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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 Peek Inside my Journal

I’ve kept a journal for the past eight years–since I was twelve, and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. My journals have come in all shapes and sizes, and I’m currently using a black hardcover notebook with silver polka dots on the front. I like it because it’s small and fits in my purse easily. Here are some of my entries from the past week or so.

odyssey10001

I made this one with some scraps from a well-deserved trip to Dunkin Donuts before a Survey of Biology exam, and some pictures I cut out of a fashion magazine.

odyssey4

I’ve been listening to one of my favorite bands from eighth grade, Three Days Grace. Thus, I have been writing eighth grade-quality poems. Enjoy. 

odyssey2

The left side reads, “I grew up in a noisy house, but it was a loving song of noise. Yiddish and Hebrew thrown around like olives in exotic dishes. Pretty dresses on little girls, and kippahs covering bald spots. The Torah. Behind the glorious ark in all her resplendent wonder with mysteries and wisdom to carry me through the ages. And carry me she did, through losses–Goodbye, Miss Lucille; Goodbye Mrs. Malka–and loving gains–Welcome to our family, David; Welcome to the world, Baby Ben. And all the steps in between. Rolled up in the Torah scrolls are generations of Hanukkahs and Purims, a thousand weddings and a thousand births. I grew up in a noisy house, and when I come to visit, my family sings with me.” The other side is about gender identity/presentation plus how much I wish I’d never started smoking.

odyssey3

I was sad when I made this. One of my very close friends always tells me that she’s praying for me, which I appreciate, but… The opposite side of the page makes me uncomfortable, and I was uncomfortable when I made it. It just makes me feel tense. 

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I had a lot of fun making this page today, but it looks like the fashionable grandma is having more fun than I am. 

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The Daily Meltdown

I have not been doing that well lately, and I am really lucky to have an amazing support network of family and friends to lean on. However, I realize that when I call my friends during a psychotic breakdown, it puts a lot of pressure on them and they don’t know what to say. I’m writing this article mostly for myself and for my friends, but also for anyone who may be at a loss for how to help a person with psychosis.

Sometimes it’s hard to differentiate what symptoms are being caused by which disorder, or even what’s a hallucination, what’s a delusion, and what’s paranoia. Actually, let’s  talk about that for a second. Hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia are all symptoms I experience as a result of schizoaffective disorder. Hallucinations are hearing, seeing, and feeling things that are not there. (Some people also smell and taste things that are not there, but I do not experience this.) I often feel like bugs are crawling on me, and I can see the bugs out of the corners of my eyes. Sometimes I see cameras or other electronic surveillance devices where there is nothing. I often hear voices, or a single voice named Henry (He is a snake who lives inside my body.) insulting me, saying that I’m promiscuous, telling me I’ve done terrible things or that terrible things will happen because of me, and telling me to hurt myself or others.

Delusions are fixed, false beliefs that do not line up with reality. I have a paranoid delusion that a man who hurt me when I was a little girl is stalking me via electronic surveillance devices and a network of spies. As you’re reading this, you probably think that sounds far-fetched. I do not. Recently, this delusion has furthered, and I’m convinced that my world is all a simulation controlled by the man who hurt me (I refer to him as the Angel Man.) and that I have to hurt myself badly enough to wake up and “save the children,” so they don’t get hurt like I did. I don’t know who or where these children are, only that they’re in danger, and I was put in the simulation to save them. As I’m writing this, I realize that it makes absolutely no sense. That’s why it’s a delusion. It doesn’t line up with reality.

Paranoia is a little harder to explain. In a lot of ways it’s like anxiety, but times a million. It’s a sense of dread and fear. For me, it centers around the delusion that I’m being stalked. If I hear a weird noise outside, or one of my dogs starts barking at nothing, I immediately start worrying that there’s a dangerous person in my yard who’s going to rape and murder me.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s talk about what to do in a crisis. It’s always a good idea to ask me if I’ve taken my medicine. I almost always remember to take it, but it doesn’t hurt to check just in case.

