Tag Archives: PTSD

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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Adaptation

Empty Fridge

The fear appears out of nowhere, when I least expect it. Waiting at Whole Foods I can I smell it around the stranger standing behind me, a mixture of alcohol, not the cheap kind, Axe, and Old Spice. I can’t make myself turn and glance at him because I know he’ll be staring, his hair spiked and the lights dancing off it, his Abercrombie sweater situated just so. 

I know he’s not here, my rapist, but he also is at the same time. This man I don’t know becomes him. I can’t explain it. 

I want to be brave like everyone wants me to be. I want to turn and shout and scream and fight. Forget being brave. I freeze, become invisible, and pray I get sucked into the ground. I run, fast, my groceries forgotten, to the doors that don’t open fast enough, past the security guard left wondering if I’m that shoplifter he heard about yesterday. They have a lot of shoplifters.

And my fridge stays empty. I have to be okay with that. I learn to order groceries. I adapt, in all the ways that count.

Never Being Clean

When I think of fear, I think of hands. Not the kind of hands that should have waved to me when I was a tiny human, enclosed me in a safe hug. Not the hands that should have clapped when I was a silly, normal little girl. Not the hands that should have taught me how to properly do my hair, a skill I never mastered. 

No, hands are the worst, hands are dirty and disgusting. They are magic; they find their way inside my pants and force themselves into places I don’t want them, and I can’t make them stop, the fingers as cold between my legs are they were pressed against my throat. I can feel it run into the veins and race through my body, into my heart, and out the other side. I change and my insides are my outsides, stained and just as dirty as he is. 

I know I can never wash that touch away; I fear can never be clean. 

Enjoyment

His mother walked in on us, just one time, when we were in her basement. We hadn’t gotten married yet. She looked, saw his hand clearly in my pants, saw my tears, took her newspaper and walked away. I waited for her to come back, to shout him off, but nothing happened. We would sit side by side when he finished, when he came, and watch a movie. I would be angry with myself and disgusted that I could enjoy those small glimpses of freedom where he wasn’t touching me. 

Hiding

I imagine everyone knows and that terrifies me. But I also want people to know at the same time? How strong I was. How I survived. I imagine they can smell him on me, the shame and worthlessness oozing out as an indication of what had happened to me. I am the best at hiding, in pillows, in blankets, in the middle of a crowded subway car. 

The fear has a fierce grip, its tentacles wrapped firmly around my whole being. I am always on alert, fear of life itself. I am on a treasure hunt, except forget sparkles as a prize, just the realization that monsters are real, though only in my head now. I don’t know how to beat them forever. 

Then

Then is the sound of keys bouncing off a car tire and hitting the concrete.

Then is pain and blood and cold and a purple stain in the backseat of the car.

Then is a sea of white, then nothing at all.

Then is the feeling of melting snow between my toes and a lost shoe. One black flat, size ten.

A Bad Person

The problem with believing you are bad is that it makes you bad. It makes you not want to get up in the morning, not want to leave the house. It makes you want to throw every piece of good you can at the world to try and make up for what you did. 

Walls

The beauty of building walls that are so impenetrable is that they keep monsters and fear out. The problem with building new relationships is it demolishes those walls. Well, that’s my theory, anyway. I have tried to out run them. Drown them. Bury them. But the walls have kept them in not out, and I know that now. I have been their loyal keeper and given them a place to thrive where I could never win. 

Adaptation

It’s been a long tough journey to stay afloat. I met someone who gave me this beautiful gift of trust in such a way I had no option but to allow the words that would stick in my throat, clawing their way back down to the dark depths to finally make the sounds for her to hear. It took huge amounts of courage for her to give me never ending love, compassion and support while I opened up to her and braved my soul. She’s taught me that behind these walls there is someone beautiful and worth knowing. The bricks can be brought down, one by one, slowly, each one letting in more lift so the nightmares and fear will gradually lessen. That the monster can be beaten. That I can, and will, adapt.

