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The Trauma Crutch

I’ve been through some shit. If you know me, or have been following this blog for a while, you know the history of my sexual and substance abuse. I group them together this way because they are closely intertwined.

During my senior year of high school, I “dated” a boy, A, who used to hit me, demean me, and force me to do degrading sexual acts for him because I thought this was acceptable, and because I wanted attention. No one knew what was going on, though my parents and therapist might have known he wasn’t good for me, I didn’t tell anyone the extent of how bad things were. We parted ways towards the end of senior year because his other girlfriend, who he doted on, took on expensive dates, and took to the prom, was getting suspicious of me, the side chick, and A valued his relationship with her more than whatever we might’ve had going on.

Throughout this relationship, my eating disorder was at an all-time low. A would call me fat, and compare me to his other anorexic girlfriend, C, and constantly remind me how much thinner and sexier she was, and that she would willingly be sexual with him. He didn’t “have to” force her like he did with me. I was purging multiple times a day, and constantly self-harming. Anything to numb the pain of the dysfunction that had become my life.

After I graduated high school and went away to Eckerd College, A was far from my life, but close in my thoughts. I felt like I deserved all the horrible things he’d done to me. I felt like I must have looked disgusting at my weight because I wasn’t nearly as thin as the skeletal memories of C.

I was anxious about being in a relationship. I met a boy named Jake, who was shorter than I am and always had pot. I had a car and we shared the same taste in music, so it was a match made of convenience. We’d drive to fast food joints, get munchies supplies, and get stoned out of our minds. I soon discovered that being high helped me relax around Jake and other people, and stop thinking about the bad memories from high school.

But Jake wasn’t always around. He had his own issues, and wasn’t sure if he wanted a girlfriend, while I was fairly certain I was a lesbian, and was tired of dating boys with whom I didn’t really click. So, I turned to prescription sedatives. I didn’t know the first thing about drugs. I thought all drugs besides cocaine and IV drugs were like pot: that they weren’t dangerous, and that I could stop anytime I wanted.

Pretty soon, I was taking Xanax “just in case” I got anxious. Still, I was anxious all the time. Eventually, I ran out of Xanax, and I didn’t know how to refill my prescription. I’d had a bad experience on marijuana that resulted in another sexual assault, and had no interest in smoking it anymore, but I didn’t know how to cope without my pills. I threw up a lot, sometimes on purpose, sometimes not. I trembled with anxiety in class, and couldn’t force myself to eat. It was as if A had never left my side.

Finally, my physical body went back to normal, but I had a lot of healing to do on the inside. You all know the story of how I dropped out and went to treatment, and then switched schools. Let’s fast-forward.

At the end of 2016, I was dating Tim, the 40-year-old meth addict who was every parent’s worst nightmare. I was going to AA, but still struggling to stay sober. I’d get blackout drunk once or twice every few months. Tim’s friends tried to turn me onto cocaine, and Tim joked about turning me onto meth, but thank God, I wasn’t that easily swayed.

In December 2016, Tim raped me, and my life fell apart. I went back to drinking and back to treatment, this time for PTSD. I didn’t know how or if I’d ever heal, but I did.

I’ve heard a lot of people at newcomer’s AA meetings say, “If you had the life I do, you’d drink like I do too,” and I used to feel the same way. I used to want to scream at the men who told me to pray for Tim and A and my other abusers, “If you’d been violently raped and hit and choked like I had, you wouldn’t say that. You’d be angry, and you’d drink that anger away, so go #$*^! yourself!”

I never did pray for those men. I am still very, very angry at them for what they did to me and the happiness they stole from me. But at some point, I had to stop using my trauma as a crutch. When I was drinking and drugging over A, I hadn’t seen him in a year or two. He wasn’t buying me beer. He wasn’t forcing the pills down my throat or packing my bowls for me. Tim never handed me a razor and said, “Tear yourself up. You deserve it.” I did all of those things to myself.