One thing that really doesn’t help is telling me that whatever I’m hearing, seeing, or thinking isn’t real. It’s very real to me, and it’s just frustrating for everyone to get into an argument about  what’s real and what’s not. If you tell me that something isn’t real (the children I have to save, for example), I will get frustrated and tell you that you’re not real, and there’s pretty much nothing you can do to convince me otherwise. (My dad actually won that argument by showing me a list he made at a self-improvement class in 1998. It was a list of things that bothered him, and number sixteen was not getting enough “Daddy and Doodle” time. He’s Daddy. I’m Doodle.) Anyway, you can ask me what evidence I have that I have to save the children or that I’m in a simulation, or of whatever’s bothering me. I might get mad at you for poking holes in my delusion, but in the long run, you’re helping me, and once I calm down, I won’t be mad anymore.

A lot of my hallucinations and delusions are trauma-related. These are the most upsetting ones because the combination of PTSD and psychosis makes me feel like I am reliving the trauma. I will often say, “I can feel him touching me,” and proceed to beat myself in the face. Obviously, this doesn’t help anything. It’s totally okay to grab my hands and stop me from hitting myself. I’m not always okay with physical contact when I’m that upset, especially if I feel like my abusers are touching me, but if my options are: not hurt myself or have someone touch me when I don’t want to be touched, I’ll sit on my hands or hold yours. Sometimes, I might want a hug, but I’ll probably just want to pet your dog unless you’re my parents or Christin (in which case, I might want to pet your cats). It helps to hear, “He’s not here right now,” or “You’re safe with me.” Sometimes, that isn’t enough, and I get scared that an abuser is going to attack me immediately and that I will have to physically overpower him. Telling me that you’ll protect me or help me protect myself helps, and it really doesn’t matter if you could fight a scary man because there’s no actual danger. Physical contact can be a huge help. It’s grounding and reassuring, but please do not force it on me if I tell you I’m not okay with it. I know that a lot of people’s first instinct is to hug someone when they’re upset, but it doesn’t always help me.

Sometimes, I get so delusional that I don’t make sense. One thing that many people on the schizophrenic spectrum struggle with is disorganized speech and issues with word-finding. I don’t think this affects me, but I can get so upset that I have trouble speaking, and I’ll forget what I’m saying and trail off in the middle of a sentence. (Speech class, here I come!) When I’m really delusional, I’ll forget that not everyone knows what I’m talking about. Today, I went over to my best friend Colette’s house because I didn’t want to be home by myself, and I asked her why we were in the jungle. I was very confused and did not know where I was. I told her that we were in a simulation, and started rambling about how I needed to save the children. She respectfully let me finish (always a good thing to do), and then said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” That’s a perfectly acceptable thing to say to me when I’m not making sense. You can ask me to elaborate if you need/want to know more about the delusion, or you can just let it go. Either one is fine, and knowing more about the delusion probably won’t help anything unless I’m telling you I need to harm myself.

I have prescription sedatives for when things get really bad. They calm the voices down, stop me from hyperventilating, and sometimes put me to sleep. These are all good things. The other night, I saw a story on the news about a one-year-old boy whose father killed him with the car in the family’s driveway. It was an accidental death, but I was already delusional and thinking about saving the children, and I immediately jumped to the conclusion that the child died because of me and started to cry. My dad tried to get me to take a sedative, but I wouldn’t because I “needed to be awake to save the children.” The more he encouraged me to take it, the more I thought he was trying to poison me. Finally he told me that I couldn’t save the children if I didn’t calm down, and that got me to take the medicine, and I was okay. It is perfectly fine to indulge a delusion if it’s going to keep me safe. That is so, so much more productive than telling me it’s not real.

Of course, if things get really bad and I can’t calm down or I’m becoming a danger to myself (or others, not that that’s likely), it’s in everyone’s best interest to call my parents.

The main thing is knowing that someone is here for me, which I know all of my friends and family most definitely are. I appreciate all of you who’ve sat through the hysterical late-night phone calls, who’ve held me while I try to stop the voices, and who listen to me and love me in spite of everything. You’re all amazing, and I am lucky to have  you in my life.

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Love Wins

Last August, I was sexually assaulted in the backseat of my own car. I’m not going to go into the whole story here because most of you have heard it or read it before. I blamed myself for the following months and stewed in my own anxiety and shame.  Maybe if we hadn’t been where we were at the time, we wouldn’t have met him. Maybe if I had gone to a different college, I never would have met any of these people. Who knows?

