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I Demand Freedom: A Dream in 3 Parts

Part 1: The Dream

A complicated house. People everywhere, an open bar that I’m desperately trying to avoid, chaos, nudity. I just want to be alone. I am lost. (I have variations of this dream frequently. I’m always trying to get to my room so I can be alone. I’m lost, always lost. The dream ends every time before I ever achieve my goal.) I make it to the top floor of the house. It’s a single room, large and round, littered with junk and trash. There is a jacuzzi tub that’s on, but not being used. And T is there. The ex-boyfriend. The meth addict. The rapist. My rapist. I am terrified. I am frozen. I am angry–until I see that he is holding a hairbrush. (I always used to tell him that I wanted to brush his hair. He has beautiful hair. It’s down to his waist, curly, and blond at the ends. It’s always in his face, and he runs his hands through it constantly, but to no avail. It was messy and wild, just like him, just like “us.” It would have been beautiful if he’d let me brush it with a bristle brush and give it body and volume. My hair is too short to brush, so I have no idea where my old bristle brush is. I haven’t used it since I was in high school. I never did get to brush his hair.) So in the dream, I soften. I love him in the dream. We are together again, we are at peace, we are a couple, we are in love. I take the brush from him and begin to brush his hair. I cannot see his face. I cannot make eye contact. His hair comes out in chunks in my hands.

Interlude:

In the days after the rape, I was achy. I carried myself around like a shattered doll, afraid to go anywhere, afraid to stop functioning. My life was already falling apart. Failing classes, missing work, and the emptiness in my heart after breaking up with my ex-girlfriend. (God, she was happy. What was I? Surely not broken beyond belief. Surely…)

At the AA clubhouse, I alluded to the crime that had been committed against my body. I cried on the porch a lot. “Nick” told me I should pray for my rapist, and I bristled. He said I would feel better. I told him that was bullshit. Maybe I just wasn’t willing to “go to any lengths.” Maybe I wasn’t ready.

Part 2: The Dream (con’t)

[Nick seems like he must stand about eight feet high. He has a voice like Morgan Freeman, and dreadlocks that are probably longer than I am tall. He always describes himself as, “A grateful alcoholic,” He has an “attitude of gratitude.” 

He doesn’t understand.]

As I brush T’s hair in my dream, the hairbrush seems to weigh a hundred pounds. I persevere. His hair continues to fall out in my hands, and it obscures his face. As I try to sweep it out of his eyes, he darkens; his hair thickens in my hands, and I am face to face with Nick. He is eye-level with me in the dream, his massive height gone, leaving him all hound dog eyes and somber face. I bring a single dreadlock around from his back and arrange it so that it rests on his chest. No words are exchanged, but some of the knots in my stomach come undone and are as smooth and straight as the dreadlock that rests in my hand.

Part 3: Mi Sheberach (A Prayer for Healing)

“May the source of strength–”
Please, God, give me strength to go on. Give me strength to say this prayer. Please, God, soften my heart. Take away this anger. Please, God, make me less prickly. I ask You to make me the soft hair of my dream, not the spiky brush itself. Help me to walk in love.

“Who blessed the ones before us–”
Dear God, thank You for my family. Please bless my father and mother. Thank You for my brother and his hidden kindnesses. For as much as they get under my skin, I need them there in my veins, raging through the body and keeping me tethered.

“Help us find the courage–”
Please, God, give me strength to pray this prayer. For, I don’t want to say it. I am afraid. I am selfish. I am small. I am imperfect. I am Yours. Is it okay to acknowledge these thoughts? Did some man break me all that time ago? Did You create me to be broken–or to be pushed to the breaking point and to rise as surely as the fertile moon? (Someday, my belly will be as swollen as the moon hanging low in the night sky. Someday, my body will wax and wane with a greater purpose. Someday, someday, someday…) God, grant me the serenity to accept this thing I wish I could change, to make peace with the crime scene that is the body You left in my care. Have I failed in some way, or have You failed me? I am sorry, God. I am so, so sorry.

