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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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I Am the Master of My Fate

Things rarely go as planned for me. I’m in my third year of a two-year program at my college. I’m not even at the college I intended to go to. I’ve lost an astounding amount of friends in the past year, and Jon, my best friend from summer camp, lives an ocean away, and I haven’t seen him since high school, despite our haphazard efforts at arranging a reunion. Meanwhile, my body has ballooned instead of shrinking like I always wanted. I don’t grab a couple of drinks at Hamburger Mary’s with a couple of gal-pals like I always thought I would before I turned twenty-one.

These could all be construed as negatives, but it’s really just a matter of perception. Spending more time at Daytona State instead of a traditional college has given me more time to make sure my major is right for me. The main reason I am so far behind my peers in my education is because I was hospitalized almost every semester for mental health reasons. A community college like DSC gives me the flexibility to retake classes, withdraw late from courses I won’t be able to finish, and establish a rapport with my instructors so I can let them know what’s going on with me.

As for losing friends, well, I’ve drifted apart from the clubs I was once involved with at school, partly because of other commitments like work and synagogue (It seems like EVERY event is on a Friday night!), and partly because I’ve grown and changed a lot, and I just don’t vibe with some of the people who used to be my friends. It’s important for me to explore various types of friendships with a multitude of people so that I can determine what does and doesn’t work. Am I a little lonely at school? Yeah, sure. But this pushes me to get outside of my comfort zone, talk to the people in my classes, and it challenges me to be my authentic self, regardless of whether or not people like that.

Jon and I will always be best friends. He stood by me through anorexia hell, multiple rounds of treatment, and even the time I got unhealthily obsessed with a crush for a solid six months and drove him nuts asking questions  about the mystery of the male mind. We email each other all the time, just to share anecdotes about our lives and our plans for the future. Jon is one of those special friends who will always be in my life. He’ll be in my wedding, either as the groom or as my maid of honor. He’ll look so pretty in a dress!

My body? Forget weighing 98 pounds. I’d rather be able to keep up with my kindergarteners, walk across campus, and eat some freaking fries when I want to!

And as far as not going out for drinks with friends on the weekends? That’s my choice. I can decide to start drinking whenever I want to. I don’t know what would happen if I did, and that’s why I choose not to drink.

I went back to school towards the end of March, and I’m taking a very easy class called Managing Your Success. The intention of the class is to teach students how to thrive in college, how to manage time and money, etc. It’s really basic stuff, but sometimes it’s good to get back to basics. My professor recently included the quote, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul,” in one of his slides. Curious, I Googled the quote, and found the poem “Invictus” by William Earnest Henley.
invictusI realized I’d heard the poem before and scoffed at it, but my take on it was different this time. One of the key lessons I learned when I was in treatment at Magnolia Creek was that no one can “make” you feel anything; rather, your reactions are a choice.

I had trouble with this concept at first. I thought it was normal and natural to feel bad about being abused, for example. I thought that “bad” things happened to me, and I had a right to feel ashamed, dirty, depressed, and helpless. In short, I was being a victim. I wanted to feel that way. I thought my abuse “didn’t count” unless I tortured myself emotionally over it.

It’s not my job to decide if the things that happen to me are “good” or “bad.” I can perceive them however I want, but I am only human, thus I have a finite perception of the events and course of my life. Labeling things that happen to me is another example of the myriad ways I try to play God in my life. I’m pretty sure God has this whole “running the universe” thing covered. I don’t think He needs my help with that. I am probably not the literal “master of my fate.” I think that probably falls under God’s jurisdiction. However, I do believe that I have a choice when it comes to how I feel and what I do. No, it’s not my fault that I have anorexia. However, every time I engage in an eating disordered behavior, I’m making a conscious choice to act on that impulse, just as when I overcome a relapse or an ED thought, I’m taking charge of my own mind. If we are responsible for our successes in recovery, we are also responsible for our failures. I certainly don’t want to admit that it’s my fault when I weave an elaborate web of lies about why there are bloodstains on my sleeves and razors hidden in the bathroom. I don’t want to take responsibility when my breath smells like vomit after meals and I’m losing weight. However, I want all the credit when I pick up another milestone chip at AA, when I listen to my hunger cues and eat a snack even though it’s against anorexia’s rules, or when I end an unhealthy relationship.

