Tau Delta International Convention.  Please respond by the 21st as to whether or not you are available and what piece(s) you will be reading.  

I read the email once.  Twice.  I thought about declining yet again.  But I didn’t.  I said yes.  Another new experience.

*

I can’t plan for this.  What if there’s a stranger who sits next to me that reminds me of him?  What if there’s a topic I don’t like and I can’t find an exit from the room?  What if I get lost?  What if something happens?  What if I fail?  Does that mean I’m not good enough?  Does it mean that I’m that same person he thought I was?  That same stupid girl who got herself hurt?

What if, really, I’m always her?  That horrible girl who fails?

*

“You are not horrible, and you know this, sometimes.  So hang onto that for your presentation.”  I focused on those words.  Not horrible.  Not a failure.  Words mean something to me, and I’ve heard a lot of them this week.  I absorb them.  I absorb the belief that others have in me.  I let it change me.  

Brave.

Strong.

Confident.

I make plans.  Connections.  A safety.  And then lists.  

I breathe.  

I’m not stupid.  I won’t fail.

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Believing

I love you.

 

I view the experience in an out of body manner even now, just as I did then.  

What sticks the most is his smile.  Me in tears, and him smiling.  I can see his smile sometimes when I close my eyes.  His teeth gleaming, his breath like garlic.  From his smile, I see his eyes.  They glitter, a cross between brown and hazel and something that I can’t identify.  The gleam in his eyes is joy.  He found happiness in my tears, somehow.  I didn’t understand that.  I still don’t.  I don’t get how people can find happiness in the pain of others when I’m so sensitive I will cry at commercials. 

There was a “Private Practice” episode where one of the doctors was raped in her office.  I both wanted to watch it and didn’t want to watch it at the same time.  I felt connected to the character, Charlotte.  I didn’t want to look at her, but I couldn’t look away either.  When she fell silent and stopped fighting her attacker, a single tear trickled down my cheek.  Because I got it.  I understood.  That moment when she stopped believing.

 

Snap.  Close.  Cold.  The feeling of metal.  Something hard.

 

After surviving a serious physical injury, trauma may show up in a variety of ways—from disturbances with normal eating and sleeping to general dysfunction.  On the emotional side, people who experience shock trauma may experience depression, despair, panic attacks, memory loss, and a host of other issues. While the body may heal after shock trauma, if nothing is done about the emotional side of the ordeal, other problems may develop.  The patient may believe they are alone.

 

Licking.  Knife.  The release of blood.  So much.  Ice.  Black.

 

I was driving down the road on my way to teach one night, and I saw a deer crossing the road.  It went right in front of my car, and it turned to see me coming for it.  It froze.  I think it froze because it believed there was no escape.  It forgot there was another side to the road, a way to get away.  It believed that it was going to die.

 

One.  Two.  Three.  Four.  Ninety nine..One hundred…Five hundred.  Open.

 

There is a room inside my head.  In that room, the walls are black.  There are no doors or windows.  Only I can enter.  Only I can leave.  In the middle of the room, there is a chair.  The chair is black, wooden.  It has no cushions.  It is plain, just like the room. Which is the size of my closet.  That isn’t a bad thing; it is perfect for me, and it is just what I need.  It’s safe.

Sometimes, when I’m really bothered about it, I can feel the weight of it around me as if it just happened yesterday.  I think about things and I process them through that veil, at their base level.  It is harder for me on those days, the days I am worried.  Even though it was some time ago, I am worried.  It still affects me, while the effects on him are minimal.  That doesn’t seem fair.  My brain is a cesspool of gunk.  Of it.  Him.  Most of the time I am fine.  But I don’t trust myself.  I don’t see the me that other people see.  I don’t always believe.  I wonder if he took that from me.  If it’s gone. Forever.

 

Love.  You.  Love.

 

Don’t come back.

