Tag Archives: survival

Carry That Weight

It isn’t often that I watch a tv show that actually truly affects me, much less one that does so in a positive manner. Game of Thrones got me all fired up when they once again used the rape of a female character to unnecessarily advance the arc of a male, a plot device created by the show that wasn’t in the books — and don’t bash me friends, but I won’t watch it anymore, and that’s my choice. Mike and Molly spurred on a conversation with my grandmother (it was her favorite show) about how the jokes they made at the expense of LGBT persons were not acceptable. Two Broke Girls? Well, that show is all over the place as a mockery of feminism, even though you think it would be the opposite. 
This summer though, I found a different sort of show called The Bold Type. The Bold Type is Freeform’s latest entry into the adult market. I encouraged my friends to watch it, and I coined it as a fun example of how woman can balance work and sex and just generally being female while being amazing, a great example of how sexy can also fall under feminist, and vice versa. Yes, it’s a younger show. Yes, it can be a bit fluffy. But damn can it hit on the issues. My favorite arc of the season, and I’m not even sure favorite is the right word here, was the immigration storyline involving a lesbian woman facing deportation who was not allowed to be a lesbian in her home country. It was hard hitting, honest, and true–things I look for in a show that tend to make shows without fall flat on their faces. Favorite until last night anyway. 
Last night’s episode was based on the personal art/performance piece, Carry That Weight. If you read my blog, I’m sure you’ve heard of it–I have a pretty specific audience. A college student named Emma Sulkoicz carried her 50 pound mattress around the Columbia campus every day, pledging to do so until the man who raped her either faced justice, was expelled, or left campus by some other means. Her attacker faced no charges, and Emma carried that mattress until she graduated. Along the way, others would help her carry the weight so that she wasn’t alone. I wanted to write my critical thesis about Emma, as we were in school in the same city at the same time with a similar pain, but I didn’t–which seems silly now. 
My roommate and I were sitting on my bed last night watching the season (series? I hope not!) finale of The Bold Type, and I knew right away what the girl in the park with the scales of justice represented. The main character, Jane, pitched an article idea where she would interview this girl for the magazine (the show is based off of the woman who work at Cosmo), but her editor, Jacqueline, was resistant. “You have to do it right. It’s a sensitive story. I don’t know if you’ve grown enough to do it right.” In an effort to get attention back on Mia, the survivor, Jane installs a webcam in the park. Jacqueline was taken aback: “But how does that help? Who is standing with her?? Who is supporting her??” The comments of online viewers to Mia’s pain just weren’t enough. At the climatic moment of the episode, Jane and her two best friends go to Mia and stand with her. In this version of the project, the girls could not take the weight for Mia because they were not survivors. Jacqueline, however, could, (a fact I predicted much earlier in the episode) and did, with silence and grace (while I hugged the stuffed pony that lives in my headboard). At the end of the episode, Jacqueline allowed herself to be interviewed for Jane’s story. Jane asked her how it felt to discuss something she had never discussed before, never reported, and if she had ever gotten back to normal after the rape. Jacqueline replied: “You find a new normal, and it works so well that sometimes you don’t even know that it’s not. And I don’t think I realized how much of the weight I was still carrying.”
This episode is important to me for so many reasons. First and foremost, there is zero time devoted to the violence–it’s all devoted to the living. To the after. To what it’s like to be a rape survivor in a world that continues to move on like nothing happened; to survive when time has stopped for you but goes on for everyone else. It’s important because we, the survivors, are out there. We are riding the train. We are walking your dogs. We are serving your coffee. We are writing in blogs. We are normal, but we are not “your” normal, because that normal is gone for us, and we live in the world that someone else made for us. So we go on, like Jacqueline, and we shape that world to be the best we can, to be our new normal, to hopefully be even better than what came before. 
I like to think I’ve done that. But what came to me last night was the reminder that I am clearly passionate about this subject and do not do enough to serve that passion. I ran from my book because it scared me. I ran from writing because I don’t want to write about anything else, not in the same way I write about this. 
I am a survivor who carries my own weight. And I’m happy in my life. I love my job, I love my dogs. I love writing, even though I’m not doing it so it SEEMS like I don’t. But I want to do more. I want to use my new normal to help others make their own new normal; I want to be that person, even though it’s a completely unrealistic idea, who makes sure that no one else carries their weight alone. I can work with dogs and understand their pain, sure, but I cannot let that be enough for me when there is so much more to be done. 
I don’t know other survivors, not in person, but I’d like to find them. I’d like to share the weight, theirs and mine. I’d like to finish, really finish, my book, to show the weightless that we are out here and we are okay. To help them understand that they too can help us carry the weight. 
We, the survivors, are out here. We are out in the world, and we are normal but also not normal, because we are our own normals. So why are we not these new normals together?
PS, Y’all should watch this show. 