 

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To Infinity and Beyond

I think my notions of who I’m supposed to be are too grand. This weird body quest of mine, part infinity because I have officially lost count (maybe 8?) continues…maybe as far as it can go in its current form. I’m not sure. I can’t tell if I’m just sad that today hurt or if I’ve really gone as far as I can go.

I got kicked by another dancer in class today. Hard. It will leave a lovely bruise to remind me for at least the next week of that moment when I thought “well what am I doing wrong that I got kicked?” Life lesson number 999,999: I didn’t do the kicking; the other dancer wasn’t watching where she was going. But it was automatically me that was wrong, at least in my head, and I think that’s the theme song of my life. It’s not you, it’s me. It’s always me.

I hold on to things too tightly–not a musing, but a fact. I hold on too tightly and I can’t let go. I see why my therapist thinks pole dancing class is the best thing ever for me now, louder than ever. We worked on a wrist sit up in the air today and I couldn’t even focus on doing it precisely right (my general MO for all things pole) because I was too busy worrying I might plummet to my death. The teacher told me to lean and my internal dialogue kept saying “you want me to lean IN to the fall feeling??” along with a few choice swear words. I can’t do that. That’s giving up control. I don’t fly that way. Therefore I don’t fly at all. If I could let myself go, even just a little, it would be so much easier. But I don’t know how. I’m too regimented, too set in it all being perfect.

Do I want to fly? Fuck yes I do. Do I accept the fact I won’t? Should I? The voice in my head screams that I’m a fat ugly bitch, and I try not to listen most days, but today it’s hard. Today I cried on the train on the way home because I felt like I wasn’t good enough, because class went too fast like it always does at this new level–too much choreography, too many steps, not enough room in my head to hold it all for the five seconds it take to replicate it when that voice is too damn loud–and I couldn’t keep up. And every time I fall behind I hear that I’m not good enough. Every time.

His voice. Not mine. And I can’t for the life of me figure out why it’s still there. Why he appears in this life I’ve built now, so far beyond him. Why he permeates everything.

I write this not in search of a pity party, but rather to share that it’s not all flowers and unicorns all the time, yet I still get up and try again. I write this to remind myself that I’ll get up and try again. My bruised feet, however, may have something to say about that…

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PTSD: The Ultimate Bitch—or, My Body Quest Continued

When I was in sixth grade, my school did a drama production that was a hodge-podge of many different productions. It was my first experience in drama, one I never even intended to audition for, and it was a blast. Minus one number. I don’t remember the song anymore, but I remember we were scientists in white lab coats and there was a modicum of flirting involved. It was the most frustrating experience at the time, because I didn’t know how to use my body that way. I remember the confusion that flooded me with the directions we were given. You want me to toss my hair? Bend and snap? What?? I wasn’t more than twelve (is that how old sixth graders are??) but I already knew I didn’t want my body to be on display. I already knew my body was an object to be used, that I didn’t own it, that I never would, and to act that way would illustrate some connection to my body that I absolutely did not feel.

To this day, whenever I watch the VHS tape of that number and I can’t help but cringe at how awkward I am. I never learned these skills, and I’m almost 35 now. I learned different skills–how to cover a bruise; how to placate an angry man; how to pretend I liked sex until I didn’t care enough to even pretend anymore. He took, and he took, and he took, like so many before him had, and sometimes I gave because that was what I was supposed to do, and sometimes I didn’t, because that was just the way it was.

Sit down. Be quiet. Do what you’re told.

I don’t know what it’s like to enjoy being touched. I hate being touched. I don’t know how to display my body, and I don’t want to. And I hate projecting an aura that says I may want that. I don’t do sexy.