After a traumatic event as recent as December, I resorted to purging to deal with my feelings of shame and depression. It was symbolic for me; kneeling in front of the toilet represented apologizing to God, the universe, or the person who hurt me for whatever I’d done to “deserve” what happened, while the act of vomiting represented “purging” the painful memories out of my mind. At first, I told myself I’d “just purge once.” Then it became purging once a day. Pretty soon, I was purging as often as I could and eating as little as possible in the meantime. I knew something was wrong when I found myself in the employee bathroom at work while I was supposed to be taking out the trash, heaving up whatever low-calorie morsels I’d had for dinner on my break. Mid-barf, I was being paged over the intercom because the front had gotten busy and my supervisor needed an extra cashier. I had no choice but to finish vomiting, clean myself up as quickly as I could, and drag my shaky, pale, embarrassed self to a register.

It’s not my fault that this is how my brain taught itself to deal with stress. It’s not my fault that I was the victim of a crime prior to this and it caused a great deal of stress in my life. However, it was my responsibility to be good to myself (and to fulfill a duty to my employer), to make healthy choices, and to my best to resist these self-destructive impulses. The ex-boyfriend who violated me was neither directly nor  indirectly responsible for what I did that night. Yes, his actions were inappropriate and wrong, but so were the ways I chose to react to them. He wasn’t “making” me purge. I was doing it to myself.

These days, I have faith in a God that has granted me an “unconquerable soul.” I will never say I am grateful for the abuse I went through. Many people, even a few therapists have told me that I should be grateful to be a victim of childhood sexual abuse, dating violence, and rape because it’s made me so much stronger, and I will be able to use these experiences to help other people going through the same thing. While I am grateful for the outcomes of the traumatic events I’ve experienced, I am not grateful for the road I had to take to get here. However, I am the captain of my soul, and I choose not to dwell on what brought me to this place. Rather, I will look forward and see what the future holds.

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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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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.

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A God of My Own Understanding

I recently started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and working the Twelve Steps. What an experience it has been. I’ve learned so much about addiction in all its forms. I’ve gained friends of all ages and all walks of life, and most importantly, I’ve formed a strong connection with my Higher Power, who I call God.

Addiction is a funny thing. I’m not even twenty-one, so if I wanted to get drunk, I’d have to rely on older friends to supply me with alcohol. For a while, my friends were happy to get me drunk, but soon they noticed that my medicine doesn’t work very well with alcohol in my system. My best friend Colette said that the fact that my desire for alcohol seemed more like a need than a want was worrisome. When she and her boyfriend were drinking around me, all I could think about was how badly I wanted “just one sip,” which always turned into as much as I could possibly drink. Pretty soon, my friends didn’t bring alcohol around me, and Christin, the girl I was dating when I was drinking the most, often asked me to stop drinking, or at least slow down.

So, even though I haven’t been day-drinking for years and years like many of the old-timers at AA used to do before they got sober, I certainly have “the disease of more.” Besides, as they say in AA, “It’s not the drinkin’, it’s the thinkin’.” The way I think about alcohol (and sometimes other substances or activities) is certainly a problem.

But, there is a solution. AA provides, “A fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength, and hope,” with each other to share a common solution to a common problem. You never know what you’re going to get at an AA meeting. AA is a spiritual (but not religious) program, so a lot of the meetings focus on God and other spiritual matters.