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The One; The All

The hardest part of working in animal rescue is that I cannot save them all, no matter how much I want to. When it comes to animals, I open my heart way too quickly, too easily. I let them in too fast, and I let them stay for keeps. I can’t help it, and I can’t turn that part of me off. I’m not even sure I want to. I’ve saved a lot of animals over the years, but I’ve also had some misses. Those are the worst ones, the ones that stick. 

The thing about me is that when I “fail,” it becomes easy for me to forget all of the successes. Right now, my head is all about a little black and white puppy with a genuine open heart and some really pointy teeth, and the fact that I let her down. That I took her out of her foster home, that I drove her to our rescue, that I left her there, her nose shoved between the bars and her squeals piercing the closed doors of the car down to my soul as she tried to pry her way out of her run and catch me before I ran away and left her behind. It felt, it feels, like I made her what she is–she came to us when she was seven or eight weeks old, abandoned at our weekly adoption drive, and the instant we knew she was food aggression and she was “red level,” I made her my project. I fed her from my hands. I taught her to take from me; I taught her to give back to me. I took her into Petco for at least an hour every week we sat together and let her pick out a toy and a bone, and then we would go into the park and practice exchanging one for the other. We practiced drop it; we practiced sharing without biting. I wanted to show her that she was going to find a time when she wouldn’t want for anything, when she would have a world just for her. I wanted her to know that people could take things from her but that she would always get things back. I taught her to fall in love with me; I fell in love with her right back. That’s what you have to do sometimes, to reach a dog. I let myself give her too much of myself, too much time, and I thought she had benefited from it. Maybe she did. But right now, it doesn’t seem that way.

This has been a week of constant phone calls, emails, texts, and more dealing with people than I generally do in a month. More people have seen me cry in the last two days than have probably EVER seen me cry. More people have told me that I’m great, that I did my best, that there are so many other dogs. But for me, right now, in this time, she’s The One. And she’s happy where she is. She has new animal best friend, and she gets to run around all day and play outside. But it’s not where I thought she’d be. It’s not what my heart wanted for her; it doesn’t feel right, even though it is. And in a way, that’s selfish of me. I am selfish. I am selfish for being sad when she doesn’t know that things woulda coulda shoulda been any different, for fighting for this dog, for crying, when she is probably perfectly fine–even if her definition of fine is not the same as mine. 

She is the piece of the puzzle that makes me want to throw the puzzle away, the end of the 1000 piece box when you discover that the most important thing is gone. SHE was my most important thing. But quitting means giving up a purpose that it took me a long time to find, to build. Quitting means that I’ve wasted even more years of my life.

I was asked today why rescue is so important to me, why I stay in it even during the weeks it sucks. The answer is simple. I stay because I was voiceless, just like the animals are. I was voiceless for so many years, and no one deserves to be that way, not even animals. I want to stand in the gap for them, I want to help them, because I can connect to them in a way I never can interpersonally. I am not closed off to animals in the same way I am to people; without that part of myself, I would never have made friends here. I can’t imagine a day where I don’t hug an animal, where I don’t fall in love, where I don’t give someone with four paws and a tail the absolute best parts of me–because my energy, that giving, that heart, that IS the best part of me. I am a good person, a genuinely good person, more than my ex and his family ever saw. More than his words that still play inside my head on the bad days. Worth something, not worthless. A survivor, not a victim. Passionate, invested. A do-gooder. When I don’t see that, the animals do–and seeing them see it helps me to see it too. 