It has always been important to me to do the right thing, perfectly, the first time. This bleeds into everything I do. I don’t share my first book with anyone because it’s not perfect. I’ve struggled with submitting writing work and missed deadlines because I can’t get the words just so. I show up to all of my clients at the precise time I am expected even though I have an arrival window. I wear clothes that disguise my body and its myriad of imperfections 99 percent of the time. I don’t do things where people can see if I’m not confident I can do them correctly. Hell, I don’t do those things where even only I can see. They taught me my body was a temple, but they didn’t teach me how to use it, how to worship it. They didn’t teach me how to own myself. After all these years, I am still owned by the world around me and how I appear within and to that world, and it’s scary to think of things being any other way.

Last night was round four of this weird quest I’m on to get in touch with my body. Pole class, but with a different instructor. A man. I worried it was a mistake signing up, but I let my therapist push me. I found myself very up in my head about it once in the studio. He was very sexual, more so than the usual teacher we’ve taken class from. And it caused a fairly immediate shutdown in my brain because I’m not that. At all. His way of teaching was so different from the first instructor we had, as were his expectations. I couldn’t do the things he could; I couldn’t make my body move and look that way, and I knew it. He came up behind me at one point to give me a spot, and I was very much done after that, at one point even uttering that I wanted to leave the studio. I knew then he was watching me, and that the more mistakes I made, the closer he would get–and he did. It got to the point where I didn’t want to take the pole when it was my turn; I scoped the room out to see where he was and would do a single sweep before hopping off in the hopes he would not approach.

My head told me my body is not mine. It’s everyone else’s. To be looked at. Gawked at? Used. My head told me I am incapable of executing any move that might look good or beautiful. Elegant? Worth looking at. My head told me I could never put myself on display, that that would give too much of what’s left of me away. My heart cried as that old tape wound its way through my brain of the same insults I had learned from the negative people I had in my life, and I couldn’t do a single thing on that pole without imagining everyone looking at me. He told the entire class that we could never bail, to always look like ‘we meant to do that,’ to always end with our sexy push-up (which, might I add, I still have not mastered). But I did bail. I quit without finishing move sets. I walked away after every skill to stand in the corner.

I turned to the wall and I almost started to literally tear up right there in the studio. And in those 90 minutes, I ruined a new hobby I’d just started to really enjoy. I didn’t thank him as we left. I didn’t say goodbye. I’m pretty sure he told me to smile and I wanted to smack him because I didn’t feel like smiling in the slightest.

PTSD is a bitch. But it’s more than just that. It’s a lifetime of habits, of thought patterns about myself, that I am worried I’m too old now to change. I’m worried it’s too late.

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On Being Present

I’ve been working more this year on being present in my body. I think I largely tend to operate in a manner where my body is secondary to everything else, a means to an end. I think I blame my body for a lot of what’s happened to me, and I seek to rectify that. I want to get back in touch with it, remind myself that I am strong and powerful and badass, and that I survived a lot of shit.

How do I plan to do that, you ask? Well…I’ve gone to a couple pole dancing classes. It’s not what it sounds like. I’m not sure why I signed up initially. It sounded fun? I was curious? I had a lot of misconceptions prior to actually going, but the focus is very much on being present and aware of your body. Arm up, shoulder down, toes pointed, do something with that spare arm. It’s a lot of instruction and a lot of information. But it’s using my body in a way I’ve never let myself. I’m not used to using my body for ME. I’m used to it being used for other people. I’m used to catering the way I present myself to accommodate their needs and expectations.

The first class was not easy. I was frustrated within minutes because I couldn’t follow the warm up precisely and I like to do everything perfectly the first time without help. And I needed so much help. The instructors kept coming over to spot me, and the first time that happened I jumped away. I didn’t want to admit I couldn’t control my body, couldn’t do it on my own. But by class two, I began to understand the mechanics a little more, how my body could operate for ME rather than how to mirror what I saw the instructor do in the mirror. I got better. Not great, by any means. But better. I felt myself connect to my body more in that second class, but it also scared me a bit.