I did not choose to have the traumatic formative experiences that led me to these men in my adolescent and adult life. I did not choose to be abused, hit, screamed at, demeaned, or raped. I did not choose to become an addict or an alcoholic. But I took the first steps towards my own undoing, and I have to own up to that. Long after these men were no longer part of my life, I was still writing them into my story, breathing them in with every cigarette, and inscribing them on my body with every cut of the razor.

If your life sucks because of something that happened to you, but isn’t happening anymore, take a look at your surroundings, your actions, your day-to-day. What are you doing that’s holding you back? In what ways do you still need to heal? Where do you still hurt? Let the pain end, and have some compassion for yourself, but don’t allow your mind to be your own doormat. It took a lot of soul-searching for me to stop saying, “I’m like this because I was raped,” and to start saying, “I’m like this because I refuse to change.”

I’m not saying this cured my eating disorder, allowed me to never self-harm again, and that now every day is sunshine and unicorns. However, this attitude did allow me to start the healing process. When I admitted that “It’s not them,” a common AA saying, and realized the problem was me, my maladaptive coping skills, my drinking, my self-harm, my eating disorder, and my desire to cling to it, I was able to make the necessary changes.

There’s a part in the “How it Works” chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous that describes a director trying to arrange dancers who won’t cooperate. As the director tries harder and harder to bend others to his will, his life gets more and more out of control. Sometimes I just have to let people do their thing. This doesn’t mean that I should tolerate abuse, but if someone is mad at me, if I hate my classes or position at work, if my group partners in a group project aren’t doing their part, I can’t change that. The only thing I can control is my reaction to life. Life is going to keep coming at me–nothing can change that. But I can control how I handle life’s ups and downs.

It took me a long time to learn that my emotions are not facts. In actuality, my feelings are often wildly uninformed. After Tim raped me, I didn’t want to press charges because I felt protective of him. I had no reason to feel that way because he didn’t even protect me from his own desires and violence, but I felt that way nonetheless. I wish I had listened to my mom and done everything I could to ensure that he rotted in prison instead of still seeing him around campus and wanting to disappear into the sidewalk. I wish I hadn’t surrendered what little control I had left in that situation.

It used to be hard for me to swallow my pride and say that my feelings were wrong, or admit that I couldn’t make somebody do something, but these things come easily to me now. I am so grateful that I have a spiritual program to work that helps me deal with my day-to-day life. The Twelve Steps are about so much more than substance abuse recovery. They are a design for living that have allowed me to reclaim my life and love who I am today.

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Blessings in Disguise

Image result for rupi kaur the rape will tear you in two

I’m not really too familiar with Rupi Kaur’s poetry aside from the snippets I’ve seen online, but this one has really stood out to me over the past year.

Being raped in December did not end me. Sometimes, I wish it had so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the shame and the misdirected anger I feel as a result of what happened. I still don’t know how to feel. A year isn’t a long time, not really, and even though I put pressure on myself to “get over it” by now, it’s gong to take much more time to heal.

Anger is a hard emotion to deal with. In the immediate aftermath of  the rape, I was furious with myself. What was I expecting, if not to get hurt, when I started dating a meth addict who was twice my age who I met at a bus stop? What was I doing?

It’s taken ten months, but I am finally angry at my rapist. What did he think he was doing mistreating an emotionally unstable young woman? Why did a middle-aged man think he had any business inserting himself in the life of a twenty-year-old college student? Who did he think he was that gave him the right to my body?

This man is closer to the forefront of my mind than usual because I ran into him two weeks ago. I decided I wanted to write for my college’s newspaper because my younger brother/role model is the editor-in-chief of The Daily Gamecock, because I  like to write, and because I wanted to be like my brother. The only reason I even knew my college has a newspaper is because my rapist used to write for it. I was under the impression that he’d gotten his GED and had moved on to ruin some other girl’s life, so I went to a staff meeting of the paper. About twenty minutes into the meeting, who should walk in, greeted by a roomful of cheerful friends, but the very man who raped me? I bolted out of there, ignoring the people calling after me, ran into the parking lot, and hyperventilated in my car until I calmed down enough to drive to my best friend Colette’s house where I ranted to her about how much I hate that man.