So I won’t quit. I won’t stop trying for that little black and white puppy. I won’t stop loving her. But the rescue net is more than her, it’s not just for one. It’s for all. 

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You Can’t Sit With Us (Rough Draft)

When I was in seventh grade, the big project of the final quarter was to create a magazine. We’re not talking crayon doodles on construction paper bound with yarn here; we’re talking an actual magazine. The project stretched across all subjects. In English/Language Arts, we learned about writing articles and essays. In math, we were given Monopoly money to use for purchasing articles from authors, designing the layout, printing, advertising, etc. In social studies, we practiced analyzing current events that we could write about, and in art, we practiced drawing, both on paper and on the computer, as well as worked with layout. They wanted us to be well rounded, educated, individuals. The idea was that we would help each other; we would use the fake currency to buy articles, art, and other things for our magazine.

I don’t remember a lot of specifics about the project. I think the magazine layout board I turned in on the last day, when we all presented our projects, was neon pink? It may have been green. But at any rate, it was done. The articles on it? They were all mine. The art? That was mine too. When it had come time to buy things for my magazine, no one would sell to me. No one would buy from me.

I can’t say I was surprised.

*

A few weeks ago, I read about a dog named Hank. Hank was happily living with his family in Ireland, enjoying snuggles, squeaky toys, and long joyful walks, when the government seized him because he “looked like a pitbull.” They cited their local “dangerous animals law,” coining Hank as dangerous simply because of his looks. A simple Google search makes it obvious that Hank is anything but dangerous (unless you’re a stuffed toy!). Hank was a victim of his breed, his label. He’s not even listed as a pitbull—on paper, he is a lab mix.

Hank’s story has a happy ending. His owners went to bat with him, and after several weeks apart while Hank was quarantined in a shelter, he was reunited with his owners and they’re a family again.

Unfortunately, that’s not the story for many dogs.

*

Middle school was pretty much the worst. Things went along fine, and I did pretty well socially, all things considered, until about fourth grade or so. Fourth grade was the year that practically the entire school got head lice, myself included. Rumors circulated that I had started the head lice epidemic (I had not), and I tried to discourage those rumors by saying that I hadn’t had lice at all (I had), and that my itchy head had been from an allergic reaction to shampoo. After that, not only was I the head lice queen, I was also a liar—the entire school was at lunch the day the school nurse marched me out of the building to meet mother to get my lice treatment. Everybody knew.

The cafeteria each day was a nightmare. I would take my tray on the days I got hot lunch, or my little brown bag on the days I carried something from home, and stand on the outskirts of everything, staring. Wondering where to sit. Dreading going to my so called friends’ table and finally hearing “You can’t sit with us.” I was constantly waiting for the day when they would see me the same way that everybody else did, for the day when there would be no more chair for me at the table. I elected to lunch in my English teacher’s room each day so that I could read rather than negotiate middle school politics and try to be something I wasn’t.

*

BSL, or breed specific legislation, is a set of laws that restrict and/or ban certain dogs because of their appearance, or because they’re commonly thought to be a “dangerous” breed. Breed restrictions can require owners to muzzle their dog in public, spay or neuter, contain them in a kennel, keep a leash of specific length or material, maintain liability insurance, and post vicious dog tags and signs on both their property and the dog itself. Breed bans are even worse. A breed ban will mandate that all dogs of the specified breed have to be removed from the area. After the “by-when” date on the ban, any dog not removed can be killed by animal control.

These laws simply look at the dog as they are on the outside, without consideration for things like the way they were raised, trained, and handled by their owner. These laws do not look at the actual behavior of the dog in question, rather, they look at what they imagine that dog to be, the worst case scenario.