While my attacker and I were in the backseat of my car, he drew a face in the fog on the window of the back passenger seat. I left the face there for almost a year as a reminder that no matter where I went, I was a slut and I deserved everything that pride stickerhappened. I couldn’t remember my attacker’s face, but the face in the window stood for him and everything he did to me.

But the truth is, I did not deserve what happened to me. No one deserves to be violated. No matter how intoxicated you are, what you are wearing, who you’re with, or what you say, no one deserves to be touched without their consent. No one.

Today, I commit to taking care of myself. I no longer use drugs or have the desire to. I respect my body, and I am selective about who gets the privilege to share it with me. I am secure in my identity as a lesbian, and I refuse to be ashamed. I finally worked up the courage to wash the window. I replaced the face with this sticker to remind me that real love exists, that love wins, and that I deserve to be cared for, respected, and yes, even loved.


If you have been a victim of sexual violence, RAINN can help you. They helped me.

 

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Daily Mitzvot

I learned about mitzvot at a very young age. A mitzvah (plural: mitzvot) is Hebrew for “good deed,” or “commandment,” as in, God commands His people to perform good deeds throughout their lives. When I was a child, I did mitzvot by bringing tzedakah (charity) to Sunday school. When I got older and had my bat mitzvah, I was required to do a mitzvah project to commemorate my formal transition into Jewish adulthood. I chose to raise money for a local homeless shelter by selling handmade bracelets. My parents did their best to instill charity and kindness in me, so that I would grow up to be a good person–a mensch, like my grandpa.

I can evaluate my mental health by many factors, some simple some not. Am I self-harming? Am I eating? How are my relationships? How am I doing in work and school? Most importantly, how is my relationship with God? For a few years when my depression was at its worst, I gave up on God. I thought I had outsmarted religion and prided myself on being an intelligent atheist.

As I progressed through the ups and downs of recovery, my faith waxed and waned. On some Shabbats, I was on the bema as the guest cantorial soloist; other nights, I swore there was no God, and even if there was, He surely hated me. Just  before I left for treatment, my faith took a huge blow.

After I was sexually assaulted, I turned to the synagogue for support. I met the rabbi in his office and told him what had happened. I could never have anticipated his response. He told me that I’d made a mistake, that my assailant behaved “caringly” towards me, and joked about it inevitably happening again. Too shocked to stand up for myself, I listened quietly as my faith in God disappeared. At the Creek, spirituality was a big part of treatment, whether it was finding Good Orderly Direction at a 12-Step meeting, one of Cori’s spirituality groups, or the weekly outings to church (or shul in my case). I grappled with my ideas of God, and still do.

A common theme I noticed in the 12-Step meetings I attended while at the Creek was service–helping yourself by helping others. At first, it seemed like a backwards notion. How could I possibly be useful to anyone else when I was falling apart? However, as I listened to recovering addicts and alcoholics, formerly broken people like myself, talk about how helping others had helped them, I started to understand. God wants me to do mitzvot. I am not here simply to take up space and write sad poems. God gifted me with a beautiful life–no, perhaps this life is not a gift, but merely a loan. Perhaps it is my duty to repay God for the time He has given me with service, with mitzvot.

Today, I was driving home from my last day of photography class, feeling rather glum about my sudden surplus of free time when I saw a man standing on the street corner with a sign that read, “Three kids, one newborn. Need diapers and formula.” I pulled into a parking lot and approached him. He explained to me that he was struggling to feed his family and any help would be appreciated. I offered to drive him to the nearby Publix where I work and buy him whatever he needed. He got in my car, and I turned up the AC and gave him a bottle of water; he’d been outside in the heat for too long.

When we got to Publix, we filled his cart with baby essentials and some groceries. He thanked me over and over as I paid for his groceries, earing me some strange looks from my coworkers, but I didn’t care. I drove him a few blocks back to where he was meeting his wife and kids and we said goodbye. I will probably never see him again, and that’s okay. I’m happy that I was able to help someone. As we were saying goodbye, I said something rather out of character for me. Without thinking, I blurted, “God bless you.” The man grinned and said, “I know He loves me.” He said it with such conviction, that I’m starting to believe again.  

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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.