The professor who runs the paper, Dr. Jarvis, emailed me to inquire about my bizarre behavior. I was honest with her and gave her my rapist’s full name and told her a cursory version of what happened. I was afraid she wouldn’t believe me, but she said that she had her suspicions about the man as well, and would let me know if he disappeared from the paper as he had last year.

Meanwhile, she invited me to interview for a position as editor of the college’s literary magazine. The position comes with a scholarship, and would look really good on a resume or college application should I decide to transfer to a traditional college after I finish my Associate’s degree, but more importantly, it sounds like something I would really enjoy doing. I never would have thought to look into the literary magazine had I not had such a bad experience at the newspaper. If the interview goes well, I think I’ll have found my niche on campus.

Colette related a story her quirky brother told her: A king has only four fingers on one hand, and some picky cannibals decide not to eat him because of this. Perhaps the newspaper is the proverbial finger I lost, only to be passed up by the cannibals and to find a leadership position on the literary magazine instead. The metaphors might be a bit flowery, but I’ll take the blessing–disguised or not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Don’t Touch Me: Day-to-Day Consent

A friendly pat on the back, a hug between two squealing women who haven’t seen each other in a couple of days, a squeeze of the shoulder. These are all examples of the kind of everyday physical contact that makes me cringe.

I would play dumb and say, “I don’t know what happened,” but I know exactly what happened that resulted in my abnormal reactions to being touched. Rape, sexual assault, dating violence, and childhood sexual abuse. In short, I have PTSD. After several instances in my life where I was touched violently, intimately, and without my consent, ANY physical contact is incredibly overwhelming. When people touch me, I react viscerally. I jerk away, I can’t breathe, and I panic. It would be easy to say, “No thank you,”or “Please don’t touch me,” or “I’d rather shake your hand than give you a hug,” but when someone–especially a man I don’t know very well like many of the “old-timers” at AA–comes in for that obligatory hug and kiss on the cheek, words fail me, and I simply go limp and let him invade my space.

Although this is very much a feminist issue, I’m going to ignore that aspect for now. Yes, it seems men have less of a concept of personal space, and they don’t quite get the idea that MAYBE not everyone wants a big ol’ man in her space, but for me it’s more personal than a feminist debate.

At crucial developmental poins in my life, from childhood, through adolescence, and into adulthood, I have not had bodily autonomy. My body has been controlled and “owned,” both implicitly and explicitly by various men who were close to me. I want my space back. I want to be able to decide who touches me, in what context, when, and where.

I was raped five months ago by a man twice my age who I thought loved me. Yes, it was stupid and naive on my part to get involved with someone like him, and even though I don’t completely believe that it was in no way my fault, he still had no right to violate me in the way that he did.

The mechanics of this event were quite confusing for me, and in the haze of dissociation and medication that I used to help me forget (It didn’t help that much, FYI.), I have a hard time remembering exactly what happened. I do remember my face being pressed against a wall and his hand on the back of my neck to hold me still. A few months ago, my dad was coming down the stairs and wanted to give me a hug. I felt bad denying my dad’s affection, but I couldn’t help shying away from him. He tripped, and in an effort to simultaneously hug me and regain his balance, he put his hand on the back of my neck.

I love my dad. He is a fair, levelheaded, kind, loving, goofy man, and I hope that he will be around to walk me down the aisle, to see his grandkids become b’nai mitzvot, and even to see his grandkids graduate college and get married. But in that moment, my body did not know that my kind, honest father had his hand on the back of my neck by sheer mishap. All it knew was that there was a hand on the back of my neck just like when I was raped.

As the time wears on and I process the trauma, physical contact has somehow become harder instead of easier. All physical contact except holding hands or a handshake feels like an attack. I know it is not meant this way, but my body cannot help processing it that way.

I’m asking all of you who are reading this to think about how you occupy others’ space. Are you a close talker? When someone backs away from you, do you move in closer? Do you “attack hug” people, or grab them from behind? These are touchy subjects (no pun intended), and I hope that you will rethink these actions. Ask before you hug someone. This doesn’t have to be a long, drawn-out process. It doesn’t even have to be verbal. A few of the regulars at AA know that I don’t always want to be touched, and they will extend their arms, pause, and look at me questioningly. Sometimes, I’ll go in for the hug, and sometimes I’ll just give them a high-five, a handshake, or say, “No thank you.” After all the times people have touched me without permission, I really appreciate those who ask.