BSL has a lot of issues. For one, it’s prejudice. There is no such thing as a bad dog. Bad owners? Yes. A dog is the result of how it is raised. Dogs want nothing more than they want to please their people. BSL does nothing to improve safety; it punishes people who are responsible dog owners and does nothing to hold irresponsible owners responsible. It requires that each and every dog have a label, a breed, something is pretty much impossible to do accurately. Dogs that are targeted become more desirable to irresponsible people simply because of the bullseye on their back. Dogs of any breed can be great dogs. Dogs of any breed can be dangerous dogs. BSL is the worst. I don’t understand it.

And yet, I do.

*

High school was better for me. There were still people who dropped the usual insults—“Her cats pee on stuff,” “She smells like fish,” “Her clothes come from Walmart,” but I was old enough to better know how to deal with it. My haircuts when I got them weren’t cutting edge. My sneakers actually came from Kmart. I didn’t do brand names. I didn’t mind. I liked who I was, but the world told me not to.

I was in an acapella group with (I think) seven other people. They never wanted me to be part of the circle, and I struggled to stick up for myself even though I was just as good a singer as the rest of them. It was such a little thing, but so telling. I let them circle by the piano; I let them whisper about me. I always stayed slightly behind.

*

We have to talk about Lennox. Hearing his story was the first time I really became aware of BSL. It was 2010, I believe. Lennox, a lab/bulldog mix was five years old and happily living with a family in Belfast. (The same area where Hank is from…hmmm….). Lennox did nothing wrong; he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time with a head that made him look like a “pitbull type.” The government went so far as to measure the size of his snout in order to declare him a pitbull, and then they seized him and sentenced him to die. His family fought for two years to get him back, to save him, or even to send him to America where dogs who look like pitbulls are allowed. But when all of their appeals expired, Lennox was put to sleep.

Lennox, the bulldog/lab mix, was put to sleep because he LOOKED like something else. Lennox, the family dog, a child’s pet. A good boy. Dead.

*

I walk a dog now named Tubs. I see almost every day. She’s grown a lot since I first started walking her. In the beginning, we couldn’t even walk in the direction of the dog park without Tubs displaying crazy aggressive antics. Tubs was never socialized with other dogs, so they were a terrifying prospect. Now though, after over a year of training and love and many, many walks, Tubs can walk by a dog on the path in the park and not care. That dog will never come over to her. She will never be friends with it. But the dog can exist and not be scary.

Tubs is a pocket pitbull. She is the sweetest pitbull with humans and wants nothing more than to sit in your lap and cover your face in slobbery kisses. But when we’re walking on the street, people move out of the way as we come close. They cross the street. They avoid her, just because of her breed. Because of what she looks like. And if she barks at another dog, it’s all over. “Look at the pitbull,” they say. “She’s so mean.” No. She’s not.

I’m convinced that, like Tubs, the world set me up to be in the place I ended up. Christianity told me that I had to be married. My social education told me that I would never be married because no one would love me because of how I looked and who I wanted to love. I learned to shut up, be quiet, do what I was told.

I ended up in a adult relationship that clearly didn’t fit me. I came away more demolished than I came in. But I don’t think I would change it. Trying to fit the mold made me realize that the mold isn’t real, that it’s a cat eternally chasing a tail it will never catch. I had to be in the mold to break the mold, and I wonder if that’s not my job here as a writer—to break the mold. To show there is no normal. To dismantle our own human forms of BSL.

I was bullied as a kid, and I let that define a lot of who I was for a long time. I’m a lot of things, but I’m more than what you see when you look. I still don’t wear brand names, but that doesn’t make me bad. I like it this way. I don’t always brush my hair, but I walk dogs all day and there’s really no point. I don’t have a lot of money, but I have enough to live and have a little fun. I don’t talk a lot, but I want to make what I say matter. I’ve been hurt, but it doesn’t last forever. I’ve been raped, but I’m not a victim. I’m a survivor. The world says I should look a certain way, that I should be broken. I say differently.