“To make our lives a blessing–”
God, please let it be Your will that T may recover from his addiction. Please mend his body, his mind, and his soul. Please grant him a r’fuach shleimach, a complete healing. Please let him find peace.

“And let us say: Amen.”

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The Sea of Jake

This is the story of how Jake pulled me out of the water in the middle of the night, as though I was baby Moses floating helplessly down the River Nile and he was Pharaoh’s daughter, young, beautiful, and seemingly willing to take care of me. But my dreamy, midnight perceptions are never accurate. If it wasn’t for Jake, I might have drowned, or I might have been forced to find my own way out of the water.

***

I met Jake on move-in day at Eckerd College, and we became friends almost out of necessity. We sat next to each other at Eckerd’s Ceremony of Lights, during which the figurative “lamp of learning” was lit, and everyone wondered who smelled like pot in the back of the auditorium. Jake told me I had a pretty singing voice, and I asked him if he was high. He said no, but I had my doubts. We parted ways after the ceremony, but kept bumping into each other around campus. Eventually, we exchanged phone numbers, and that was that– we were friends. We started spending more time together, and eventually we started to talk less, kiss more, and smoke as much pot and as many cigarettes as our bodies could handle.

I came to like Jake with the same sort of terrified compulsion I had felt for Zach the previous year. But Jake wasn’t at all like Zach. He was funny (in a perma-stoned sort of way), he was nice (whatever that meant), and he had great music taste. Jake played the guitar. He chain-smoked Camels while I burned my way through pack after pack of Marlboros. He always had pot.  Logically, it made sense for me to like him, but I found myself wishing he were a Jane, not a Jake, and willing myself to be “normal.” I’m still learning that love and logic do not exactly go hand-in-hand (although I do not claim to love Jake). I have a habit of convincing myself I like someone. A second date wouldn’t be so bad, right? I guess he’s kind of cute, in a way. Sure, all his jokes were totally sexist, but they would have been funny if I weren’t so uptight. No, it’s not weird that he brought a knife on a date. And the most prevalent of all: He’s probably as good as it gets for someone as fucked up as I am. I should consider myself lucky.

I was lucky to have Jake. He introduced me to his friends, and we became a homogeneous group. We were on the campus radio station together. We traversed campus, our pockets stuffed with cigarettes and the white Bic mini lighter we shared, and together we found the only two ashtrays on campus. When he kissed me, I pretended I was somewhere else. He said I tasted like cigarettes. I was lucky to have Jake.

***

The white lighter became a point of contention between the two of us. I was always in the cycle of quitting smoking, then starting again, then quitting, only to find myself at the drugstore at 2:00 AM in my pajamas buying three packs of cigarettes. It seemed perverse to throw cigarettes or lighters away, but I knew if I hung onto them, I would start smoking once more. So, I gave them to Jake, who was happy to take them.

Smoking was not as simple as a bad habit for me. I felt a deep sense of shame with every drag, every pack, every butt I kicked under some dirt. I am self-destructive by nature, though I am also cautious. I like to toy with mild addictions. At least I’m not a crackhead, I thought as I puffed away. At least this is helping me lessen self-harm. At least I’m not an alcoholic. At least I’m not a sex addict. I took another drag. At least I have most of my life under control, even if I can’t control this.

My parents, who I look to as examples of how to lead a healthy, successful life, were never smokers, as far as I know. As my dad put it in a stern lecture I received upon my unplanned arrival back home, “There are no positive benefits to cigarettes.” My brother helped me do that math: I was spending 15% of my meager weekly paycheck on cigarettes. Every time I flicked the lighter, the sense that I was nothing but a disappointment flickered in me.

So, as I was boxing up all my clothes, pictures, and books to take back home with me, I gave Jake my white lighter. “Throw it away,” I said. “Use it to light your bowl; I don’t care. I just can’t take it home with me.” I chomped on a piece of Nicorette, spit flying everywhere.

“I’m going to hang onto it. I’ll give it back to you,” he said from his place on my bed where he was staring at his phone.

“I don’t want it.”

“Yeah you do.”

He was probably right.