 

Someone told me that I enjoy new experiences.  That really struck me, because it’s true.  I enjoy new experiences, yes, but they scare me.  They scare me a LOT.  I don’t believe in my ability to handle every day.  I don’t give myself a break.  I get very angry when I am okay one second and not the next.  I want to be okay all the time.  I worry that the new things are overwhelming.  That I will fall.  Fail.  

I have led a double life, a difference between my body and soul.  I carry myself differently because of the past, because of that day.  I hide myself from the world.  There are many things I can’t talk about, many things that are folded into other things and disguised and cleverly hidden.  I put my past in the light, but also in the shade.  I will always be in the shade.  

And as a result, there will always be times when I don’t believe.  

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On PTSD

The brain is made up of tons of different neural networks.  We strengthen the connections between neurons when we learn to do something.  As a simple example, when a person is learning how to ride a bike, a neural pathway forms that strengthens the more a person completes the action of bicycling correctly.  If the person never has any desire to ride a bike, they will never form that neural pathway because they will never give the neurons a reason to connect.  And if a person doesn’t ride a bike for many years, that neural pathway will begin to fade away.  

Neural pathways do not only form for positive experiences such as riding a bike.  They can also form from negative experiences.  A psychologist named Martin Seligman coined the term “learned helplessness” after his experimentation on dogs.  He locked dogs into kennels with no way out and hit them with repeated electric shocks.  The dogs would try to escape by biting the bars or throwing themselves at the sides, but they couldn’t get away from the shocks.  Eventually, learning that there was no escape, the dogs would lay down in the kennels and just take the shocks.  Even when Seligman opened the dog to the kennel, the dog would continue to stay and take the shocks.  The neural pathways formed by the repeated electrocution taught the dog that there was no way out.  There are chemicals formed inside the neurons during adverse experiences that aren’t formed during happy times; 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 like that; it’s the formation of a negative neural pathway or pathways caused by exposure to something from the past.  For instance, there are certain things that just trigger a vise.   Like someone is squeezing the inside of the chest.  My chest.

It’s very 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.  It also occurred to me today that I have become better at managing said blow-ups when they do happen.

Example A.  Sometimes it’s especially bad, as in, something as simple as a touch can push me over the edge and trap me inside of a memory.  And it isn’t just thinking about the memory.  It’s being in it.  One hundred percent, in it.  Breathing it, feeling it.  Reliving it.  These are the ones I really don’t care for, the ones where it’s hard to come back on my own.  When I feel him and want to stab myself in the eye.

Example B.  Last semester, I was sitting in a psychology class doing group work when a guy I didn’t know came up behind me and put his hands on my shoulders.  He wasn’t trying to do anything inappropriate, the rational part of me knows that.  But the irrational part of me ruled at the time.  The snap that occurred was pretty external—I burst into tears and fled.  It took me a good 45 minutes to return to class that day, and what amounted to at least twenty minutes of discussion after class on the floor of another professor’s office.  Not my proudest moment, but I wasn’t lost.

Example C.  One thing after another.  Eyes and hair and hands and touching and noises.    One trigger after another.  Confrontation.  And boom.  I walked into a class to set my stuff down with my hands literally shaking and I felt my chest snap.  My fuse blew.  I walked out; I didn’t cry much.  I got a drink of water.  A second.  I did a loop around the middle.  A second.  And I went back.  I shook for a good two hours.  But I handled.  Somehow, I did that.  AND I opened my mouth and presented normally—because that’s how I roll.

There’s a part of me that wants to shield this piece of me from others, that views this as me not being able to handle my shit.  But there’s another part of me that sees the progress I have made and the battle that I have fought.  That really, it’s not me not handling my shit.  It’s me forming new neural pathways.  Associating my experiences with different things.  Learning that a memory or a trigger isn’t necessarily an electric shock I can’t escape.  What I did today I couldn’t have done last year.  So instead of saying “I can’t handle my shit,” I need to be saying “go me.”  Because I did handle.  I was scared, but I handled.

I’m not sure when I became that person who could almost handle.  But I like her.  

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