As I try to find more ways to write about my life, I’m realizing that I am more than my surface appearance. And so is Tubs. And so is Hank. And so was Lennox.

So let’s end all BSL, okay? Both the human and the dog forms.

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On Agency

I was asked today about what my writing says about where women obtain their agency. I struggled with how to answer the question, because I know what I would like my writing to say, and it’s always my deepest fear that I don’t say it appropriately. Simply put, I believe that rape (and rape culture) destroy the survivor’s agency. But it’s really a lot more complicated than that, because it’s not just the act of rape itself. It’s a litany of factors.

Perhaps to answer the question, I should first define agency. I don’t mean agency as in a physical place or organization. I’m referring to agency in a sociological sense, as the capacity a person has to act of their own accord and make their own choices, freely. A person’s agency is limited by the influences, or structures, in their lives, like gender, race, religion, culture, class, etc. I firmly believe that agency is learned, that these structures and our experiences alter our ability to make choices. I believe that people alter these choices. I also believe that we, personally, alter these choices.

Which brings us to my writing.

My writing has evolved this year, yet again. My first voyage into trauma literature was a collection of rather abstract essays. Then I started graduate school, and decided I wanted to learn to be specific about my experiences, and tell a very specific story—and only that story. I wore that story as a patch to hold myself together, and crafting it was the thing that was going to make me whole. But then I started to write and got several chapters into the work—and attended several frustrating revision meetings—before I realized that I was going about the project the wrong way. My story is not one story. My story is a construction of many different stories, of many different pieces and times and structures. I was ready to give up my book and find a new project to work on, as I became more and more convinced that I couldn’t get my message right. That I had no business communicating with other survivors. I asked for a sign to tell me what to do, or, at the very least, to show me I was doing the right thing.

I found my sign in a book. Lacy M. Johnson wrote an incredibly powerful memoir entitled The Other Side. It opens as she flees the basement of The Man She Used to Live With, breaking out of a soundproof room where he had intended to kill her, and then follows a winding and not always chronological road to tell all of the pieces of Lacy’s story. The choices that she made, and the ones that were made for her. I devoured her book, and a handful of interviews she did afterwards as she was nominated for awards. I came across this:

“I discovered that I really, strongly objected to all of the rhetoric about how writing about trauma could, in effect, make a person “whole” again. It took years to articulate why this sentiment bothered me, but eventually I realized that it reinforces what I consider to be a flawed notion that after some kind of trauma … a person is somehow ‘broken.’”

I realized that I was, in fact, writing to make myself whole, when in truth, I was never broken. I let my trauma define who I was, when I needed to be the one to carve out my place in the world in the after. I looked to others to tell me what to do, to give me agency, when I needed to be the one to make that agency for myself. I let people take my choices away, because I didn’t feel like I deserved to make them on my own. I didn’t want to take my own agency, but claiming it was the solution to everything.

How the heck do we do that? Take our own agency? Whaaaaaaaaaaat?

We so often look to others to tell us how to exist. We listen to the world when it tells us we are weak. Lost. Ugly. Not good enough. We listen to the world when it tells us we are wrong, broken. But the truth is that we heal at our own pace. We are okay when we are okay. We are never broken. We are simply changed.

The original question was what my writing says about the way that women obtain agency. The answer is that the narrator of my book, the me of the past, has no agency. And she should. What took her agency? Religion. Sex. Rape. Years of never being good enough. A broken tape of thoughts on a repeat cycle that never ends. It absolutely absurd the way people tried to make my choices for me—the person (people) who hurt me, the justice system, the people who knew and assumed that I was less than because of my experience. I was desperate for someone, anyone, to tell me what to do. I stopped trusting myself to make my own decisions; I’m not sure I ever trusted myself. In my writing, in the telling of my lack of agency, I want to show how absurd it was. I think a lot of women let their agency be directed externally, or entirely taken away, when they should be telling themselves how awesome they are while doing their own thing. The social structures we have created are horribly unfair. So many times, we are chasing a mold that we can never fit into. We are all different; we should all make the choices that are right for us. And if I can show that to one reader, if I can wake just one person up, then my writing is successful. I had no power, both because it was taken and because of my own choice, and if my story helps one reader to see in themselves that all that have to do is claim their agency as their own, then that’s my writing for the win.