***

Eckerd College is on the Tampa Bay and has its own beach and waterfront, complete with paddle boards, kayaks, and sailboats available at no charge to students. Jake and I spent a lot of our time there, soaking in the beauty that is the Sunshine State. “Does the waterfront ever close?” I asked the sophomore working behind the boat-checkout counter.

“No, not really,” he said. “I mean, all the boats have to be back at 8:00, but you can swim whenever.”

“Literally whenever?” Jake asked. “Like anytime? Like, even at night?”

“Yeah, anytime,” the sophomore said, bending down to tie his shoe.

Jake and I walked out of the enclosure, to the picnic tables where we both lit up. “Dude, we should go night swimming,” he said.

I agreed enthusiastically, thinking this was just one of the many advantages of the lack of parental supervision for which college campuses are notorious. It was settled, we would part ways to finish our homework and eat dinner, and we would rendezvous at 11:00 PM by the waterfront. I had passed the swim test. I thought I was prepared.

***

In the water, fish brushed against our legs, and our feet were entwined. “Was that your foot?” We asked each other over and over. Sometimes the answer was yes, but often, it was no. The water was tepid, and the night air was thick.

I swam away from Jake and contemplated my own private oceans. The water is full of boys who cannot swim, boys who claim to be too broken to do anything other than cling to me for support. They often push my head under the water in an effort to breathe for themselves. I let them. I pretend I can absorb oxygen through osmosis, by clinging to their feet, their hair, their swim trunks. I am wearing swim trunks myself, partly as a nod to my aspirations of androgyny, but mostly to cover up the days-old razor slashes that sting faintly in the salt. In the dark, none of them can see the damage I’ve inflicted on myself. I am the perfect girl: sweet, quiet, sexy, obedient. I’m drowning.

***

The time comes for Jake and me to leave the water. Because we jumped in, we didn’t realize that there is no ladder in sight. We tried to walk up the algae-covered, rocky slope where the kayaks are tethered, but our feet couldn’t tolerate the sharp pains. We swam back to the ladderless dock and tried to pull ourselves up. Jake was successful, but I was still treading water, imprisoned by my lack of upper-body strength. Laughing, Jake pulled me out of the water, and we laid on our backs trying to catch our breath and looking up at the stars. Dazzled by the myriad constellations, I imagined myself somewhere else, lying next to my perfect Jane, content with her and with myself. Jake stood up and walked to the picnic table where we had left our keys, phones, lighter and cigarettes. Within moments, we were looking at each other through smoke, and it was like I’d never left the water at all.

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I Am Not Special

The ugly truth is this: even though I was only in college for three weeks, I was sexually assaulted while I was on campus. I was on drugs, which made it easier for my attacker to take advantage of me, and I was devastated after the assault. Instead of keeping it a secret like my attacker instructed me to do, I called friend after friend leaving vague voicemails, “Please call me… I’m really upset… something bad happened… I need to talk to someone… Hope you’re okay… Bye,” until someone picked up. I told my RA and my school counselor, and called the RAINN hotline. I got the validation and support I needed from some of these conversations. These are the ones I can’t remember. The ones that stuck with me were the bad ones. My counselor, who was concerned about my perceived “substance abuse,” asked me to walk her through the events of that awful night and point out every instance I could have done something to change the night’s outcome, and lectured me on the pitfalls of drugs. After I had returned home, I went to my synagogue and talked to my rabbi. That was the worst conversation of all. I had trouble even forming the words, and I finally told him, “I was sexually assaulted.” For him, assault equaled violence, and he asked me over and over, in different ways, “Did he hit you? Did hold you down? Did you have bruises? Did he choke you?”

That wasn’t how it happened.

The night comes back to me in bits and pieces. We are smoking pot by my school’s waterfront. I am trying to dance, but am too stoned to be coordinated. Jake wants to go to sleep and leaves me alone with a stranger. I’m under a pavilion by the senior dorms. No, I’m in my car. I’m falling asleep and can barely walk. He carries me. I’m naked. It hurts.

I told my rabbi, “He didn’t hit me. He carried me.”