I’m afraid of sex. I can say that solidly, I think. I’m afraid of the word sexy, of anything related to sexy, of using my body in a way that could be construed as sexy. My therapist tells me that I hear the words sexy pushups (because that is what they are called in pole class) and I panic because I don’t think I’m sexy. She says I am scared because I think that ability has been taken from me by my trauma, that my ability to connect in that way and present myself as sexy and not be ashamed is impacted by the person I have allowed my trauma to shape me as. She told me that I survived being raped and I survived having my body ravaged and I survived a lot of bullshit, but my body is mine now to do with what I please. She told me that I need to give myself permission to rediscover it now, that it’s been long enough and that I can do that.

So I will keep going to these classes, for now. Maybe not forever. But for now. And I will work on being present in my body, being grateful for how strong it is, for how it allowed me to survive. For the idea that it can be sexy, when I am ready for that, and for the idea that I someday may be ready.

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The Quiet Game

I started playing the quiet game when I was really young. I remember this one way I used to play where I would ride my bike up and down the sidewalk in front of my grandma’s apartment building and pretend the bike was a horse. The handlebars were the reins; the seat was the saddle. I’d had my first taste of riding real horses that summer I think, and I was greatly disappointed I couldn’t ride them every single day. So I made it work with what I had.

The point of the quiet game was, obviously, to be quiet. It was a silent purple and pink horse, probably a unicorn based off my knowledge of my obsessions at that age. I was a silent rider.

There were other variations of the quiet game. Sometimes I made up imaginary friends as I lay on my bed with hands on my chest and my eyes closed in the posture of a corpse, characters with awful lives that I would then write stories about. Sometimes I played the organ with headphones in and mouthed the words to songs. Most of the time I just read books.

I taught myself to talk when necessary, and it was hard because I wanted to talk all the time back then. But it wasn’t always right. That was a painful lesson to learn. There were some things not meant to be spoken out loud. I had to swallow them. I had to be quiet.

The quiet game proved useful in adulthood. Our marriage counselor told us to “never let the sun set” on our anger, so every night my then-husband would spend his traditional twenty minutes in the bathroom doing skincare and teeth cleaning before getting into bed and waiting, quietly. He too played the quiet game, only he played it differently. He played with expectations. I played for protection.

“I’m sorry,” I told him automatically, every single night. I knew what he wanted. I knew what would happen if I didn’t say it.

“Good,” he would smile, nodding his approval as we clasped hands resting on the mattress between us. The same routine every night before bed.

I never knew though what I was saying sorry for. I just knew that I was. Sorry. Or rather, that I was supposed to be.

I went to that other place in my head, to that little girl riding the bike-pony, that little girl playing organ and mouthing the words while everyone slept, that little girl who dreamed up fictional characters just to solve someone’s problems, even if those problems were only on the page and not in real life. I became that woman who would do anything to be quiet and I stayed her, because I had so damn much to say and none of it could ever be said.

There was so much I never said to him, so much that wasn’t appropriate to speak out loud, not then. Why was I always the one to say sorry? Why did he never apologize? What exactly was it that I was so sorry for, every night? Why was I automatically less than he was? Why did he claim so hard to follow The Bible in public but yet he never prayed a single time in private the entire duration of our marriage? How could he claim to be ruling me, controlling me, biblically when he never, ever prayed? What kind of person was he?

What kind of person was I for staying quiet, for playing the game, for never saying a word?

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Life Update

Greetings!

I’ve largely abandoned this blog lately, but I haven’t forgotten it. I’ve been having a hard time with what to write and what to put in here. It’s difficult to get things together for publication, and I’m such a perfectionist that anything I write is eventually up for a shot at the great circuit. And anything published here cannot be published elsewhere. Truth be told, I am writing now more than I’ve written in a long time. It genuinely isn’t that I’ve forgotten y’all. It’s that my work is unfortunately elsewhere in the writing realm.