Yesterday, I had an absolutely horrible day. A very long time ago, I met an extremely drunk girl at a gay club. She told me that “lesbian drama is too real, baby girl,” and I’ve recently discovered that she is right, even if the drama is all in my head. (If you don’t know what lesbian drama is, watch a few episodes of The L Word, and you’ll get an idea.) I had been around people who were drinking a drink I used to love, and I was “romancing the drink,” thinking about how nice it would be to sit at the table with the rest of my friends and casually sip a mimosa. However, every time I think about how nice that would be, I have to remember that I never “casually sipped” my drinks. I slammed them down and got a refill as soon as possible. By the time my friends were buzzed and tipsy, I was falling-down-drunk.

So, instead of trying to rustle up some booze, I went to the AA clubhouse and sat through a meeting, surrounded by friends and strangers who, in some small way, understood what I was going through. I bring a journal with me that I write in during meetings. Sometimes, I write down good quotes from speakers and readings, but a lot of times, I write down my personal thoughts and feelings while I listen to what’s being said at the meetings.

My journal entry at quickly devolved into, “I hate myself, and I don’t want to be here anymore,” and by the end of the meeting, I was crying. I said the Lord’s Prayer, and then completely melted down when my friend “Mack” asked me if I was okay. Mack is a big, rough-and-tumble, Italian guy who’s probably been smoking since birth, and sounds like he’s made out of sandpaper. He said, “Aww, Katherine, baby, don’t cry,” and handed me off to a woman who talked me down and hugged me.

I stayed at the clubhouse after the meeting and talked to another friend. We just sat around complaining about how hard relationships are. When I got home, yet another friend from AA called me, and we talked for about half an hour about our concepts of God.

This friend, “Connor,” describes himself as a “recovering Catholic,” who has defected to Eastern religions, but is interested in Judaism. It’s so refreshing to talk to someone who has a strong faith in God, whoever that God may be to them. One of the amazing things about AA is that unlike organized religion, there’s no right answer for who God is. I told Connor, “My God is not perfect. She makes mistakes just like me. She’s learning and growing all the time.” I’ve never articulated that idea before, and it felt good to say it out loud.

I actually got that idea from a footnote in my siddur. The siddurim my synagogue uses are full of rabbinic notes and ideas, as well as traditional prayers and modern interpretations of the ancient liturgy. During a service a few weeks ago, I saw a footnote that said something along the lines of, “Instead of a perfect God, what if there is a growing God, a growing universe, and we’re all learning together along the way?” This idea resonated with me. Believing that God is a work in progress just like myself helps me practice forgiveness. Instead of wondering why an all-powerful, perfect God would let something horrible and life-altering happen to me as a child, wondering what I did to deserve such a terrible punishment, and why God would abandon me like I thought She did, I can accept that God made a mistake in my life, that for a moment, I fell through the cracks. I was not abandoned. I was not being punished. I was never, not for a moment, unloved by God.

The first step of the Twelve Steps is, “We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable,” and Step Two is, “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” It’s easy to admit that your life is unmanageable. I was getting home past my curfew, trying to hide my intoxication from my parents, stealing alcohol from Christin, Colette, and her boyfriend, Trevor, and backing out of prior commitments because I was either too drunk or too hungover to function. It was obvious that I was a slave to my impulsiveness and penchant for bad decisions.

But giving up that control to a “Power greater than ourselves,” isn’t as easy. I want to have control of my life. I want to be responsible for my decisions. And in a lot of ways I am. It’s my decision to act in accordance with my understanding of God’s will. God and I are a team, working together to keep my life on track, to keep me sober and happy, and to do mitzvot.

I recently changed my major (again), and I’m now studying elementary education. As part of my class credit for my Introduction to Teaching class, I had to observe for fifteen hours in a classroom. I observed in a kindergarten classroom at my synagogue’s elementary school. It was such an amazing experience. I formed a relationship with every single child in the class, and I came to love every single one of them.

I also got a job teaching Religious School on Sundays at my synagogue. I have a class of five-and-six-year-olds, who are the strangest little humans I have ever encountered. I love them all dearly, and I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to share my knowledge and love of Judaism with young people.