When Rabbi answered, “Well, that sounds like a supportive thing to do,” I stopped talking. I listened to him as he recounted the “real” assaults he experienced as an abused child. His father hit him when he was young. I said I was sorry. I seemed to be apologizing a lot back then; I was sorry for disappointing my parents by taking drugs, I was sorry for having to come home from school, I was sorry for all the bad decisions I’d made. I was sorry for appropriating a term that was reserved for people who had had truly awful experiences, not the drug-induced mistakes I’d made. I left the synagogue feeling defeated. Maybe it was all my fault. I shouldn’t have been taking drugs. I shouldn’t have been getting high with a stranger.

It’s been five months since the assault, and sometimes it feels like it’s still the day after. I still wonder if it really happened or if I made the whole thing up for attention. “Sexual assault,” is a vague term, but Arabelle Sicardi‘s article for Rookie Magazine sums up how I feel. “If you have been in a sexual situation where you were too scared to say no, or incapable of saying no, that was assault.” I was in no way capable of saying no that night. As my tired head lolled against my attacker’s chest, I did not know what was going on. I did not know who he was or what I was doing. All I knew was that I wanted it to stop, but I was too drugged to figure out how to make that happen.

I have been asked over and over if I would blame someone else who was in my situation, and of course, I say no. I am not so special that I deserve an exception, nor am I so special that people have the right to violate me. As I write this, I want to slam the laptop shut, curl up in a ball, and tell myself, “It was my fault. I deserved it. It was my fault…” But I’m not going to do that. I’m going to be the friend I needed then and tell myself that I will be okay. If anyone came to me and said they’d been sexually assaulted, I would not question them. I would not blame them. I would not say they deserved it. I do not get an exception. It was not my fault. No matter what drug I take, no one has the right to harm me. The universe does not dole out cruel punishments like a strict parent. What happened to me was unfair. It was wrong. It was not my fault.

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Yesterday was my 19th birthday

A night full of smoke, my white Bic lighter was the frailest flame, flaring up for a few seconds, just in time to flicker out. (One time, a girl loaned me her gold lighter, and I didn’t know how to use it, and she laughed at me.) The night was heavy and still except for us stirring it around. We were lighters ourselves: tiny spots of light in a dark infinity, like all the glitter spilled on the carpet in my second grade classroom. (I used to crawl on the floor with tape on my hands and pick up the glitter. Looking back, I retrospectively imagine galaxies on my tiny, pink palms. Memories clutter my head like so much trash on the beach.)

The drugs were acrid.
The smoke was thin.
The pills were white as my virgin skin.

We staggered past our dorms where our friends were sleeping. We were awake like bad children. I didn’t know much about biology, and he drew a diagram for me in the window. I have more scars than my car, but just barely. He tried his best to consume me, but I was rotten on the inside. I am the only one allowed to know my souring parts, and I will scrape them out with a spoon and rearrange them into a balance that only makes sense to me. I dared him to hurt me knowing that I am the only one who’s mastered that art, and in the end, I will be the dominator, and I will demonstrate how to smoke my body like a cheap cigarette. We thought we were adults the moment we were old enough to buy tobacco, but all the clergy tell us we have never been younger. I let the numbers float away from me like the smoke that seeps into my fingers. I can’t completely rid myself of the scent. Maybe next year I will come clean.

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Letters to God

My experiences at college are comparable to day and night. In the daylight, I was studious, intelligent, reserved, and sensible. I never skipped class; I always budgeted time to do my homework; I kept my dorm clean; I was on good terms with my roommate. I might have had a cigarette (or ten–let’s be real, I chain-smoked.) during the day. I probably consumed more caffeine than calories between breakfast time and dinnertime, but overall, I was on my best behavior.

Nights were a different story. After dark, I had a tendency to wander campus alone and barefoot, a cigarette between my lips and plenty more in my pocket, dizzy with hunger and dehydration. I had a favorite swing where I would sit and listen to music, letting my depression overtake me. Under cover of darkness, no one could see how red my  eyes were after my friends and I got high. We would smoke outside and then amble through campus, jumping and skipping like children. It was nighttime when Jake and I laid in a hammock, arms around each other, inhaling each other’s pot breath as we exchanged kisses. We saw a shooting star. It was a good night. The next time we got high we smoked with a stranger, and it was not so good.