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On Rape

“I’ve always thought that under rape in the dictionary it should tell the truth. It is not just forcible intercourse; rape means to inhabit and destroy everything.”

― Alice Sebold, Lucky

Why did I want to go to grad school? I don’t know. Lots of reasons. It seemed like a natural continuation from undergrad, which was the first place I really fit in and thrived. I was (am) an excellent student, so I did what excellent students do and kept going. I want to be a writer. I want to be a BETTER writer. I maybe want to teach (we shall see about that). But more than that, I have a story. And I think that the real reason that I came to grad school was because I wanted to learn better ways to tell it. I had this idea in my head that I wanted to write a book like “Lucky.” I wanted to give a message and pack a punch, and make sense of a senseless thing that happened to me. 

Here’s the thing. There’s no sense to it. I can write on it until kingdom come, and I won’t find sense. Rape is senseless. And I’m not Alice Sebold. I’m me. And everything is different for me. This time of year, I’m not my best self. I’m not happy all the time. And while it might be frustrating, there’s nothing wrong with it. I’m entitled to my bad moods along with the good, especially because the good moods are now much more plentiful. Right now? I’m struggling with my work. I’m struggling to write this book that I know needs to be written, because there is an underlying current within it that I don’t like and I don’t fully understand. I can see another survivor and say “It’s not your fault.” I mean it, wholeheartedly. I know it to be true. But it’s harder to say to myself. Two million percent harder.

I did some research on rape statistics for another piece of mine, as well as the origins of rape as a word:

“Every two minutes, someone in the United States is raped. Each year, there are about 207,754 victims. Forty-four percent of rape victims are under the age of eighteen. Eighty percent are under the age of thirty. Fifty-four percent of sexual assaults are not reported to police. Ninety-seven percent of rapists don’t even spend ONE day in jail. Two-thirds of assaults are committed by someone the victim has met previously. Thirty-eight percent are committed by a friend, acquaintance, or spouse. It’s this on one hand, this horrible indescribable act; it’s a yellow plant on the other. It’s grapes. It’s soap. It’s sex.”

Rape is an ugly ugly word. Sebold was right. It inhabits and destroys everything. It’s an herb, at the same time as it’s this horrible act of complete violence. An act that way too many people have been through. In short, there are a lot of survivors out there, male and female. A lot of people who need to know that it is not their fault. That, while rape may inhabit and destroy everything, we WILL survive it. We WILL regrow. We WILL be okay.

How can I write these chapters, this book, and do justice to the horrible act that is rape? It is so so important to me to make sure that the reader knows it is NOT shameful to be a survivor, but how can I deliver that message when I can’t always personally say it to myself? When I can’t even say the word rape? When I’m asked to read things out loud and I edit them in my head to avoid the word? When I generally don’t even incorporate it into my writing if I can get away with it? I feel like I should be able to very clearly say “This is not my fault” in order to convey to my reader “This is not your fault.” It’s easy to say. Harder sometimes to believe.

In the back of my mind, as I read that last paragraph, I wonder if every survivor feels this way. If the act of being hurt, being broken, being violated, is just so senseless that we can see how it is most definitely NOT everyone else’s fault—but that we can’t always say those words to ourselves. That we blame ourselves. We shouldn’t. I shouldn’t. And we know that. I know that. And yet, we do it.