Being around those kids gives me motivation to stay sober, to make good choices, and to take care of myself. I want to be an example of what a good Jew, responsible person, and good role model is for my students. I don’t ever want those kids–especially the little girls–in my classes to grow up thinking it’s okay to do the things I have done. I pray that those little girls will walk in love, value and treasure themselves, and respect themselves and their bodies. I pray that those little boys will grow up to be gentle souls, who walk in kindness and understanding.

Now that I have a little bit of time in AA, I’ve gained a genuine understanding of who my Higher Power is to me, and how She acts in my life. Maybe God isn’t for everyone. But I believe that God made everyone in Her divine image, that She loves all of Her creations, and that my faith in Her is going to carry me down the road to happy destiny.

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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.

1

A History of Bad Decisions

I was thirteen years old when I started harming myself. I was being bullied in school and starting to experience depressive symptoms, although I didn’t recognize either of these occurrences for what they actually were. I kept quiet about everything that was going on, silently berated myself for not being able “just get over it,” and broke my skin open with increasing frequency.

At eighteen, I am a newly minted adult, but still dealing with the detrimental habit that characterized my high school days. Over the past five years, I’ve harmed myself with everything imaginable: my fingernails, my teeth, broken bits of plastic and metal, sewing needles, thumbtacks, knives, and razor blades. This is only a partial list. In fact, it is merely a list of things I’ve used to cut myself. The list of things I’ve used to hurt myself is much longer, but my weapon of choice was Zach.

I met Zach during my sophomore year of high school. That was the year I missed a quarter of school to go to residential treatment for the first time. When I came home, I took all but two of my classes online so that my parents could keep a closer eye on me. I was isolated at home and having a difficult time making friends. Zach was a member of my lab group in chemistry class. He had all the typical interests of an awkward high school underclassman: anime, memes, webcomics, and death metal. He paid attention to me, and that was all it took for me to desperately want his attention. Suddenly I, too loved death metal and webcomics. It was easy to parrot the all-male lab groups idioms and inside jokes. Sometimes they would try to throw erasers and bits of paper down my cleavage, but I forgave them. Sometimes they would grab me from behind, sneaking their bodies against mine, but I forgave them. That’s what friends do. Our chemistry station in the corner of the classroom was an island where courtesy and self-respect did not exist. When Zach flirted with me and accused me of reciprocating, I did not deny it, although to do so would have been to tell the truth. Instead, I dismissed the notion with a laugh and the wave of my hand.

Zach and I parted ways during our junior year due to a coincidence of class schedules. We were reunited during our senior year in math and physics classes. Perhaps the fact that we always had science classes together was a sign that our relationship needed more logic, more analysis. Indeed, there is no place for fantastic storytelling about what happened between us. If only I had followed the scientific method with him–this is my desired outcome; here is how I will work towards it. I imagine carefully measuring my time and emotions to create the desired chemical reaction.

Yet another variable in my grand experiment was Paige. In actuality, Paige is just another girl who was born twenty years too late and and spent her high school years yearning to experience the heyday of grunge. But in my mind, she defies description. Paige was my primary tormentor in middle school, and although nearly four years had passed, the memory of her meanness  still stung. My eating disorder had robbed me of all self-esteem, and I believed that Paige was an all-around better person than I could ever hope to be. I took her proficiency in math and science to mean that she was smarter than I am, ignoring the fact that I was acing advanced English, getting published in magazines, and editing my school’s literary magazine. Paige dressed the way I wanted to dress; she was allowed by her parents to pierce her nose; she drove a really cool car. She also had a close group of friends that I walked past every day during the lunch period on my way to spend it alone in my car sipping diet energy drinks. I was also aware that Paige had anorexia. In my jealousy and disorder, I did not feel bad for her, much less think of supporting her. Instead, I obsessed over the fact that she was much thinner than I ever believed myself to have been, and hated myself for every calorie that passed my lips.