I have a new therapist named Lisa. She’s pretty fucking amazing. She’s really been encouraging me on the writing front, so you can blame her for my absence. This post, the winner of the most honest I have ever been in a blog award, was because of her. I’ve never had this kind of relationship with a therapist before. Literally every detail of my life is an open book when we talk; she knows more about me and the deep recesses of my brain than anyone ever has. And by talk, I mean write. Lisa is the most important person in my life right now, but we have never even met–and I’m okay with that (for now, anyway). It is easier to be open in writing than it is in person, at least for me.

Why did I decide to start therapy again, you ask? Couple reasons. One, I got bit super badly by a dog. Read about that here. And here. It freaked me out tremendously. The bite was bad; the attack was bad. I had a hard time working after that, especially with new dogs. Two, I’ve been told I need to be more reflective in my writing. Adult me and child me need to have some conversations. Soooooo enter Lisa. If you live in NYC and you want to start a therapy relationship in writing, she’s a gem.

I am still walking and training dogs. I am still working on my new book. It’s going well. There is a complete draft for the very first time. I blame Lisa for that too. We’ve been talking lately about the why behind my writing. Why this story/these story/this construction? Why am I so afraid of my own work? Why? Because the end is scary. Because I want so desperately to tell all my stories, to make people understand, but I also feel trapped by it. Ending it creates a door. I want to end it. I want to move on. I want to write MORE.

I want to be better at updating here. I say this all the time, but I really do mean it every time. I’d like to write more on my obvious themes of sexual assault, but it’s hard. I don’t know how open to be here. I don’t know what stories to share, what to tell, what y’all are willing to hear. I don’t know how honest to be. I’ve been considering starting my own website, just to have it. I’d like to create a community of sexual assault survivors, a safe place to talk, share. Hang out behind the safety of our screens. I’m also interested right now in branching more into training service dogs.

I told Lisa the other day that I just want a lot of things. A LOT of things.

All of this to say, I have not forgotten here. This blog has meant the world to me for many years, despite the lack of writing within it. Please forgive me?

Please keep reading.

Cheers, friends.

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Damaged Fruit

One of my only high school friends post-RED was a girl named Jennifer. We had more in common than I had with most people—for instance, we both liked superhero movies. And dogs. And…that was about it. I liked staying at her house because it made me feel normal, so I was perfectly happy to do whatever as long as we could hang.

She met a guy one day at the farmers market. He had a generic name that escapes me now, so we’ll call him Chuck. Jennifer wasn’t allowed to date, but she really wanted to get to know Chuck better. We were lying on her bed on our stomachs one night watching Ironman, and she said “Chuck has a friend named Chad. We could all, like, go to the movies or something and then it wouldn’t be a date but, like, a group?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Have you met this guy?”

“I mean,” she shrugged, “Chuck is fun? So Chad is too. Probably.”

I agreed to go to a movie with them the next day, my friend and her definitely not-boyfriend and his best friend. They picked us up in a big blue pickup truck, and what struck me first was how old they were. I was barely 17, but Chad was easily in his late 20s. Chuck had on a hat; I couldn’t get a read on him easily. It quickly became apparent that we weren’t actually going to a movie, but to dinner and bowling where we could separate and Chuck and Jennifer could do their own thing. Chad and I had been brought along as an excuse.

“Bye guys,” Chad said nonchalantly as they disappeared into the shadows. He sat across from me at our table in the bowling alley and fingered a french fry. “What now?”

I shrugged and tentatively reached for a fry from the basket, dunked it in ketchup. “I guess we could…bowl?”

“I hate bowling.”

“Me too,” he admitted. He took a long drink of his beer. “You want some?”

I nodded and took the green bottle from his outstretched hand. I held the liquid in my mouth for a second, the nasty weight of its flavor staining my tongue, before I swallowed it in one gulp.

“First beer?” he laughed.

I shook my head. No. It wasn’t. He wasn’t the first man to give me alcohol. I heard Jennifer laughing in the distance and I looked up to see her and Chuck attached at the lips in the farthest darkest lane of the bowling alley. He picked her up and sprung her around and then kissed her again.