In grad school writing workshops, we share our work. This semester, we share a LOT. We go through it sentence by sentence. We rip it apart, and we put it back together. It’s not just our work that’s getting ripped apart either, but also us as people. Our feelings. It’s so weird to hear my words come from other people’s mouths, to talk about how the choices I made both in life and in my writing. It’s weird that I’ve gotten to a point where I can do it, where this time even last year this would not have been the case. It is interesting to me to push my challenge line as a survivor, to see how far I can go. How much I can handle. The answer? I can handle a lot. And I am DAMN proud of that fact. I’m not so proud of the thoughts that linger in the back of my mind sometimes. I want to be this strong person, this one who can always concretely have the right answer. Who can say, “The man who did this is an asshat and it’s totally on him.” He is, and it is. And it pains me to say it, but some days I feel it on me too. Shouldn’t, but do.

As a survivor, as a writer, I suddenly find myself expected to speak. My words will reach other survivors. It’s what I wanted. But it scares me. I don’t always know what to say. I don’t know how to put my story down in a way that makes it say what I want it to say.

Maybe it makes me more relatable, more authentic, to admit that I’m not perfect. That I hate what happened to me, and sometimes I am ashamed. Maybe it makes me a hypocrite. I’m not sure. But it’s the god’s honest truth. Some days are not okay, and that’s okay. If that’s you as well, if you feel that way, well…It’s okay for you too. It’s okay to not be okay, just as much as it is okay to be okay. It is okay to feel however you want to feel.

It is not your fault.

It is never your fault.

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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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The Painting

“That is the funny thing about paint.  At the first cold splash of reality it washes away.  And the surface you are trying cover is as ugly as ever.”  —Jodi Picoult

 

In layman’s terms, a cognitive distortion is an extremely exaggerated or irrational thought pattern that perpetuates several different psychological disorders.  It is commonly assumed that these distortions are at the heart of eating disorders.  Personally, I disagree.  Having an eating disorder, to me, is like painting over a picture that has already been created.  The picture on the underside, the thing that is in the past, is ugly, but it’s covered up the incessant need to be “beautiful.”  “Good enough.”  “Thin.”  Take away the paint, and that thing is still there.  It hasn’t been dealt with; it hasn’t been destroyed.  It still hurts.  Festers.

It is always there when you look in the mirror.  

A large portion of people who experience some type of eating disorder are perfectionists.  Perfectionism is shown to be a fairly significant risk factor for the development of an eating disorder, and the levels of perfectionism tend to improve slightly when the person is in “recovery.”  An article I read recently by Anna Bardone-Cone, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, stated that a fully recovered group of people largely resembled a non eating-disordered control group in terms of their perfectionism, while the partially recovered group more resembled those still in the full throes of their disorder. 

This perfectionism can manifest itself in a myriad of ways, from always having to do things right the first time to needing to earn straight A’s, to having to order your clothes a certain way.  But the disorder isn’t about being perfect. It’s not about being thin. It’s about knowing that there is one thing left in your life that still belongs to you, one thing that you can still control. It’s about having the power to slowly disappear.  

That is the only power you still wield. 

*

Last semester, I took an amazing class in writing creative nonfiction.  One of the last in class journals that we did was about body mapping.  I was not thrilled with the assignment or the world itself that day, so I drew my “body” in the somewhat shape of a gingerbread character.  Lumpy.  Out of proportion.  I’m fairly certain that the first thing people notice about me is how fat I am, I wrote.  It’s certainly the first thing I notice about me—every day.  I had a baby, but didn’t get to bring him home.  I only brought home the fat.  

I remember the first time I realized I was fat.  I was eight and I was in the school lunchroom.  I had a pink Barbie lunch-bag, and the Barbie had that skinny body and perfect yellow blonde hair that can only exist in Barbie-land.  I had a sandwich and a banana.  And maybe some sort of dessert.  I don’t remember.  But there was another girl at the lunch table who looked in my bag and said “You’re going to eat all that?”  Rather than defy her, I walked to the trash bin and threw my entire lunch away.  