Sexual assault is not easy to talk about. It was not easy to experience. It has not been easy to work through in treatment. Instead of blaming my assailant, I blamed myself. I shouldn’t have been on drugs. I should have known better than to get high with a virtual stranger. I should have listened to Jake and my other friends who were telling me I’d had enough. I should have picked up on how he was touching me before we were alone. In the days after the assault, a constant chorus of, “My fault… my fault… my fault… my…” played in my head. It made sense: I had been irresponsible and careless by taking drugs, therefore the assault was punishment for my behavior. Just as God warned Lot and his family not to look back, my parents, teachers, and society had warned me not to take drugs; and just as Lot’s wife disobeyed God’s instructions and was turned into a pillar of salt, I disobeyed what I had been taught and was punished. So I thought.

It was this kind of black-and-white thinking that led me to bang my head into a tree out of frustration just a few days ago. I felt like my world was crumbling and falling apart because I had realized that I can’t keep blaming myself for other people’s actions forever. I had been crying on and off all day, wrestling with my ideas of God and what it means to be Jewish. By blaming myself for the assault, I had the world neatly explained and organized. I believed that a sort of karmic justice permeated the universe, punishing the bad and rewarding the good. As I beat my forehead against the tree, I did not experience clarity. Sobbing, I sank to the ground and wiped a trickle of blood away from my eyes. Nothing made sense. If the assault wasn’t my fault, then I wasn’t being punished. If it wasn’t a punishment, then how could I explain it?

As one of my friends from treatment reminded me, God gave us all free will. I had a choice about how to handle my emotions as I walked through the woods crying. God didn’t make me bang my head into that tree, and God didn’t make that boy assault me. We chose to do what we did. I believe that God feels my pain and wants me to turn to Him–not self-harm–for comfort.

It is hard for me to let go of my karmic fantasy. I wish the world were as simple as rewards and punishment, and when I think about the fact that the world is random, chaotic, and dangerous, I get scared. I thought I could beat the fear out of my psyche if I just hit my head hard enough. Today, I choose to appreciate the mysterious ways God works instead. It is hard for me to have faith. In my disorder, I turned away from God for a few years, labeling myself as an atheist, and ignoring any spiritual connection. As I made progress in my recovery, I returned to synagogue and felt close to God through music. Still, I am trying to trust. I am too small to see the awesome and wondrous pattern that runs through the universe. The world is intricate and in constant motion; each individual is like a single spot of paint in an impressionistic painting. When I look around, I see no pattern, only chaos. I simply have to trust that God is a master artist who can see the whole design.

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Small Steps Forward

I learned a lot during my time at school, both in and out of class. I took a class called Youth Culture and Visual Media, taught by a film studies professor. We analyzed the ways in which society, advertisers, and film interact and how they coexist with youth. Outside of class, I learned that cigarettes are not a food group and illegal drugs don’t mix well with prescriptions. In the span of one month, I went from college to a psychiatric hospital, and soon I will be heading back to residential treatment—for what I hope will be the last time.

In all honesty, I was not ready to go to college. Before I left, I was still struggling to feed myself, self-harming quite frequently, and did not prioritize taking my medication. Still, I went off to school thinking that things would magically be better once I got there. In some ways, they were. I made new friends, and I was given all sorts of opportunities, including doing a show on the campus radio station. But in a lot of ways, things didn’t get better. In fact, they got worse. I found myself calling the suicide hotline at 3:00 AM, being unable to sleep before chain-smoking, and stress-vomiting. My professor became concerned, and I soon had counselling staff checking up on me almost every day.