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Home Again

It’s great to be home. I missed sleeping in my own bed, my friends and family, Gilligan, and my synagogue, but I am very glad to have done the work I did in treatment. I spent four weeks in a psychiatric hospital in New Orleans on a unit that specializes in treating trauma-related disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and dissociative identity disorder. While I was there, I talked about traumatic instances of abuse that happened to me in childhood, in high school, at my first college, and as recently as December of last year.

When a person is sexually abused, especially at a young age, and especially when it happens over and over, the abuse can lead to a feeling of worthlessness, at least, that’s how I felt. I called myself a “throwaway girl,” meaning that I was disposable, lacking in value, and easily replaced. I felt like all I was good for was sex, but also believed I was too unattractive to be desirable. Most of all, after being abused by four different men at different, unrelated points in my life, I felt that there must be something wrong with me to bring on these incidents. “I should have left the first time he hit me, not stuck around for a year. I shouldn’t have been intoxicated around a stranger. I shouldn’t have been hanging around someone twice my age who probably has a criminal record.” These are the warnings I constantly repeated to myself after it was too late. I was more angry at myself for making mistakes, mistakes every young woman is entitled to make as she finds herself, and mistakes for which no child can be blamed, than I was at the men who took advantage of my vulnerability and treated me like a punching bag or a sex toy.

At the hospital, I heard horrific stories of abuse, violence, and trauma, everything from cults to combat, from people who claimed to be broken but were somehow still vibrant and full of life. These people still made amazing art, told gripping stories, laughed boisterously, and did their best to help the newcomers on the unit. Most of all, they had not been robbed of the capacity to love. When my roommate’s children came to visit her, I was astounded at the warmth that emanated from her as she saw their faces. This came from a woman who had seen horrors and suffered losses no one should have to endure, yet there she was in the bed next to me with her contagious laugh, her soft sketches, loud oil paintings, and a heart full of love for her kids.

As the days wore on and I started to do the work of the program, I began to feel akin to my fellow patients. I, too, had been through some terrible things, but if they weren’t broken, perhaps I wasn’t either. One night, I had a dream that I was married to another woman, and that we were both pregnant. We had our babies at the same time, and we laid in a huge bed with soft, white sheets and nursed them together. We both had daughters; my wife’s was born with no hair and dark skin, while mine was pale with messy blonde curls. I named her Sienna, and as I held her in dreamland, I was overwhelmed with joy. I laughed and cried at the same time, and my wife hugged me while I hugged my baby. When I woke up, I felt serene and optimistic. I felt like I’d been given a gift.

I may be a little young to start dreaming about having babies, but I think the dream was less about reproducing than it was about the capacity to love. As I struggle to make sense of my abuse, I’ve doubted if I am even capable of love. Maybe I was too selfish, too sex-crazed, too analytical, too impulsive to ever love someone else romantically. The dream showed me that I have the ability to be overwhelmed with joy at my connection to another individual, and that, I believe, is God’s presence on earth. After having that dream, I realized that no abuser has broken me so long as I can still love another person. It is only when I become an abuser myself, treating others with complete disregard for their humanity and individuality, that I am broken. There will be no hope for me then, but I will not allow myself to reach that point. This is the chapter of my life where I walk in love, where I strive to make genuine connections with people, not shallow relationships based on sex or any other superficial commodity or desire.

But before I go falling in love with someone else, I need to show that love to myself. Just as misery loves company, unhealthy people attract others who are also in need of healing. I want to radiate positivity, to attract people who value me for my intellect, my creativity, my friendship, and my passion for teaching. My confidence was destroyed by middle school bullies and the voice of anorexia, but neither of those are realities in my life anymore. The only one preventing me from having confidence is me. Today, I stand tall, unbroken, strong, and confident.