Looking back now, I can see that the little girl in the lunchroom that day was jealous of my lunch box.  That’s why she said the things she said.  But it wasn’t so easy to see then.  I lost myself in the mirror, in the desire to fade away.  I remember a quote from the movie “Girl, Interrupted” based on the memoir by Susanna Kaysem, said by a girl with an eating disorder during expressive group therapy:  “I don’t want to be a fucking tree.  I want to be a bush!”  I get her.  All she wanted was to fade away, to disappear.  Into the mirror.

*

I own a small panda bento box.  I went on this weird tangent last year where I was coming up with weird stuff to put in it.  For instance, one time I made spicy peanut noodles.  Another time, I made japanese rice balls.  It was a fun thing I did to keep myself entertained on really long days.  

This semester, I haven’t brought it to school.  I claim to be busy, that I have a meal plan, that I’m this, that I’m that.  I wonder if I’m making excuses.  If I’m slipping.  I wonder.  Do I have to wonder?  Am I forgetting because I’m busy?  Or am I forgetting because it’s the one thing I can remember to do?  What does it mean?  I notice I’ve been getting a large amount of food from my friends, and I wonder what they see.  Do they see me?  Or do they see the me in the mirror?  Is it okay that I sometimes eat and sometimes don’t?  This question seems important right now, and I’m not sure why.  I feel like I’m forgetting.  I worry that I’m lost.

*

I was a bit of a bitch in the throes of the disorder.  I remember one particular conversation with my therapist in high school where she asked me to describe what an apple would taste like.  I refused.  “I don’t eat apples,” I informed her.  “I don’t like the way they get stuck in my teeth.”

“Correction—you don’t eat anything.”  

She offered me a choice then.  Sour cream and onion chips, an apple, and a container of strawberry Yoplait yogurt.  “Pick one,” she commanded.  “You can’t until you do.”

“No.”  I folded my arms stubbornly across my chest and met her gaze dead on.

She folded her own arms and leaned back in a replication of my position.  “That’s fine.  I can wait.”

That was a lie.  She had other appointments; I was not her only patient.  I got up off the couch I was settled on and snatched up the apple.  “How do you know I won’t throw it out the first chance I get?”  I was trying to be as big of a smart-ass as possible.  Trying to save myself.  Trying to hide how sorry I was that I let her down.  I was certain I could live off of caffeine and potato chips alone.  

*

I ask myself often whether I want victory, or I want escape.  And are the two interchangeable?  If my victory is graduating, then that is also when I will escape.  But if my victory is simply surviving…my escape could come whenever.  Does losing everything that I am mean giving up dreams too, as a side effect?  I’m still here.  Does that mean anything at all?

I am reinventing.

I spend my days pondering grad school, wondering if I’m good enough.  Wondering if I will get in.  Wondering if I can get them to like me.  Wondering if I make myself the right fit.  I sit in N’s office and eat candied orange peels and worry that I’m messing up my life.  My GPA.  These things I’ve graded that we’re working on.  I’m terrified that I am wrong, always.  That I will fail.  That I am not the right fit for anything. Someone very wise told me that there is no right fit; I could be horrible and they won’t take me, but I could also be awesome and they still won’t take me.  There’s no perfect formula for this, no solution.  No easy way.  I am juggling too many things, and it feels crushing sometimes.  It’s devastating that I can’t be perfect all the time.

I am always apologizing. 

I live off caffeine.

I run from the past things that I don’t think I can deal with.

I dream of that moment of victory, of escape.  

I am always doing these things, everything I can possibly do, but I worry that they aren’t enough.  I worry that I’m lost.  I worry that I am trying to paint over the picture that is me; that I’m trying to cover up.  Hide.  

Is it okay to dream if you can never reach the dream?  If the dream is way above you?  Do we morph or evolve to fit our dreams?  Or does life just happen; does it just destroy us?  I believe that we make choices, when we are scared.  And these choices are not always the right ones.  Marya Hornbacher writes, “Never, never underestimate the power of desire.  If you want to live badly enough, you can live.  The great question, at least for me, was:  How do I decide I want to live?”

How?  That really is the ultimate question.

Disappearing into the mirror means a long road back and a painting I can’t afford to pay for.

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