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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.