As senior year wore on, I became better friends with Zach. I began to confide in him about my eating disorder and self-injury, and he told me about his own mental health issues. We often talked about relationships, and our conversations were laced with flirty quips and sexual innuendo. He called me beautiful. I begged him to say it again.

I was almost relieved when Zach and Paige started dating. Although I desperately wanted a relationship, I was ill-equipped to actually have one, and I was anxious at the thought of intimacy–emotional and otherwise. But even though Zach claimed to be devoted to Paige, he continued to flirt with me and describe his sexual fantasies, which often involved me.

High school can be a time of sexual growth and exploration, but it was very much the opposite for me. While my peers were charting new territories on each other’s anatomies, I could barely face my naked form in the mirror, much less stomach the thought of someone else seeing my body. Because of this, I felt repulsed and fascinated by the details of Zach’s sexuality.  When he told me about what he did with Paige, I felt jealous; when he told me what he wanted to do with me, I felt powerless and degraded. Still, I encouraged him to continue. I believed I was taking something away from Paige by basking in her boyfriend’s attention.

Things came to a head in December when Zach and I found ourselves alone in his house. He told me that things were not going well between him and Paige. I am a reasonably intelligent individual, and I saw were this was going. Immediately, I felt anxious. I was not ready for intimacy. I knew I wanted Zach’s attention, but I also knew I was not attracted to him. I followed him into the bedroom anyway.

I left Zach’s house shaking and panicky, feeling like my eyes were too big for my face. He hadn’t forced me into anything, but he didn’t need to. I was insecure and scared to say no. I let him do and say degrading things to me, and I blamed myself for not using my voice. He called me a slut, and I believed him.

This pattern of behavior continued for the next few weeks. I was constantly cutting myself in an attempt to regain some sense of control over my body. Although my actions were making me miserable, I continued to repeat them, driven by the thought of “taking” Zach away from Paige. I wanted to beat her at something–even this.

A few days before winter break was over, Zach came to my house saying that we needed to talk. He told me that we couldn’t be together anymore because he and Paige had made up and were back together. His exact words were, “I could love you, but I do love her.” A true scientist would have stopped there, declared the experiment over, results inconclusive. Instead I envisioned a creative solution.

I spent the next six months in IOP working on my recovery, and I gave up self-harm for all of that time. Well, to be specific, I gave up cutting. I started smoking, and when things got tough, I turned to Zach.

By now it was summer, and Paige had broken up with Zach, who was devastated, right after graduation. I believed I had the power to make him feel better, so I moved in on him and we continued our old pattern of behavior. I ignored his violent and misogynistic tendencies, and he ignored my constant put-downs and comparisons. He never asked why my thighs were perennially covered in band-aids, scabs, and scars, which only made me seek his attention more desperately. I was determined to own this boy, no matter the cost. I still felt inadequate compared to Paige, believing that the only reason Zach now saw me as good enough was because Paige no longer wanted him.

Ultimately, I had a conversation with Zach about physical boundaries, and he deemed me unprepared for a “real” relationship because I wasn’t ready for sex. His hypothesis was true, although his reasoning was faulty. Our attempts at being “just friends” failed dismally; we found ourselves in the same cycle.

Finally, I knew it was up to me to make a change. I realized Zach had never treated me with the respect I deserved. I respected myself enough not to let another person harm me emotionally or physically, so I deleted Zach’s number and told him not to contact me. He upheld his end of the bargain, and I am no longer able to use Zach as a form of self-harm.

Unfortunately, now that I don’t have Zach or a pack of Marlboros, my dreams shimmer with visions of razor blades. Self-harm is a demon with many masks. Although I respect myself enough not to let Zach continue hurting me, I struggle with the self-respect I need to stop hurting myself. Self-destruction is embroidered into the fabric of my nature, but the next time I have a pair of scissors, I won’t use them on myself. Instead, I will use them to snip the threads of self-harm and self-destruction right out of my life.