It only took a few meals in college for my eating disorder to creep back into my life. All the hard work I did during my time in intensive outpatient just months before receded from my mind as anorexia’s lies took hold. I told myself the most dangerous lie: that I’d just lose “a few” pounds. With no definite goal in mind, I set out to lose weight, thinking I’d stop when I was happy, which is impossible for someone with an eating disorder. It is not my body that dissatisfies me. It is the distorted, disordered perceptions of my body that dissatisfy me. I know that losing weight will only heighten poor body image. The real solution is not to shed pounds, but to shed my disordered perceptions.

Meanwhile, most of my friends were doing drugs, and I joined in. Everyone seemed to be doing it, and I didn’t see my friends suffering any negative repercussions. I didn’t think it would do any harm. It probably comes as no surprise to you that I was completely wrong. Not only is it a bad idea to mix depressants with clinical depression, but it is an even worse idea to mix depressants with prescription anti-depressants. Not only did the drugs put me in a very dangerous and traumatic situation, but they made me extremely depressed. Even after they were out of my system, I was suicidal. By the time I moved back home, I was more depressed than I had ever felt in my life and wanted to die. My mom drove me to the emergency room, and I spent the next week in a psychiatric hospital, where it was decided that I needed more specialized residential treatment.

One of the key terms in my class at school was deceptively simple: youth. What does it mean to be youthful? The nuances of our definitions varied based on whatever we were arguing, but essentially, we decided, youth was characterized by inexperience and hedonism. Although I did not realize it at the time, my behavior was quintessentially youthful while I was at school. I blew off homework assignments to get high; I skipped breakfast so I could sleep in; I smoked because I thought it looked cool. I did all these things because I thought they were mature. In high school, I felt childish—youthful—because of my lack of experiences. I had never been to a “typical” house party, like what I saw depicted in the movies. I had never used drugs or alcohol, hardly dated, and never touched a cigarette (that started after high school). Although no one made fun of me and most of my friends met this same criteria, I felt like I must have been a fundamentally boring person.

In college, I thought I was growing up when in actuality, I was self-destructing. I have a knack for “re-writing” my life and my experiences to make them better than they are. For most of high school, I saw myself as a tortured artist. I believed my writing was improved by my suffering, that to truly be creative, I must be melancholic. What I am starting to realize, is that I cannot have both. I cannot be the brooding poet who chain-smokes in the moonlight in addition to being the future cantorial student I want to be. It is hard to let go of my idealized vision of self-destruction. It is hard to stop believing that there is something beautiful about slowly killing myself. One thing that has helped me is thinking of the people I admire. When I think of the traits I want to embody, what I want to stand for, and the people who inspire me to strive for my dreams, they are not “beautiful tragedies.” They are responsible people who overcame their personal struggles and became successful.

I am entering treatment with a focus on recovery and the goal of returning to college. When I go back to school, I want to make recovery as essential in my life as going to class. I will learn to take pride in how well I take care of myself, not how much damage I can inflict on my body and psyche. Instead of congratulating myself for how quickly I can smoke a pack of cigarettes, or how long I can go without eating, I will be proud of myself for eating well, for staying sober, and for becoming an expert in self-care. Not only do I want to make my parents proud, but I want to make God proud as well. While I was in the psychiatric hospital, I wrote the following in my journal, “Maybe [my extremely bad reaction to drugs] is some indirect way that God is watching over me, teaching me a hard lesson, and keeping me on the right track so that I can actually go to cantorial school… and help others… This could be a blessing. A really weird, painful one, but a blessing nonetheless.” I believe that God gave me a second chance to get things right. My behavior at school could have been the start of something even worse than what it was. Not only could I have undone all my progress towards recovery, but I could have been arrested and expelled had I been caught in possession of illegal drugs. I am grateful for the support of my family who is enabling me to get the blessing that is treatment. I am grateful that I have been removed from a dangerous situation and been given the chance to improve myself and learn to make better decisions. I am looking forward to going back to school and making truly mature decisions, decisions that will positively impact myself and those around me in addition to supporting my long-term goals. I am starting to believe what I wrote in my journal during my time in the psychiatric hospital, “[Prayer is] allowing God into my life and letting Him take care of me… not even that, but knowing that He is watching over me and that He’ll help me take care of myself.”