“Do you wanna go outside?” The beer bottle made a hollow sound as he deposited it on the table.

“And do what?”

Chad tossed his head slightly so his greasy brown hair would get out of his face. “Sit in the truck? You don’t seem like you’re having much fun here.”

I wasn’t. “I guess?” I let him take my hand and lead me out to the parking lot, leaving the garbage all over our abandoned table.

He opened the tailgate of the truck and boosted me up before climbing in after me. “It’s a pretty night, huh?”

“Pretty?” I raised an eyebrow, but his lips were on mine before I could follow up the tease. I shifted slightly so my shoulder pushed against his chest, and we broke apart. “Hey now.”

“Too fast?”

I pictured Jennifer in the bowling alley being spung around, held, kissed. “Too slow.” I grabbed Chad’s shirt and steered him back towards me; my lips found his, tentatively at first and then more certain. Harder. I let him shove his tongue in my mouth but didn’t reciprocate, waited, analyzed, tried to find my opening. Lost in thought, I didn’t realize he was spinning me to be against the back window of the cab until I was trapped there and he was unbuttoning his pants. I broke my lips off his. “Stop.”

He kept going, his pants open, his state of readiness clearly visible.

“STOP,” I cried, louder, shoving him away.

“What? What happened?” He tried again to kiss me, but I turned my head and his lips glanced against my cheek. I pushed him off and struggled to my knees. “What the actual fuck?” He wrestled his pants back up. “Wait are you CRYING? What the fuck?”

I fumbled with the tailgate before giving up and hopping over to the ground. I touched my cheek. I was crying. When had I started doing that? I never cried. He was just another man, right? Right?

“Come on,” he called from above me, “what the fuck is this? Let’s just try again or something, don’t be dumb.”

I pulled my sweater tighter around me and walked across the parking lot, turned onto the dark country highway and walked along the shoulder back to Jennifer’s house, to my car. He didn’t follow. I cried quietly, the only sound the gravel I kicked up with my shoes. I can’t, I thought. I won’t ever be able to. I’m the damaged fucking peach and I need to go back to my god damn tree.

That was the last time Jennifer and I really hung out.

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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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Now You See Me

You are the faintest image on a backdrop of a million people. The man in the corner of the train car with headphones and a green hoodie (I used to wear your green hoodie so often just to breathe your cologne that you hid it from me); the man at the stoplight with spiky hair (you spent more time in the mirror perfecting yours than I ever did mine); the man on the bench in the station playing guitar (you loved that guitar more than you ever loved me). You are everywhere in every piece of everything. And some days I ignore it. But some days I don’t.

You are an ever present tape that plays on repeat inside my head, and I think you always will be. And I’m sad. And I’m sorry. About a lot of things. But not sorry about what you did to me, because that was all you. Rather than sorry, I find that I’m actually angry–and I’m strangely okay with that. I’m angry that you still have this power to put me in a funk, no matter how far or how long apart we are. I’m angry that I let you. I’m angry that I allow you to control me, still, after all this time, from wherever you sleep tonight when I don’t, from whoever you’re with now. I’m angry that you can’t take it back; I’m angry that you don’t want to. I’m angry that I still think about you sometimes, that I can’t forget you. I’m angry. With you.

Marriage doesn’t equal ownership, and all rights of any kind were dissolved when you forgot our vows to begin with. You had no right of any kind. I never said this to you, but I should have had to–silence is not consent. You had to know this. Your payment? It’s small, too small. Don’t tell me that you’re sorry, do not ever tell me that you’re sorry. Don’t say that you love me. You couldn’t possibly.

Yes, maybe you stripped me of something, but you also gave me something. I am strong, powerful. Connected. Brave. And this, this is what you are up against when you fight inside my head. And it’s time for you to lose.

So get out.

Get out of my head. Get out of the backdrop of my life. Stop talking to me. Stop saying that you love me. Take a second and actually see me. See what you’ve done. And then walk away.

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